Tag Archives: Improvisation

The Working Artist

This article I wrote—originally published in From the Hip Magazine—struck a chord with my fellow working artists, so I have decided to share it with you here. I hope you enjoy it!

What do we do when life interrupts our creative flow? This has been a focus of mine this year, as during this period my own circumstances have been subject to rapid change. Urgent family responsibilities arose which left me little time for my dance projects (dance being the center of my creative life for many years). Suddenly activities that did not focus on effectively providing for my family fell to the wayside, as I also needed to stay close to home and act as a caregiver whenever I was not actively working. It was an enormous shift for me, and it got me thinking about how life changes impact art and productivity. We all have unexpected events that disrupt the pattern of our lives, or expected events that change our lives in unexpected ways. When I began to examine these experiences, it made me realize just how fragile our artistic lives can be.

How have you dealt with this in your own creative life? Have you had times when you cannot immerse yourself in your art form?

When this shift of priorities began for me, the first decision I made was to reduce pressure by not accepting new projects. Once I had made that determination, I was able to funnel the remaining time and resources into a few projects I had previously committed to and could not do without.

Art is a labor of love, and it is always difficult to put a price on it. Conversely, feeding one’s family has a very real and solid cost, and there is nothing abstract about hunger. This all makes living as an artist an inevitably tricky balancing act, with most of us juggling furiously to keep our art alive and our homes intact. I am extremely fortunate to have two careers that I find to be creatively rewarding. In addition to dance, I’m a landscape designer and certified horticulturist, creating with and caring for rare plants. In recent years I had been feeling less inspired by my daytime garden work, and more enthused by dance. There are many reasons for this, one being that I have been fortunate that the demand has been increasing for my presence in the dance world. My design work with gardens is also bountiful, but it generates a lot more paperwork (which I despise). However, when my situation began to change very quickly and I had to bring in as much money as possible to attend to my family’s immediate needs, I had no choice but to shift my focus back to the more lucrative world of landscapes.

This change was initially painful, and a part of me felt instantly guilty for not producing dance at the volume I had previously maintained. However, it has also given me a fresh outlook. I am so very grateful to my day job for supporting my family through trying times, and for bringing me into the natural world. I am thrilled to still be allowed to create something new every day, and work with truly wonderful people. Even in my younger days when I worked as a waitress or a store clerk, I always looked for ways to do my job as creatively as possible. As a waitress, I reveled in the noble task of bringing food to hungry travelers; and as a clerk I adored helping folks to find the most perfect item to suit their needs and taste. This fed my imagination, and helped to make the work more rewarding for myself and for those around me. These occupations helped support all of my other wonderful activities, and helped make me into the artist that I am today.

Do you have a job or career that has helped you make it through? Humble, difficult, or thankless as it might seem, aren’t there little things that you can enjoy such as the pride in a job well done, or the simple relief in a steady paycheck? Doesn’t this practical help supporting you also help to support your art?

The change in career balance has also made me give new value to dance. Although I have less dance time for the present, each moment is a precious jewel, a bright seed that I nurture with great care. I give greater energy and anticipation to the dance projects that I have. I may have fewer experiences, but I extract every ounce of delight from each one. In a way, adversity has made me a more efficient dance artist.

Along with the other upheaval in my life, something else unexpected happened: in my tiny scraps of time while on hold or waiting in line, I began to write. I used the ‘notes’ function on my phone, because it was what I had on hand. I wrote a phrase here, a sentence there, and soon I had the beginnings of a story. Now if you see me in a waiting room I will probably be typing fast with my thumbs. It may look like I’m texting, but I’m really trying to finish a chapter of my new novel, forged out of those moments of time available to me.

Somehow in the weird alchemy of my brain, the absence of creative dance time has caused a written tale to begin to leak out the sides of my imagination. This may seem like a tangent, or perhaps the devolving of a once-focused artist, but for me writing and dance come from a similar place of invention. I have always approached the world through stories, and when I dance my basic goals and processes are much the same as when I write. I look for structure—the bones of the tale—letting my pieces have a strong beginning, middle, and end. I look for content—making certain I do my best to say what I mean. I look for reality—not ‘real’ reality, but things that ring true to the soul. I use visuals, characters, plot, and timing to bring my audience along with me on an adventure. Although my solo dance pieces are improvised from a technical standpoint, I have always had a story, a plot unfolding in my mind’s eye that directs my movement. For troupe pieces, I begin by writing the story outline, and then choose the music to fit the plot. Then I bring the story and sound to the dancers, and they shape their dances through guided improvisation—knowing not necessarily what they will be doing, but why they are doing it. Together we are dancing a story rather than a series of movements.

For me, the comparison has culminated in a deeper understanding of my work: all of my art comes from the roots of storytelling, and so it matters less that I don’t have as much time for dance at the moment, because the story goes on—you can’t stop the signal. The story that I write now in line at the grocery store may be danced someday in the future, and the experiences that I collect in the meantime will be threads to add to the tale.

What does this all mean? I believe it is an important reminder: all of life’s activities contribute to our art. I find that comforting, and my hope is that you will as well. I leave you with a quote from Tom Robbins: “Difficulties illuminate existence, but they must be fresh and of high quality.”

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