I was about 5 rehearsals away from showing new work for the first time at a very prestigious location in New York City when I was on the phone with a very respectable member of the dance community who was directing the production and giving thoughtful feedback to each choreographer. I was writing it all down furiously, after all, I was younger and less accomplished than this person, so their ideas were novel to me. They ranged from things like having less symmetrical spacing and changing the music to not be in congruence with the movement. These are great choices a choreographer can make, ones I’ve made before for different works, but it wasn’t my original thought for this piece, which was largely inspired by the music itself. And that’s okay. I learned that it is not a “bad” or “good” choice. It’s just a choice.
Shortly after that, I spoke with my own company director about very big changes to the piece I was considering implementing with such little rehearsal time left. She quickly let me know one thing, that this was still my work, and these were suggestions, but it is okay if I do not take them. It was sort of a reset that put me back on track. And it got me thinking.
We live in very feedback driven arts culture, now more than ever especially within education. And it’s important. I’ve been brought up to know that. It promotes a growth mindset and keeps humility at the forefront. It’s important for an artist to know how to approach giving it to another artist. But it’s just as important to know what to do with it if anything at all.
My question isn’t about receiving feedback, but rather, who do we truly seek feedback from as artists? Should we be so concerned with what other artists have to say, or is it our target to emotionally penetrate the people who’s lives aren’t revolving around a dance studio? Since my goal is the latter, I’ve recently become aware that if I am to reach those who don’t necessarily care about art, then the feedback that comes from them is most interesting and valuable to me. We need these people to support us, to change the world, themselves, to feel, and so our work must speak to them.
While peer to peer feedback is with good intent to help clarify the message of a work.. what if it shouldn’t be clearer? Mona Lisa was a mystery for hundreds of years, nobody could pinpoint what the woman in the painting was conveying, because the message was ambiguity, and because of that it continued to be one of the most discussed works of art in history. One person could think she looked happy and someone else could read it totally different. That, to me, is the essence of art. I will never forget my college professor showing our class an interesting and rather spastic looking duet between a man and woman. It didn’t make much sense, and my professor said that was fine, because life doesn’t always make sense. It is human nature to want and need for everything to make sense, but that isn’t always reality, and I like to think of art as the essence of that gray area.
We all know that artists support other artists, and probably make up 60% of our audiences, which is a wonderful thing, because the more united we are, the stronger our voices, and collaboration is a wonderful thing. With that, we are individuals with different journeys and experiences. The message behind our own art, as it originates through us, must be constructed by us. Art is like giving birth to something. And that art, once created, takes on a life of it’s own. One that shares the questions and experience of the artist, instead of providing answers.
As peer to peer feedback is taught to be articulated in the form of questions, it feels very backwards to me, because I want to be asking questions to my audience, particularly how they felt watching my work. I find that allowing an audience to ask questions after a performance is a great way to bridge the performer/audience divide and open dialogue, but I feel the questions should really be directed at the audience. Most of the time the audience doesn’t really know what to ask, a lot of the time they end up explaining how they interpret it, because that feels more natural to them. Normally when I am asked questions of why I made a certain choice, I mostly just respond with “I don’t know.” At the end of the day it isn’t really about me as much as how it’s received, because a lot of my work is asking questions in and of itself.
I found it interesting when one time I was participating in a performance in Brooklyn for a sort of feedback based event when at the end of the series, we circled up to give feedback to each choreographer. We were all giving feedback to a duet in particular, which featured a cellist as one of the performers and the other a contemporary dancer flowing around the cellist. There was no contact made between the two performers except for one moment when the dancer rested her hand at the top of the cello towards the end of the piece. It was mysterious, ambiguous, and seemed intentionally that way. At least to me.
Much of the feedback she received was that of confusion and lack of establishment between the relationship of the performers, and questioning of choices made. Many seemed to wonder why they only interacted once, and I wondered why this aspect was dissected. When it came my turn, my feedback to her was that I liked the subtlety of the relationship because that is simply what the artist chose to display, and that spoke to me. I liked that it was something I had to figure out. I could tell she was second guessing all of her choices after hearing her feedback, but I was hoping that she wouldn’t change a thing. I thought it was perfect the way it was, because that is simply what it was.
With artists, there can be so much analysis of choreographic choices that sometimes letting the choreographer know how we were triggered to feel while seeing the work can be nonexistent for the majority of us. But isn’t that the main point? One choreographer I dance for always says “I just want the audience to feel something. If they have felt something, then I have accomplished something.”
Often, I don’t even know what I am creating until I finish it. Even then, there is a chance that an audience member could see it differently than me, and there is no right or wrong to that either.
We’ve all got different tastes and styles, largely because we have knowledge of them. When we as peers analyze another’s work, we must remain aware of biases and step out of our artistic brain and into our emotions. As an artist, I want to know how you felt, because my choices need to be manipulated based on that and that alone.
What is considered “inspirational” to one person can be different to the next, but herein lies my point. A regular audience isn’t going to know the difference of whether we place dancers symmetrically on stage or not. It won’t be obvious to them if the music is acting as a background or driving the dancer’s movement. An artist’s work cannot be driven by the expectation of current trends hiding under the word “experimental” and it ultimately should not be constructed by suggestions of others. Is it original anymore at that point? Or should you then just call it a collaboration?
Either way, I always open myself to feedback because I like to hear what other choreographers think. Often they will offer suggestions that conflict with the nature of a piece. Some of my choices aren’t even conscious ones and when they are brought to question, I don’t really consider changing them anymore, especially not to appease another artist. The feedback that remains the most valuable to me is that of people in other fields. How my art affects them is how I will know if my choices were the right ones.