Our days are populated with questions. Some questions are mundane but necessary – “ Do you know where the Student Union is? Which chili peppers are ripe? Do you know how long the flight delay will be? “ We use questions pragmatically in order to gain information. These kinds of questions often lead us toward an action or outcome; if this (information in response to a question) then that (next response or action). But we also use questions as a way to prompt and investigate our deeper thinking. These questions lead us to muse, to imagine “What do you think will happen if…… How could I show that … What’s another way of getting to …”
Our personal life and society is informed by the questions we ask one another and ourselves. We often hear the suggestion “If you want to know, just ask”. But questions are made up of more than just the asking – they also require listening to the responses provided, whether we are asking ourselves or others.
Listening is the cornerstone to good acting. Work on stage is not simply about delivering lines but is fundamentally about listening and reacting in real ways to what another actor says. Onstage and off we inform out thinking by acting and reacting. That exchange fuels our learning.
We need to listen carefully when we ask questions of ourselves too. When I’m choreographing a new piece, the theme or topic often arises out of something I’ve noticed, something that caught my attention. “ These Chinese pictograms are so beautiful. I love the flow of the ink. I see a quality of movement within the written Chinese characters.” That noticing prompts me to ask questions, to myself and others, about the things I’m wondering about. “What does this series of characters mean? How do the individual marks contribute to or convey the meaning of what is written?” Then I listen for information – “The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects or abstract notions.” The learning process gives rise to more questions. “What is the relationship between human form, movement, and the characters themselves? How might I use embodied shapes or movements to express that relationship?”
Asking questions prompts imagination. “ What will happen if … How do you think it will turn out if we … How else could you show that …How could we find out if… Where else does that happen…? One response to asking and listening is making. So, as I start to choreograph the dance I ask myself, “How could I explore the writing process and the meaning of the written characters through movement? How and what Chinese characters are analogous to human form? How could movement embody the rules used in writing Chinese characters; horizontal strokes are written before vertical ones , left-falling strokes are written before right-falling ones, characters are written from top to bottom, characters are written from left to right. How does the relationship of form and meaning transfer across culture? ”
I ask, I explore, and I listen for answers. I imagine possibilities. The piece becomes a response to what I am finding out, incorporating the information, feelings and ideas I’ve discovered in the process. Asking and listening becomes a reflective process. Hearing or seeing a response to something that we’ve wondered about can lead us to refine our own perceptions or actions and imagine new ones. When I make a dance it grows out of what I’ve noticed, what I’ve wondered about, and what I imagine.
In the book Imagination First by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon imagination is defined as the capacity to conceive of what is not. It is the ability we all have to perceive and conceive of possibilities and options. Creativity is imagination applied. It is working in active ways with what we find out after we ask questions after we conjure up ideas – after we imagine. Creativity is taking information and doing something with it; making a dance, sketching an idea for a new piece of furniture, whistling a tune you’ve just made up, planting the garden with a new design of contrasting blooms. As we envision possibilities we begin to explore and push our thinking in new or re-visited ways. Unless we encourage, or allow, ourselves to imagine what does not yet exist we there is nothing toward which we can direct our will and resources. Creative acts enable us to show what we think – to take ideas from our mind’s eye and put them into action.
I was recently asked to put my artistic process into words – not always easy for a dancer to do. In response to the request I wrote:
I ask a question and dance my way through response, finding the next questions along the way.
An explorer’s journey, finding action in the idea. My artistic compass; intent, process, design and the sheer delight of moving. Make, reflect, refine. I look for shimmering possibilities and find them in shape, pattern, breath and surprise — a play of light rising beneath the surface.
I make dances to weave connective threads across form, content and community. Sometimes I fail. But I’m not in it for safety. I’m in it for love.
Imagination First. Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. 2009