Design, Creativity, and the Performing Arts

22 Sep

Last spring, I was invited to give a talk on research and design for a dance class at Stanford.  The class, titled “Liquid Flow: Dance, Design, and Engineering,” both taught basic dance technique and theorized on the role of the body as a source of creative inspiration.  Because the class had a large number of graduate students, the instructor thought her students would surely appreciate our team’s new perspective on the research process.

In preparing for the class, however, I didn’t feel comfortable just talking.  I would never consider lecturing during a workshop at the d.school, which fully embraces a “bias toward action.”  More importantly, it was a dance class, the students would be expecting to move, and I have far more experience teaching dance than teaching in any academic classrooms.  So I developed a new curriculum—on design, research, and choreography.

I brainstormed hybrid activities that played with the intersection between movement, research, and d.thinking:

  • How might you interview someone using only your body?
  • Make a short dance. Now prototype it – test whether the emotions the choreography is trying to convey come across; whether a certain sequencing worked and why.

The class was a hit.  During the final activity, with less than half an hour to run through the entire design process, the teams of non-trained dancers made beautiful, moving, and incredibly diverse pieces.

Developing and teaching the class forced me to reflect on my own experiences with the creative process.  I have trained in dance, music (I play flute), and acting since I was four.  I love the process of choreography: turning on a piece of music, having a rough idea of what I’d like to create, and then messing around with my dancers, or—to use d. language—prototyping the moves, sequences, and spatial patterns until it clicks.  Or writing music, just playing and jamming, noting what riffs seem to work, and then beginning to construct a coherent piece from these tidbits.

The problem is that I approach my academic work in a completely different, non-creative way.  Somewhere between first grade and completing my bachelor’s, any sense of creativity or play was erased from my academic repertoire.  Sure, I’ll take the time to develop a good hypothesis, and always write several drafts of my papers, but nowhere is there an element of play or an understanding that I won’t have it “right” or “perfect” the first time and that’s okay.  (In fact, not being right is great, because that means I have somewhere to expand and innovate.)

Even after ten months of exposure to design thinking, of developing and teaching RAD workshops, and embracing (at least intellectually) the fact that my research can be enhanced by thinking like a kindergartener again, it still terrifies me to really play with my research.  I’ll brainstorm research questions, sure, but I can’t quite get to the loose mindset that comes so easily when I pick up my flute.  I guess I feel like I have too much at stake when it comes to my academic career, which is the exact opposite mindset than I actually need.  I have learned how to do really well in the elite academic world with the techniques that I’ve honed since high school–techniques that make my work really good but not revolutionary–and I’m scared to try anything different.  The irony is that at this point in my training and my life, I want to (have to) be revolutionary: too many of the problems that I hope to address with my research demand out-of-the-box approaches.

Practice makes perfect.  Or rather, practice expands one’s proficiency and repertoire.  I’m still in Ballet I with my design skills, and I have to remember that great performers and artists take years to hone their technique before they can let loose, break the rules, and improvise.  Be patient, and trust the process—after all, I have a lifetime.

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