Dance Advice

Creativity: Put It In Bold – Part 1

By Jo McDonald.

As I sit down to write this article, I’m at a loss for how to start it. I sit like this for a little while – procrastinating, checking Facebook, pouring a glass of water. I decide to get up and fold some washing. Maybe something will come to me.

… and BANG – there it is. Almost as soon as I walk away from the keyboard, the idea hits me that I should start by writing about what I do to find the words or the ideas I need.

When I’m stuck for an idea, I get up, make a cup of tea, fold washing, walk… whatever I need to do to shift the need to create something from the forefront of my mind. In my research into creativity I have found my instinctive way of opening myself to ideas is quite common.

My approach to overcoming a mental block is affirmed by Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: the science of creativity. He writes that it is often after we’ve stopped searching for it that an answer arrives. He explains that while our conscious mind is preoccupied with a routine activity, a part of our unconscious mind is directed inwards toward a stream of consciousness emanating from the right hemisphere of our brain that enable us to the join the dots that lead to new insights. In contrast, focusing attention on solving a problem can actually prevent our brain from making the connections necessary for insight.

However, Lehrer also notes that in order to reach this moment of insight we need to have done the grunt work. That is, to have considered the problem or issue, to have looked at it from multiple angles, to have put in the hours, and then, when we reach a road block and we can’t think of another way forward, we walk away and let our unconscious mind take over. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the notion of “flow”, concurs, stating that genuine creative accomplishment is rarely just a lightbulb moment, but comes after years of hard work.

Creativity is commonly seen as some kind of mystical talent bestowed upon some and not others. The ancient Greeks believed that creativity was external to a person and was bestowed upon them by some magical being, sometimes called a ‘genius’ or ‘muse’. However, there is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates that anyone can be more creative, but perhaps the development and expression of creativity is moderated by how much one values creativity. As choreographer Larissa McGowan put it when I spoke to her recently, “everyone is creative, some more than others. They underline it. They put it in bold.”

As you may have gathered by now, this article is about creativity. It is in fact the first of a two-part article on creativity in dance. In reading it, I hope you will value creativity, believe that you are capable of being creative, and be inspired to make some changes in your life to nurture creativity. Whether you are a choreographer, a dancer, a musician, a designer, a teacher, a businessperson or a parent, creativity can add enormous value to your life and open doors that help you achieve the things you want in life.

In preparing this article, I had a chat with four South Australian choreographers about their experience of creativity – Larissa McGowan, Carol Wellman Kelly, Billie Cook, and Felecia Hick – and was delighted to discover that as artists, they instinctively use many of the tools recommended by creativity experts such as Edward de Bono, Jonah Lehrer and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Let’s begin by considering what we mean when we talk about creativity.

A simple definition is that creativity is coming up with new ideas, the ability to imagine something that did not exist before. Carol Wellman Kelly believes that creativity is something we can’t escape, that it is inherent. She suggests that everyone is creative because everyone faces problems in their life that must be solved, ranging from a parent trying to work out how to get their uncooperative child into the bath to how to resolve conflict at work. Billie Cook also touched on this idea, stating that for her, creativity is the essence of life. It is what keeps her happy and healthy. It changes her life from black and white to something more rich and deep. With creativity in it, Billie’s life is “coloured in”.

Larissa McGowan Skeleton

Dancers perform Adelaide choreographer Larissa McGowan’s ‘Skeleton’. Photo by Chris Herzfeld.

As young children, we instinctively explore the world, trying to understand it and to find ways to get what we want. In this way, children are naturally creative. In fact, this occurs across the animal kingdom as youngsters engage in that very special inherent behaviour called ‘play’. Play is creativity at its core. And this is exactly how Felecia Hick described creativity, as a sense of play. As the mother of a young child, Felecia has found that being a parent has opened a door that enables her to look at he own inner child. She observes her daughter at play, how she interacts with others and her toys, and the way she systematically places her belongings. This observation of her daughter has had a big influence on Felecia’s work, as she has delved into her own childhood with her latest work From darkness the day which explores her fear of darkness and has recently shifted from being a work for adults to being for a child audience. 

Of course, some children are more naturally creative than others. Larissa McGowan recalls that as a young girl she was always thinking laterally. When asked to solve a problem or create something she was always a bit left of field or obscure. But whether a child is particularly creative or not, there is a role for parents, teachers and other adults to encourage and support creativity in children, teenagers (and adults). At the very least, we shouldn’t discourage it. There are fundamental elements of the education system, and the system for teaching ballet for example, that discourage creativity. Multiple choice questions on tests at school and the expectations of exactly replicating movements in ballet class are two examples. While these serve a valuable purpose, they need to be offset by other activities that deliberately nurture creativity.  In recent times, there does seem to be a greater opportunity and reinforcement for children to be creative, at school, for example. But as we grow up, perhaps we consider creativity to be something we are supposed to leave behind with our childhood.

Felecia Hick describes creativity as a sense of being able to go inside herself. She sees it as a kind of indulgence and a release; an opportunity that has become more rare and precious since she has become a mother. Maybe that’s it, we just run out of time for creativity as we get caught up with work, family, study and social life.

What are the things we can do to encourage creativity?

It’s a mix of hard work, deliberate strategy, creating space and then letting things brew.

To nurture creativity, we need to counteract the ‘busyness’ of life, and set aside time to be creative, or to create an opportunity to rest our conscious minds so those flashes of insight have a space in which to appear. Billie Cook writes in a journal every day and ensures she has regular time in her studio. She used to work in a front room in her house, but found she was distracted regularly – she’d need to clear the space or put on a load of washing. These days she has a studio away from her home which she finds much more conducive to creativity.

Setting aside a regular time to write, draw, experiment or contemplate is vital. It is not enough to hope that you’ll have some free time. But if you are busy and it’s difficult to carve out time for creativity, don’t worry. There are probably lots of times during you day that offer fertile ground for thinking and creating. According to Lehrer, you are most likely to experience creative insights at times when your brain is in alpha wave mode – when you first wake, just before you sleep, when you are in the shower. 

Felecia Hick finds that laying in bed at night in absolute silence and reflecting on her day works for her. It’s usually 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and she immerses herself in her thoughts, but keeps a notebook handy by the bedside to capture the ideas that flash into her mind. Both Felecia and Carol also noted that driving often stimulates their creativity. For Felecia, it is partly about observing people and situations that she passes. Again, it’s a stolen time that she is able to carve out for her creativity in a busy life.

It’s not surprising that driving can facilitate creativity. “Highway hypnosis” is as term coined by GW Williams in 1963 to describe a hypnotic state often experienced while driving. In this state, one level of consciousness is driving the car, while the less conscious mind engages in a stream of consciousness regarding other matters. In other words, the brain shifts to alpha waves, creating a state conducive to unexpected insights and connections.

For Carol, driving is an opportunity to be spontaneous. She enjoys driving and randomly choosing which road to take. Carol cites spontaneity as an important part of her creative process. She suggests that many people have a fundamental fear of being creative and spontaneous for fear of saying the wrong thing, or not fitting in.

While Carol is spontaneous, she also values its flip side – order. She talks about how important restriction can be in fostering creativity. I agree. My personal experience has been that by creating a sense of order, I can see patterns that lead to new connections, new insights. I also recognise that by creating order, I can streamline things so that mundane tasks take up less time and create time and space for creativity. This is a sentiment echoed by Felecia Hick, who notes that she has to be systematic in her daily routine in order to secure those rare moments of contemplation.

In his book Think, before it’s too late Edward de Bono highlights the role of patterns in creativity by describing lateral thinking as moving across patterns rather than along them. He lists ‘challenge’ and ‘focus’ as specific tools for lateral thinking. The challenge of finding solutions by restriction or blocking, the usual path to thinking can lead us to new solutions that seem entirely logical in hindsight, but which we would be unlikely to discover otherwise.  By restricting our thinking to focus on specific elements of a purpose or area, enables us to generate ideas deliberately, rather than simply hoping ideas will arise by chance.

De Bono points out that we are more likely to continue on a path that is familiar (whether a physical path we walk along or a pathway of thinking inside our minds) than to take side roads. If you block off the main path, you have no choice but to explore the side roads, and this is when you come across unexpected solutions that seem entirely logical in hindsight, but which could not have been discovered through logic. This is what Carol is doing in a literal and an imaginative sense when she chooses a random road. It exposes her to the unexpected rather than the familiar.

Carol also spoke about doing things provocatively to stimulate her thinking and give her new ideas. This is another example of how naturally creative people instinctively use tools like those proposed by creativity experts like de Bono. He lists provocation as one of his tools. In his approach, provocation means making a statement that does not make sense, like ‘cars have square wheels’. This forces us out of our usual modes of thinking and means we can move from the non-sensical statement to a new and useful idea.

All four of the choreographers I spoke to said that non-dance stimuli are vital in sustaining their creativity and giving them new ideas. They list writing, poetry, music, websites, film, theatre, exhibitions and travelling. These kinds of stimuli take the choreographer out of the familiar zone of their dance practice to be exposed to the new ideas that they can then translate back into their dance practice.

Has this got you thinking? I hope by now you have some ideas of how you can nurture creativity, and that it has whetted your appetite for Part Two, which will explore the creative process, collaboration and creativity, and the relevance of creativity during performance.

Photo (top): © Viorel Sima |

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