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What Exactly is Creativity? Why Dancers are Researchers pt. 3

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Hi all, Fabian from the think-team.

Welcome back to the series of why dancers are researchers. To recap, in the first part I talked about how creativity and technique are separate skills. In the second, I talked about what makes one authentic. Today I’d like to show my in-depth perspective on both topics. How does one become authentic? Is creativity a prerequisite? Is it a supplement or a complement to technique? In other words, is it a “good to have” or a “must have”?

I used Cognitive Psychology to define technique and creativity in terms of intelligence. Technique (crystallized intelligence) is about owning the skillset while creativity (fluid intelligence) is about using that skillset, sort of. Intelligence is in itself a very difficult topic to discuss in Psychology, with many tests and theories that are continuously updated e.g. IQ, EQ, MBTI (we’ll skip this for now). Creativity is even more difficult to define. A unanimous agreement has not been made, but creativity is often associated with novelty, originality, and Divergent Thinking.

Divergent thinking refers to a problem-solving process that evaluates many possible options, using imaginations and exploring outside the scope. While Convergent thinking, refers to selecting a finite number of solutions to answer a problem in a logical thought process. Both are needed in different contexts. Convergent thinking is needed to respond to a question that requires a sharp answer. Divergent thinking is required in creative processes to come up with something new. It seems that creativity does imply going outside the box.

Being authentic is an even more nuanced definition. I will try to put my definition here based on my previous discussions in part 2. I believe authenticity is something that can be attained by one and once attained, cannot be taken away by another. Authenticity is your bare form after all the labels made by someone else is stripped off of you.

So how does this relate to creativity?

If technique is the foundation, creativity is anything you can build form that foundation. Strong foundation is important, but how the building will look is what differentiates you with others. So I think creativity is indeed a key element to authenticity. If being authentic is the ultimate desire, why care about technique?

To illustrate, let’s watch what a dance class looks like:

This video starts with Jake Kodish, the choreographer performing his piece, later followed by other dancers. Apart from the freestyle in the last few seconds after the choreo finishes, you can clearly see how different the choreo looks in each dancer. Despite dancing the same movements, there are tiny selections made by the dancers consciously or unconsciously that make them look different. The easiest way to see this is that they accent different movements. For instance, Jade (second dancer) is much more powerful and sharp than Tre (third dancer) who was much more liquid and smooth. While Sean (last dancer), no question, this choreo is made for him. He is everyone’s personal favorite but I don’t think a lot of people know how to appreciate him. Even though everyone was on time with the beat, Sean’s musicality seems to be unmatched.

In general, when dancers learn a choreo with complex musicality, they tend to anticipate on the beat. I’ve been there many times, we get too excited but then we hit the beat too early. The key is to be as last-minute as possible, or even a few milliseconds late. Sean doesn’t anticipate, his kicks are higher and at the last second. This way, you get mesmerized by him, because even though you have watched the choreo several times, his performance feels unpredictable. This is where technique comes in. Sean’s freestyle, however, makes you see the music. I love when dancers let you hear part of a music you’ve never heard before through their movements.

These dancers no longer represent Kodish’s choreo, but their performance is a result of their interpretation, their version, as they have added their creative liberty. Or my dance teacher used to say “add a dash of your own salt and pepper, maybe a little bit of lime.” What I want to emphasize here is that these dancers really represent the balance of creativity and technique in their performance. Their creativity sets them apart, but their unquestionable high-level technique allows their creativity to be seen. In this sense, technique is also a platform to get your message across.

Let’s illustrate two other artforms: research papers and paintings. Yes, a research paper is a piece of art, we’re going to argue here. The creative process is largely similar, they only differ in form. Researchers and painters may have their own styles, but without the proper technique it may be difficult to go through your paragraph or understand your painting. Especially being in the think-team, I’ve learned a lot in how to write papers/proposals. Indeed, you can have your own writing style, but if you’re missing the basics (I.e. structuring, flow, highlighting main solution), fancy words won’t save you from being understandable. A beautiful paragraph does not compensate an ugly flow. Same goes for a painter. Recently I have been really trying to learn how to watercolor, I've been trying to shortcut my way to skip the basics. I learned (the hard way) that it becomes too ambitious to not put an effort in learning the techniques. The flowers I tried to paint just become, blobs. The video below is challenging my hardheadedness with some real lessons. Some may argue that technique is not important to be a great artist (we’ll ignore some exceptional artists right now), but I think it is necessary for clarity. In this case, technique can provide clarity to creative intentions or even strengthen it.

Back to dancing, I had a feedback moment with my dance teacher when I was performing her piece. I added a dash of my style and she pointed out which movements look good on me. Despite acknowledging and appreciating my interpretation, she still told me how to improve. I remember her words distinctly “play with levels, you’re tall, go lower in these movements. Your limbs are long, sometimes your arms are not as clean, which takes away the intention of some movements.” Those last few words stuck with me “take away the intentions”. She taught me how to be a cleaner dancer, to be understood, which in the end needed some technique. So when is technique not important?

“Technique is nothing”, a dancer friend of mine mentioned once when we were in awe of a young ‘authentic’ dancer. Now this does not dispute those who have spent hours training and honing skills to be the best. We were mainly impressed to see maturity achieved at a young age, because some people may never reach maturity even after being decades in the dance industry. Technique can be learned from others, while creativity is from yourself. In a sense technique is an outside-in learning, grasping various references and remembering them, while creativity is inside-out, learning how to unleash the hidden you. But anyway, this is just another perspective, so where am I going with this ramble?

I think communication is such an interesting skill. It involves a dynamic relationship with an audience. This doesn’t imply the necessity of interaction with an audience, but simply acknowledging the presence of one will affect your communication. I think no matter who we are, a researcher, a dancer, a painter, a musician, we are bound to have an audience. To present a research paper, to perform, to showcase an art piece. Here, I’d like to point out that we are all artists trying to make it out there. If creativity sets us apart, then technique is what brings us together – performers and audience. Technique is there to bridge people.

I am aware that all the theoretical and abstract concepts I have written may very well be subjective without proper empirical basis. If anything, I hope some of you disagree to my statements, because that means there is something to discuss at the dinner table.

See you next week!

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