How to Save a Memory

Last week, I visited northern Arizona, spending much of my time in a cozy rehearsal studio choreographing a duet for soulful and skillful collaborators Delisa Myles and Jayne Lee. A deep reflection on partnership, How to Save a Memory explores closeness and distance, hiding and sharing. To get a tiny glimpse of our process, complete the following sentences in any way that makes sense to you:

1. “When something or someone is disappearing, _________________

2. “When I’m far away from someone or something, _________________

3. “When I get close to something or someone, _________________

I love that I get to ask these questions in my work, hovering on the border between imagination and intellect. They could be answered so many different ways. For the first question, I wrote: “I put it in a bottle,” “I feel like I’m disappearing, too,” “I can’t see them anymore,” “I am sad,” “it's vapor.”

Also, moving bodies respond to words and images differently than thinking minds do, accessing feelings and associations that normally fly below the radar. In that territory, dance takes us on a surprising and insightful journey. To get there, though, either as a dance-maker or as a dance-viewer, we have to step into the unknown, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Perhaps because I struggled with it for so long, I'm particularly aware of how creative process depends on extensive trial and error. We're used to thinking of trial and error in science, perhaps, but it's equally as necessary in art-making. It's how we navigate the waters of the unknown, asking odd, poetic questions, searching for the thing we can't name until it appears.

When I say I struggled, I mean that for a long time I couldn't accept the "error" part of the equation. I interpreted it as “failure,” or as evidence of my incompetence. For years, every time I thought to myself, “I don’t know,” I assumed it was because I wasn't clever or talented enough. My Inner Perfectionist grew strong in this theory, and as a result, I didn't like dwelling in the unknown very much. Here’s what used to happen:

Mind: I don’t know what to do.

Intuition: Try X!

Mind: That might not work.

Intuition: Try it anyway!

Mind: But what if it’s terrible and everyone hates it?

Intuition: Well, just try it and we’ll find out!

But the story has a happy ending. As I made more creative work, the theory started to crack. Mainly, I noticed how maddenly counter-productive it was. So, with considerable effort and the support of many patient mentors, I finally managed to teach myself that what I was calling “failure” was actually just the "error" side of "trial and error," and that it was an indication of learning, of progress even. I now understand that the unknown is exactly where I want to be when I’m creating, because it’s what makes me try things. And when you try, guess what? You're going to get a lot of errors. And that's progress!

I can't really overstate how liberating it has been for me to recognize failure as part of progress. In choreographic trial and error, I vacillate between idea and movement again and again, noticing, mostly, what does NOT work, until something does. I work more quickly now, with less anxiety and more flexibility, but every once in a while I catch myself trying to “get it right the first time,” and inevitably, the project stalls. I see clearly that it’s my willingness to repeatedly fail that actually keeps me in the creative flow. Whether the work is a physical movement, a sentence, or a paper airplane, I now equate creativity with continuous risk, and I'm in a totally different conversation with myself most of the time:

Mind: I don’t know what to do.

Intuition: Try X!

Mind: Ok… oops, that doesn't look right.

Intuition: Try Y!

Mind: Hmm, well, not quite what I expected. Don’t like it.

Intuition: Try Z!

Mind: Oh, yes, that’s better, how about a variation of that…

So, in reflecting on this intense week of rehearsal, I really want to honor all of the risks that we take in our lives, the tiny ones along with the massive ones. Because whether it’s a homemade pencil box or a new relationship, I have the sense that the same dynamic is at play. We don’t know how it will be until we try, but trying seems hard because some shadowy fear of a negative outcome is hiding under the table quietly chaining our ankles to the floor. When that little monster comes to visit, I do my best to remind him that even if the outcome is not what we want, we have the power to change it.

*How to Save a Memory will be performed by Jayne Lee and Delisa Myles as part of Human Nature Dance Theatre’s upcoming show Migration on Oct. 1, 2017 at Arcosanti in northern Arizona.

What risk are you ready to take right now? Leave your thoughts in the comments…