The forest and the trees

About a year ago, just as I was beginning to apply for graduate school, a wonderful young choreographer named Antonia Z Brown decided to interview me for a series she was curating on an arts blog. Here’s a quote from that interview (I was responding to a question on how I define success for myself as an artist):

As for internal success, I’ll talk about my all-time favorite metaphor for life: the forest and the trees. I believe that some of us are more oriented to tree thinking: focusing on the day-to-day, short-term, in-the-moment interactions. While others are more focused on forest thinking: big picture, how do I fit in the universe, what will my life mean, how does my work fit in the context of economics, politics, pop culture right now?

And I think I need to satisfy both of these to feel successful. In my tree-brain I need to be in choreographer-mode and move my body thoughtfully at least once a day, every single day. For my forest-brain I need to have a minimum of three, maximum of six, projects coming down the pipeline that simultaneously thrill and terrify me—specifically things that seem to be in my wheelhouse but that I’ve never attempted before. There’s something about knowing that I will be forced to change and evolve in the future and then doing it in small, bite-sized daily pieces that makes me feel successful—like I’ve got this living-as-an-artist thing down.

Today I’m going to focus on the the interaction between the tree thinking (or even maybe leaf thinking) and forest thinking.

Since I arrived at graduate school I’ve noticed a great emphasis on providing context and understanding how one’s work might fit into prevailing movements or ‘eras’ of dance creation. This isn’t surprising given that I came here to expand my own narrow lens of dance knowledge and historical background. But what I find odd about it is that it is rarely the art makers themselves decided which category their work falls into – but rather the dance scholars, theorists and critics aka THE ONES WHO WRITE ABOUT IT – at least historically.

In my last post I explained a few things about my creative process using some blocks. Now, when I think about my work it usually looks something like the opening image on the left: just a few ideas and people working together to build something new. But when/if other people discuss my work, they’re going to be referencing the image on the right.

Another way to visualize would be this:

Basically, I tend to think about my choreography in terms of leaves. Initially, before anything has happened, I sometimes indulge in big forest-sized fantasies of final productions and audience reception but then I quickly zoom back down to tree and leaf level.

Dance scholarship, as I’ve encountered it so far, is primarily focused on looking at the forest – possibly even zooming out so far that they’re looking more at a physical map of all the work made by an artist, a group of artists or even an entire decade of artists. And it first I found this approach extremely alienating. How does learning to read the physical map of one particular scholar (because each map is determined and organized by the academic/critic/journalist who writes about it) relate back to leaf-activity: playing movement games, rolling on the floor and generating ideas to propel a piece forward?

And that’s when I discovered my ongoing research questions:

  1. How did the dance get made in the studio?
    1. Who had a say in how the dance was shaped? Did the dancers contribute movement or just learn it? How much did the choreographer walk in knowing before each rehearsal?
  2. What was the artist’s intention?
    1. Why this piece at this time? Is the process shaped in the studio by the work itself or by other things going on outside the studio? Is there a focus, even lightly, on how the work might land with a future audience?
  3. How do the answers to these questions relate to the larger assertions being made by the scholar I’m reading and my own viewpoint on the work?

These questions are not always going to be applicable and I’m sure they will evolve rapidly but right now they are a helpful way to zoom out and see the forest, the map and all its complexity without losing my own grounding in the trees.


3 thoughts on “The forest and the trees

  1. Since I first saw your work, I’ve always thought that you were treading new ground of dance. My own knowledge of dance history is VERY limited, but I’ve always thought that regardless of the style of the physical movement, the way you’ve based your work on the real and the practical parts of people and their lives has always felt revolutionary to me. None of the pretense that is present in so much modern dance… just the pursuit of truth and beauty through bodies.


  2. Love the forest and trees metaphor, and the forest-brain and the tree-brain. I think my tree-brain is definitely stronger than the forest-brain. And I know that you meant six, but I think sex projects are also an important and under-theorized part of the artistic process…


  3. Yes – there is need and room for artists to theorize and write on their work with the kinds of perspectives you have and are building, and, for scholars to write through, and from, the experience of the work itself. I appreciate your zoom in/out thinking and hope you continue to figure out ways for “voice” and ownership to be spread amongst the makers/doers/viewers/writers.


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