Decision Making with Wayne McGregorposted on November 22nd, 2011 by Brandon Monokian
As part of Montclair State’s Creative Campus project, members of the UK-based dance company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance visited Montclair State for a series of discussions and workshops centering around the company’s “choreographic thinking tools,” culminating in last spring’s Brainstorm symposium on creative thinking. In October, Wayne McGregor continued the conversation with the campus community, in conjunction with the company’s performances of FAR. Below, Brandon Monokian shares reflections inspired by this informal Q&A session; for more, read reports on the initial workshops, by Brandon and Sara Wintz.
“Be wrong, be strong” is a philosophy I adopted about two and a half years ago. I was about to enter the professional world of the arts with four and a half years of theater school behind me and a degree about to be placed in my hand, and my confidence in my work was at an all-time low. Throughout my years studying in school, I had unwittingly become so obsessed with a perfect final product that I had forgotten the importance of the process, and the result was a series of safe and lackluster theatrical endeavors I’d rather forget. So I started being wrong and being strong and, in turn, learning from my mistakes.
I took this attitude with me into a workshop with two members of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s company, Random Dance. With a virtually nonexistent dance background, I was skeptical of what I would be able to achieve in the course of a two-day workshop, but I threw myself into the experience. The workshop was life changing, and, as a result of what I learned, I gained a plethora of new techniques and tools I could use to generate ideas, communicate with others, and understand my own sense of self as a theater director and actor. Months later, I was ecstatic to learn that not only would Peak Performances host the American premier of Wayne McGregor | Random Dance’s FAR, but they had arranged a discussion with McGregor himself.
Over the course of an hour, McGregor solidified what I had learned in the workshops and left those present with new ideas and insights that could be used in theater, dance, and education, as well as skills useful in navigating this strange and complicated world we live in. “You need to make a decision to move on, even if the decision doesn’t end up taking you where you want to go. If you never make a decision, you will never go anywhere.” His words seemed a much more eloquent and refined version of my philosophy. If we could live by that simple idea, we would be able to accomplish much more, not only creatively but in daily life, right? Still the question remained: Why is it so hard to make decisions? Why are we so afraid of being wrong?
McGregor repeatedly made reference to the British school system “teaching the creativity out of you.” He recounted a personal experience from his younger school days, when he was asked to draw a farm; upon completion of the work, his teacher held up his drawing in disgust and told him just how poor his artistic skills were.
From my own personal experience, I know that the American school system can be equally effective at undermining creativity. McGregor was quick to point out that a large part of the reason for this is that there has come to be an almost defined categorization of what makes art “good.” We as a society have somehow managed to nail down a rating system for something that in reality is completely subjective, whether it be dance, theater, or visual arts. We can so easily forget that taste in the arts is as varied as tastes in food—while some people like roasted duck, others prefer ballet.
Perhaps we feel the need to rate things when we are being judged and graded at school and then turn on the television to find every network has a “reality” competition, like X Factor, with a set of “brutally honest” judges searching for “that extra something.” Even the search for the “X factor” now fits ever so neatly into a safe, definably good box. We’ve become so obsessed with “artistic perfection” and “artistic product” that not only are we staring at airbrushed magazines, but we are listening to airbrushed voices on the radio, auto-tuned beyond recognition.
McGregor has noticed that, because of this obsession with being “good,” artists will begin editing out their work before they even know if what they desire to do has value. To combat this unnecessary self-editing, he creates a safe place where people can be free to experiment; in doing so, their creativity thrives. In his safe space, he gives his dancers “tasks” they are to complete. It is in figuring out how to accomplish these tasks that dancers engage in decision making that leads them to discover novel movement they did not previously have in their physical vocabulary. These tasks and ideas are the same that I experienced a few months earlier when taking Random Dance’s workshop. This journey to discovery often leads to valuable work that doesn’t always make the final performance. “I don’t feel I have anything to keep unless I have something to throw away,” McGregor says. Once he has an ample amount of work, he can then begin an editing process that leads him to his final product. Learning of his techniques and his need to “throw away,” I was eager to see what he had kept in his production of FAR.
FAR is a visceral dance piece in which performers’ bodies transform from sweet and loving to violent and harsh in a matter of moments. Throughout the piece, we see how “far” love and violence are from each other (most times, not so far at all). The piece begins with the natural light of torches, showing life, with an ending of a dancer seemingly dying indicating that even the space between life and death is incredibly minute. FAR is a moving experience that is simultaneously visually and emotionally stimulating, as a result of the physical awareness the performers have of their relationships to each other, as well as the simple set and glorious lighting design. When one dancer creates a movement or a light changes, a physical response is seen from another dancer; even if small, it creates a connectedness not often seen in an ensemble of performers. This connectedness leads to the creation of an engaging dance work that will not soon be forgotten.
With the work that appeared on stage so captivating, one wonders what wonderful work McGregor edited out. After experiencing the workshop, listening to him speak, and seeing his work staged, I must say that if he is practicing what he is preaching, it is truly paying off.
Random Dance’s residency at Montclair State was made possible in part by a grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Brandon Monokian received a B.A. in Theatre Studies at Montclair State. He works as an actor, director, and writer.