Monday, April 23, 2012

Creativity Collaboration is the new D.I.Y.

“Collaboration is how most of our ancestors used to work and live, before machines came along and fragmented society.”  - Twyla Tharp: The Collaborative Habit

I grew up in the shadow of a successful career painter who’s impressive artworks lined the walls of my Grandparent’s house. My life was thus punctuated with encouragements to draw and paint as my great uncle had, whenever my small family could make it out to the country for a visit.

The city is where I spent most of my time. It was a terrible place for my creativity to develop. I had plenty of talent, but without guidance, structure, and materials for my learning there was little point in the pursuit arts as a career. I went long periods without practice.

Like many teens I struggled with my self-esteem and attributed this in part to my inability to experience any kind of success with all my natural gifts and talents, artistic or otherwise. As an artist and musician, “I was not yet good enough,” I told myself. I often gave up making any kind of art for lengths of time, and eventually I would come back to it with a renewed commitment to try harder than I ever had before, only to “fail” and quit again. I did not know it at the time, but I was far from a failure.

In my 30’s I was still struggling with these same issues. I had jumped ship on a career in Wildlife Conservation to pursue work as an artist in the animation industry, where I struggled just as hard to find success as ever before, in spite of my abundant talent and recognition among my peers. Approaching decades of developing professional-level technique and skill I still could not earn a living or conjure my most passionate creations into physical reality. I felt like a complete liability to my community: unable to make any kind of worthwhile contribution to the world around me. In short, I was the epitome of “dime-a-dozen talent,” and “it’s hard to make a living in the arts.”

Why, I thought if Joseph Campbell so convincingly encouraged, “follow your bliss, and the world will conspire to set you on your way,” was my way fraught with minor bursts of bliss and vast expanses of disappointment, and lacking in fulfillment? It was a puzzle perhaps too grand for my introverted self to gather in the blossoming culture of extroversion.Today, I know the one important tool missing in my art box then was an ability to successfully work in collaboration.

In her book the Collaborative Habit, award-winning Broadway Choreographer and Best-selling author Twyla Tharp explains, “ ..most of us grew up in a culture that applauded only individual achievement.”  I was no different. I had never heard of painters collaborating on a work before. I too believed Michael Angelo had painted the Sistine Chapel single-handedly. The idea that an artist would ever work in collaboration seemed antithesis to everything I understood about being an artist. Consequently, I struggled to find success with anything I felt passionate about my life, until I found Ecstatic Dance and Contact Dance Improvisation.

Being a dancer opened me to the most valuable creative skill any artist can ever learn. Whether a dancer, photographer, painter, musician, writer, actor or director etc., no amount of talent, skill or technical knowledge can blossom without understanding the subtle art of collaboration. Artists work together with each other and with non-artists to bring their creations out of the ethers and into physical reality. Learning to dance ‘alone’ was not enough for me to get it. Partner dancing seemed way too complicated at first, until I learned to improvise in step with other dancers I had never truly made the connection. Improvisation requires letting go of attachment to outcomes. Once that happened, I was able to surrender my “I’ll do it all myself” ego and open up to the possibility of accomplishing something far more powerful and moving in collaboration with others. As a bonus, I started to truly enjoy what I was doing for the first time. I even became a better musician.

Twyla Tharp explains, successful collaboration is not simply about people working together. Many talented people can work together to smash up something awful and loathed by everyone. Successful collaboration requires more than people with an ability to grunt and groan at each other in the hopes that something creative will emerge. I know many artists who for one reason or another kept themselves tucked away in their studio bitter and cursing at everyone that had failed to help them bring their masterpiece to life. If “everyone sucks and wants to steal your idea,” has yet to be made into a bumper sticker, art colleges could make a killing with it. 

To this I say, “drop the attitude.” Artists don’t get anywhere easily without learning to work together, and to get along well with the people that will help them find success. Success with art-making is a collaborative process. Selling art requires a collaboration with collectors, buyers, sellers, suppliers, dealers, marketers etc.. Hit songs require the convergence of songwriters, musicians, producers, engineers, distribution channels, and an audience. Sadly, so many artist waste away their precious energies on developing their own websites and brand images, with little prior knowledge of Web technology. This is not to say that an artist should not be tech savvy, or versed in social media marketing. If website development steals energy from your passion for producing music, get someone else to do it. Hire a pro. Barter if you have to. It is worth it.

This blog entry begins a series posts sharing stories of successful artistic collaborations. Click “Join this Site,” for updates and posts, videos and interviews with a wide variety of creative people as they share their tips on how to learn to be successful in collaboration, and how to kick your art into overdrive.

Next: How to co-paint a picture and why more practice at your art is way better than more planning.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Coming Down from "the Embodied Heart" 5 Rhythms Dance Workshop with Gabrielle Roth and Jonathon Horan in Montreal, April 2012

Things are winding down for me back in Toronto after the amazing “Embodied Heart: 5 Rhythms” Easter long-weekend workshop in Montreal. Sadly, I am already feeling the everyday urban cacophony buzzing inside me, dissipating the incredible emptying out my ego and emotional body to find the pure, embodied being in the dances of the 5 Rhythms.
The Embodied Heart workshop weekend was organized by Montreal 5 Rhythms teacher Erik Iversen. He began studying with Gabrielle Roth in the 1980’s, and invited her back along with her son Jonathon Horan to offer this special Heart-themed weekend.

The 5 Rhythms are a form of ecstatic dance developed by dancer, musician, and author Gabrielle Roth. One wave through the 5 Rhythms includes Flow (Earth), Staccato (Fire), Chaos (Water), Lyrical (Air) and Stillness (Etheric).

As I understand, the flow rhythm is about connecting with the body and earth, arriving to a place where the world and the feminine* are invited to our dance.The sharp-tempo staccato rhythm invites the masculine* energies to enliven our core and set our hearts ablaze and power our dance through the remaining rhythms. Chaos opens us to the emotions within us and allow them to begin to effortlessly flow out, to be expressed, leave behind our sense of self, get out of our head and give completely over to an fully embodied sense of being. From this chaos we enter lyrical rhythm. Having let go of our ego-self we are entranced by the spirit and in the full flow with the universe. Stillness comes and there is no thought or ego. We are fully given over to breathe and enjoy a sense of peace and wholeness in connection with all things.

In the Embodied Heart workshop Gabrielle offered heartfelt discussions about her experience of life, what it means to be alive, and to break free of worldly illusions through the map of the 5 Rhythms, which she calls, “the DNA of the creative process.” I was truly surprised by the level of movement, demonstration and instruction she offered personally. She spoke openly and freely about her struggles with lung Cancer, and about her current sense of mortality. She was masterful and sweet and accompanied by the Mirrors bandmates Robert Ansell (Gabrielle’s husband) and Nigerian influenced, Sanga on drums. Gabrielle’s son Jonathan Horan’s bristly charm and whit gave a humorous tone to the weekend. He offered many of his own heartfelt stories about how the 5 Rhythms transformed his life, helping him him come to terms with his emotional experiences of growing up.

The workshop was well-attended. I drove up with some friends from Toronto. We rented an apartment for the weekend through, which I totally recommend to everyone. I will never get a hotel now if something is available this way. We were right around the corner from the studio, off Mont Royal. There were plenty of great cafe’s and restaurants, and amazing boutiques. Like Gabrielle had caught boutique fever: -during her welcome speech Gabrielle says “this is a dangerous place for me. Its all the boutiques.”

Back in February I attended Lucia Rose Horan’s Waves 5 Rhythms weekend at the Great Hall in Toronto, which is prerequisite for Embodied Heart. It was real taste of what the 5 rhythms had to offer my regular ecstatic dance and moving meditation practice. Like Lucia, her brother Jonathan offered Embodied Heart participants masterful facilitation, and DJ’d an awesome mix of beats to make our hearts beat, our feet move, and spark the magic link between the heart and the breath of the dance. A note for DJ’s, Jonathon guards his mix like a carefully treasured secret, but during a break he kindly tipped me off to a 90’s Electronic gem for my own Ecstatic Dance collection.

The walking meditation gave us opportunity to learn to share space and be firmly in the flow of things, but giving of space. Moving into Staccato I found myself slipping out to the periphery acting out some ingrained pattern of avoiding my darker more fire-based emotions. I went with every intention of working through ‘my shit’ at this workshop, but felt I was disappointing myself.

Instead of blasting out my emotional baggage my work was turning out to be about staying with the dance. I wanted to unload, empty out, and let go, to get mad and express any pent up frustrations I had about life, but every time the beat changed or a short-lived authentic improvised burst found its way into being and dissipated, I subsided to the edge and sometimes left the room entirely. “What am I doing here again,” I asked myself. Catching my evasive mood, I prepped myself to give it another try. “All you have to do is stay with it,” I told myself. “That is my work this weekend.”

Not so easy.  I got back out onto the floor as many times as I left it, only to find myself avoiding it again. It was the part of the session where we were called to bring up anger. Clearly I was afraid of my own anger and responding with avoidance.

But, with Gabrielle’s encouragements fresh in my head I thought, “if I cant work on the emotion, then I will work on the avoidance.” To my surprise I was able to arrive at anger in the dance, not by thinking of my own anger or conflict, not by thinking of the ways the world makes me angry, not by taking in the images of atrocities in the world being shouted out by the facilitators, not by thinking at all... By mimicking other people’s angry dances, I was able to reach these emotions in myself. From this place I expressed “fire” emotion without attaching value or ideas to it.

I simply danced, felt and found I avoided the floor less. Free flow ego-less movement became easier. Gradually I found myself rocking out in ways I never imagined. Not only had I passed into emotional territory, but I was reaching new territory. I connected to a part of my core I’d never touched before.

Something in the impenetrable void that was my solar plexus and stomach was breached for the first time in my life. Suddenly, in the chaos dance, I felt into the mass of a part of my body that long remained mysterious to me. I could peer for a short time into the dysfunctional workings of my digestive system. Instead of a struggling life support system fraught with food allergies and nutritional sensitivities, and emotional scars that live there, I ignited a new spark of tremendous vitality. A new fire in my core propelled me completely and effortlessly. My breath and heart, passion and pace were all synchronized. As I moved faster, i breathed faster. As I stepped lighter, my breath become light.

And when the music stopped, I kept dancing. I kept dancing for another ten minutes before finally following calmness and space to settling in and bring me to the floor.

If the workshop had ended there, I would have been satisfied. It was money well spent. The experience was marvelous and life-changing. However, Gabrielle imparted other life-lessons before we were done. If I were to take nothing else away from this intense and invigorating workshop, I would want it to be this: “zero.”

Gabrielle’s concept of “Zero,” put a name on something that I had always been doing, but poorly understood. Though it was long a natural part of my dance practice, no surprise, Gabrielle’s honest and and intimate account of her recent new appreciation for “zero” offered a major transformation for my practice and for my life.

Zero is a place 5 Rhythms dancers go between their expressive, emotive dance gestures, repetitions, and interactions. Zero is a relaxed stance, arms at your side, both feet on the ground, or idling in rhythm, mind relaxed. We let go of the improvised dance sequence or pose we just held, and the allow any emotion to drain out of us. We physically let go of any muscle memory or tension in our body language and redistribute our weight to a state of rest. Our breath returns to calm.

From zero we are set to spontaneously improvise a completely new gesture or sequence. Jonathon or Gabrielle will call out a single emotive word and the whole room is inspired anew to silently and physically communicate the feeling behind the word, in time or in rhythm with the percussion or beat. Anyone looking at us from the sidelines will clearly recognize our body language, empathize with the emotion behind it, and clearly experience the meaning of the word that was spoken aloud by the facilitator.

So, how if “zero” is a place I naturally go in my practice, did Gabrielle’s  discussion so dramatically transform my ecstatic dance practice?

Until Gabrielle brought this very basic concept up I had a tendency to judge the moments my movement on the dance floor slowed or stopped. I associated these uninspired zero periods with falling out of the flow. In short, I saw my dance practice as failing. “I was failing to stay with the dance. I was failing to stay with my emotions,” or “uncommitted to working through my shit.” I often entered disappointment over my lack of effort to dance my pain and shatter my ego-sphere. Idleness and emotionlessness was not the expected outcome of my practice.

Gabrielle’s teaching at the Embodied Heart workshop changed the way I think about those idle moments. She helped me to see that we never need to pass seamlessly from one emotion to another, one expression to another, from one dance sequence to another, uninterrupted. Gabrielle’s simple approach pointed to a rigidity within my own ego about myself. Once I could see it, I could explode it. I was then able to feel gratitude for my idle moments when dancing out a feeling was fulfilled. It is only natural to return to zero, reground, settle into a softer rhythm, catch a breath, and be ready for the next wave of inspiration to take me through the dance of the 5 Rhythms

* masculinity and femininity are addressed here independent of gender. It is my belief that all genders include aspects of both masculine and feminine energies. I certainly do. : )

For more information about Ecstatic Dance and the 5 Rhythms, or for classes and workshops visit:


New York
Gabrielle Roth

Lucia Rose Horan
Jonathan Horan

Erik Iversen


Ecstatic Dance

The Move

San Francisco
Ecstatic Dance SF