from creating 'work' to 'creating' work

Marda Kirn

The following article is based on notes for a talk presented in June 2000 at Dance/USA's bi-annual conference, "New Directions in Moving Ground." Marda Kirn participated on a panel subtitled "Nurturing the Art of Creation" that invited panelists to talk about inventive ways that artists find time, space, and support to create new work.

Many years ago, I wanted to write a grant application to the NEA — as a kind of joke, and a kind of plea. I'd call it the Rip Van Winkle project.

It would miraculously give me — and all artists who need it — extra time. I thought that was all we needed, along with money.

We would have forty years of creative time between the hours when everyone else went to bed and when they woke up, and we could get forty years worth of work done and miss only one night's sleep instead of hundreds!

Recently, I was complaining to my honey, saying I WISHED I had more hours in the day.

He looked at me quizzically and said, “but why? you're already tired!”


In trying to come to grips with my own delusional thinking about how much it is humanly possible to get done in a day, and, in trying desperately to figure out how I can do my OWN work, instead of constantly trying to respond to the needs of others, I've been thinking a lot about nourishing creativity and what it really takes.

In the process, I've been trying to unmask the hidden prototypes and world-view blinders that have shaped my thinking about it.

The easiest way for me to think about prototypes is to realize that in the U.S., when we are asked to think of the concept “bird.” Most of us who are of Euro-American background and who speak English as a first language will picture a robin in our mind's eye — it's our prototype for bird.

And our understanding of “birdness” is shaped by our unconscious assumption of a robin as its prototype, instead of a cockatoo, a heron, or an emu.

In thinking about nurturing creativity, I'm coming to believe that we often use a mechanical prototype for what is actually an organic process, and that an ecological or agricultural metaphor might be more helpful.

Instead of talking about a laboratory for experimentation, as if we were mad scientists, we might think of a garden for growing seeds.
Instead of thinking we are machines that can respond with the same speed as our email and faxes, perhaps we could understand ourselves as human, requiring a nine-month gestation period — for at least some kinds of birth.

And instead of expecting uniformity of production, perhaps we could think of diversity of creation.

So, for example, the easy answer for nurturing creativity is,
well, we just need more time or more space or more money — as if these were objects or products or chemicals we could just add in and stir for the winning cocktail of successful creativity.

But for me, a more helpful response is thinking about what we DO with these things, what our relationships and interactions are — with a diversity of possibilities.

Because sometimes when we have more time, we use it to catch up or we stuff it with more things to do — instead of using it as creative time or really nourishing our creativity.

Also vital — going back to an eco-agricultural model — is how we honor the importance of the dormant time,
the darkness before the light, the winter before the spring, the invisible time of germination.

Particularly important is how we honor our own need for rest and rejuvenation to ensure growth.

I recently learned about the invention of zero and its importance in the development of mathematics.

It's as if we in the dance presenting and funding world haven't yet discovered the importance of zero time, and yet we are asking our artists and ourselves to produce, produce, produce.


In the best of all worlds, festivals and creative residencies can provide Rip Van Winkle grants to artists.

Festivals and creative residencies can provide an environment...
that nurtures the art of creation,
that provides rest and relaxation,
that invigorates rejuvenation,
that provides “away from home retreat time” — in the words of dance administrator Bob Fogelgren.

The best of festivals can provide a zero experience, a gap, a liminal time out of time, a space for breathing instead of hyperventilating, an interruption-free zone, a safe haven away from the distraction of questions, phone calls, and emails that nibble at our ability to concentrate, like hungry piranha waiting to be fed.

At their best, festivals also provide healthy, functional ecosystems with all the sun, warmth, soil, and water needed for a fertile environment to allow seeds to germinate and grow.

It's important to recognize, though, that the creative process is a process — there are many steps along the way.

Mechanical, cookie-cutter approaches may not be as helpful as agricultural responses, where you can appreciate that water is not always good — it's terrific for a field in drought, but not for one in a monsoon.

For seeds, sprouts, tiny plants, nearly mature ones... different things are needed at different times for different types of plants, in different micro-climates, different altitudes, et cetera.

Each artist needs different things at each step of the way in making a new piece at each time of his or her life.

At the Colorado Dance Festival we try to ask —
what do you need?
because it just depends.

And we try to help however we can in spite of the fact that we so rarely can help with money.


So for example...

Some artists have needed studio space to rehearse new works.
We try to provide it whenever we can.

Some artists have wanted bodies to work with to try out new ideas.
So we have used our educational program as a place where artists can invent classes to experiment with using CDF students.

Some artists have wanted to develop training programs for a dance field.
Lynn Dally and Brenda Bufalino co-created, here, the first conservatory for tap dance ever held, bringing together an extraordinary range of classes and performing opportunities that became the basis for tap programs all over the country.

Some artists have wanted to travel, to be with specific communities that might provide inspiration for their creative ideas.
So we helped create tours throughout Colorado in Latino communities.

Some artists have needed theatrical space.
At home, Trisha Brown had paid time to work with her dancers in a studio, but she needed time in an empty theater to work with cavernous space instead of a loft studio, to work with curtains hung on either side of a stage, to have time to play with lighting and a fly loft.

So we gave her an empty theater to work in while she was here.

Some artists have wanted isolation, time to be completely alone.
We have provided a tiny cabin in the mountains with no electricity or running water but with a glorious view of the continental divide and the scent of pine trees — perfect for meditating, writing, walking, reflecting — for artists wanting to be on retreat.

Some artists have wanted stimulation, and for them rejuvenation has meant interaction.
Festivals can provide a nexus of relationship between different dancers and dance forms.

They are like instant dance capitals where all the support mechanisms are in place — students, critics, audiences, presenters, historians, funders — all there to assist dancers and dancing.

With their possibilities for intensive interaction, festivals can provide a release from isolation, a reaffirmation of identity, a place of empowerment.

And they give us a place for the rejuvenating transmission of stories.
We dance folk don't have the same resources or access to our history that other art forms do. We do not have the breadth of intellectual discourse found in the other arts.

You can see this by the number of books (not) in our libraries.

You can see this in the number of PhD programs offered in the country in music, visual arts, theater, film, and literature compared to the maybe three in dance.

We need each other to relay our histories, to deepen our philosophies. And festivals can provide the intensive opportunity to make that possible.

Some artists have wanted time with their friends or families.
We have provided housing for significant others, mothers, kids, friends — so artists can have personal time on tour.

Some artists have developed new kinds of residency activities.
Doug Varone developed the seeds for his workshops on “cultural mapping” — workshops that investigate questions of ancestry and ethnicity for all people including European Americans.


It is helpful, in thinking about the ways we nurture creativity, to expand the boundaries of the beginning and the end of the so-called creative act.
It starts long before we ever enter a studio and continues long after the rehearsal is over.

We need to enlarge our definition of the role and possibility of the artist and shift our inflection from “creating work” to “creating work.”
This can help us shift from product to process.

I also encourage shifting...from a mechanical model, where a machine is expected to keep running until it breaks, at which time it is either repaired or thrown out, to an eco-agricultural one, that recognizes the cyclical nature of creativity and the fact that it takes time, it doesn't just need time.

One of the ancient Chinese philosophers wrote about the foolish farmer who would go into his fields and pull on the carrot tops at night trying to make them grow faster.

One of our greatest challenges in the upcoming years is to provide for each other zero time for rest and rejuvenation however we need it,
and the patience to wait for things to grow in their own time, however long that is.

Marda Kirn founded the Colorado Dance Festival and was co-founder of the International Tap Association. Currently she is a graduate student in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Colorado, Boulder, studying the relationship among dance, spirituality, and the environment.