Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/
Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Rebecca Gose Enghauser, a professor of dance at the University of Georgia. We're going to talk about her experience as a choreographer and about the influence of Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process, a method of nurturing dialogue around works-in-progress. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Rebecca:
Rebecca Enghauser: When we're facilitating young artists, young dance creators, choreographers, we call it feedback. Feedback sessions. I think we call it critical response as well, if it's a formal process.
MC: What are the main benefits of a feedback session to someone who's leaning how to create choreography or dance?
RE: I think there are many benefits. I think, you know, the artist needs to spend time, of course, alone making work, processing things, unfolding into intuiting. But then there's a point where dialogue becomes important, and to try to engage dialogue as opposed to "here's what you're doing right, here's what you're doing wrong" feedback in the form of questioning or commenting on observations. Maybe we'll be talking about the various ways that takes place, but to initiate a dialogue both in the artist's own mind, a dialogue about maybe things the young choreographer hadn't thought about, new angles to strategies or new facets to what it is they've made and different ways of thinking, so that they're moving through and seeing different ways. So that's what I mean by the dialogue.
MC: So, what does a typical session look like?
RE: It seems that in other disciplines there may be a very codified or accepted, well-known set of steps that people go through and that's good so they know the terrain, and that becomes sort of transparent so that they can work.
RE: I feel like maybe there are different contexts for maybe professionals working among themselves, choreographers and peers, working informally and formally. But in the student and sort of teacher/mentor kind of situation, we, at least in my instructional experience, we have periodic times where we show the work and then usually show all the works, and then go student by student and share some general comments.
I'd say we follow the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process in a way, at least I like to because it keeps the focus from being on "OK, here's all this stuff that I have to dump on you now about this." It's again like the dialogue. So, "Here's some general observations" and then start with a question, "Why did you choose these particular movements or this particular way of moving these dancers around this trio," and narrow in on points and get their attention to places and then ask questions and then have them responding. And I really also like that Critical Response method because actually it starts with questions and observations and then the opinions come at the end and they come with an asking of permission to have this opinion, "Would you like to hear it, about your ending?"
MC: Talk about that a little more. I think that is a really interesting component of the process. So the person who's being reviewed gets to grant permission for an opinion?
RE: Yes, I think because, and people may interpret this in different ways, but I think it's because it's a work in progress. I'm interpreting these feedback sessions during the process. There's also the critique that happens when the work is made and it's done, it's up and it's out and then we go. But I think I'm more interested in the feedback sessions along the way. And so in that way the questioning, or the asking for permission rather, is more about, "You know, well, I just kind of finished that ending last night at rehearsal and it's very delicate. I'm not sure I like it, I'm not really ready to take critiques on that or opinions on that yet because it feels very vulnerable. And like, you know, I'm not ready to put that out there for anything." That's how I interpret that and I think that's fair to say, "I don't want to talk about that yet," or "I'm still working on this nugget and I want to try to figure it out for myself," because I think especially for students it's important the teacher, the teacher/student relationship - anything the teacher says, it's like a child whose mother says something maybe. You know that you may hate to hear it but you're going to listen to it. And in a teacher/student situation you're going to take that as, you know, an authority speaking to me, I need to take that in.
And a colleague, a peer of mine Larry Lavender has written a book on composition [Dancers Talking Dance: Critical Evaluation in the Choreography Class] and I took a session of his at a conference recently and he so impressed me because he so worked with everyone so equally and he was so into the dialogue. And he was not into anybody running the show. He was like trying to disappear in the room. And I see that he's modeling this in the session as he would do with his students. So, "What do you think?" You know, just nudging and moving and setting up an environment for sort of this work to emerge, without anybody dragging it through something, or painting it, touching on it and painting it a certain way and making you, you know, come in a particular direction based on someone's opinion. Because it's so easy to slip into opinions. "I think this ending didn't work for me," and I hear teachers saying that, you know. And he really values this autonomous creative thing: the process, the life of its own, and to honor the breaking of rules. And to sort of shed yourself from sort of the norms, that we fall into. Because art's about breaking those down. It's violent acts we want to make. It's not, you know, "follow the rules."
And it's also tricky with students. And I may be digressing a little bit, but it's tricky, these questions, opinions and permissions and stuff. These things really alight this idea that, are we teaching young choreographers to follow the rules of choreography and is that the set up here? How well did you, you know, do theme and variation? How well did you really do the symmetry on the stage? And all these rules of dance, right? You know? OK, so you have to teach them that but how are we going to foster the artist part that needs to write write the rules, and question them and tear them down and deconstruct them. And so, I think partially permission is like saying, "I'm holding this space right now, and if I want to break these rules, I'm a little bit, you know delicate about this right now so I don't want to start maybe putting any parameters around what I'm sort of birthing right here," and I think it honors that. And I feel like I can only imagine Liz Lerman had, sort of, these things in mind about sort of trying to get away from some of those structures of the artistic process, trying to value that.
MC: Yes, I met Larry (Lavender) last year and he told me about one technique that you use where you write a letter as if it were written by the piece you were working on to its maker?
RE: Yes. I think we did that session except we talked to it.
MC: Oh, OK.
RE: Or we "were" the piece, and you were asking questions.
MC: I love that idea.
RE: Again, it so empowers the piece! And it's like, you've got to get out of the way of this. You know, so the feedback is all about, like, the work in the middle and not the people, and what they have to say about it. But it uncovered a lot of things, it still did. And it's not about answers, it's deeper questions and that helps.
MC: And relationships.
RE: And relationships, yeah, I would agree.
MC: So in your opinion, what makes for a successful feedback session?
RE: Well my first thought was unveiling something not known before you walked in there. Whether it was, "Oh, well I liked this," the value aspects of things, "I didn't like this, I realize now that this does not work, I realize now that this is being perceived in ways that I had no idea," which is always the case. So you're always going to have those kinds of uncoverings. But yeah, I mean if we went in we all went, "Yeah I thought that, too." "You think this?" "Yeah." "I thought this was true, and you thought this was true." You know? And we just didn't learn anything or uncover anything about it, we didn't strip it, turn it upside down and see anything, gee. That would be really unsuccessful.
MC: Sounds like part of that is almost a proof of concept. You have this idea or something and now you're going to try it out and see if it worked?
RE: See if it works, yeah. You know almost, sometimes if you could show the work, and just the showing of it, and in dance how it takes place in time and space, performing, then you kind of know so much already, just the people witnessing it. It's an odd thing.
MC: I wanted to ask you about that actually, because dance is such a kind of embodied process, a physical process, that doesn't involve text or speech -
MC: Doesn't necessarily involve text or speech - and I'm wondering if in these kind of feedback sessions, is it all kind of conversational? Or does it shift into movement sometimes? You know what I mean?
RE: The Liz Lerman process again, there's a section that is a stage of it where you can re-work something, go to the dance, try something. You know, re-work, reconsider, re-see, fiddle with things I think, and see based on that what comes up. So there is that possibility, you know, which you don't have in, well I guess in a workshop of poetry, "let's rewrite this line." But you know, you can't go to it and look at it again because it disappeared. You don't have it on your desk to look at, it's gone. So you know, "Hmm let's look at that again. Oh we have new information, now let's look at that ending." Or, "You have an alternative ending that you'd like to throw at us? OK, let's look at that. Or let's look at what if we took, what if we took these three and we moved them up left and we moved the soloist down right?" That is just, so much fun to try and play the "what if." So yeah we would, given the luxury of time, that would be something we would do.
MC: And can you describe some of your first experiences?
RE: Yeah, I have one memory of creating a solo. And it was, for, you known, a festival that part of it was to have critiques, to have feedback sessions. And there were two well-known choreographers there, and you showed your work and you got written feedback. And so I'd been stewing on this work for a really long time and it was ready to show and it was done, and I received one written feedback [sheet] that scored it really high in the numerical sections and then made comments that said, "I really felt I intuitively knew what you were going for in this piece. I had personal resonance, I felt it was very successful, emotional yet abstract." Very positive comments like, "I would really like to see this again." You know, just really positive.
And then turned it over and the next choreographer's comments were, "This piece was -" you know, basically, "so unsuccessful. I couldn't understand. The movements didn't make sense, there was no logical flow in the piece and this needs more work." And that was a real ah-ha moment for me. As a young choreographer on my own. I sat with these and said, "Oh. I get it." You know, I didn't have the rigorous college experience that some, you know, undergraduates have in terms of my undergraduate pursuits so this was one of the, you know, learn it on the fly, on the street kind of hard lessons. No, but it was really good, "Oh, I get it. OK, so I need five more of these, or ten more of these, or none." So it changed the paradigm, really, for me. And so it was very humorous at the time to get these, like they saw two different pieces. I wish I could be more articulate about the things that they said but, just really that idea that I got it. And the other person, they didn't get it. Of course we know how this is in art but -
MC: And you thought, "I need more opinions?" That was the take-away?
RE: Well no, not the first take-away. I mean, I thought, "OK so it doesn't matter what anybody says, really. And I could take ten more and it would be really informative but I wouldn't have to sort of tally them up, you know. As a young person I thought "Oh, OK. I don't have to rely so much really on what one person says." I just kind of went, "It's me. I have to." It sort of reflected back to me, "I have to take this in." There's more onus on you as the artist to decide what you value and your reality is all you have, really. So you have these other ones really but what are you going to do with all that? You know, just sort of deflated all of that. Although that sort of "they're right, they're professional, I'm wrong, I'm young," you know, all of those kinds of relationships.
MC: Authoritative judgements.
RE: Yeah it just sort of, you know, took the air out of that, which is good.
MC: When you're working on your own work, or with students, is there a particular moment that you think where a feedback session is most beneficial?
RE: I would think that would depend on different situations. I mean in a typical process yeah, there's a pocket we found that we like to have a workshop. We call it a compositional or a choreographic workshop in the beginning of the semester in this particular course that I teach. It's not a typical composition class, it's sort of a piece that they work on and we loosely guide them. If we met every week it'd be different. But I like the set up of having a workshop in the beginning. Let's throw some ideas out, let's shift your mind, let's sort of think about, you know, pulling them from their youth experiences of studio dance. So give them some tools, give them some framework about how we'd like them to start thinking about art and relationships to the world, and then let them go. Let them flail, let them feel lost. We give them some structure, we give them some sort of "you can'ts."
You know, like music would give them the kind of student stuff, you know, "No melodies, you can't use that melody line." To get them away from comfy representational, you know, to get them to experiment. And so they freak out. And we let them freak out for a while and we pat them on the back as we go, "Go play, go work, go try to figure this out." And so then I think after about, I don't know, they've got a piece on its legs, you know, they've got some kind of structure, they know where they want to go, they've got something going on. Somewhere in that middle point you can have a feedback session that'd be effective. There's still enough time and enough room and enough openness to what they want to do to allow the thought about making changes and chucking it all and starting over, but not so far in the process that they feel like, "Oh, well now I have to make a new work if we're going to-" because it's always revision right? I mean it's about process. So we hope that they'll be rethinking and tweaking and things, so yeah.
MC: Or you could actually have the opportunity to apply some of this.
RE: To apply somethings. Yeah.
MC: Those new ideas.
RE: And there's always a time at the end, I guess, too, in the final work and a different type of feedback session, I guess the summative thing would take place there. Or does take place. "What would you do next time?" You know, we have interviews with our seniors after they've done their senior exit pieces. And we do that to evaluate how articulate they can be about their process and things like that. But then we say, "What would you do next time? What would you do if you had no limitations? Or budget?" You know, just sort of dreaming a little bit. And, "What would you do again if you could, sort of, have the chance to do it again?"
MC: Now, you've had some experience working on interdisciplinary projects, and I was wondering if you have any reflections on that process and developing work with people from other backgrounds?
RE: Yeah. I can say that that's been some of the richest processes I've been in, been involved in. When people have their own language and they have to not only translate the language to make one work, from different disciplines but also to, you know, interact and give feedback along the way to each other as to how this is communicating meaning, you know. So that dialogue has been so informative. It makes you think more broadly about what you're doing, and it makes you think in different - almost like trying to think in French or something, or try to you know, think in different or broader terms, translations of media. And then hearing conversations, comments from your collaborators about how they see your work. So how a lighting designer sees your dance in space and time and comments about that. So I invite all of that interaction, the feedback. Not only sticking with the content of your own work, but sort of really meshing that.
And I'm so interested in how when you harness a concept how someone else interprets that. And it is, what is that called? A loop. A loop that feeds them, feeds you back again, and then you go back in and you go, "Oh. I see." So I think it's the most rich of processess for feeding my own work and seeing the dance as not just "the dance." And the dance craft, the movements and the dancers. I'm working on something now for spring and we're working on set pieces we've changed them five different times. But we kind of started with the whole theatrical idea rather than "I'm going to go in the studio and noodle around and start with the movements or just music." We started big, and then working in. So it's been really scary. But also really opening.
MC: Well, what's scary about it?
RE: Oh, scary not in the sense of collaborating with others or control issues or anything like that. It's scary like this is bigger than just this. It's like moving a huge family, you know. Like across rough terrain or something. It's unwieldily because there's all these parts. I don't know. I guess it's scary because it feels even more blind because you know your own, the dancing and the movements and you know that landscape. But incorporating others, there's a lot of factors, a lot of possibilities. But then how to stay clear with more variables.
MC: What advice would you give someone who's about to receive feedback?
RE: Dismiss the ego. Dismiss your ego about it. Dismiss any grip that you have on this piece. You don't own it, you don't need to stand up for it. Just let it sit there. Don't mother it, don't hold it tight. Just let it sit there, you know, try to. I think we feel like it represents a form of us, and our worth or our whatever. There's value issues about it. So I would say just remind them that this is something that has a life of its own. We're going to contribute to poking at it and looking at it and put it on the table and sort of, yeah, examine it and see what we can see about it and that I think is the hardest thing when students, or any artist, not just students feel really personal about it. So let it just sit there. And let's look at it.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Tifany Lee and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on January 18, 2012
Transcription by Victoria Weaver