Monday, March 2, 2009

New perspectives on creativity.

Mike Leigh is a British film maker who's won the best director award and the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. What’s unusual about Mr. Leigh, apart from his success, is the process he’s used for the past 30 years to create his films. Starting without a script or even much of a story line, he works one-on-one with his actors until they’ve invented the entire lives of the characters they’ll play. He then has them improvise scenes with other characters who have been similarly created. After many rehearsals, a final plot and a script take shape. Because Mr. Leigh wants his actors to know only what their characters would know in real life, he tells them little about the story. He creates situations that bring them together, but he wants them to be surprised. Frequently, the actors only understand the entire story when they see the edited film on the screen. At the end, questions are often left unanswered. ”I don’t make films that are prescriptive or conclusive,” Leigh says. “You don’t walk out of my films with a clear feeling about what’s right and wrong. They’re ambivalent. You walk away with work to do. My films are a sort of investigation. They ask questions; they’re reflecting.”

Pina Bausch, the artistic director of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater, a ballet company in Wuppertal, Germany, shifted in the 1970s from the traditional choreographic method to a more collective process where there’s no apparent format. Dancers now generate the raw material for her ballets in response to hundreds of questions and ideas she proposes. (“Spell Los Angeles with your body” “Do something leading with your elbow”). The performers’ responses are not improvisations per se but more like studies. While some dancers work spontaneously, others take their questions home overnight and spend quite some time on preparation and rehearsal. Bausch looks for material that belongs deeply and uniquely to each individual and dancers can take the stage to share their studies whenever they choose. “She wants us to be as sincere and simple as possible.” says Dominique Mercy, one of the dancers. Bausch doesn’t suggest or prescribe any particular steps or movements; the ballet material is generated completely by the performers.

In one of her productions, a ballet about Los Angeles, an extended residence in that city provided the company with its creative content. Arriving without an agenda, “to move around with open eyes, open ears and our feelings,” the whole company - dancers, designers, property master, technical director and general manager - visited restaurants, churches, clubs, tourist attractions, sports events and city landmarks. The subsequent production of Nur Du (the German translation of the Platter’s 1955 hit, Only You,) eventually involved transforming hundreds of hours of raw material into 170 scenes lasting about three-and-a-half hours. The sprawl of the production is overwhelming and the connections between its different scenes uneasy - a structural metaphor perhaps for the multicultural metropolis itself. The focus on Los Angeles shouldn’t be taken as literal or descriptive. The intent is to address the much larger issue of human relations. “Sometimes you have to look through a window,” Ms. Bausch says, “Los Angeles provided that window, a place to investigate the problem of how to be at home everywhere.”

The meaning, as in all Ms. Bausch’s works, remains open. And Nur Du remained a work in progress, as the dancers continued to develop their parts with each new performance.

A great deal of culture is created under extreme strain, when the need for meaning, for a new way to structure the world, is acute. In this context, artists often provide signposts to the future. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that if a painter relates to objects only through vision, his work is much less original that a painter who walks up to an object, smells it, throws it in the air and manipulates it. To push the envelope of complexity further, we have to use as many ways of accessing information as possible - and not all of these are rational. Leigh and Bausch provide striking examples of a future where we’ll rely more and more on our collective instincts and intuition rather than on our individual rational intellects. The creative and the receptive are complimentary sides to the same process.

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