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Rituals of beginning

On creative DNA

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

On Tuesday we were talking about the interplay between finding creative inspiration in others' work and learning to develop a voice or style uniquely our own. Here's choreographer Twyla Tharp's take on the subject, from her useful book The Creative Habit:

"In my early years in New York City, I studied with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Merce had a corner studio on the second floor at 14th Street and 8th Avenue, with windows on two sides. During breaks in classes, I watched a lot of traffic out of those windows, and I observed that the traffic patterns were just like Merce's dances -- both appear random and chaotic, but they're not. It occurred to me that Merce often looked out of those windows, too. I'm sure the street pattern was consoling to him, reinforcing his discordant view of the world. His dances are all about chaos, and dysfunction. That's his creative DNA. He's very comfortable with chaos and plays with it in all his work. My hunch is that he came to chaos before he came to that studio, but I can't help wondering if maybe he selected the place because of the chaos outside the windows. 

"Of course, when I looked out those windows, I didn't see the patterns that Merce did, and I certainly didn't find solace in their discordance. I didn't 'get it' the way he did. I wasn't hard-wired that way. It wasn't part of my creative DNA.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses. They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them. I'm not Watson and Crick; I can't prove this. But perhaps you also suspect it when you try to understand why you're a photographer, not a writer, or why you always insert a happy ending into your story, or why all your canvases gather the most interesting material at the edges, not the center. In many ways, that's why art historians and literature professors and critics of all kinds have jobs: to pinpoint the artist's DNA and explain to the rest of us whether the artist is being true to it in his or her work. I call it DNA; you may think of it as your creative hard-wiring or personality.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"When I apply a critic's temperament to myself, to see if I'm being true to my DNA, I often think in terms of focal length, like that of a camera lens. All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm's length, or in close-up. We don't consciously make that choice. Our DNA does, and we generally don't waver from it. Rare is the painter who is equally adept at miniatures and epic series, or the writer who is at home in both sprawling historical sagas and minimalistic short stories.

"The photographer Ansel Adams, whose black-and-white panoramas of the unspoiled American West became the established notion of how to 'see' nature (and, no small feat, helped spawn the environmental movement in the United States), is an example of an artist who was compelled to view the world from a great distance. He found solace in lugging his heavy camera equipment on long treks into the wilderness or to a mountaintop so he could have the widest view of land and sky. Earth and heaven in their most expansive form was how Adams saw the world. It was his signature, and expression of his creative temperature. It was his DNA.

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

"Focal length doesn't only apply to photographers. It applies to any artist. The choreographer Jerome Robbins, whom I have worked with and admire, tended to see the world from a middle distance. The sweeping vision was not for him. Robbin's point of view was right there on the stage. Others besides me have noted how often Robbins had his dancers watch someone else dance. Think of his very first ballet, Fancy Free. Boys watch girls. Girls then watch boys. And upstage, the bartender watches everything as if he were Robbins' surrogate. His is the point of view from which the ballet's story is told. Robbins is both observing and observed, safely, at a middle distance.

"It helps to know that Robbins grew up wanting to be a puppeteer, and I think this way of seeing the world -- controlling events from behind the scenes or above, but not so distant that you cannot maintain contact with the action on stage -- pervades almost everything he created. I doubt it was something he chose consciously, but in terms of creative DNA, it was a dominant strand in his work. Check out the film of West Side Story, which Robbins choreographed and co-directed. The story line is famously adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet -- in other words, it's not his own. Yet even with a borrowed plot, you still see Robbins' impulses coming to the fore, imprinting themselves on the drama and the dancing. Nearly every group scene involves performers being observed. Jets watch Sharks, Sharks watch Jets, girls watch boys, boys watch girls. This is not how Shakespeare did it. But it is Robbins' world view.

Ballet Dancers by Laura Knight

"Other artists see the world as if it is one inch from their nose. The novelist Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe books like Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are classics of American hardboiled detective fiction, was obsessed with detail. He works in extreme close-up, a succession of tight shots that practically put us inside the characters' skulls. The plots of his stories are often incomprehensible -- he believed that the only way to keep the reader from knowing whodunit was not to know yourself -- but his eye for descriptive detail was razor-sharp. Here is the opening of his first full-length novel, The Big Sleep:

'It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. It was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.'

"Chandler kept lists of observed details from his life and from the people he knew: a necktie file, a shirt file, a list of overheard slang expressions, as well as character names, titles and one-liners he intended to use sometime in the future. He wrote on half-sheets of paper, just twelve to fifteen lines per page, with a self-imposed quota that each sheet must contain what he called 'a little bit of magic.' The 'life' in his stories was in the details, whether his hero Marlowe was idling in his office or in the middle of a brutal confrontation. No long-distance musing the the state of the world. No middle-distance group shots. Just a steady stream of details, piling one one on top of the other, until a character or scene takes shape and a vivid picture emerges. Up close was Chandler's focal length. If some people like to wander through an art museum standing back from the paintings, taking in the effect the artist was trying to achieve, while others need a closer look because they're interested in the details, then Chandler was the kind of museum-goer who pressed his nose up to the canvas to see how the artist applied his strokes. Obviously, all of us look at paintings from each of these vantage points, but we focus best at some specific length along the spectrum. 

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

"I don't mean to get too caught up in observational focal length. It's one facet out of many that makes up an artist's creative identity. Yet once you see it, you begin to notice how it defines all the artists you admire. The sweeping themes of Mahler's symphonies are the work of a composer with wide vision. He sees grand architecture from a distance. Contrast that with a miniaturist like Satie, whose delicate compositions reveal a man in love with detail. (It's only the giants like Bach, Cézanne, and Shakespeare who could work in many focal lengths.)

"But that's the point. Each of us is hard-wired a certain way. And that hard-wiring insinuates itself into our work. That's not a bad thing. Actually, it's what the world expects from you. We want our artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations, and surprise us. If you are by nature a loner, a crusader, a jester, a romantic, a melancholic, or any one of a dozen personalities, that quality will shine through your work....A little self-knowledge goes a long way. If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the 'story' you're trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts) and how you see the world and your function in it."

Ballet Dancer by Laura Knight

The imagery today is by the great British artist Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), whose paintings and drawings of ballet dancers, in my opinion, are up there with Degas' dancers in atmosphere and beauty, capturing the aesthetics of her generation.

Born to an impoverished family in Derbyshire, Knight attended the Nottingham School of Art on a scholarship, and went on to become one of the most celebrated painters of her day. With her husband, Harold Knight (a landscape painter and portraitist), she lived in a succession of rural art colonies in Yorkshire, the Netherlands, and Cornwall, gradually moving from realism to a more Impressionist style. At school, she'd been forbidden to attend classes that used nude models (women students were given plaster casts to draw instead), and she insisted on drawing from life thereafter -- which caused consternation in some quarters but never dissuaded her from working as she saw fit.

Knight had a keen interest in lives lived on the margins -- gypsies, circus folk, and other wanderers -- and she traveled across the country with small circus troupes, living and painting in all kinds of conditions. This proved good preparation for her subsequent role as an official War Artist during World War II, documenting daily life on the war's home front and paying particular attention to the role of women in the war effort. Afterwards, she traveled to Germany to paint the Nuremberg war crime trials, then returned to her beloved dance and theatre subjects in the post-war years.

In 1967, Knight wrote to a friend: 

"I had what has been called my 90th birthday a week or so ago. It's a bit shattering to suddenly become an antiquity. I don't believe I'm really as old as that, but everyone assures me that it is true. All the same I don't believe them. I'm not going to fall into a decline and I cannot give up hard work or the enjoyment of life itself."

She died two years later, creating art and exhibiting art right up to the very end.

Self-portrait by Laura Knight

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2003); all rights reserved by the author. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (April, 2008); all rights reserved by the poet and translator.

Pictures: Backstage paintings of the Ballets Russes during their London seasons by Dame Laura Knight. The final image is a self-portrait, painted by the artist in 1913.

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