The Inalienable Right To Be Untalented

Busy into the evening tonight so I thought these brief thoughts from New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, shared by Isaac Butler might be a good subject to ponder.

This resonates with the whole Pro-Am (Professional Amateurs) conversation from the early 2000 as well as the concept that everyone has the capacity to be creative.   There has always been a tension between the idea that insiders are gatekeeping the definition of who is an artist/creative and the concept that one should be investing time and energy into honing their abilities if they sincerely want to cultivate their creativity.

Kael notes that the untrained/no-talent has a capacity to verge off in interesting directions while having the freedom of producing something perfectly awful. The two states are not mutually exclusive since the germ of something interesting and inspired can be hidden amid the dross.

Muscle Memory In Dancing And Coding

While it has only been about six months since I shared a story about the Philadelphia based project DanceLogic which teaches girls to code through choreography, I saw another piece recently on the Dance Magazine site and wanted to call attention again because it is such a great connector of art and STEM.  There have been so many efforts to create a bridge between art and science that feel crammed together, but the way this program is structured makes the melding feel near effortless. (Though I don’t doubt there was as much perspiration as inspiration involved with the developing a successful process even before they started dancing.)

I would encourage reading my previous post based on a Chalkbeat article because it discusses mentorship and leadership outcomes from the program.  Dance Magazine has a bit more detail about the structure and process of the program.

During one of our recent classes, the girls were assigned to create a dance based off their knowledge and progress of the coding techniques. The coding suggestions were written on the board, and then we assembled the codes into actual choreography.

An example would be “move forward, toggle switch,” and the choreography entailed this demonstration. The girls had the opportunity to perform their creative code dance number for their parents during our midterm presentation.

I especially appreciated how they quoted DanceLogic co-founder Franklyn Athias about learning through failure and how developing muscle memory was important to both dancing and coding.

“Before long, the muscle memory kicks in and the student forgets how hard it was before. Coding is the same thing. Learning the syntax of coding is not a natural thing. Repetition is what makes you good at it. After learning the first programming language, the students can learn other programming languages because it becomes much easier.”

Artistic Citizenship – Is It Valued, Who Will Teach It?

A couple months back, Arts Professional had an article by Jonathan Vaughan, Principal of Guildhall School of Music & Drama, asking if “artistic citizenship” could be taught.

Defining artistic citizenship, the academic David Elliott takes Aristotle’s concept of Praxis (‘to do’ or ‘to make’) and expands it to mean active reflection and action “dedicated to human well-being… the ethical care of others, and the positive empowerment and transformation of people and their everyday lives”.

Vaughan cites things like activism, critical thinking, disruption, civic responsibility, social value. Just as he comes around to mentioning a parallel with liberal arts education, I had a similar thought about liberal arts education having many of these same goals. The fact that I have been reading about the shrinking of liberal arts degree programs in colleges across the country made me question if these were qualities that were actually valued any more. There is certainly the ability to teach these skills, but does the will to instill these qualities still exist?

Vaughan asks an additional question about whether people would pursue an artistic curriculum focused on cultivating better citizenship over artistic excellence.

“Questions remain about how to include this training in an already busy, arguably overcrowded, curriculum. Where does it fit when the primary imperative of performance training must always be the production of outstanding performers who excel in their craft and artistry?

How can institutions avoid indoctrinating their students when introducing political or ideological concepts? Can the development of students’ independent critical thinking avoid that? And is the very concept of citizenship problematic or limiting to those it excludes?

To be clear, I don’t doubt for a moment that there are people who do want to acquire these skillsets in order to improve civil society. I just wonder if they will look to these institutions to provide this training as well as if the institutions, embroiled as they are in various levels of politics and internal inertia, would be prepared to provide the training students seek.

“The Slap Is Only One Syllable In A Long Story”

Interesting article on Slate today written by Patrick Vala-Haynes, who teaches stage combat to middle and high school age students. If you aren’t familiar with the practice, stage combat training is focused on creating the illusion of violence while ensuring the safety of the participants. For example, when someone is grabbed by the head and thrown across the room, the basic practice is that the person being thrown has primary control over the act, not the thrower.

Vala-Haynes notes that recently he has been asked to stop teaching the contact face slap because it may trigger students and make them feel uncomfortable. The subtext seems to be that the face slap is more likely to be part of a student’s lived experience versus other stage combat scenarios like choreographed sword fights, kicks, gut punches, Shakespearean suicides by poison and daggers.

Vala-Haynes notes that even after 35 years, he is occasionally taken by surprise by a perfectly executed slap delivered by his students so there is always an opportunity to be injured physically, mentally and emotionally during stage combat.

Throughout the article he goes into great detail about the value of learning stage combat. While he doesn’t mention professional wrestling, you can see parallels in his mention of how stage combatants need to be responsible for the welfare of each other as they bring a heightened sense of excitement to the storytelling.

I don’t know these young people’s families or backgrounds. I can’t know everything they bring to a scene. And quite frankly, I don’t want them to experience the violence; I work with them to project the intent of the movement, to act with proficiency and care, and to understand that telling a story involves elements of morality, of choice. I give them tools to which they can refer when emotions might overwhelm them and threaten their control.

At its best, stage violence is dialogue, both between actors and among actors and their audience. It can be mumbled and misunderstood just as words can. The actors’ comfort with what I’ve given them is paramount to their craft. A slap is craft. All of us in theater, no matter the level, search for those perfect moments that elevate a writer’s words to epiphany. The slap is only one syllable in a long story, but one we work to get right.