Every artist and teacher knows how incredibly important it is for new artists and students of art to be creating constantly. But what does that mean? Should choreography students create 20 full concert-length pieces a year? It’s hard to tell how efficiently students are learning when they create in this way — how much work are they putting in vs. how much are they actually learning? Working smart is just as important as working hard, and diving into creating concert-length pieces without first building a foundation is not working smart.
In dance, we often teach choreography by having students create pieces that are 5 to 10 minutes long. The students are given a concept to focus on, but they also have to focus on creating a full-length piece. Here’s what I’ve seen and experienced: an artist who isn’t ready to create a full-length piece won’t be able to truly learn from it because they won’t have the tools and skills necessary to accomplish the task. Instead of being able to learn from the challenges the project presents, I’ve seen students become overwhelmed by how much material they have to create and all of the different moving parts that go into a production-length piece. Instead of being able to ask the question, “how do I create a longer piece of dance than I usually do?” they will have to ask themselves, “how do I make an interesting, inspiring piece of dance, and how am I supposed to make it that long?”
Students need a foundation of skills and techniques before they tackle the larger pieces. The way to build this foundation is through working in small pieces, or bite-sized chunks. In these bite-sized chunks, students are able to really focus in on the skills and techniques they want to improve without getting overwhelmed by the size of the piece. I was introduced to this teaching style by Kari Margolis in the Margolis Method of Acting.1 As a student in her class, I saw first-hand how many barriers were removed when the focus was put on working in small pieces. The pressure of creating was gone because we were just working on skills, and the way to do that happened to be through creating something. After seeing how much pressure was removed from creating in this way, I knew that this way of teaching was something that was missing from dance and choreography.
It seems common sense to start by learning the foundation before building up to bigger pieces, but it is too easy to skip past that in the excitement of creating art. It is incredibly exciting for new artists to start creating, but it can also be scary. This is why creating in bite-sized chunks is so important for new artists. It takes the pressure off of creating something huge, and it allows artists to focus in on learning the techniques without being overwhelmed.
However, as you begin to work in bite-sized chunks, there is something very important to consider. In order for this process to be beneficial, artists must keep working on their chunks as if they could be performed in front of an audience – if they were just a little bit longer. Creating the short piece is the first step. Then, the artist must practice cultivating their ideas into pieces of art by adding on layers of specificity until their idea becomes a fully fleshed out short story. If you treat the piece like it’s just practice, it’ll get pushed to the sidelines. The point of this process is to learn the skills and techniques that you can use on all of your future pieces, so putting in the effort to make specific choices is integral to truly learning from the process.
Once new artists learn and understand the different skills and techniques they need, they can gain confidence in their own creative abilities. And eventually, they will have a strong enough grasp on the tools to create longer and longer pieces, until they create exactly what they want to create.