paradoxes for students

I spent a couple of hours in a choreography class with first year undergraduate dance students at Coventry University last week. Here are the notes I sent to the group after the session. Perhaps of interest?

  1. Ideas. It’s the quantity of ideas, not the quality of ideas. Ideas have no value. They are neither good nor bad. The trick here is just to begin with your work/practice/writing/making and feed in more and more ideas. These, in turn, generate more ideas. Ideas are self-generating. See Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come From. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Imagination. What do you need to stimulate and nourish your imaginations? Films, books, conversations, music, observations, listening, seeing. What do you focus on and what do you notice in your periphery? See Casey, E. S. (2000). Imagining. Indiana University Press.
  3. Commitment and care. A key paradox (at University and perhaps even in life) is to be fully committed without caring too much. Commit. Don’t care. Of course I don’t mean don’t care because being committed is a sign of caring for something. It’s more like focus on the process of commitment, and don’t care about the outcome. This is hard at University because in the UK children are told from age 6 that you have to do certain things – and give certain answers – in order to succeed. This is a terrible lie that is sold to the young people of this country. The deepest challenge you will face at University is coming to terms with the opportunity provided in your classes to explore your ideas, imaginations and spirits with freedom and courage. If you succumb to the desire to get good marks you will miss an extraordinary opportunity to explore what you are capable of, what you are interested in, and just how committed you are prepared to be (the paradox is this will mean you are more likely to get good marks). The strange thing about commitment is that – like ideas – it feeds itself. We get better at being committed by practising being committed. See Ken Robinson TED talk: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY (you’ve probably already seen it)
  4. Text and iteration. This session was not about manipulating text. It was using text as materials in order to understand the principle of iteration. Change the word text for movement and this should be clear. See Kelley, T. (2007). The Art of Innovation. Crown Business.
  5. Liveness. What is alive in what you are making? (Maybe it’s just a little bit). How do you know if something is alive? I don’t know the answer to this question (because in part it’s about taste). One answer could be: You will just know. Don’t kid yourselves when it isn’t alive. Don’t pretend it is. It’s hard to bring back something from the dead. Better to keep feeding and nourishing new versions (or iterations).
  6. Swearing. Don’t ever ever swear. Fuck yeah.

students

I’ve been working and teaching at Roehampton Dance in Southwest London since September 2009. Today was my last day on the job.

One of the great pleasures of my time at Roehampton was working with undergraduate and postgraduate students in various ways, but mostly to do with choreographic practice.

I’d like to thank each of the students I’ve worked with (whether in depth or just fleetingly). In various ways you’ve been committed, stubborn, difficult, caring, frantic, desperate, curious, independent, powerful, strong and fragile. I’ve loved the challenge, and have been provoked by your questions and practices. I have no doubt that you’ve each made me a more capable practitioner. I hope, in return, that I’ve served you usefully in some small way.

So thank you. You rock.

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phd proposal

In 1999 I applied to do a PhD at the University of Melbourne (through the Victorian College of the Arts). I was required to write a 100 word proposal that would be submitted along with references, an application form and academic records.

Here is the entire proposal. It is pretty vague, but it does reveal a sense of my curiosity about memory and remembering in relation to choreography.

The research will investigate the relationship between memory and meaning in the making, presenting and viewing of dance works. These concepts will be examined in the process of creation in the studio, in the presentation of completed works, and by written thesis. The folio of choreographic work will be utilised to illuminate the nature and role of memory in the choreographic process. A further concern is to look at the dynamic relationship between personal and cultural aspects of memory and their influence on the choreographic process, the completed works, participating dancers and audiences. A qualitative methodology will be employed to collect and analyse data from multiple sources, including video documentation of choreographic work, interviews with participating artists, and written field notes.

Anyone who has been asked to write a PhD proposal in the last 10 or so years will be shocked at the brevity and simplicity of this writing. Potential students are now asked to jump through increasingly ludicrous hoops in order to determine the quality of their projects (projects that have not yet begun). It is as if we imagine there is some kind of direct line between a detailed and long proposal and a high quality research project [1].

I would like to imagine that there is a way of stepping back from the absurd demands that are placed on students so that they are given the space to understand their work, for the research projects to emerge without constant monitoring, and for a proposal to be just that: a proposal, a beginning, and a description of curiosity.


  1. I can tell you from experience that this is simply not the case.  ↩

ethical teaching

… it is teaching that is powerful, not teachers; the miracle comes from what teachers and students do together. Teachers who try to change students are imposing themselves on students, thus limiting students to what the teachers can themselves imagine. Ethical teaching … is about opening up students, ensuring they do their best of educing—drawing out—students must find their own ways. Teachers can accompany them but not do the learning or the living on their behalf.

– Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game. 2007. Teachers Who Change Lives. Melbourne Univ. Publishing, p.9

supervision and the loop

One of the great pleasures and privileges of my job is to work with postgraduate – Masters and PhD – students who are interested in the possibilities and limitations of choreography. Each student brings diverse curiosities, backgrounds, (un)certainties, training and tastes such that my job, at least in part, is often to figure out how best to adapt to their way of working and thinking.

I attempt to make this adaptation by understanding which are the right questions to ask the students, or – better still – to create the space for the students to be able to ask themselves the best/most challenging/most surprising questions. Like all teaching situations, I understand this to be a process of making myself increasingly redundant. What might I add to this student’s development so that I am no longer needed (or even just thought to be needed)?

My expertise in the supervision of students is in different areas and mostly these overlap considerably with my own professional choreographic practice. This includes practice-as-research – and how it might be adapted to support and challenge artistic practices, screendance and other mediated technologies, collaborative practices, improvisation (and related concerns for presence, attention and awareness), and dramaturgy.

Underpinning these specialty areas is how we – the student and I – can together understand decision-making in creative processes, aesthetic, conceptual and practice-oriented assumptions, and how the idea and practice of artistic research might help test, sustain, extend and communicate the nature and understanding of choreographic practice.

Most of all, the work I do – as a supervisor and artist – circulates around fundamental experiences of genuinely not knowing what is happening. I understand that the loop – from attempting to ask the most appropriate/useful questions at any given time to being comfortable with not knowing – is the key common feature of artistic and scholarly work.

just one shortcut

This is not a tech blog (in the slightest) but this week I’ve ended up for one reason or another watching friends, colleagues and students operating computers. It was slow going.

If there’s just one keyboard shortcut worth learning and using it is alt-tab. On Mac computers this is cmd-tab.

It allows you to quickly change which application you are working on, and then back again.

If you have more than one application open (very likely), just hold down the alt key, and press the tab key repeatedly until you select the application you want to switch to.

It looks like this in action:

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Yay for shortcuts.

caring about education

I care about education. I care about the people involved – students, teachers and administrators – and their thinking, curiosity and commitment. I care that places of learning might exist so that human beings can test and challenge the way we see and experience the world; so that we might not make any assumptions about phenomena or evidence or opinions. I also care – indeed it makes me angry – that higher education is being denatured and dismantled:

Nowadays, it would seem that we are witnessing the strange death of the liberal university. Various commentators have noted how British universities, though still not-for-profit charities, are being hastily fashioned after private companies and the consequent narrowing of higher education’s raison d’être. The idea of the University as a place of civic education and critical enquiry has been put to a premature death by a raft of neo-capitalist political rationalities that promote inter alia divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality. Academics are bound by ever multiplying forms of spurious measurement, misleading quantification and performance management. Students, in turn, are treated more like consumers than they are citizens, increasingly defrauded with a candyfloss world of university branding and marketing gimmickry. Grant capture, consultancy, citations, impact, quality assurance, unique selling points, student surveys and league tables, have become the new deities that all shall worship.

– Michael Bailey
https://www.opendemocracy.net/michael-bailey/strange-death-of-liberal-university