The Creative Process: Some Personal Reflections


 Watching "Toy Box" begin to come together has been an absolutely fascinating experience.  In a rehearsal room, I'm used to being the dancer or the choreographer, the creator or the created-upon.  These days, I'm more observer.  That's not to say, of course, that I don't ever participate, I do, but it's more tangentially than usual--I'll spot a lift, suggest a solution, annotate a score.  I'm not an active participant in the same way that I am when I'm choreographing or dancing.

But this kind of distance has really allowed me to see this project from many angles--perhaps more so than I could have as either dancer or choreographer.  Because Rebecca has assigned each of the students to create some of the choreographic material and vocabulary, the rehearsal room is always bustling with creative energy and insight that I get to watch happen.  I'm beginning to see how the lizard dance will morph into the ballerina dance into the policeman dance.  

I've also had the pleasure of playing with the score. My copy is marked up with numbers and writing: Pilar's annotations about past productions, notes on Prof. Morrison's lectures about the musical games in the score, my notes about how the page numbers correspond to seconds on a CD, Rebecca's notes about what phrase will fit in where and how her narrative arc relates to the music. It's become a sort of archive of all the different influences and ideas that are coalescing into this new creative work.

A 25 minute improvisation on Wednesday provided the impetus for a lot of new material today and I'm so excited to see what the dancers and Rebecca will do with it all.   This project is definitely beginning to come together and I'll keep all of you out there posted on its progress!


I understand Toy Box was staged by Madame Mariquita for the Theatre Vaudeville in 1919 and choreographed by Jean Borlin for Ballets Suédois in 1920. It would be interesting to know how the new choreography responds to or reflects these earlier versions. You mention that Rebecca's narrative arc relates to the music. Can you share her narrative arc and how it relates to the earlier choreographies? Is it similar, does it diverge, are elements retained? What influences the narrative and makes it contemporary? How are those influences similar and how are they different from those in France in the early 1920s? Why is it interesting or important to view the narrative from a contemporary viewpoint? What is lost and what gained?

Great questions!
Thank you! I will post answers (or more questions) soon. I may have to answer one at a time! Here is a start:
There have been many staging’s of Debussy’s Toy Box, some we know more about than others, but it was clear to me early in the process that the lack of documentation would shift this project out of the realm of recreation and towards an original choreography. There were several productions between 1920-1925, (student Pilar Castro-Kiltz is writing her departmental thesis on the history of these productions) but none have substantial choreographic notes, recordings about the creative process, or drawings of any specific steps to gather a sense of style, action, or gesture.
It was necessary for me to focus on the inspiration of the materials, the artistic goals, the impulse to create this work, and at the heart of the work was a desire to make a dance for children. From here I imagined creating a play space with the students where they could be transformed and engrossed in a sense of discovery.

The narrative written by Hellé was not a nuance or fully fleshed out story the way a good play is, with subtext, multiple layers, and driving plot. Before deciding what to do with the narrative itself, I sat down with Simon Morrison and listened to the score over and over. As he described the piece, articulating each of the quotes within the score, I found it had the attention span of a child, extremely focused for short periods of time and able to switch play things quickly. This pastiche, patchwork aspect of the score became a more inspiring starting place for me than the narrative, I wanted to go to the dancers and designers with a question. What would a play space be? Who would be there? What would happen when they were there?...

What makes it contemporary?
The students themselves. Their bodies move in ways unseen, unknowable in 1920s, from the change in attire, the women’s movement, the evolution of dance performance and training, these students presence infuses the work within the time it lives. I looked to the toys that are common cultural artifacts, and images/ideas/movements that have become part of my students' cultural language. I set the cast into clusters of characters: we have the dolls, the lizards/gorillas, the police, the toys. These separations have basis in the Hellé narrative, but then move to incorporate broader constructs of similar frames. The police draw movement inspiration from sources as varied as Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, Laurel and Hardy's The Passenger, Charlie Chaplin's Table Ballet, Toy Soldiers, Conductors etc. Because these movement ideas are part of a larger cultural knowledge the work becomes contemporary in its drawing from a pool of influences that span decades. Similar to how Debussy in the score arranges his play things, the quotes from himself and other composers because the content of his play.
The choreography is also greatly influenced by the costume and set design. We agreed early on that we were interested in working with the archetypes of toys, play and wanted to have the ability to allow the toys to be the costumes and vice versa. Drawing inspiration from Oscar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet from 1927, where balls, rings, bells, were used to transform the body, images from children's books both old and contemporary ( from the Helle to Ezra Jack Keat's Snowy Day), and children toys (primary colors of blocks, tubes, rings), Anita designed creations that we could remove and rebuild in multiple ways.
Once we had the costume/toy pieces we began the choreographic process again, adjusting, developing changing to take full advantage of our newest possibilities.
The set is also greatly influence by the need to house the orchestra and to create a single vision for an eclectic evening. I will leave the rest to surprise...

What is gained is the coming together of Anita, Roberto, the dancers, the orchestra, and creating something new. What is lost? ... hard to know....the past, but with dance it almost always is!

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