Thesis Blog #2

Directly from my notes while book shopping for thesis things:

  • cult of genius
  • loneliness
  • the desert
  • solitude and contemplation
  • madness and eccentricity
  • What defines genius?
  • What defines creativity?
  • How do we determine what is "creative"?
  • "authentic" or "original"?

Feedback from my thesis mentor:

  • I believe that creativity requires the capacity to tolerate ambiguity. 
  • For many that produces anxiety, for others exhilaration. 
  • I believe that capacity to tolerate such ambiguity firmly comes down on the side of mental health, not mental illness. 
  • For individuals who are suffering from mental/emotional challenges, and are involved in creative endeavors, I would say that healthy aspects of their psychological structures are allowing them to do so. From such endeavors they may experience self-cohesion, even if temporarily, from the creation of an external form that gives shape to subjective experience. 

Things are definitely starting to shift into a more "thesis" structure and thought process. I was interested in the 2003 study done by U of T and Harvard about the link between mental illness and creativity. I am now shifting outside of just that link and instead to defining the nebulous concept of mental illness and what can be considered an "illness". I have a lot of scattered thoughts that need addressing before I can fully come to a structured thesis for this project. I am listing the questions below for my own records:

  1. Poor mental health and mental illness are very very very different.
  2. I have severe and often debilitating anxiety; am I mentally ill?
  3. What is the threshold that qualifies mental illness?
  4. What does something require to be "artistry"?
  5. Art can be self-expressive but is self-expression always art?
  6. What is art, anyway?
  7. Who decides what art is?
  8. Who decides the broad aesthetics of what is art, what is considered artistic, what is genius, etc.?

I have included some definitions because at the base, all of these terms require examination and clear definitions before they can be used.

1.the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2.the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings: a museum of art; an art collection.
3.a field, genre, or category of art: Dance is an art.

1.any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis.

a mental disorder characterized by symptoms, such as delusions or hallucinations, that indicate impaired contact with reality

(E/N: isn't imagination an impaired contact with reality? or at least the ability to see reality as something different that what is?)

1.a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions; malady or dysfunction

1. malfunctioning

Thesis Blog #1

main idea: the biological basis for creativity and its relationship to mental illness/disorders, the cult of the (mad) genius, the solitary and slightly insane artist and its historical value as well as how we value creativity. 

Why "mental disorders"?

A bit more than a week ago I was in New York presenting my thesis idea to my cohort for feedback. As usual with my work, I was all over the place. When I start to research, I pull from tons of sources as I construct the web of different ideas and influences that will inform my argument. Often, I end up with absolute chaos - but as it turns out, I work quite well in chaos.

Currently, I am narrowing down what the core of my thesis will be. When I submitted my thesis proposal, I thought I was leaning towards working collaboratively with artists who have mental illnesses to create work. Since then, I have shifted more into working in the studio with the dancers with the idea of Kinesthetic Empathy. This has recently begun to present problems with my initial proposal and how non-specific I was with even the phrase "mental illness".

After reading some of Thomas Szasz's writings on mental illness, I started to question what I considered mental illness and why. I had originally chosen to focus on anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder but even those are too broad and unrelated. I think a better choice would be to shift into non-specific disorders and focus more on the manic/depressive cycles that include all three of those disorders. 

What constitutes a "mental disorder":

• A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning

• The condition leads to significant distress and/or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities of daily life

• The condition is not an expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or personal loss

• Socially deviant behavior (such as political, religious, or sexual) by itself is not a mental disorder; it can, however, be the symptom of a mental disorder, if it can be shown that the deviant behavior is a part of a clinical syndrome reflective of an underlying dysfunction of mental functioning

• The diagnosis of a mental disorder should have clinical utility; that is, it should assist psychiatrists in developing treatment plans and help them in the determination of expected treatment outcomes and prognoses (however, DSM-5 clarifies that the diagnosis of a mental disorder does not by itself indicate a need for treatment)

Current issues of mental illness/mental health in dance?

Artists for further study

  • Martha Graham (was she crazy?)
  • Nijinsky (definitely crazy)

Do bursts of creativity and artistic breakthroughs only occur in conjunction with dark moments?

In both the show Flesh and Bone and the movie Black Swan (two of the only popular culture references that include portrayals of professional dance and mental illness), the above is the case. The characters suffering from mental illnesses are able to perform their best and most "perfect" when they are most acutely suffering. Why does this "make sense"? There have been so many incredibly influential people in the arts who have suffered from severe mental illnesses - some to the point of suicide. Why is this the case? 


This is a lot to work through for today. Hopefully my next post will have a narrowed-down core thesis and my main argument. There is too much to read until then!

Interview: Lil Buck's Jookin' Jam Session

Written for VOICE Magazine on October 21, 2016.

Collaboration in the field of dance, especially with a talented musician, has the potential to connect with audiences in unexpected ways. A clear example in recent history is Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s viral video performance of “The Swan” with Yo-Yo Ma. The short clip, filmed on a cell phone camera by Spike Jonze, has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube. A further exploration of a freestyle originally performed by Lil Buck at New Ballet Ensemble and the first collaboration facilitated by Damian Woetzel, of New York City Ballet fame, has pushed Lil Buck into the spotlight - a place where he seems very comfortable.

Another performance in UCSB Arts & Lectures Dance Series at the Granada Theater, A Jookin’ Jam Session should be an evening showcasing Lil Buck’s “elegant ripple of movement and footwork, exuberant and seemingly gravity resistant” (The Wall Street Journal).

Woetzel has a keen interest in this type of collaborative work. “I am passionate about connecting different artists with different strengths. This mix [of Lil Buck and musicians from all over the world] — feels so right. The style of this performance is a blowout of the collaborative concept: a real jam session, where Lil Buck and the musicians can entirely be themselves.”

The musicians, Sandeep Das, Johnny Gandelsman, Cristina Pato, Wu Tong, Kate Davis, Eric Jacobsen and Grace Park will be playing a broad range of music for Lil Buck and Ron “Pryme Tyme” Myles to “interpret”. Each artist, regardless of their instrument, will be attributing to the larger conversation of sound and body. “The idea is that they all get to be themselves,” says Woetzel. “And then, at the same time, be saying, ‘yes, but what can we do together?’” 

Lil Buck, freshly coming off Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour, expressed excitement at the collaborative process thus far, “I am excited to collaborate: this whole thing is about the power of unity and collaboration, coming together as one to create something beautiful and to do it on levels that touch on different subjects that people understand.” This was most clear to him in the original collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma: “The interpretation of the Dying Swan to me felt like it was my last time performing. I was appreciating things that I usually take for granted, the flowers around me, the breeze… I had the utmost appreciation for everything around me.”

Woetzel says the relationship of this collaborative work with social media has not only skyrocketed Lil Bucks’ popularity but also given a platform to other artists to get their work out into the world. Woetzel’s endeavor to showcase music and dance from different cities and geographies has been aided by social media and the ability to connect with audiences all over the world. Not a replacement for live performance by any means, this new surge of excitement about forms of dance that do not often see the stage bring fresh life into the field of American dance.

As for Lil Buck, his story is not over yet; with even more projects in the works, he seems to just be hitting his stride. After recent performances with Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet and in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: OneLilBuck looks forward to even more of this kind of work in the future. “I believe that dance has the power to break down geographical and economic boundaries. It’s all about connecting with people.”

Review: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Written for VOICE Magazine on October 8, 2016.

As the first performance in Arts & Lectures’s dance series, celebrated contemporary ballet company Alonzo King LINES Ballet brought two works to the Granada Theater this past weekend for a program full of extraordinary virtuosity and thrilling physicality. Based in San Francisco, LINES Ballet has developed a reputation for innovative choreography that stretches the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

The first work, “Shostakovich,” opens with a selection from Shostakovich’s string quartets. The dancers move fluidly in and out time with the music, their long limbs moving in time with plucks on the strings and whirling rapidly through longer strokes. In this series of twists and turns, we see King’s innovative and liberating style of ballet that disassembles the standard vernacular and replaces ordinary transitions with waves that radiate through the whole body. 

The duets in this work are particularly thrilling, showcasing a great deal of flexibility and strength through lifted legs, arched torsos, and grand sweeps across the floor. In the wildness of these movements, however, are moments of captivating stillness and subtlety. A single horizontal line of light rises steadily higher as the dancers enter and exit in more duets and group work full of rippling arm movements that reverberate throughout the bodies of the dancers onstage. There are many well-placed moments of silence in this work and even more well-timed moments of harmony and discord as the dancers move in and out of tensile movements that beg for release.

The second work, “Sand”, is set to the work of Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran. A more playful piece than “Shostakovich,” this piece begins with the company facing the audience, moving slowly to one side of the stage and then the other, as one or two dancers arch suddenly backwards and then slowly right themselves. As the music accelerates and becomes more dynamic, we see the same virtuosic expression translated into longing reaches and battements of legs by the women and the men in the company barreling through space with many turns and leaps, possibly in an attempt to defy gravity.

Dancers dart in and out of sight from behind the lighted scrim as though they are remnants of a dream or vision, dancing with light and energetic feet. At the culmination of the work, there is a curious duet between a man and woman, full of caresses and carrying. It ends abruptly with a turning of the head and stillness, almost teasing the audience with an interpretation, creating a crowning moment of abstract expression to a full evening of beautiful movement.

VIM VIGOR: Someday You Will Understand

Written for VOICE Magazine on September 23, 2016.

VIM VIGOR is a contemporary dance-theater company dedicated to creating and performing original works by Shannon Gillen, elevating and nurturing the professional lives of young dance artists, and to cultivating public interest in the dance-theater art form. VIM VIGOR Dance Company members are: choreographer Shannon Gillen, Jason Cianciulli, Rebecca Diab (apprentice), Martin Durov, Laja Field, and Emma Whiteley.

After a successful stint in Europe both as a dancer and choreographer, Shannon Gillen returned to New York City in 2014 to found Vim Vigor Dance Company. Since then, Vim Vigor has become known for both its physically demanding and highly theatrical style - creating a level of contemporary dance-theater that combines “heroic physicality, electric emotional life and cinematic imagery” (VIM VIGOR). In residency at the Lobero Theater through DANCEworks for the past three weeks, Gillen and her dancers have been fully steeped in the creation process of the brand newFUTURE/PERFECT, a work centered inside a narrative of a camping trip that shifts dramatically to allow for a mix of reality and surreal spaces. Inside a work both more acrobatic and more theatrical than most physical theater, the characters in FUTURE/PERFECT confront the paradox of hope and doubt and wrestle with the age-old assurance, “Someday you are going to understand.”

This work in particular is inspired by camping trips and its psychological effects on different people. Gillen says, “Camping on the East Coast is often abreak from life while camping on the West Coast seems more like being available to the idea of receiving a sign from the universe… [or] being open to the signs around them or not.” In FUTURE/PERFECT, this idea expands into a colossal adventure through an extreme supernatural encounter and hallucinations by each character as they navigate the aftermath of the encounter. Set between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,FUTURE/PERFECT’s original soundscape evokes nostalgia for an earlier time with its pulsating synth and bass. One of the most remarkable things about Vim Vigor is that all of the collaborators - composer, lighting designer, and costume designer - have worked with Gillen through multiple seasons, allowing the entire creative team to come together as a “think tank” to keep potent the vision of the work. Every element of the performance meshes together to create an immersive experience around the choreography and physical theater. 

In building an entirely new work in just three weeks, many challenges can arise. To further evoke the setting of the campsite, the entirety of the Lobero stage is covered in mulch: this provided some challenges in traction for some of the more physical elements of the work. Additionally, Gillen says a work of this scale usually takes about three months to create which allows for more time to wrestle with both movement and ideas in the studio. Through this accelerated process inside the theater itself, creation of material and progression through the narrative take precedence. The company will later take this piece back to New York and pull it apart, taking time to look at it again from a different perspective and give feedback on what they created.

Talking to Shannon Gillen, you can feel the energy and passion she has not only for her craft but also in expanding the dance audience. In the process of merging acrobatic contemporary dance with a theater space, Gillen says, “This kind of work gives audience members access to a rare experience of not needing a certain level of cultural acumen to fall headfirst into a production… It comes back to the person and connecting with the audience, figuring out what works best for the audience to create powerful image.” Through creating strong imagery and a storyline that can instantly bring the audience to the edge of their seat, Vim Vigor’s FUTURE/PERFECT bridges the gap between the moving, breathing, human past with a much less tangible, other-worldly future.

Survival Mode - Outside Looking In

I have already been away from home for 54 days. In this time, I have felt myself changing. I threw myself into an entirely new way of life in the first five weeks in Virginia, for another three weeks in Germany, and will continue to do so in my two weeks of travels after my program ends.I feel that I have broken habits, have shifted my values, and view the world with a slightly softer lens.

When I left Santa Barbara on June 1, I was hurting. I had been running at full speed since 2011 and didn't know how to slow down. I was in survival mode: broke all the time, working too much, stretching myself too thin, eating and sleeping poorly, and trying to keep everyone happy and yet still alienating people. In the midst of this, I was not unhappy - I have amazing people in my life and have been blessed with work that is truly fulfilling - but I did have a lot of excess things in my life that I thought I loved but were slowly breaking me down. I made myself like things I didn't like, I made myself do things that weren't my passion, I said a lot of things I didn't mean, and none of it was done knowingly. That's what "survival mode" is like for me. I adopted a lifestyle full of anxiety and bitterness that lacked joy or fulfillment. I can only see that now.

I should have seen the warning signs. I certainly felt them but couldn't recognize them for what they were: social withdrawal, not being able to get out of bed, constant anxiety and pains in my chest, recurring illnesses that kept me from eating or sleeping enough, and intense guilt about taking any time off work because of the pain, anxiety, or sickness. Just trying to survive was causing me emotional and physical pain and draining me mentally and spiritually. The last two years have probably been the hardest of my whole life.

I have some anxiety about going back. Not about going back home: I can brave Santa Barbara, especially because I have had some new opportunities that will lighten my schedule and balance my workload. Not about school: I can brave my independent study project for graduate school because it's something I am passionate about and have given myself some reasonable limits and deadlines. Not even about failure: I am not afraid to fail, as I am aware that I constantly do so and often more spectacularly than most. I am afraid, mostly, of disconnecting from myself again and letting myself get dragged back down into "survival".

Being here in Germany has reminded me of who I naturally am and how I want to be.

I don't want to stop being excited. I get excited about details: the Frankfurt skyline in the morning, the smell of the rain, a piece of interesting graffiti, the look of the sun reflecting on the river, my 50 cent coffee and croissant each morning, carrying everything I need in just my backpack, silence... Survival mode dulled my senses and brought hyper-focus to the road ahead, it stiffened me so I could not notice the world around me.

I don't want to lose my compassion. That I love being with people, I love praying for them, I love talking to them about their lives, I love being honest with them and being sensitive and compassionate to their pain... Survival mode put me in a hyper-protective state where I could not open up and was easily bitter.

I don't want to go too fast. I like taking my time: walking a long distance with no music in my earbuds, no urgency to my steps, no reason to not take in my surroundings... Survival mode made me focus on the future and miss out on the present.

I don't want to stop trusting God. This has been the hardest. In my life and in my field, I have felt the need to push the timeline and plan that God has for me in what I am doing so it fit my ideas of what it looks like to be successful. I have damaged relationships with other people because of this and I have also greatly hurt myself. This has been a larger issue in my life but survival mode accentuated my natural doubt and caused me a great deal of unnecessary anxiety.

But I can do it. There is so much hope for this year, so many exciting opportunities, and so many people that I know will support me when I get back home. Finding balance will probably always be a struggle for me but having the opportunity to step back and reevaluate, like I have done these past eight weeks, will always be available. 

Just pray for me, okay? And maybe remind me every once in a while to chill.


Love always,

Dimly Lit and Deeply Felt: Maurya Kerr's "WW"

Below is a review written on Maurya Kerr's MFA Thesis performance on June 20, 2016.


Maurya Kerr’s new WW invites the viewer to witness a personal moment of weakness while hinting at a desperate desire to transcend the limits of the body. Kerr’s fragile presence and murky lighting hold the audience in a viselike grip while creating an environment that suggests at any second, the vision may disappear.

At first glance, her choice of costume intrigues me: stirrup tights and a loose tank complement her long, fluid limbs but call forth a place and time that seem far removed from this intimate theater. Her dark brown wig creates a curtain of separation, allowing Kerr to avert her eyes and hide her face from the audience. In dim lighting, time slows as she traverses the stage languidly, humming a soft tune to herself and reaching repeatedly in different directions. I begin to feel like an unwitting voyeur, rather than an invited guest, peering closely into this moment of internal conflict and pain. As she reaches, relevés, and rolls in quick succession, I sense her searching to escape her current circumstances. Inevitably, she spirals and stumbles back into the deep vortex of her own misery, bringing the audience with her.

Midway through the piece, Kerr joins the audience with a slow, agonizing crawl into a chair set slightly apart. The lights dim further as she settles her body into the chair and stares back at the empty stage, humming a soft tune to herself. Unable to shake the vast emptiness staring back at her, she sheds her clothing and returns to center of the stage, naked.

In removing her protective layer of fabric, Kerr bares body and soul to her audience. As unwitting spectators in an exercise of self-loathing, we watch a woman give up her quest for transcendence and liberation. She writhes on the floor like a wounded creature, moving in silence with her own pain.

The experience escalates as we watch her obsessive return to reaches and rolls. On occasion, we see her haunted gaze through the curtain-like strands of the brown-haired wig. In her most desperate moment, she beats her chest in an act of self-flagellation, and I flinch as I empathize with her remorse and despair. As the lights slowly fade, we are left with the sound of fists hitting flesh, wondering if her self-punishment will ever end.