Creative Cognition in Dance

(extract from Interview for Barry Jagoda)

What have you been observing? We have a highly programmed day while Wayne and the dancers have been here. While the dancers are warming up, I interview Wayne for an hour. The students arrive during this time. Each dancer has been assigned a team of at least two students and now that they know each other they say hello right after the warm up. Once the first session begins the students take detailed ethnographic notes on what they see their own dancer to be doing. If they ask a question of Wayne or Odette they write that down. If they stop and talk to a neighbor or interact with someone they write that down too. Our best ethnographers learned to take these notes studying primates in the San Diego zoo and Wild Animal park. The same thing happens in the second sessions after lunch. All the while we have our high definition video's running. We have 8 of them trained on the stage, though one is focused only on Wayne. These capture audio as well as video. We also have been using a long directional mike directed toward Wayne and whoever else might be speaking. We found that the music can be loud at times. Soon after the second session the students take the dancers off in two to a separate room where we have 4 more high definition cameras focused on a small dance floor with a black screen behind it. During the sessions we worked hard to write down the tasks so that during the interview the students ask the dancers to show us how they solved the tasks, what they were imagining and why they made the movement choices they did. We video these and will use this special data to help us make sense of the video's taken during the day's sessions. Simultaneously I interview Wayne again. Sometimes we also interview Odette, Wayne's choreographic assistant. Every week or so we have a longer session with the dancers and ask them to go over their notebooks, and perhaps parts of their professional background.

Do you get any results yet? The research has been delivering results from the first day, despite our initial belief that we would only be able to extract results over the next few months. One major area focuses on instructions: what sort of tasks does Wayne give the dancers. Which ones work and how? How does he work with the creative product of each dancer and modify it, morphing it in a direction that fits his larger conception? How does what he sees as an interim result help shape his evolving vision of the final product? How do individual dancers and the whole distributed system of dancers, Odette, and Wayne manage to remember so many complex forms of movements? How are the dancers used as things to think with? What is the nature of choreographic thinking? How does distributed problem solving work in this sort of domain? I believe we have learned something interesting in each of these areas already.

Are you finding anything of broader value? The discoveries we're making about these topics have general value beyond the domain of dance. For instance, instructions are of universal concern, whether they be instructions to workers in factories, instructions to home cooks presented in the form of recipes, IKEA type instructions for assembly, or classroom instructions in labs, exams and so on. Choreographers use more modalities than most people. They gesture continuously, they speak of course, they use musical or phonetic sounds "woooo-aahhh-ka-daaah". They even push and pull on bodies. There has been little study of how these different modalities figure in getting people to do the right thing.

Another thing we have been learning is how memory can be distributed across a team. The choreographer assigns names to exercises and dance phrases, but doesn't bother to memorize all the solutions and partial solutions the dancers produce. He requests their solutions in the future and then counts on them recalling them. It turns out that individual people have memory for different aspects of a phrase: one remembers its kinetics, another its emotionality or its dynamics, a third remembers precise details of where the fingers were placed on another body. The team as a whole recovers the phrase. And then there is the question of how this artistic product is supposed to be made sense of by an audience. This too is more general than dance, because it concerns how a creative effort in one field strives to be understandable to non-specialists.

Have you had an impact on the choreographer and the Dancers? In debrief we have learned that the choreographer believes we have substantially improved his delivery of instructions and challenged him to reinterpret the sense of his work. Because we have had dozens of hours discussing the nature, variety and role of imagery in instructions, he has become more precise in his instructions, and more open to protracted discussions on the meaning of those instructions with his dancers. They feel they can now ask him for deeper clarification or help on interpretation. He has begun distinguishing more modalities of imagery– body feeling, acoustic, emotional feeling, even gustatory. He now discusses the difference between the vividness and controllability of imagery, a classic distinction in the psychological literature.

What are your own research interests? My primary interest is to understand interactivity. We are more tightly coupled to our environments than previous psychological theory has acknowledged. Think how quickly the interaction is in social encounter, in computer games, in athletics, even in the kitchen while we're cooking. As we develop theories that let us understand the nature of these dynamic interactions better we will be able to improve our design of artifacts, environments like kitchens, cars, class rooms. This is increasingly important because the dominant trend in technology is to embed digital elements in the physical, and that trend multiplies the interactive possibilities of our environments. It follows that part of my interests are to understand how to design environments to be cognitively congenial and experientially rich.

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