An Open Creative Process: Haley Kostas in conversation with Jeffrey Cirio and Peter Chu
For Issue 03 of our print journal, Haley Kostas wrote a personal essay about her struggle to both open up her choreographic process and maintain a safe space for her dancer collaborators. It is an honest and candid reflection on making mistakes, wanting to do better, and demanding more from the troubling and silent systems still present in our dance culture. In the following conversation, Kostas used excerpts of her essay to begin a dialogue on process with two choreographers she deeply respects: Jeffrey Cirio and Peter Chu.
“Speaking up can be difficult and at times isolating, and even if you believe it’s for the betterment of the art form, it doesn’t just challenge the status quo, it challenges the entire system.”
Jeffrey Cirio: The ability to “speak up,” in my experience, comes with experience and rank. As a dancer, I was privileged since I grew up in a company where I was hired very young, and knew the Director. Speaking up at first was challenging, but never isolating. As I grew in the company, I was able to converse and discuss with the Director and others. Now, I have a voice and a professional relationship with my Director. In everyday life and business, however, it takes time to challenge the status quo, or make changes. It’s no different in the dance world. One must gain respect and experience to challenge the status quo.
Haley Kostas: This rings true to so many—the positive experience of having a voice and taking a thoughtful path to foster it. I couldn’t agree more, as being respectful is a vital part of stepping into your voice and that it is important to be mindful of time and place, especially within the studio. We need to be considerate of the structure that we are in, which comes with respecting our dancers along with our higher ups. I believe there is a time to speak up and ask for what we need, and I’m even more aware that those “asks” may incidentally challenge that status quo.
I also took this away from my experience, “One must gain respect and experience to challenge the status quo.” However, stepping back this can leave so many people out. I think there is a way to be more inclusive and widen the scope for change within our system and I agree it takes time to cultivate meaningful change. However, I’m working under the assumption that making a change can come from a positive charge, not a negative one. I believe anyone may speak up for change if it’s for the betterment of the art form as long as they are willing to listen to “no” graciously.
We can’t dismiss the fact that change and positive results can come from more than experience and rank. That there can be more than one way. Nonconformity is by definition an artistic expression, or it can be. It is the distinction between rebellion and a unique voice, and it’s how we choose to use it that matters.
Peter Chu: As we lead younger aspiring artists, or anyone for that matter, it is important that we aim to foster their growth not just in movement but in verbal communication as well. This will help inspire the artist to be active in the process. A nurturing, yet focused environment enables dancers to build an awareness of the technical and artistic complexities implicit in dance and choreography. I find this, even though it may not resonate with every dancer or company, to benefit not only the work but also holds the individual accountable— hopefully this inspires creativity and curiosity in the room rather than waiting for steps to be given and told what to do and feel with each step. There are times when I have a plan and must get through my “to do” list— this is when I openly communicate what the focus of the day must be. Therefore, it is clear from the start what is planned for that rehearsal. I have found that providing space for short discussions within a class setting empowers the artists to feel a part of the creative and educational process.
“So it goes without saying, literally, that teaching silence can teach us that’s it safer to keep quiet, easier to just deal, normal to become reactive, and hard not to feel like a victim when there is such a lack of empowerment in the learning or creative environment.”
Chu: For this very reason, I am constantly needing to be present and sensitive to the space. I don’t want a person to ever feel silenced or shamed when in the same space. This is never my intention. I usually set up my rehearsal period with a warm up for not just the individual but for the group as well. This helps remind the dancers that a creative process is all about shifting weight (give and take) and exchanging energy. I find this gives the artists confidence to speak but with clarity and respectful communication whether verbal or physical.
Being sensitive to the space and even being a sensitive person does not equal weakness. Most of society mistakes sensitivity for weakness—I find this unfortunate! Whether in dance or in life, we have a responsibility for the sake of humanity to sense and recognize what the space or environment needs. It’s not all about one person, it’s about the work and the community! Taking care of one another, listening, and being present is important. I find this can help resolve potential conflicts.
I have been in a few processes where there wasn’t any space for questions or time to reflect. I do understand that not every process can be directed in such a way, but I do feel providing space for this will lessen any misunderstandings, lessen potential injuries with dance partners, relieve any tension in the room, and prevent a person from feeling silenced.
Kostas: I believe there are absolute benefits that come from both silence and dialogue being present in the studio and they both play pivotal roles. Teaching from silence or incorporating a dialogue should not come at the cost of the other, I don’t think we need to hold these approaches in opposition when they are really not that way at all. Maybe there is a way to reframe the problems that arise and implement both approaches to find some resolve for dancers and create a more sustainable learning environment for everyone.
However I don’t think we can find a better way without first addressing the bi-products that unfortunately come with teaching silence (suppression, shame, dictatorship, feeling ignored and not cared for) as well as the misconceptions of opening up a dialogue (defiance, opinions, being argumentative, loss of control).
We learn discipline which develops commitment devices, creating a work ethic that is second to none, not to mention the ability to be highly observant enhances non-verbal skills — body language…which brings me to this question…is there a way to teach discipline without teaching obedience?
“Being a choreographer doesn’t just ask for you to have a voice, it demands it. I need my voice not just for sharing my work, but to lead others through it.”
Cirio: I like my voice. It could be better. My biggest challenge is never enough time because I most of the time choreograph on my group, Cirio Collective, and that is usually accomplished in one week or two week’s time. This statement goes along with the next. I think my choreography is definitely a two-way communication between myself and the dancers. When you have a group of dancers with whom you are familiar, this is easy. In dealing with new dancers, challenges can arise. But always, I think it should be a two-way communication.
Chu: Each day I enter the studio, I remind myself to communicate with clarity, with a calm demeanor, to have compassion for others, to be consistent (whether consistent in practice or consistent with breath), and to allow myself to be curious and adventurous. This art form will forever be in my heart as it has helped me develop my leadership skills and further develop my core values––the Five C’s: Clear. Calm. Compassionate. Consistent. Curious.
Not only does being a dance maker require a voice to lead the room, but an artistic voice within the work is just as important. Pushing the physical boundaries of our moving art form, provoking thought, and creating viscerally charged work requires time, curiosity and demands a grounded voice. One that I am actively nurturing and rediscovering.
Kostas: I love Jeff’s candor, “I like my voice. It could be better.” I think regardless of what your role you are in in the studio we all share a common thread—being a work in progress. Peter’s awareness is admirable and reaffirms my notion that—reading the psychology of the room is crucial for the creative process and something to always be circling back to. This keeps everyone on the same page, and redirects the focus to the work. For me, this means acknowledging our differences, and demonstrating how they have the ability to become our greatest assets. From our differences of opinion and approach to our differences in background and experience, diversity is an essential element that widens our perspective so we may not only come together, but so we may understand one another. In other words, allowing more perspectives allows more possibilities for the creative process to thrive.
“The times when I have been given a safe space to have a voice weren’t just beneficial for my overall growth as a dancer, but for my emotional well-being.”
Cirio: This applies to both dancing and choreographing. This is why my sister and I created Cirio Collective. We wanted people to be able to create work without someone from the top trying to tell the artist what to do. Dance doesn’t move forward if we don’t push the boundaries, so for me it’s not about my emotional well-being, it’s about the art form.
Chu: Having a voice within a creative process and providing a nurturing environment is the driving force in the way I lead. I wish this to be present in all effective leaders that have a vision. I do understand that not all of us have the same skill set when it comes to academic intelligence, movement intelligence, and emotional intelligence, but leading with patience, compassion, and a clear focus is something I believe is essential.
As a choreographer, I must remember that refining details take time. Things may not click with the artists right away—it’s important to coach and inspire but also to give them space. This way they begin to listen to their internal structure. I strive to provide new ideas that will help the artist, of all ages, to become more aware of the body’s innate ability to respond calmly and to guide them to trust that process. Learning to take action with a peaceful heart and a healthy mind–– building movement awareness through listening!
Kostas: Both of these insights show the paradox that is dance—equal parts being patient and pushing boundaries. However, I’d like to highlight that emotional well-being is fundamental to our art form, our art form is expressing and shaping emotion. To not acknowledge emotional well-being as a positive correlation that comes with creating a safe space for having a voice means we cannot acknowledge how to better contribute to it. It’s hard to push boundaries when your dancers aren’t feeling open to them, and it’s impossible to feel open without vulnerability—which means emotional security. Emotional well-being is inherent to pushing boundaries. When you are in the creative process you are not in it alone, so regardless if this affects the choreographer are not, it might affect other dancers which means it will inevitably end up affecting you. This is one of the most challenging parts about being a choreographer—managing people and their needs.
“Communication changes our roles as dancers from object to artist.”
Cirio: I have worked with choreographers who view the dancers as objects only for their work to be accomplished. I have always enjoyed working with a choreographer who has communicated and has invited me to be a part of the process. These are my most memorable experiences. I have tried to learn and apply this example from those choreographers – inviting my dancers to be artists in the process. Communication is necessary to be effective in any world, not just the dance world.
Chu: I have learned to be a better communicator from every dancer that I have had the privilege to work with. Yes, I may be leading the space, but there is an energy exchange that inevitably influences my direction. Each experience has taught me a lot about the power of effective communication.
Kostas: Jeff highlights the benefits of what communication and approaching process together can offer, connection and value. I think in order to correct course from “object” to “artist” we need to start thinking of communicating as a form of “dialogue and exchange.” That it doesn’t solely rely on the ability to speak up or the ability to listen — but the ability to understand difference which takes understanding reasons that may not align with your own. It takes empathy, civility and being open to arguments from both sides. This means leaning into the tough conversations with the intention to be productive, which doesn’t have to be negative or an either or, but can challenge each of us to be better—these are the conversations I want to have and these are the moments I’m learning the most from.
Haley Kostas is a choreographer and contributor to Issue 03 | SEEN unSEEN. Jeffrey Cirio is a lead principal dancer with English National Ballet, choreographer and artistic director of Cirio Collective. Peter Chu is a choreographer and artistic director of chuthis.
TONIGHT thru Saturday, you can catch Chu’s latest work for Gibney Dance as part of BOTH/AND. Click here for tickets.
Read the full essay
Issue 03 | SEEN unSEEN