Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gathering Muses

I am often asked where my inspiration comes from, what inspires me?

The short answer: anywhere, anything, and everything.

You see, first of all, I don't separate my inspirations out per genre.  There is no "this is for visual art" and "this is for dance" and "this is for writing."  Rather, what I work on in my art often influences my dancing, and vice versa (as evidenced by the Baladi series, which I started to make when I first started bellydancing.)

What I don't do though, is look for inspiration in the same genre or media I'm looking for.  Meaning I don't specifically seek out the work of printmakers or bellydancers to use as a starting point for my work.  I often get invigorated to make new work after going to a festival or gallery, but the drive to make work does not correlate with what inspires me to make it.  I DO look into the work of parallel categories - such as sculpture or weaving, or historical dance to find inklings of an ideas - from a color palette to a sense of movement. But more often than not, my inspiration starts on a whole other plane of existence.  It can be from a piece of jewelry, a song, a movie, an old photo, a design on a rug, a myth, a situation in my life, a pattern on the ceiling, a random comment - seriously anywhere.  I collect images online and physically and keep them in folders that I can look at.  If something catches my eye, I save it, no matter what.  It may not be what I'm looking for RIGHT THIS MOMENT, but 6 months later or 3 years, it may be - and I'd rather not drive myself nuts trying to find it wherever I saw it first. The walls of my office and my studio are covered in images of things that have caught my eye, and I regularly take things down and put new things up (and archive the old images).

So don't be afraid to accept inspiration wherever it comes, even if it doesn't seem "normal." Collect it, gather it where you can, and save it.  Create an image or sound archive that you can immerse yourself in when you need a new direction. Don't be afraid to explore a concept until you've really exhausted it or confidently feel you can put it aside.  Don't dismiss anything before you've tried it, pushing the society/them voice aside and really LOOK at the idea and consider it without judgment.  Don't be afraid that you may be repeating yourself - most often the greatest work starts off with a familiar pattern that changes much more deeply in the process, unlocking doors. Don't be afraid to collaborate, get feedback, and challenge yourself - trying to save or protect an idea is a futile concept.  The muses, they are slutty, and trust me, they will get the idea out there somewhere, somehow, if you don't do it yourself.  And if you tackle it in your own way, in your own voice, it will always be yours in that regard.  Yes, perhaps "everything has been done before", but not by YOU.

And here's some of my favorite online places to go looking (all very different from each other in what they offer):

Twisted Lamb
My Marrakesh
Trial By Steam
Wearable Art Blog
Jewelry Whore

Happy Gathering!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Inspiration, the Artist & the Audience

You can pretty much separate an artist's mind into two states: "inspired and working through it" and "waiting to be inspired."  The latter is usually accompanied by nail-biting, melancholy, and thoughts of "OMG, what if I never have another good idea again?!"  Which is rather silly if you actually do function actively as an artist, because you KNOW something always comes along, but yet, we go through this negative process time and time again. 

Perhaps it's because we're always measuring our current projects up to our past successes - which is also rather silly, because everything looks better in hindsight, and you can never go back to exactly that one moment in time.  Actually, I think most artists do understand this, but the issue perhaps lays more in the audience, who rarely know/understand the process behind art-making (be it music, painting, poetry, dance, etc), and pretty much all they have to look at is whatever is laying before them and what THEY remember about it and THEIR experience with it.  Worrying about how the audience will respond is what causes that valley of doubt in artists.  Which in turn can corrupt the creative process, and set the artist off on the wrong path.

Which is not to be interpreted as me saying, "the audience doesn't matter" - because especially for performance, what really brings the art to life is that interaction between the audience and the work*.  Art is meant to be experienced - first by the artist through the process of art-making and then by the world.  But if you seek to create a piece with strictly audience response in mind, you're truncating the process and gliding across the surface of an idea rather than delving into it.  What makes art honest - and most successful in my opinion, is work that you can tell was fully explored by the artist, through the artist, and then offered to the audience.

Let me put this is in terms that are more concrete:
-If you're a painter, you use the color red heavily because it means something to you, it has a purpose and an integrity to the work, and you simply MUST use red.  Rather than using red because you heard it's the hot new interior designer color and it means you could sell more work. 
-If you're a musician, you use a certain instrument because it rocks your soul and moves you to create, versus playing something because it's convenient or attracts the opposite sex.
-If you're a writer, you write about what really inspires you and what you know, versus concocting another vapid teen vampire romance, because those are so hot and selling at the moment.
-If you're a dancer, you choose movements that make you feel amazing, work with the music, and compliment your body, versus using whatever Big Name Dancer is currently doing or did last week. Or choosing music that really moves your soul versus what everyone else is using. 

I guess what I'm really talking about here is "selling out."  (And I swear I really started this post with the idea to talk about inspiration and where it comes from...oops...)  While in the short term, it may seem a good idea to either try and mimic a past success, or copy whatever everyone else is doing to get noticed (Look! I'm standing out by doing something crazy! Just like everyone else!) - it may get you temporary satisfaction, but it won't last long, because the cycle will continue onward, and the process will get farther and farther away from being in the realm of art-making - the audience WILL lose interest, and that valley is going to be even more deeper when you hit it.

Here's the dirty truth about Art: It ain't easy.  It's not supposed to be easy, and it's going to be messy at times.  It doesn't follow recipes consistently, especially if you're substituting in gimmick for substance.  It's got to be honest for it to truly be successful.  And rather than trying so hard to find inspiration for that next great idea, let it come to you, don't force it, and don't worry.  It will come, and probably smack you down and take your wallet while it's at it. (Gotta watch out for those Muses...) Lastly, not every idea is going to be successful - even going through the process entirely, doesn't mean it will be a hit.  Art is a bit like Russian roulette in that way - but if you don't take the risk, you'll never find out.  You just have to keep trying.

So with that to consider, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite art-related quotes of all time:
“Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further” - Rainer Maria Rilke

*I think I've talked about enough in the past about how performances shouldn't be "private moments on stage" where you're holding the audience hostage to whatever "art" you want to explore, in order to be in the spotlight.  Art is communication - and it's particularly a dialogue between the artist and the audience - not a lecture or display of self-indulgence (unless you're doing a piece about the 7 Deadly Sins perhaps..and even then..)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Birthday/Release Special & News

Contrary to popular belief, I'm not particularly great or proactive about marketing and promotion.  Case in point, I haven't drastically updated the look of my website in several years (just the content and about once a year or more, I update the gallery), and while I started promoting this special offer on the 4th of June, I have yet to post it here, and that would probably be a smart thing to do.

So yes, the DVD is officially available!  All of the pre-orders/fundraiser copies have been sent out (some last Friday, the rest today, had to split it up because we have over a 100 to send!) and as a special offer in honor of the release and my birthday on the 13th, when you order the DVD by Monday, you will receive a code to download the amazing music created especially for the DVD (6 songs!) by Nathaniel Johnstone (of Abney Park & The Nathaniel Johnstone Band) for FREE(FYI - if you live in Canada, please use the DOMESTIC button vs. the International one for your shipping.) Go here to buy!

Hopefully over the weekend I will have time to update the website with all of the amazing reviews and feedback I've already received for the DVD - thank you so much to everyone who has supported this project. 

And if you want even more of what the DVD offers (because you can only squeeze so much in a 2.5 hour-long DVD), there are just a few spaces left in the first US-based "Museum Quality" Intensive taking place in Indianapolis in July, and Celeste has announced that the early-bird rate will hold for just a few more days - so don't miss out on this amazing experience to fully explore artistry in your dance with me! Concept, technique, and creativity all compounded into 3 solid days that will blow your mind!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Entertaining Dance Vs. Evolving Bellydance

Variety is the spice of life, or so they say.  A show is often more interesting and entertaining for the audience when there is a variety of styles and kinds of presentations, versus all of the same exact style and artist - comparison and contrast between performances allows for palette cleansing, critical thinking, and general overall enjoyment.

When I first started dancing, fusion performances were among the minority, which often made them stand-out in a line-up.  Usually the "fusion" was a blending of dances (say Indian and Bellydance, or Flamenco and Bellydance) or using something un-traditional - like a rock song instead of Arabic music.  These rarely pushed the envelope, but still provided a sense of variety and contrast to a more traditional line-up.  Which generally made them a bit easier to remember to the average audience member, who may not know the amazing differences between a Turkish Romani piece, a Melaya Leff, and an American Cabaret piece.

(It should be stated that even within a given style or genre, there can be a lot of variation - a show on Egyptian dance can feature pieces that are modern as well as classic/Golden age - folkloric, and fantasy - and that will generally be far more entertaining than 20 dancers all showcasing modern in similar lycra costuming and pop music. Same with Gothic - performances can span from industrial and cyber to romantic and steampunk, from dark and mysterious to light and comedic - a lot more exciting than 20 dancers all in black tribal fusion attire popping and locking with angry faces to techno.)

It doesn't take a genius to figure out though, that if a piece really stands out, is in extreme contrast to everything else, it will be recognized for that and get talked about.  And every performer wants to be recognized and talked about (preferably in a positive light). So there has been a distinct trend in recent years to try and out-contrast everyone else in an effort to stand out.  The problem with this is that instead of offering a variety of pieces that compliment each other, a show can become a cacophony of "LOOK AT ME" - which means often that performers then try even harder to be louder and more different.  This can be very problematic on several levels.

On one hand, it is an excellent idea to challenge and push oneself.  In fact, this is at the root of artistry - not being satisfied and continuing to push forward.  But it shouldn't happen solely for the sake of comparison to others - because you can only truly compete with yourself.  When you seek to compete with others, you may stop evolving within the true nature of yourself. Because in order to "compete", it often means making yourself similar to someone else, rather than following your own inclinations.

Another problem is how far do you go before it stops being coherent with the overall thread of things? More specifically, when does it stop being bellydance?  Or does that matter? I suppose it depends on the show and the venue, but I also think a lot of people aren't asking themselves this question.  Recently I saw a piece I enjoyed - it was fun, it was well-choreographed, good costuming, and musicality - and so on those terms, it was very successful.  But then I asked myself, what does this have to to do with bellydance? Besides a few isolations - nothing.  So yes, it was entertaining and done well as dance piece, but it really didn't have anything to do with bellydance - not in the music, or the costuming, subject matter, or the movements - but it was presented at a bellydance show by someone known for being a bellydancer - and that was the fine string that connected it all.  And I asked myself, is that enough?  Especially when less-discriminating audience members are most likely thinking "that was cool! I need to do something like that to stand out and get recognized!"

Likewise, I saw rave reviews afterwards about a performance I had seen live at another event, commenting on excellent technique, musicality, etc.  I watched the video to remind myself of the piece, and I agreed there were some beautiful lines and lovely dancing, but three minutes in, I had yet to see anything bellydance about it.  Modern dance, yes, contemporary yes, ballet, yes....bellydance no.  Was it good dancing? Yes.  Was it bellydance? No.  What someone held up as their best favorite representation of bellydance at an event, wasn't even bellydance.  My mind boggled, and the irony is not lost on me that the main complaint coming out of my mouth, is the same complaint I heard rallied against fusion over the last 10+ years - so if MY eyes can't find the bellydance, then there's something serious going on.

I think it's extremely vital for us as a community right now to consider these questions when watching performances, and to ask this of ourselves, if we wish to continue to be known as bellydancers and perform in bellydance arenas.  We need to be able to recognize the difference between a good dance performance and a good bellydance performance.  It doesn't have be traditional bellydance in order to be good bellydance, but it also shouldn't be so far outside the spectrum that it ceases to retain any of the qualities and characteristics you should find under the bellydance umbrella.  And if these things aren't clear to YOU as a dancer, then it's time to get more educated about traditional bellydance.  In order for us to move forward and evolve, we have to know our roots.

And just because it's being presented on a stage at a bellydance festival by your favorite dancer isn't enough to make it bellydance, or mean it's a good idea either.  Do your research, expand your roots, and get those brains moving people!  Trust me, it's a good thing!