The Art of Collaboration in Dance

Collaboration is an art in its own right: alongside creativity and vision, the artist’s skill-set must also include candour, humility and, most importantly, diplomacy.

“I think it is in collaboration that the nature of art is revealed” – Steve Lacy, jazz musician and composer.

Some time ago at the Southbank Centre I attended a fascinating and enlightening talk given by Akram Khan on the subject of collaborating with different artists across various art forms, including his experience working with Danny Boyle on the Olympics opening ceremony. Akram presented examples of several successful and challenging collaborations that reinforced my belief that collaboration is an art in its own right: alongside creativity and vision, the artist’s skill-set must also include candour, humility and, most importantly, diplomacy.

During the last 25 years working as a large scale producer, mentor, coach, dancer and choreographer, I’ve encountered a wide range of elements that contribute to a fruitful and rewarding collaboration, such as united focus, complementary working practices and the desire to achieve a common goal. On the flip side, when common purpose and common sense are absent, it’s a recipe for disaster – you need to choose your collaborators as carefully and wisely as you choose your friends.

I’ve also found that there is no room for collaboration if the common purpose of the work is unbalanced. As Akram said: “During collaboration, if one of the parties feels less inclined, the project or artistic work will get nowhere.”

Although I’m very much aware of this fundamental element, I recently lost sight of it and consequently paid the price. After a couple of successful film collaborations in other people’s productions, I felt I was ready to produce my first proper dance film. But despite my good intentions, I ignored the crucial factor in collaboration – common purpose.

Alongside the choreography, costumes, set design and music, I thought carefully about finding the ‘right’ film producer. I finalised the research process, selected the music, signed contracts with the dancers, found the costumes, booked the film studio and producer, and was ready to start the week-long process of creating the piece, culminating with two full days of filming. A few days before we were due to start filming, I received a phone call from the producer saying that his own film had just been accepted at a world renowned festival and he could no longer participate in my project.

He suggested two options: either postpone the filming until a much later date (which would risk losing all the investment and cancelling the contracts), or go ahead with ‘a fantastic guy’ who he highly recommended. Under pressure, I chose the second option and agreed to his recommendation. It turned out I’d signed a contract to disaster. The other guy was fantastic, but not for producing this dance film.

No matter how much we tried to find common ground, we’d come to the project with a different set of views on how this dance film should be made. After shooting, I watched the footage and realised that this wasn’t my vision for the piece. We both decided to put it down to a learning experience. I didn’t remake the film at that time, but will salvage as much as I can for use in the near future. Despite my thorough briefing, the producer and I were out of sync. I learned from this situation that I had not only chosen the wrong collaborator but that for a true collaboration to work everyone involved must have a common goal and purpose.

Ownership, communication and letting go

Many people ask the questions: how does a collaboration start? Who has the first idea and how does ownership make a dance collaboration successful? By ownership, I mean that everyone involved feels that the work ‘belongs’ to them, individually and collectively. This approach generates the right conditions for a thriving creative environment where everyone owns the process as well as the work itself.

“Especially with ideas and concepts, I’ve never been the initiator”, Akram Kahn says. “DESH came about from the stories I collected when I was working in my dad’s restaurant at the age of 14. The cooks and waiters were talking about their lives and their longing to go back to Bangladesh. For me, the trigger of an idea comes very much from conversing with people. I discover the trigger by trying to be an open book.”

Organised chaos and free-flow of ideas

Working in a free-flow ideas environment is very rewarding. It’s here that the collaborative process is forged and consolidated. Akram explains it as “organised chaos”, such as he experienced during the creative process for the London Olympics opening ceremony, led by Danny Boyle.

“I was amazed by the way Danny Boyle worked. If you were a fly in the wall in the Olympic creative team room, and watched what was going on, you wouldn’t know that Danny was in charge. That’s the kind of leadership I’m inspired by. He’s a leader without the need to show that he’s the boss. He simply allowed us to be free.”

Akram said there was no hierarchy in the creative team and that all the collaborators – visual artists, composers, choreographers, filmmakers and many others – were free to create and “throw ideas left, right and centre”, and that everyone was playing an equal part.

Drawing from each other’s visions and art forms

Once the main idea has been established, the real creative work can begin, and this is where people operate differently. There is no single formula, but drawing from each other’s vision and enhancing the creative process through other art forms is a very successful collaborative technique.

As Akram explains: “I like to work with artists who are not from the same field as me. In that way, I can learn from them and come up with something different. A visual artist would see the concept in a different way from a composer or a choreographer. I don’t want to imprison the idea, so I leave it very open.”

Asserting your vision – the need to go separate ways

“At the beginning I’m very collaborative”, he goes on. “Then it comes to a point when I feel like I have to be a dictator. The signs are there, for example, when the collaborators start to look to you for directions. But by then, hopefully I know what I’m looking for. Or I discover it through the collaborative dialogue we’ve been having. Then I’ll say: there are three options, and this is the one I instinctively feel we should go with. That’s when I start to become more focused. The word dictator isn’t the best way to describe it but it’s almost like that sometimes. Because when you have strong and clever artists like Anish Kapoor or Anthony Gormley, you need to assert your artistic vision.”

Allowing room for other people’s vision to flourish

Each artist has their own unique creative rhythm, and, depending on their profession, their own vision of what collaboration should be. Akram had worked with visual artist Anish Kapoor before and assumed that the same collaborative approach would work with the Anthony Gormley for the creation of Zero Degrees. But whereas Anish was happy for Akram to suggest creative ideas, Anthony preferred a different approach.

Akram: “I’d like a tree in the middle of the space. What do you think?”

Anthony: “That’s great… you don’t need me anymore!”

Akram says this is symptomatic of some visual artists. “Anthony needed to give more to the piece. In the middle of rehearsals he started bringing in huge poles, ladders and anything he could find in his studio that seemed to connect with the text. From this experience, I realised that some visual artists have a different way of creating and collaborating. Anish prefers to give you multiple choices to select from – sometimes too many!”

“The only way is my way”

One of the best lessons I learned was through a collaboration with a composer who was a few decades older than me. I learnt in an abrupt and unexpected way that working with someone from a different generation can present its own challenges. During our first meeting, I said that I wanted to work in a collaborative fashion, meaning that I would have an input regarding the music and he would have an input regarding the choreography. He said he was unaware of this way of working and took offence. His method was that the composer composed and the choreographer choreographed, with neither having a say in the other’s work.

Some composers prefer to present their finished piece to the choreographer and say: “Here it is. Choreograph to it, but don’t you dare change a note of my music!” In other words, they don’t want any further involvement in the creative process. In this case, one solution is to look for the common element within the other’s art form. By finding the narrative concept expressed in his music, I persuaded the composer to be more receptive to my suggestions. On this occasion, through diplomacy and discussion, my approach had results.

These are just a few examples of collaboration and the different ways of approaching it. The fundamental elements – diplomacy, openness, tenacity and respecting each artist’s individuality – serve as a flexible formula. However, it’s a formula that should never be set in stone, since it’s determined by the flux and flow of each project, and the temperaments and working methods of each artist.

© Tomorr Kokona (Updated February 2018)

Tomorr Kokona is Large Scale International Performing Arts Producer, Consultant, Coach, Mentor, Movement Director and Choreographer.

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