What do handmade cubbyholes and video mashups have to do with one another?
Or R&B ballads and contemporary dance? Lately, two experiences quite separated in time and place have taken on for us an associative buzz that speaks volumes about the nature of creativity.
The first experience took place over twenty-five years ago, when Michele's Dad showed her his latest bit of knock-it-together carpentry. The second occurred not more than a month ago, when our daughter showed us - several times! - a YouTube video that had caught her fancy. We'll let Michele tell the tale...
My dad was an economics professor and over the course of his career, wrote a number of books. Some of his creative behaviors - or at least, book-writing behaviors - struck me forcefully as a child and remain embedded in my memory. For hours, days, weeks, months, he holed up in his study, emerging only for meals and some bedtime horseplay. For many years he secured his study door with a chain fastened at the very top. He didn't want any of his five young kids messing with the many chapter drafts topped with rocks and other paper weights on his big desk. Later, when his children were older, he occasionally opened up his study to the curious.
The day I recall, he pulled me and one of my brothers into the room, eager to show off his latest organizational effort, a waist-high case of cubbyholes on wheels. Each of the twelve cubbyholes shelved the notes and drafts for a different chapter of the textbook he was currently revising. "That way, things don't get mixed up," he said. My brother, who liked carpentry himself, was suitably impressed with the speed and pragmatism with which my father had knocked together the woodwork.
"Just one thing," Jon said. "What are these holes doing here?" All the interior cubbyhole walls were randomly pocked with medallion sized perforations.
"Well," Dad replied, a sly smile hovering on his face, "you could say those holes reduce the weight of my cubbyholes, making it less work to wheel from my armchair to the desk. But, they have a dual purpose."
My brother and I took the bait. "What's that?" Dad's smile broke into the clear. "Those holes allow ideas to circulate from one chapter to the next!"
Did I mention my dad loved verbal jousting, the mental sleight of hand? My brother and I laughed. But I remember the exchange all these years later because those sturdy, but sieve-like cubbyholes provide a compelling metaphor for the many intellectual activities which our society holds as independent and impermeable one from the other. I particularly have in mind artistic genres and styles, academic disciplines, and professional fields.
On closer examination, supposedly separate genres, disciplines and other activities often turn out to have permeable boundaries and interdependent concerns. For the most part, we accept that a song is a song and a dance is a dance. Dance may be choreographed to a song, of course, and may even intend to dramatize or otherwise respond to the music. But for the most part our first thought would be that a pop ballad, for instance, and a modern ballet have nothing to say to one another.
Well, that was my first thought when my daughter Meredith insisted I watch a YouTube video mashup (by Renada Ward) of Halo, the smash hit by the American R&B singer Beyoncé, and Por Vos Muero (I Die for You), a modern dance by the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. (This and other links below.)
What's a mashup? For those of you (like me) just catching up to the latest terminology, a mashup is a composition created by "blending" or "remixing" two or more unrelated songs (or, in this case a song track and a dance video), by overlaying one upon the other in some synchronous fashion.
Clearly, for a mashup to work well, there has to be some convergence of pattern between the unrelated songs, or the unrelated song and dance: rhythm, perhaps, or melody or thematic content. So the mashup creator relies heavily on recognizing patterns, an imaginative skill that involves perceptual awareness of structural regularities and congruences in and among things in their environment, like songs and dances. The mashup creator also flexes imaginative muscle by regrouping things according to these perceived patterns. If all goes well, something interesting takes place and a new pattern forms that is more than the sum of its parts.
I think that's just what happened when Ward remixed Beyoncé's Halo and Duato's Por Vos Muero. Meredith and I watched the YouTube clip several times together and later I watched it some more by myself - (though not as many times as Meredith, who says she has only to hear the song now to see the dance in her mind's eye). In all fairness to the original compositions, I also checked out its constituent parts. I listened to Halo alone, I watched the ballad's original music video, and I watched video clips of Por Vos Muero and other dances by Duato.
Blame it on my romantic streak, but I like the mashup a lot. I'm particularly taken with several moments of congruence between the words and the dance movements. (You'll have to watch it to see what I mean.) By remixing the right pop ballad with the right contemporary dance, Ward really did create something new and compelling. The mashup tugs both song and dance in unexpected directions.
To my mind, Duato's dance brings Halo depth and breadth of meaning. Inspired by the love poetry of Spanish Renaissance poet Garcilaso de la Vega, Duato choreographed Por Vos Muero to 15th and 16th century Spanish music. His dance expression, however, is very much in terms of 21st century feeling and physicality. "When people come to see us at the theater, they should see themselves reflected on the stage," he says [Kumin]. Por Vos Muero explores that reflection in body movements abstracted from modern behaviors and gestures, but not identical to them. This abstraction means we are free to understand the dance physically, but also metaphorically. And suddenly, the words of the song suggest the multitude of ways - embodied, spiritual, ineffable - in which lovers achieve fragile moments of sympathy and union.
At the same time, Halo brings to Duato's dance an earthy impact. Judging from the mashup's number of views (over 13,000 as of this writing), that earthiness has a popular appeal that does not require a refined taste for ballet. Duato should be pleased. Connecting to today's audiences, he has said, is a primary concern. "I want them [people] to find a way to connect our dancing to their daily lives, to the clothes they wear, to the music they listen to..." [Kumin].
Ward's mashup does just that. By poking a few holes in the walls that formally separate R&B from ballet, she let's ideas circulate between the two. For both arts, new possibilities in aesthetic reach and audience appeal open up. And that's creative.
© 2010 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Links and References:
Beyoncé sings Halo at
The Halo/Por Vos Muero mashup at
Note: The German lines at the start of the video may be translated as follows:
I am bathed in constant tears
My sighs pierce the air
But still worse is not daring to tell you
That the state I'm in was your doing.
Kumin, Laura. (June, 2001). Nacho Duato and The Compania Nacional De Danza: Contemporary Dance with a Spanish Accent - Interview. Retrived January 10, 2010 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1083/is_6_75/ai_75089723/