Using Jonathan and his Riedel Dance Theater dancers as our “case study,” we set out to examine the myriad external challenges and internal struggles that impact the process of bringing a creative idea to fruition. While the specific elements explored are unique to Jonathan’s process, the underlying dynamics are familiar to all artists.
Benefits of This Endeavor We believe that Portrait benefits both emerging and seasoned artists in a variety of ways. By studying Jonathan’s process, artists can:
identify the external dynamics and internal struggles that interact with one another to shape the development of a creative idea. Artists will come to recognize that these challenges are a normal part of the process.
access and process internal emotional experiences. This will help them become more grounded in their authentic selves and use this information to guide their creative process, making their work more meaningful.
identify the elements that characterize their idiosyncratic process. The insight gleaned will help them incorporate these authentic elements into their future works.
track their artistic development over time so that they may consciously shape the trajectory of their future professional development.
How Processing His Process Changed Jonathan’s Artistic Life Once again leading the way for other artists, Jonathan has come to understand how “processing his process” has profoundly impacted his artistic development. Our collaboration enabled him to make meaning of his idiosyncratic journey by illuminating the fluid contexts within which he creates.
In the book’s prologue, Jonathan poignantly describes the psychological, emotional, and creative changes that emerged from our work together. For years, Jonathan struggled with unrealized dreams, in large part due to insufficient financial support. Constantly constrained by lack of funds, his work as an artist became a continuous “uphill battle.” He was riddled with self-doubt about his viability as a choreographer and director of his own company.
Meanwhile, his yearning to start a family bumped up against the fear that doing so would hinder -- if not completely extinguish -- his hopes for creative fulfillment and success. If financial realities necessitated that he assume the role of primary caregiver, how could he continue to develop his life as an artist?
Imagining these circumstances triggered self-denigration, a feeling that he was a failure, and a vision of a future toiling away in obscurity. Jonathan was consumed with fear and plagued with uncertainty.
Yet, as our processing progressed, he experienced “a subtle but profound unraveling of [his] creative frustrations.” We developed an ever deepening understanding and appreciation of process. We made meaning of Jonathan’s struggles and began to separate out the negative attributions he made about experiencing these feelings.
Jonathan described finding “greater flexibility, courage, and prudence with [his] creative choices,” and feeling like a better, happier artist.
As we approached the premiere of Rite of Spring, his last work before becoming a father, Jonathan felt he was in the midst of great change and upheaval, but realized he was “far less scared by it. [His] mind and heart were fraught with mystery, but many of the painful knots, crossed wires, and frayed ends had at least been untangled.”
Processing allowed Jonathan to better tolerate the uncertainty inherent in taking a huge leap into the parenting unknown. Accessing, identifying and making meaning of the fear of the death of his creative being allowed him to sit with these frightening and painful feelings.
Breaking through preconceived ideas, opening up communication around family issues, and allowing for multiple subjective realities was key to experiencing a nascent sense of possibility.
Jonathan’s Insights As We Concluded Our First Project At the conclusion of the book, with his first child on the way, Jonathan’s perspectives have shifted, and he has begun to challenge a number of preconceived ideas. He discovers that his creative, emotional and intellectual needs can be satisfied in a variety of ways within the world of professional dance: developing pedagogy, teaching at the university level, teaching children with a variety of needs and abilities, choreographing for other organizations, and collaborating on special projects.
He begins to grasp the concept of a front/back burner flow; different aspects of his creative self can move fluidly between foreground and background, depending upon his context at any point in time.
He is holding on to the idea that he can be grounded in his creative core without clarity about the vehicles through which it will be expressed. He entertains the possibility that perhaps he won’t have to close the door on his “former” creative self in order to assume new roles/identities.
He knows he will need to operate in a new, continually changing context -- and figure out how to stay connected to his core feelings and inclinations within this context.
Struggling with Conflicting Feelings After Becoming a Father As expected, Jonathan experiences many conflicting feelings as a new father. Tolerating the uncertainty, confusion, and struggles permeating his new circumstances is not easy. Anticipating his return to teaching at Pace University, he worries about how he will juggle all of his responsibilities. How will his absence affect his son? Will he have the energy and passion to perform at his best?
His son feeds deep spiritual and emotional needs. At the same time, in his artistic life, he wrestles with a fluid creative identity, untethered from his traditional creative ports. How can he feed his creative needs under these new circumstances?
Initially, he finds some satisfaction in cooking and writing songs for the baby. He eventually pursues a long-held desire to write children’s stories. In fact, he suspects that writing could become his primary artistic pursuit.
However, he realizes that he cannot simply relegate his life as a dancer and choreographer to his past. His authentic needs in this arena scream for his attention. We came to describe this experience as his core creative needs “rattling his cage.”
Feeling unable to address these needs, Jonathan is frequently distracted by them; consequently, he struggles to stay present in his parenting role. This dynamic causes him great distress.
On the other hand, now that he has a family, he finds he can give himself permission to back-burner artistic pursuits when necessary and relax his typical perfectionistic approach to these endeavors.
Despite progress on challenging preconceived ideas, he still wrestles with notions about what he should be doing and how he should be doing it. He vacillates between thinking he should give up choreographing to focus on writing and the realization that it is not an either-or situation.
Eventually, he sees that he can go with whatever part of his creative self needs attention at any point in time. Moreover, he starts to embrace the idea that what he likes to do is what he should be doing. He gradually learns to honor his needs and commit to finding ways to feed them.
Pursuing Creative Outlets in This New Context Eventually, Jonathan finds that he can collaborate on small creative projects that fit within the new context of his life.
Jonathan restages his work, The Unsightful Nanny, for students in the Pace BFA Commercial Dance program. Given his new context, he must relinquish some control to colleagues as he can’t attend most rehearsals. Despite the resulting anxiety, he is gratified by the enthusiastic response to his work.
Pursuing a lifelong passion for writing, Jonathan begins work on a series of children’s stories drawing from his own experiences trying to have a baby and becoming a parent. It is an arena that allows him to give his imagination free reign.
Jonathan conceives a new Halloween-inspired show, The Grisly Kids: An All-Hallows Dance Revue, incorporating The Unsightful Nanny, for Rivertown Artists Workshop (RAW). Performed by his Pace BFA students, the piece is both comedic and macabre, character-driven and quirky. Once again, time constraints necessitate limited involvement, less control, and a different approach to the work, but he finds the experience to be satisfying, and the show is well-received.
He restages a solo called Lemon Grove for RDT’s Associate Artistic Director Lisa McBride, sponsored by RAW.
Jonathan teaches private ballet classes to his niece and her friend to prepare them for a Joffrey summer intensive program. It is a joyful experience.
Jonathan creates a “pure dance” piece for the fall concert at The Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College. The hours of rehearsal and the number of dancers he will use are dictated by the university. Jonathan’s vision is based on these elements, along with the strengths of the dancers and the style of their training. He is delighted with both the process and the outcome.
Jonathan applies for a grant from RAW to develop a new solo he has conceived. Although he doesn’t receive the grant, he knows he will work on the piece someday when the time is right. In fact, this is the piece he is currently developing with dancer Maggie Bradley.
Jonathan Reflects on His Growth During This Time Jonathan once again reflects on his growth at the conclusion of his prologue in Portrait. Much to his surprise and delight, he discovered that his “creative life felt brighter and more complex than ever, now that it was no longer my primary focus. It wasn’t something I obsessed over, but something I could engage spontaneously….My art can survive – even thrive -- on the back burner, and I know it will return in full force when I am ready and choose to draw it forward. In the meantime, I am free to give myself fully to my family, and I haven’t been happier. The surprising outgrowth of this journey is that I am just as creatively active as I ever was.”
Given the dynamics particular to his new context, Jonathan found he could engage in smaller projects in a more limited way than he had in the past -- yet still experience a sense of artistic fulfillment.
“The difference is that I am doing [these projects] all on my own terms. With the knowledge that my family and personal health come first, the scheduling, logistical details, and division of labor for these projects are all arranged to accommodate those needs. As a result, when I am engaged in projects, I can be 100% present, open, and focused.”
Engagement in these projects facilitated the dissolution of the preconceived idea that there was only one way to approach his work that would yield anything meaningful. “I once believed that my art required constant attention, painstaking deliberation, and intense physical labor -- suffering, really. On the contrary -- I am finding that spending fewer hours and experiencing less stress over my projects allow me, and my work, room to grow.”
Ultimately, Jonathan comes to understand that all he -- or anyone -- can do in the midst of ever-shifting contextual dynamics is to try to “plug in” to his internal emotional experiences as much as possible. In this way, he can work to stay grounded in his core self and use the information emanating from that core to carve a path that is as authentic as possible.
Processing Jonathan’s Personal and Artistic Circumstances Leading Up To Our New Project Since exploring the creative process has become central to our work, Jonathan and Sherri continue to illuminate the internal dynamics and external circumstances that led him to undertake his latest artistic initiatives. These dynamics constitute the context within which Jonathan’s visions for his new dance projects begin to take shape.
Jonathan has been collaborating with business and creative colleagues on a potential new venture. When he encounters challenges in the process, he feels anxious, ruminates, and frequently finds himself distracted while parenting. In contrast, when the process feels productive, he is bursting with energy, confidence, and optimism about the project’s future.
Jonathan and his wife experience a second miscarriage. Not only do they mourn the loss of their child, they experience the miscarriage as an “epic failure.” The trauma reverberates within him to this day.
The birth of his second child is a spiritual experience for Jonathan. He feels his daughter is the missing piece that completes his family. At the same time, he perceives the baby as a fragile creature and, as a result, feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility for virtually every aspect of her life. Moreover, he experiences a resurgence of his concern that he will not have time to feed his creative needs.
The death of his father is devastating on many levels. Jonathan lost his role model and dear friend whose own artistic aesthetic served as Jonathan’s “creative checkpoint.” He experiences great sadness that his father will not be around to watch and help his grandchildren grow up. Jonathan is so emotionally depleted that he feels unable to be fully present for his father in the way he wants to be.
Given the enervating struggles in so many parts of his life, Jonathan feels the stress has reached unmanageable levels. He decides to see a therapist to help him navigate these challenging experiences and process the feelings they triggered.
After dozens of revisions based on the feedback of family and friends, Jonathan is ready to share his children’s book series with literary professionals. Despite significant doubt, fear, and vulnerability, he is soliciting the help of industry experts and agents. He vacillates between confidence that he is getting closer to his dream of publication and anxiety that, despite the encouragement and support he has received, his efforts will be unsuccessful.
Commitment to Ongoing Processing Through Blog and Facebook Page Jonathan is committed to continue processing his artistic journey as he returns to choreographing new works and building his company. We believe it is important to share this process with fellow members of the creative community so we all can better understand the shifting contexts within which every artistic journey evolves.
Our First Process in Real Time Initiative: Choreographing a New Solo For Dancer Maggie Bradley We continue our exploration of the creative process as we analyze the development of Jonathan’s new solo for dancer Maggie Bradley.
Please click here to read about the genesis of the solo and click here to follow the process as it unfolds.