The New Creative: Process and Perspective by Choreographer Andrea Miller

First Republic Bank
August 4, 2020

Critically-acclaimed and internationally beloved choreographer Andrea Miller will show her recent mesmerizing explorations of dance on film and her current works in progress, and will share her thoughts on the relevance of the creative process for all people, not only professional artists.

Read below for a full transcript of the conversation. 

Shannon Houston - Good afternoon and good evening, everyone. My name is Shannon Houston, Chief Marketing and Communications officer for First Republic Bank. We are delighted to have you join us here today. Supporting our communities and nonprofit organizations is really core to our mission at First Republic, our mission of exceptional service, and we believe in the power of art to inspire others, to bring together communities, to foster empathy in all of us, and really be a driver of innovation and creativity, and we also look for any way we can to connect with you, our clients or future clients, and provide interesting, thought-provoking, relevant content and programs like the one we have here for you today. Joining us today are critically acclaimed and internationally renowned choreographer Andrea Miller and her collaborator, the award winning filmmaker and fellow artist, Ben Stamper. Andrea Miller is the choreographer, artistic director, and founder of the Brooklyn-based modern dance company Gallim. A groundbreaking artist, Andrea has been recognized with fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation, Sadler's Wells, New York City Center, and the Princess Grace Foundation. Andrea was the 2017-2018 artist in residence at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she was the first choreographer to hold that very important distinction. In October 2018, Andrea was featured in Forbes magazine as a female entrepreneur and leader in the dance world, and her choreography and her company Gallim perform across the globe. And today, Andrea continues to innovate and reach new audiences through virtual classes and performances, which can be found at Andrea's joined tonight by Ben Stamper. Ben is an award-winning filmmaker and artist with a background in fine art and music. His work spans narrative, documentary, and contemplative genres with a particular interest in the patterns of nature, human movement, and dance. He has been recently commissioned by Met Live Arts and Utah State University, and he is a Lincoln City fellow, excuse me, and has served as the artist in residence at the Center for Faith and Work and Grace Farms Foundation. Ben has received numerous awards for his documentary work and he works in close collaboration with cinematographer Andrew Ellis through their production company Helix Films to explore the relationship between dance and film. In addition to Andrea and Gallim, past films have featured Meredith Monk, the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance Company, and Bill T. Jones, to name a few. I'm not only thrilled to host this evening on behalf of First Republic, but I'm also a long-time member of the board of directors of Gallim Dance. I met Andrea over a decade ago when Gallim was a company born out of her living room in a New York City apartment. So without further delay, sit back, relax, and grab your popcorn. We're going to watch "Shaping Absence." It's about a 17-minute film. And then we'll turn to Andrea and Ben to learn more about the process and the film. Laura, let's roll the film.

Video begins:

Andrea Miller - Hello. My name is Andrea Miller and I am the artistic director, choreographer, and founder of Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based dance company, now virtually-based. And I'm very thankful to be with you today. Thank you to First Republic Bank for arranging this opportunity to share my creative process with you and my thoughts on creativity and how it's evolving during this unique time on earth. Thank you to First Republic Bank for being a rare bank that nurtures culture and cultivates creative community. The fact that I'm here talking with you today is a testament to First Republic's commitment to authenticity, uniqueness, and connection. I've never been comfortable with the conventional uses of spaces. Like, even when my dance is in a theater, I'm always trying to find out if I could maybe, like, dance in the audience or maybe start the show in the parking lot. And it's been actually a blessing because as a result, I've been able to work with such inspiring people in places that I never imagined I would go and that I actually want to always be from now on in different fields, in museum or architecture, photography and fashion. So yeah, this is kind of where my creative process usually takes me, somewhere I didn't imagine being. There's been a significant shift in conversations, whether it's with presenters or venues or artists, collaborators, just to see how we can all make it work. There's a leaning into that. Let's just try to make it work. If it means we have to get simpler or if we need to, you know, reschedule. This shift is huge, and I think that it means that creativity has more entry points and more opportunities to thrive and influence. So what I have in mind for our time together is to break down my creative process through the months of quarantine, that is to say that March through July, each month with a landmark of creative practice that has also corresponded into what quarantine has been like for me. And I'll show you some of my previous works as well as things that I'm working on right now. And then we'll conclude with a conversation with my longtime collaborator and brilliant filmmaker, Ben Stamper, and we'll be discussing more specifically the emergence of the new creative during this time of quarantine. So we're in March. March, we go into quarantine. So this would be talk of creative process moment. This is for me, March is the equivalent in the creative process to the moment where you say, I don't know how to do this. I don't know if I'm going to able to do this. For me, March is a deep dive into jet lag. You land in a new time zone, a new life, and your body and mind are left behind trying to quickly catch up and understand everything about this new space, this new time. Everything from you're going on the subway, getting to work, getting the kids to school, all those conventions of life. And now you go through the process of looking at the shape of that absence, the shape of that existence. And there's an unease about all the unknowns of what's to come and all the reflections on what has been. The top of the creative process, fear is significant. And obviously it has to do with having sort of a lack of information of what you're actually doing. What's north, what's, what is, what are your, you know, what did you roll up your sleeves to touch? Here's this fear that it's not going to go well or fear with the dancers or fear about repeating myself. I've just learned to bring it into the work. Just insert it into the work itself and not have it separate. Like, it is a thing that is going to be part of our research. Why are you afraid? Where do these fears come from? Is it from your history? Is it from something outside? Is that something from inside the space, embarrassment, whatever it is. And so let it become part of the process. And then it immediately actually becomes a thing that you can learn from, that you engage, and that actually has a lot do with probably the themes that you're tackling. Now it is April, and we are zooming. We are zoombies. We're in the zoom. Zoom, zoom away, zig, ziggy zoomers. Kids are now going to school, and work is like, all right, we're back. We're going to figure out how to keep working. Let's go, go, go. For me, this is in the creative space the equivalent of getting your stuff together. And it doesn't feel like a very creative, it doesn't feel like a very creative thing to do, actually. This feels like the least creative moment, but it is actually fundamental to create the scaffolding for everything else. Because you actually need to take the creative process and the creative genius that you think you might have and you need to fit it to the conventions of how everything else and everybody else works. It's tough. Like, that zoom in April is tough, that part of the creative process. You able to reschedule? Should we put the video clips in the body of the email, or should we make a Google?

Dancer - Hell.

Dancer - Should we all stretch?

Dancer - Let's do it.

Dancer- Okay.

Dancer- I'm done.

Andrea - That was it?

Dancer - I'm done.

Andrea - You don't have any more? Faster. Let's go, great, yay! Okay, so we are in May. May. There's a moment for me around this point of May that actually you feel the experience of inspiration. I think that that happens at the beginning. Like, you just feel inspired and then you go and you make the dance. But for me it usually happens halfway to three-fourths in. I feel like it's just like you levitate. It starts to sort of a little bit float. And then feeling like I know how to speak about this theme or this explicit idea. This is a slightly dangerous point in the creative process, because that sense of inspiration can lead you to become distracted. You start as you float into this place where you feel like you can see some or feel some really magical things, you start, and you can maybe lose attachment to the project that you were working on. I'm going to call that in quarantine terms the great pivot. It's that moment where you're like, maybe I should be a baker, or maybe I could, you know, like, I could reinvent myself.

Andrea - Okay, June, we're in June. June. June is the show, is the, it's time for the audience to see what you've done. Step away from the piano. Like, just stop. Like, you can't add another note. You went to inspiration land and got anchored, pulled back into, don't forget, you know, your idea. And you make it happen. Time changes in this moment, like, this whole beginning period of, I don't know what I'm going to do, and I'm just afraid, and I have to set up all these appointments and figure all these conventional things out. And then inspiration, boom, make the piece. It's like all this other time feels like this, and then you make the piece in this time. One day is not equivalent to the next, and they don't have the same shape, and they don't have the same productivity, and they don't have, and they're not supposed to, and to just sort of trust that. It's nerve-wracking. It's nerve-wracking because you start watching it through the eyes of the people that are sitting next to you, which is important, which is an important thing to do is see how it's felt and seeing the energy in the room and what's connecting and what's not connecting. July being that moment where you take stock of all the things that you've done. All the work, all the people you've met and collaborated with, and all the insights they've given you, all the wisdom they've given you, all the wisdom that the dance gave you. As I look at the work that I do, and now it's the shape of its absence in my life, and trying to understand its purpose and its unique properties. I'm learning that this craft of dance has a unique ability to respond to this moment. Where does dance fit? Why has it figured out how to exist, you know, through all the kinds of transformations that have happened in life and in society has continued to be there? And it's there for a reason, I think. It's an ancient wisdom, I think. It's a wisdom that has been with us and has needed to be with us and has had purpose in culture and society. It is a communicator, direct communicator of the moment that we're in, and is a communicator through no other tool or system but than through the technology of the body, the technology of the mind and the soul , and taking the ability to take the chaos, the multiplicity facet, the multifaceted life that we're in, this complete mess that we're in, and create a gesture, a rough stroke, create in an unfiltered, authentic way, a way that can hold risk and that can hold compassion and empathy and that can hold authenticity all in the same gesture in that same moment. There's very little mediation. It's really a very, very direct channel. It's just, it's, there's, I think, nothing like it. I would say one last thing about July is that July you start thinking about what's the next project, and then you start the whole cycle over again.

Video ends.

Andrea - Hello.

Ben Stamper - Hey, Andrea.

Andrea - Hi. Hello. Hi, Ben. Thank you. Thank you, Shannon, for that beautiful introduction. Hello, everyone. Thank you to First Republic Bank and to Lauren for having us here today. I hope you enjoyed our little montage, our quarantine montage Ben and I put together. It was a fun process to think about this quarantine as a, and put a creative practice to it. So we're going to speak a little bit with you now about the process of making work in this environment and the work that we've recently made together, and yeah, just continue what was kind of a conceptual collage that you just saw into a more specific conversation. And I think we should start talking about making work in quarantine just to get right down to it and be specific. Well, first let me introduce you to Ben. This is Ben Stamper, a friend, collaborator, and just brilliant filmmaker that I've been so lucky to get to work with. We met at Grace Farms on a project and then ever since then, anytime there's been an opportunity to work together, I try to sneak him in. I mean, to, like, reel him in.

Ben - Absolutely. Yeah. It's great to be talking to everyone today, and for this chance to really reflect on what it means to be a creative, what it means to be the new creative, and putting that video together that you just saw, it was a really good chance to really look back at a body of work and to see a long view. And I think that for Andrea and I in our conversations recently, there's been a lot of discussion about just this idea that being an artist and being a creator that it's not just about being in the studio. It's not just about being holed up in a creative environment where you're making new works. It's about living life and it's about relationships and it's about the everyday mundane thing that you do, you know, the June, or not the June, the March in the video of the sort of, the chaos of the new normal. That really is so much a part of what it means to be an artist in this day. It's just taking the mundane and finding the magic in it. And so, yeah, I think for us this quarantine time, as hard as it's been and as challenging and real and painful as it's been, it's also, it's a disruption, and within a disruption, it creates opportunity. And for Andrea and me, it's been a minute since we've collaborated, and now we have multiple projects going and we're collaborating a lot more than we have in the past year, so on that front, it's been a positive.

Andrea - Yeah, absolutely. I'd like to just second that thought around how I think as artists, there's just such a practice of dealing with certain levels of uncertainty. Obviously not, we're not talking about the devastation of a pandemic and that kind of disruption, but just, it's a moving target. It is like a dilemma that you're constantly in. And so I think there's this refined response pattern to all of a sudden losing where you thought you might be working or a dancer you thought you might have or, you know, money you think you might have, or, you know, like, it's just, it's kind of a constant. And so being comfortable with working with what you have and constantly being able to still stay true to the direction you're going, but be flexible and let the new things come in and become part of the shape of what you do. For me, that's one of the things I like the most about the creative process and why I think Ben and I have been working so well together. I think we both have this approach of being very responsive and intuitive and sensitive to what is in front of us, calling that interesting, calling that something to look at.

Ben - Yeah, and Andrea, I did want to ask you a little bit about one of the points you made in the film that I'd love to hear a little bit more about, because when I heard it, your recording of it, I really resonated with it. And that was this idea of placing your fear into the work. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like for you and why you found that to be a constructive way to deal with the inevitable fears that comes with creation?

Andrea - Yeah, absolutely. I, I'd also love to hear what you think about that and how you deal with that. But for me, I just, you know, I started to notice that the fears that I was having about any of the pieces I was, you know, that I'm working in, they actually really relate to the piece itself, to the themes of the piece itself. If it's, you know, intimacy or pack mentality or whatever the subject is at hand and the nerves or the tension that come up actually are somehow very deeply, like, almost like an umbilical cord are tethered to that theme. And so if I start, instead of feeling like fear is this big color and there's, like, this noise, it's just like, but you just actually start listening to it and trying to make it more distinct and more specific. It actually is a really big teacher. And for me, it gets more doable when it's not something I'm trying to avoid and it's something that I'm allowing to inform me.

Ben - Yeah. Yeah. That is probably, for me, one of the greatest takeaways is that its fear is often the thing that we push the hardest against, and in a creative space, that is a distraction. It's causing you to fight the wrong battle when you're focusing your attention. And that can go for any project. That can go for any phase of life, parenthood or whatever your vocation is. Like, if it's driven by fear and fear is the thing that you're pushing against, and then it's this outside distraction that is causing you to take your eyes off what you should. And so that's something that I think working with you, I've learned and been inspired to try and understand what that looks like in film and in my process, because it's such a different rhythm. So, yeah, thank you. It got me thinking about it when we were watching the film. So, but yeah, we, I know we have a work that we want to share that we've been working on recently with Ballet Hispanico, and so I think that maybe we can introduce that video a little bit and talk about its formation, but maybe we should play it first. This is a video that, that Andrea was commissioned to do. Oh, I think you froze for a minute, but it looks like you're unfrozen.

Andrea - Am I back?

Ben - You're back.

Andrea - Holy moly. I was abducted, and then I came back and I learned some fascinating things.

Ben - You were frozen in a very big gesture.

Andrea - Oh, good.

Ben - Yeah, it was a really dramatic gesture.

Andrea - Nice.

Ben - Yeah, so I was shifting gears towards Ballet Hispanico, so.

Andrea - Oh yes, we should do that.

Ben - Maybe a little intro and then we can play the film.

Andrea - Right, so while we're learning how to work together, and at the same, we're learning how to work in a quarantine in this situation. And so we get an opportunity from Ballet Hispanico to make a film for their gala. And dancers are in Savannah, Georgia. Ben is in some place in Connecticut, I'm in another place in Connecticut. And we do this film, which you're going to see. Should we go for it?

Ben - Yeah.

Andrea - Do you want to say something about it? Let's do it.

Ben - All right. So maybe we should just chat a little bit about the process of making that. And I think that we should first give a huge congratulations to Chris and Gabby, the dancers who filmed themselves in that film. They were the ones who were dancing and capturing everything, so. But yeah, Andrea, maybe you can give a sense of what we were facing for that project.

Andrea - So this is I think quite early on in quarantine that this project came up. So we were really uncertain about how these two dancers, who are a couple, so they were staying together, were going to maybe safely find a location to shoot and rehearse, and then how would we actually, you know, capture, I mean, could Ben travel there. That kind of fell out as a possibility quite early on. And so the obvious concerns around how to make it. And then just I felt like everyone just, like I was saying in the previous film, that everyone leaned into getting excited about the new hats that they might wear in this new way of working. But the dancers were very excited about thinking about the camera work, and that became actually a lot of the conversation, as well as the movement. And none of our rehearsals took place on video. We actually did all our rehearsals, just talking on the phone about the concept and the intention of the movement and the quality of what we wanted to achieve. And they had some existing material from another piece I choreographed, so I asked them to sort of work from that material. And I think this way of giving them, like, this agency to become more collaborative in what was going to be the end result just, I think you can feel it in the work. They really brought so many, so much of themselves to it. It was a very emotional time, as it is now, and I think it gave us all an outlet to be able to explore it.

Ben - Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think the big take away from that project for me in collaborating was that we have so much at our disposal that we gloss over it, we glaze over it all the time, because we're in the mindset of the old systems. And so that's my big takeaway is that to be more present in our space, in our time, in our relationships and we'll find that there's often a wealth that we didn't realize was there. So yeah, and my alarm just went off informing us that we are entering the danger zone.

Andrea - Of our time together?

Ben - Yeah, yeah.

Andrea - Okay, well, I had a little story, the founder story I wanted to tell, you know, from that movie "The Founder." You don't? So I have a little, it's a little story. It's short. There's a movie called "The Founder." It's about McDonald's and the guy who sort of developed it from the first two originals. And you don't need to see the movie, but there's a moment in the movie that I really liked which is coming to mind during this time, which is that, so the lawyer of the founder asks him, you know, what do you think your business is? And the founder's like, well, it's the restaurant business, obviously. And the lawyer's like, no, you're in real estate. And for me, this has been a time in which it's asking myself, and I've noticed that around me is asking ourselves, like, what is actually our business? Is it, you know, filling seats in a theater, or is it, you know, getting whatever it might be, what is the true investment of your pursuit and the direction of your pursuit? And it's been just really inspiring to find out for me, of course the theater is a treasure and it's something I love and hope to go back to soon. But my work is really about what you were saying, what we were talking about, this building of connection, and that it can exist in any space, in any, in so many more conversations. And that is actually what the work at hand is. And it's been interesting to use, to have this quarantine to reflect on that and clarify that, and, like, yeah, become sort of, have this conviction about really what my business is. And through working with Ben, I'm learning that there's really an infinite future ahead of what's possible to think about creatively. And I see this dialogue opening up in so many places with so many people, with presenters, and I do feel that there are some good sticky things emerging through this creative source. Yeah.

Ben - Yeah, it's hugely inspiring in the midst of a tough time and a difficult time. So yeah, not assuming that you know the shape of your pursuit, you know, and really using this time as a way to re-examine the fundamentals. And I think that for so many of us, that that's where the hope can germinate from. That's a place that can be hugely optimistic and inspiring. Well, I guess we'll probably have to leave it at that.

Andrea - Yeah, I'd just like to point out how you can see that a filmmaker has such a better, like, framing and lighting and everything than I do. It's just in the details. Let's just point that out.

Ben - There's a lot of information that is intriguing in your frame that leads me, you know, there's a lot of story in your frame.

Andrea - Okay.

Ben - Mine might be about light and shadow.

Andrea - It's, like, movement.

Ben - But yours is about space.

Andrea - Okay.

Ben - So, great. We're in our lane.

Andrea - Great. Good.

Ben - All right, well, thanks, everyone, for hanging in there, and have a great evening, and thanks again for this opportunity.

Ben - See you, Andrea.

Andrea - See you. Thank you.

Ben - Bye.

Andrea - Bye.

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