Sketching in Choreography

The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp, is probably the best reference I’ve come across for learning how to “sketch” in the performing arts. It’s a reflective look at her career as a choreographer and the lessons she’s uncovered for sparking creativity.

There are many systems of dance notation but that’s not what this post is about. For sketching we’re more concerned with techniques for generating and exploring ideas and it turns out that graphic methods aren’t a good fit.

Choreography reflects physical interactions between people and their environment. Early in her book Ms. Tharp notes that “you can prepare, order, organize, structure and edit your creativity in your head, but you can’t think your way into a dance.” You have to move. You have to feel your way through. She’s describing the limits of rational analysis; the need for an intuitive approach. For service designers the obvious parallels are informance and bodystorming, two approaches to physical brainstorming developed by Interval Research in the mid nineties.

The techniques involve improvising design solutions in context. Interval Research introduced the idea in a brief paper called Actors, Hairdos and Videotape [PDF 360K] at CHI 1994. The book Design Research, edited by Brenda Laurel, includes a more recent overview of informance by Eric Dishman, formerly of Interval Research, for more background. It’s more of a theatrical technique, so I’ll go into more detail later.

In the context of choreography, Ms. Tharp calls her improvisational style “scratching:”

When I’m scratching I’m improvising. Like a jazz musician jamming for an hour to find a few interesting notes, a choreographer looks for interesting movement. … It’s a habitual routine to keep you going.

It always seemed to me that one of the hardest things about sketching a dance would be remembering the ideas you generated out on the stage. Tharp addresses that point through the work of a Harvard psychologist named Stephen Kosslyn. There are four steps involved in the development of an idea:

  1. Generation
  2. Retention
  3. Inspection
  4. Transformation

With paper sketching it’s easy. The act of sketching on paper is directly tied to the act of saving those sketches. It’s a trivial matter to return to past sketches, inspect them and select the most promising for further development.

But with choreography, as with service design, the interactions are ephemeral. They exist only in the moment. Ms. Tharp originally tried to teach herself to switch into “capture mode” when she stumbled across an interesting step but that was inefficient because the process of continually evaluating her own movement and deciding what to save interfered with the concentration necessary to generate those ideas in the first place.

Her solution was a video camera. She tapes her improvisation sessions and then inspects the footage afterward to glean the most interesting steps. A little like the process a movie director uses to review dailies after a shoot.

For service design, I see promise in a team-based solution along the same lines. Two members of the team function as an ad hoc documentary crew, while everyone else works through a bodystorming session. The observers focus on capturing ideas that bubble up from the improvisation. Whenever they recognize something that’s worth coming back to, they jot it down or snap a photo (or if videotaping, note the timecode). Then afterward the team can review and rotate other team members into the role. This frees the team “onstage” to focus on pure idea generation without losing any of the insights.

I think my favorite aspect of Ms. Tharp’s philosophy is her concept of the “spine” of a performance. She describes it as the toehold that gets you started; the motivating idea. This kernel of an interaction is something that gradually builds as the rest of the performance takes shape. It’s not always apparent in the final analysis; more of an underlying structure. For me this notion of the “spine” of a performance seems to fit nicely with concept of a customer journey. I use a similar idea in interaction design — crafting one particular flow through a process that resonates with me and then branching out from that solution and allowing it to inform the balance of supporting interactions.

Another structural insight that I’ve found in several domains is the importance of sketching at multiple scales. Ms. Tharp calls this “zooming out.” When she’s learned all she can at the core of a piece, she pulls back and becomes detached enough to really understand it. For service design, the need to develop a holistic perspective is another reason to consider rotating members of the team into the role of observer during ideation. As you zoom out you start to understand the service encounter in context — both the spine of the performance onstage and the customer journey as a whole. That way the design works at multiple scales.

Finally, an insight won from painful experience. The human aspect of performance makes sketching with people inherently more difficult than sketching with paper or clay. People have feelings and that makes the decision to alter a scene or cut a part fraught with political consequences. In service design the same sort of idea applies. There are a whole series of motivations and incentives built into a service encounter that can’t always be pushed aside. If the solution to a problem involves designing someone out of a job there’s going to be some friction. It’s something for service designers to keep in mind.

Choreography has always seemed like a natural metaphor for service design. Both focus on the interaction of people and environments and when it comes to sketching a performance they share the same core principles.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Music
Sketching in Film
Sketching in Screenwriting
• Sketching in Theater

  1. shelley evenson

    This is a great post Jeff.

  2. I’m interested in your thoughts on deliberately constructing environments for these sketching activities. I would be surprised if Twyla Tharp taped herself in her dance studio every time she scratched; what’s more likely is that in addition to her studio, she scratched in environments that presented physical constraints, evoked an emotion, or provided context for storytelling.

    And what about an extreme environment (or context), one in which a mental or emotional state is induced for the sketching activity? I’m not talking about mind-altering substances (nor I am neglecting to mention them), but on the order of hypnosis, flow, or empathy that may be desirable for certain activities. This may be getting into improvisational and/or character acting and theatre, and I know you’re going to discuss these topics later in the series, but I’m interested in the relationship between these arts.

    Great post, Jeff.

  3. Jeff

    Hi Steve, I’ve seen a few examples of service designers constructing environments out of foam-core to prototype a space, but to me it seems to be an evaluative activity, rather than a generative one. Such environments violate the “quick, timely, inexpensive, disposable, plentiful and ambiguous” nature of sketching.

    I’d be more in favor of repurposing existing spaces that mimic qualities of the environment important to the service. For the informance paper I mentioned in the post, the team held their ideation sessions in a hair salon. I’ve generated ideas on the subway platforms here in San Francisco. Having some suitable props in your arsenal can transform an open studio space into just about anything. Think “Our Town.” Folding chairs are a great resource in that regard.

    The mental preparation necessary for improvisation is definitely something I’ll cover when we get to theater, but for service design, sensitizing the team through ethnographic observation is a good place to start. For choreography, I’m not sure how they do it; but I’d like to find out from some working choreographers at some point.

    When it comes to mind-altering drugs, I suggest plenty of caffeine. 🙂

  4. Jeff

    You might also be interested in this article about Laban Movement Analysis

    and in Dennis Schleicher’s bodystorming resources
    see to start



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