On The Road with Raja: Unfamiliar Territory or more confessions for an emerging artist

On The Road with Raja: Unfamiliar Territory or more confessions for an emerging artist

Published on October 2, 2012

Raja's Rules for Choreography

Unfamiliar Territory

or more confessions from an emerging artist

October 2nd, 2012

Raja Feather Kelly for The Dance Enthusiast

*Raja's work can be seen this weekend at Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg.

Have you ever lost your sunglasses and had someone say to you, “Just forget about them,” and the moment you do, you find them? This is a lot like my experience during my creative residency at REMEDY Berlin in Germany with choreographic mentor, Ami Garmon. I got ideas, I lost them, and just as soon as I decided to forget trying to recreate or retrieve them, they came back to my mind.

For the past year, I have been working on creating content for a new project. I spent another three to four months looking for opportunities to develop it. New York City subways are not creative residencies, but they are surely incubators for ideas. Time away from the world and into the landscapes of the mind is imperative for work to grow and develop. A day in my life as a dancer, writer and administrator leaves not one extra hour for me to support my most personal creative habits - let alone thinking.

Garmon and Kelly in process: Photo courtesy of Raja Kelly.

One of the stipulations for my residency in Germany set by my mentor was that I constantly throw myself into unfamiliar territory. This was like someone asking me to jump off a bridge, trusting that I would spring back on a bungee cord. You can’t train for this kind of trust, and like roller coasters, tattoos, and Pringles, once you start, you can’t stop. You become addicted to the risk and the thrill. Happily, in this case, taking risks yields rich results.

Before my residency, my experience in dealing with unfamiliar territory always happened by chance. I would find myself in places and situations that would require me to employ critical thinking and problem solving skills. I never thought about volunteering to get lost. In college, I thought I had the whole thing worked out.

I developed an easy five-step system to dance-making, and as contrived and superficial as it may sound, it taught me to trust my ideas and to dive into creating without becoming too precious over results.



Ami Garmon, Raja's mentor, in the Think Tank in Germany: Photo courtesy of Raja Kelly.




Raja’s Easy Five-Step System for College Dance-Makers.



1. Identify the most creative and clear idea you can, and at that moment, decide to “make a piece.”
2. Create a dance phrase combining the most dramatic, extreme, tricky, or slow movement; if necessary use a prop or a small set.
3. Find a costume that allows your performance to double as a fashion show.
4. Invite the best dancers in the dance department to be in your show by convincing them that your piece will be the most provocative one on the program.
5. (Optional) When in doubt, improvise to any Radiohead album but The Bends.

This system worked well for my first two years of college. Then I attended the American Dance Festival as a scholarship student and saw for the first time live, the work of William Forsythe, Mark Morris, Shen Wei, and Martha Graham among other more contemporary choreographers. I remember thinking, “Dance now, make later.” That's hard!

My goals now are different, my ideas more complex. The more I learn about dance and performance, the more I learn about myself and subsequently the more paralyzed I become. The challenge of creating reveals an unfathomable chasm.




In rehearsal for work in progress, Mutt - Photo courtesy of Raja and Kelly.

Raja’s New Five-Step Process




1. The Choice.

Natalie Portman, one of my favorite actresses, said, “There’s a moment, always a moment, (where one says,) “I can do this, I can give into this, or I can resist it.”

It doesn’t really matter what she was talking about then, because her words have always stuck with me. They acknowledge choice. There is a moment when you decide you’re going to make a new work, to fulfill an idea, or realize a performance. From that moment on, you’re committed to do whatever it takes.

My choice was to create a new work: Who’s Afraid of Andy Warhol?




2. The Prep.

Plant your feet, take a look around, and know where you are. When you land, knowing where you came from makes all the difference. This can also be described as becoming aware, which can be very difficult and almost contradictory.

Here you are on this cliff, and you are about to jump. You have no idea where you will land. Beyond your fear is a requirement that you notice the wind on your face, the sun (or the moon if you are jumping at night) and everything else that’s in-between. Fortunately this is something you can practice.

I am a big fan of journaling, and Ami, my mentor, introduced me to two really great books The Artists Way by Julie Cameron, and Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization. Both of these books address the value of awareness and the strength one gains from the presence one gives to each moment of creative process. Each of these books offer different ways to practice writing down your thoughts. In The Artist’s Way, I read about the importance of centering myself. Creative Visualization spoke about manifesting the experience you want - seeing it before your eyes, and not creating expectations of it coming true, but identifying and valuing what you enjoy.






In rehearsal for work in progress, Mutt - Photo courtesy of Raja and Kelly.





3. The Jump.

I am going to call on modern dance’s fore-mother again. I just can’t say it any better.

“The dancer is realistic. His craft teaches him to be. Either the foot is pointed or it is not. No amount of dreaming will point it for you. This requires discipline, not drill, not something imposed from without, but discipline imposed by you yourself upon yourself… Your goal is freedom. But freedom may only be achieved through discipline. In the studio you learn to conform, to submit yourself to the demands of your craft, so that you may finally be free.”
- Martha Graham

Interpretation: JUMP! (Literally and figuratively)



4. The Fall.

This is clearly the best part. There is no control, there is no going back. There is only enjoying the fruits of your labor, and accepting whatever may come.
(You might be wondering at this point what it is that I actually did. My residency in unfamiliar territory attempted to rid me of most things I find safe and many operating modes I am comfortable with. I was encouraged to commit to as few habits as possible.

The first two weeks had very little dancing, and for me, this was excruciating. I love to move, I love to be active, I love to go, go, and go more and more. I also have very particular ways of sitting down to write at certain times of the day. I found myself getting up in the middle of the night to write, or to record myself having a conversation. Once (more than once) I was caught dancing in the bathroom of a restaurant.

I was, however, very diligent about research, but even this took me away from movement. The result was that I meditated on my questions and became aware of how much information is available to me if I just listen and look. My tasks were to find out about where around me my work exists. From where am I bringing what through the medium of dance? For this work I am wondering what is still current or resurfacing from the 60s and the Silver Era. This work describes my falling.)




5. The Landing.

You will always land on another cliff.

You will have lost your sunglasses.





For more information on Raja Feather Kelly

Click here for performance info.






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