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How My Former Job as a Ballet Dancer Helped Me Be a Better Creative



INFLUENCER: Wavemaker UK ECD Ann Wixley on translating the art and craft of classical ballet into the creative process

How My Former Job as a Ballet Dancer Helped Me Be a Better Creative

'Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it.’  - 1992 essay from The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K Le Guin.

Creatives are like cats too. We must know ourselves. Cracking ideas under pressure demands a type of self-knowledge and self-mastery. We must inhabit other bodies, not just our own. Empathy gets us to the insight from which a good idea springs. And we need to know not just where we begin but where we end. How else will we work open-mindedly and collaboratively? How else will we lead a team?

Then again, a lot of humans are rather like dogs - we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. 

But according to Ursula K Le Guin, the people who have ‘the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers.’

I started out as a dancer, joining Cape Town City Ballet (CAPAB) at 17 as a soloist and principal ballet dancer. Earlier that year I’d won one of the top prizes at the Prix de Lausanne, something I have in common with Darcey Bussell, alongside whom I performed at a 20th anniversary gala for Princess Caroline of Monaco. 

I also performed for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1994. I followed a group of traditional witch doctors who’d strewn bones across the stage. This was undoubtedly the most nerve-racking performance I have had, with a sea of people gathered to witness this milestone in our country’s history.

I’ve now spent more hours putting myself in consumers’ shoes rather than critiquing myself in the studio mirror, yet I find myself still applying many of the principles I learned from the art and craft of classical ballet.

1. Celebrate the constraints 

In our job we must answer precisely the right question, with exactly the right kind of idea, using the most effective ingredients in order to complement the whole. Working with constraints is where the application of our creativity is at its most powerful and compelling. There is no such thing as a boring brief.

Sleeping Beauty was a favourite of mine precisely because of its constraints. The challenge was in finding the truth within a trite tale and its stylised choreography, that elevated it to a story of coming of age and first love that a contemporary audience would be moved by. I watched black and white footage of Dame Margot Fonteyn’s Sleeping Beauty that I’d recorded from a TV show. Her artistry, restraint and precise musicality is what made her Princess Aurora magical. She found joy within the lines and transcended them.

2. Zoom in, zoom out 

I studied Stanislavski’s Method, a system for actors founded on the ‘act of embodiment’ or accessing your character from the ‘inside out’; and the ‘act of representation’ or ‘outside in', superficially doing the actions as the emotion will inevitably follow. Fake it to make it, in other words.

As a dancer, I learned to both immerse myself in the character and zoom out to check that what I was doing was effective for the audience simultaneously. After all, my job was to transport them… not simply indulge in being someone else for a night.  

I recall a scene from Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is alone in the bedroom deciding whether or not to take the sleeping potion. I played that moment kneeling quite still and small, in the centre of the huge bed, looking out into the audience. I would be both in Juliet’s head and on the outside looking in - making sure to leave space for the audience to become Juliet surrounded by Prokofiev’s swelling score, alone in that room, choosing to love or walk away. 

I find myself applying those two modes broadly now. For example: 

Toggling between them helps with idea development and facilitation of that process. 

Step 1 - put oneself in the audience’s shoes to generate an idea. 

Step 2 - zoom out and walk around the idea as if it were a statue and critique it. 


3. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

A performer’s job is to get to the truth of a character and a story in order to transport the audience with them. It is simply not about you. 

This principle applies at Wavemaker where we work audience-first and use our insight into people’s purchase journeys to unlock new opportunities and to inform our ideas.

It applies to a creative evolving into a creative director to lead a team. As a director, your job is to create the conditions for your team to flourish - making sure the briefs are good, that they have freedom, and support. 

4. Context matters 

The staging, what has gone before, which part of the story is being told, where the focus needs to be, are all factors an artistic director must consider when directing a scene. The dancers must play their part, no more, no less. The ideas, and the role they play within a broader campaign and for your client’s business, are no different.

Where, when, why and how an idea is delivered is as important as what the message is. The medium can be the message. And these two elements will integrate even more in the future as technology enables people more.

Inspiration for ideas comes from context; from culture to the delivery platform itself. 

5. ‘Negative Capability’ (a term used by Keats & Wilfred Bion)

This is the capacity to stay with uncertainty and the unknown of new data until new understanding emerges. The capacity to tolerate the actual frustration involved in learning.

As a creative we must work with uncertainty, and for most, uncertainty is uncomfortable. It’s why live performances and idea creation under pressure are scary and exciting in equal measure.

The only way to prepare for it, to inhabit, know it and enjoy it fully, is to practice at being more cat.

Ann Wixley is executive creative director at Wavemaker UK

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Wavemaker UK, Mon, 31 Dec 2018 13:09:40 GMT