Susanne Bentley

Contemporary dancer, improvisor, teacher, choreographer & coach


NDD- Créateurs et la question du feedback

The questions:

The article is about feedback in art, and creation in general.
So it’s about all the meanings that you may use in order to communicate, exchange about your work, whatever the stage of the work is (beginning, in progress, end..). Between you and the dancers who are working with you, on collective works. Between you and other choreographers. Between you and the audience.
– Do you use tools, methods in particular for these exchanges? Would you like to get more feedback? Or in a different way?
– How working with people who are not dancers, as in Bal Moderne for example, involve different type of exchanges, of communication from with with professionnals?
– Are there special moments in the past when a feedback that you received brought you to an important step in your work? What is useful and what is not?
– With the audience did you experience good feedback?

English- complete text:
Shortened version published in NDD- l’actualité de la danse: automne/octobre 10, no. 49, edited by Nadia Benzekri

SUSANNE BENTLEY, dancer, improvisor, teacher & choreographer

I currently work a lot with SoloConversations which is a collective that grew out of my need to share the practice of performance improvisation, in order to have an audience. Andrew Morrish was my inspiration for this way of practising. In the beginning the feedback was very much based on Andrew’s system of positive feedback, which is in turn inspired by Al Wunder (Theatre of the Ordinary). You find out what you like doing and watching onstage and build an idea of your own aesthetic out of that process by analysing and articulating that analysis.

As a performer you talk first in the feedback round afterwards about what you found interesting/entertaining/fun/inspiring etc. and why. The why is very important in analysing, in order to be able to use the information afterwards in a conscious way. The watchers then respond with what they enjoyed seeing and why. So, the feedback you give from the outside is telling more about you than it is about anything else. I use metaphors of giving you more tools in your toolbox, or adding colours to your palette. If you see someone doing something amazing and you know why it’s amazing maybe you choose to replicate or try out the principles in the next improvisation.

I teach improvisation using this method, which means beginners to professionals can work in the same class. Frequently professionals are surprised and excited at the freshness of beginners and beginners inspired by the technical ability of professionals. It levels the playing field if you like, because you are looking for positive things. Everyone can be interesting onstage, we all have something different and unique. It gives a certain ambience to the class and a feeling of trust within the group. After having someone in my class for a while I feel ok about suggesting new things they might like to try, or pointing out certain habits that they may or may not like to change. Improvisation is such an exposure of one’s self, that I feel it’s important to acknowledge this. I also am not interested in imposing my aesthetic on someone else in class, I just want to give them more tools to discover theirs.

I also use positive feedback often when teaching other workshops or technique classes, especially on the first day. You mostly arrive not knowing the people and you are there maybe only a couple of days, so cannot know them well enough to give too much accurate or in depth critical feedback. Some amateurs also need a lot of encouragement to feel ok about challenging themselves to go out of their comfort zone. I ask participants to give each other positive feedback too, as they may not know each other at all. Sometimes I also ask them to help each other by working as a couple to figure out how to do a certain complex movement, or ask more advanced students to help others who are struggling. This partner work is important in establishing the outside eye/analytical gaze needed to learn movement. It also gives the student practice in analysing movement and articulating that, providing them tools with which to give better feedback.

After a certain amount of time there was resistance in SoloConversations to using this method of only giving positive feedback. We are used, as professionals, to receiving an learning from criticism. So, we began to add critical feedback also as a possibility, along with positive.

Humans in general are very good at self-flagellation, we are our own best and worst critics. Sadly though we end up often only giving and receiving the negative stuff, not celebrating the things that do work. I therefore use this as an argument in my classes/ workshops to stick to positive feedback.

I do think that analysing improvisation performances in a critical way does speed up the learning process, but it must be done in a caring way for me. In SoloConversations we now know each other so well that we can be very honest about expressing what works and doesn’t, people’s habits (annoying ones as well as good ones), our strengths as a group and our weaknesses. Acknowledging what we are good at and noting our progress over the years as a group is very important. We can now analyse a show afterwards and be more objective in our view of errors, without falling into despair. We are then very active in working on our weaker points- individually and as a group.

Set choreography is a different for me in that the choreographer is trying to communicate something specific in a specific way. I may not like the piece aesthetically, or not think the communication of the idea was clear, but I find I can always say something positive about the piece, even if it’s just the lighting design. Seeing things you like is equivalent to using a muscle: if you don’t use it it gets weak. After giving positive feedback the person involved will usually be more receptive to hearing critical feedback. This feedback for me must involve the analysis, the why. If you cannot articulate the why, maybe it will take a bit more thinking about. If you are having a dialogue and can say “I think this but I’m not sure why”, maybe the choreographer is open to thinking along with you.

If I am in a dramaturgue/assistant role I make sure I know what the choreographer is trying to achieve and work towards that. I question a lot, ask them to define the what and why. If they have chosen me to work with them I guess they are aware of my aesthetic, so I can give critical feedback from that position as well as positive. I trust they can defend their choices if they don’t agree. The same goes when I work as a dancer for a choreographer. I have become less attached to my material and more concerned with giving them what they are looking for or what they need to clearly communicate what they want to say.

On the receiving end (for choreography, improvisation, teaching) I think that you must be open to all feedback, but choosy about what you actually really listen to, filtering the rest out. Talking to someone with the same aesthetic/ideas as you will be probably more useful. Having said that, sometimes people off the street have a different perspective that can be refreshing and also give you important information. I ask for both positive and critical feedback about my teaching and performances in order to improve what I give. I try to put aside my ego and analyse if I feel the feedback is useful or not. I don’t listen to anyone who just says “it was crap” without telling me why, but I will happily accept all positive feedback! I think we deserve every bit for putting ourselves time and time again on the line in front of others. It’s a tough profession, every pat on the back helps.

Over the years I have received a lot of feedback for different things. The most important in forming how I now give feedback in class is a reaction to a teacher I had in dance school who would yell and attack you verbally. He taught by making you want to prove to him he was wrong about you. I rose to the bait, but I hated it. It made me so determined not to be like him.

Julyen Hamilton also once told me when I asked how to cope with feeling like there wasn’t enough space onstage for me because there was too much going on, that there was always enough space for me. This really stuck, because when you work with 7 or 8 people the space can get very busy. It changed the way I saw myself in the piece. Members of SoloConversations encouraged me to take the space more and we were then also more aware of leaving space for each other to take solo moments. As a group we worked on doing less and being in supporting roles.

I also received important critical feedback about my choreography at one point, which served to make me change the way I approach the construction of my current works- going from maximal mode (cramming in a lot of ideas) to minimal (going deep into one idea). We are always learning, and if we can give and receive all kinds of feedback it makes our learning richer.
back to top

français- text en entier:
Version courte publié dans NDD- l’actualité de la danse: automne/octobre 10, no. 49

SUSANNE BENTLEY, danseuse, improvisatrice, chorégraphe, formatrice

« Actuellement, je travaille beaucoup avec SoloConversations, un collectif né de mon besoin de partager la pratique de l’improvisation performance, dans le but d’avoir un public. Cette pratique m’a été inspirée par Andrew Morrish et son système de feedback positif, lui-même inspiré par Al Wunder (Theatre of Ordinary). Vous découvrez ce que vous aimez en faisant sur scène et en regardant, et vous élaborez une idée de votre propre esthétique à partir de ce processus, par l’analyse et l’articulation de cette analyse.
Après une performance, on parle de ce que l’on a trouvé intéressant, divertissant, gai, inspirant, etc. et pourquoi. Le pourquoi est très important dans l’analyse, pour pouvoir ensuite utiliser les informations de manière consciente. Le feedback que vous donnez de l’extérieur en dit plus sur vous que sur le reste. C’est un peu comme avoir plus d’outils dans votre boîte à outils ou ajouter des couleurs à votre palette. Si vous voyez quelqu’un faire quelque chose de surprenant et que vous savez pourquoi, vous choisirez peut-être de reproduire cette chose ou d’en essayer les principes lors de la prochaine improvisation.
J’enseigne l’improvisation avec cette méthode, ce qui implique que débutants et professionnels peuvent travailler ensemble. Les professionnels sont souvent surpris et enthousiastes devant la fraîcheur des débutants, qui sont eux-mêmes stimulés par l’habileté technique des professionnels. Au bout d’un moment, je peux suggérer des nouveautés à un participant, ou relever certaines habitudes qu’il peut vouloir changer ou non. L’improvisation est une telle exposition de soi-même qu’il me semble important de reconnaître cela. Cela ne m’intéresse pas d’imposer mon esthétique aux personnes qui suivent mes cours, je veux juste leur donner plus d’outils pour découvrir la leur.
Après un certain temps, à SoloConversations il y a eu une résistance à cette méthode de feedback uniquement positif. En tant que professionnels, nous sommes habitués à recevoir des critiques et à apprendre de celles-ci. Nous avons donc ajouté le feedback critique comme possibilité.
Je suis convaincue qu’analyser les performances d’improvisation accélère l’apprentissage, mais cela doit être mené avec soin. A SoloConversations, nous nous connaissons maintenant si bien qu’il nous est possible d’être très honnêtes au sujet de ce qui fonctionne et de ce qui ne fonctionne pas, des habitudes de chacun (les bonnes et les mauvaises), nos forces et nos faiblesses en tant que groupe. Prendre conscience de ce que nous accomplissons et de nos progrès au fil des années importe beaucoup. Nous sommes capables d’analyser un spectacle après la représentation et d’être plus objectifs quant à nos erreurs, sans tomber dans le découragement. Nous travaillons activement à nos points faibles, individuellement et en groupe.
Quand je vois une chorégraphie, je peux ne pas aimer esthétiquement la danse, ou ne pas estimer l’idée claire, mais je peux toujours dire quelque chose de positif. Voir ce que l’on aime est comme un muscle: s’il vous ne l’utilisez pas, cela s’affaiblit. La personne qui a reçu un retour positif est souvent prête à recevoir une critique négative. Ce retour implique pour moi l’analyse, le pourquoi. Si vous ne pouvez articuler les pourquoi, cela nécessite plus de réflexion. Si vous entamez un dialogue et dites « je pense ceci, je ne sais pas exactement pourquoi », alors le chorégraphe désirera peut-être y réfléchir avec vous.
Un jour, Julyen Hamilton, à qui je demandais comment me débrouiller avec mon sentiment qu’il n’y avait pas assez de place sur scène pour moi parce qu’il s’y passait trop de choses, m’avait répondu qu’il y avait toujours assez de place pour moi. Cela m’a vraiment frappé parce que lorsque vous travaillez avec sept ou huit personnes, l’espace peut réellement devenir chargé. Cela a changé ma manière de me voir dans l’ensemble. Les membres de SoloConversations m’ont encouragé à occuper plus l’espace et nous sommes aussi devenus plus attentifs à laisser de l’espace à chacun pour des moments en solo. En groupe, nous avons travaillé à en faire moins et à remplir un rôle de soutien les uns pour les autres. »

Recueilli par Nadia Benzekri
haut de page