The Uncertain Leader: Crystal Pite and the ‘Doldrums of Doubt’

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s  Flight Pattern . © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Crystal Pite creates dance for the modern world. She has choreographed touching and thought provoking pieces that respond to personal trauma, grief and addiction; to the science of swarm intelligence; to the tragedy of the refugee crisis. She deals in organic structures and fluid shapes; complex patterns and restless waves. She explores the forces, conflicts and tensions at play in our bodies, our relationships and the world beyond.

‘It’s just human beings striving and yearning and reaching and trying. That is what moves me when I watch people dance.’

In person Pite seems a quiet presence, gentle and softly spoken. She is very articulate, but also cautious and considered.

‘I don’t feel that speaking is my first language. Dance is my first language.’

In a recent BBC documentary (Behind the Scenes, Radio 4, 25 July 2017) Pite is interviewed in the midst of rehearsals for ‘Flight Pattern,’ her first collaboration with the Royal Ballet. She openly expresses her anxieties about the piece.

‘I can feel that I’m overwhelmed by this project right now. It’s ambitious and there’s very little time, and I’m not convinced about some of the choices that I’ve made, and I don’t know if things are going to work. And if they don’t work, I don’t think I’m going to have time to come up with a Plan B.’

Pite reassures herself that persistence, effort, action and creation will see her through what she calls ‘the doldrums of doubt.’

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

‘Keep pushing through, just keep making. Keep making, keep imagining, keep building, keep trying. Otherwise I’ll just freeze.’

Pite’s candour about her misgivings is rare and compelling in someone so successful. And yet her uncertainty comes in harness with a steely determination, and a clear conviction about her core idea and end objective.

‘I have such a clear plan for the eye of the audience…Not only do I choreograph what’s on stage. I also choreograph the viewer. I choreograph what I think they’re going to be looking at.’

Pite is the very model of a modern creative leader. She has complete confidence about where she wants to go. But she is also open about the doubts and uncertainties, opportunities and threats that present themselves along the way.

‘I have to be a leader and I have to be a creator. Being a leader requires that I know what I’m doing. I need to walk in here, into the studio, and know; and to be able to be clear and decisive and sure. And being a creator is really the opposite of that. I need to be in a state of not knowing. I need to remain open to possibilities and to allow myself to meander and to play.’

It struck me that Pite’s remarks do not pertain just to creative leadership; but to all forms of leadership in an age of change. In the past we wanted our leaders to be consistently certain, steadfast and strong. But in times of transformation complete conviction about the future can come across as arrogant, misguided or delusional. When all around us is in flux, absolute certainty is absolutely impossible.

Of course, we need our leaders to be sure about the objectives we’re pursuing; the direction we’re headed. But we also need them to be more honest about their doubts and fears; more open to alternatives and opportunities; more responsive to events and circumstances.

‘Flight Pattern’ turned out to be an exceptional piece of modern dance. It was at once beautiful and sad; heartbreaking and inspiring. Its success must in part derive from its choreographer’s willingness to embrace her apprehensions and anxieties. Uncertain times call for uncertain leaders.

No. 143

Alessandra Ferri: Following Conviction, Not Convention

I recently attended a talk at the Royal Opera House given by the magnificent dancer, Alessandra Ferri. She has been in London rehearsing for the Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, an imaginative and inspiring response to the legacy of Virginia Woolf (Royal Opera House, 21 January to 14 February).

Ferri dances with fluidity, intensity, personality. Her body is strong and supple; her mind alert and acute. Her long dark locks flow freely down her back. She is composed, quietly spoken, modest. And she talks with complete clarity and conviction.

‘I was an introverted child who lived more in my imagination. At 10 I knew that the inner world is bigger than the outside world.’

Born in Milan in 1963, Ferri had no family connection with ballet, but she instinctively understood it was her calling. At 15 years of age she left Italy for the Royal Ballet School, and by 19 she was a Principal in the Royal Ballet.

‘I learned to dance, not as a ballerina, but as flesh and bone. When I dance I am not aware of the limitations of my body. I dance outside my body. I dance in space.’

Within two years of her promotion, Ferri was recruited by Mikhael Baryshnikov to American Ballet Theater in New York. Though much loved in London, she saw an opportunity to learn and grow.

‘Jerome Robins [the choreographer] taught me to play my body like music; not just as an exhibition of beauty, but as research of an inner life; not as a ballerina, but as a woman.’

In 2007, aged 44 and after 22 years with American Ballet Theater, Ferri determined that she wanted to spend more time with her two children. And so she retired, at the top of her game. Then, six years later, she changed her mind. Ferri came back to ballet. And she committed herself to the extraordinary regime of training and self-discipline that the decision entailed.

‘I didn’t miss being onstage or the applause. I missed feeling alive. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to be there.’

Consistently throughout her life Ferri has followed conviction, not convention. She has demonstrated a rare self-knowledge and freedom of thought. Next summer she returns to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to perform as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a role she first danced in 1984 when she was 21. She’ll be 53.

‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to doubt. I asked myself ‘What are you afraid of? Your own memory?’’

Alessandra Ferri teaches us not to set too much store by custom, practice or tradition. We are too often constrained by what others have done, what others might think, what others expect. She is an advert for spontaneity, instinct and intuition. What do I want? What do I think? What do I expect of myself? She decides for now, for the moment. And leaves the rest to fate.

‘If you say of anything that it’s just for now – then you never know, it might end up being for ever.’

We have all been gifted with instinct and intuition; with infinite imagination and internal lives. Do we set aside enough time to think and reflect, to fancy and dream? Or are our decisions determined by the job and the boss; by precedent and convention; by the irresistible force of inertia? Do we listen to the ‘still small voice’? Or are we endlessly calculating the smart choice, the sensible option? Are we supporting actors in someone else’s drama or are we stars in our own?

 

That’s it for 2016. We all deserve a break. 
Happy Christmas. 
The next piece will be published on Friday 6 January 2017. I’ll see you on the other side.

 

 

No. 111

 

 

Leadership: Are You a Gardener or a Mechanic?

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

I recently attended a talk given by the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor, and the Finnish composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. They’re currently working together on McGregor’s new ballet, Obsidian Tear (Royal Opera House, 28 May- 11 June).

McGregor’s style is angular and sharp; sinuous and curved; fast and physical. Though he has a clear personal vision of what he wants to achieve, he is also a collaborator. He partners variously with musicians, artists and writers; economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists; with anyone in fact that inspires his curiosity. He is also a theorist for whom dance is ‘physical thinking.’ He is as elegant and precise with words as he is with choreography.

‘I’m really passionate about creativity... I believe it can be taught and shared. And I think you can find things out about your own personal physical signature, your own cognitive habits, and use that as a point of departure to misbehave beautifully.’

Wayne McGregor, TEDGlobal 2012

McGregor suggests that ‘choreography is 80% psychology and 20% artistry.’ He likes to operate with and against the tensions that naturally exist between different dancers; to ‘notice and subvert hierarchy.’

‘It is as much about watching and noticing as it is about giving.’

Salonen seems of a similar mentality. In describing his approach to composition he says, ‘I’m more a gardener than a mechanic.’ He doesn’t simply arrange notes on a stave. A piece takes time and reflection. It is worked and reworked, accommodating new meditations and moods along the way.

I was quite struck by the picture of contemporary creative craft that McGregor and Salonen were painting. I liked the impression they gave of psychologically astute creative collaboration and sharing. And the notion of the leader as gardener rather than mechanic is a compelling one.

I think that many businesses today are run by Mechanic Leaders. They treat talent as an anonymous function, an asset, a cost; a resource to be maximised, an investment to be realised, a headcount to be reduced. They see companies as hierarchies, matrixes and ‘org’ charts; as circuit diagrams that are clean, logical and fixed; as ‘international business machines.’

Perhaps because of this perspective Mechanic Leaders have a strong sense of their own power and control, a sense of self worth that justifies to them their handsome remuneration packages.

In the classical music world Esa-Pekka Salonen has spoken out against the tradition of the egotistical, rock star conductor:

‘I hated the image of the omnipotent, God-like fucker who flies his private jet around the world and dates supermodels and so on.’

Esa-Pekka Salonen, FT, 5 December 2014

I’m sure we all recognise this personality type in the business community too.

For the Gardener Leader the talent within an organisation represents infinite potential and limitless possibility. It needs nurturing, encouragement, care and attention. The Gardener Leader is observant of strengths and weaknesses; sensitive to tensions and relationships; eager to experiment and explore. For them leadership is a dialogue rather than a monologue; a partnership rather than an act of authority. Consequently they are less autocratic and arrogant. For the Gardener Leader companies are organic cultures: interdependent, endlessly evolving communities.

Surely in the digital age we need our leaders to be more gardeners than mechanics. Surely we need leaders who can plant and nurture; tend and grow. Modern leadership is not about power; it’s about empowerment. It’s not about controlling; it’s about cultivating.

Surely the Head Gardener reaps the best harvest.

No. 81

 

Pretentious? Nous?

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

Philosophy, Salvator Rosa

When I went to school there were the Sports Guys and the Music Guys.

The Sports Guys liked doing circuit training, spraying Ralgex and making noises with their studs in the shower. The Music Guys wore heavy tweed overcoats, pored over the NME crossword and argued about the relative merits of Joy Division and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I liked both categories, but fundamentally I guess I was a Music Guy.

I went to college equipped with Country Born hair gel, ‘fu shoes and Radio London mix tapes. I covered my walls with album covers from Wah, Defunkt and Echo and the Bunnymen. I danced all night to James Brown and Washington Go Go. (Mine was an awkward, heavy-shoe shuffle that alienated girls more than it attracted them.)

I confess I became somewhat pretentious. But I imagine it was an innocent sort of pretentiousness. A love of words and ideas and debate. Of music, books and film.

Obviously pretentiousness is somewhat silly and self-important, but that’s part of its charm. Look at Salvator Rosa in the self portrait above from the National Gallery. He’s painted himself as a sensitive, brooding philosopher , braving a dark, stormy world. He’s carrying a Latin inscription (natch) that reads ‘Keep silent unless you have something more important to say than silence’. How absurd, how pretentious, how cool…

 

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant   1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

Self Portrait in a Turban, Duncan Grant 1961 Estate of Duncan Grant courtesy Henrietta Garnett

 

Last summer I visited Charleston, the Sussex country home and social hub of the Bloomsbury art set between the wars. They painted the walls and furniture, they painted each other, they discussed pacifism, ballet and the global financial crisis. They made a show of drinking coffee rather than tea. To be honest I didn’t love all the decorative artwork and I wasn’t too sure about their sleeping arrangements. But I had to admire the fact that they had a view about the world, a design for living.

When I left college I fell into advertising as I thought it was one of the few professions where we Music Guys were welcome. Advertising is an art not a science, it’s creative persuasion, lateral thought. Advertising folk cultivated curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets. I felt at home.

In the ’90s our Agency produced the Levi’s campaign and I recall it referencing Ansel Adams, Hunter S Thompson, Rodchenko, Bill Brandt, Burt Lancaster and more besides. Pretentious perhaps, but also bracing stuff.

Now let’s be clear. I’m certainly not a subscriber to the view that advertising is art. At its best it’s creativity applied to a commercial end. But I do believe that creativity needs to be inspired, catalysed and nourished by a broader set of cultural references and ideas.

Of late I’ve begun to  wonder whether we Music Guys have lost our way and our voice a little. I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre. Shouldn’t the Agency be abuzz with fevered debate about Hockney and Hirst? Shouldn’t creative reviews be inspired by more  than YouTube? I worry in fact that we have become less pretentious.

Perhaps people work so hard nowadays that they don’t have time to develop what Denis Healey called a ‘hinterland’. Maybe it’s straitened times. We want to be seen as sensible, rational, commercial. Maybe it’s Anglo Saxon reserve. We apply a blanket pejorative to anything slightly outside the norms of conversation and thought. Perhaps it’s British anti-intellectualism. Our TV is dominated by unreality shows, costume anti-dramas, middle brow mundanity (what Simon Schama recently labelled ‘cultural necrophilia’). Our Queen prefers Lambourn to Glyndebourne. Our Prime Minister prefers tennis to Tennyson. And his favourite read is a cook book. Maybe we’re just too busy jogging.

Whatever the source of the problem, l’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness. I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse from the world of art, academia and literature. Not just because it’s interesting, challenging, funny. But because today’s obscure eccentric is tomorrow’s bright young thing. Because creativity’s favourite bedfellows are difference and diversity.

So I’ve determined that I’m going to be pretentious in 2012. And I’ll encourage everyone else to do the same.

Honi soit qui mal y pense…

First published: BBH Labs  10/02/2012

No. 11