Interview: Ryan Daniel Beck

Ryan Daniel Beck is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, and visual artist. I'm not sure if he'd describe himself as a philosopher but, after reading his interview, I'm sure you'll agree he's an active thinker on a whole bunch of levels.

How would you describe you what is it that you do?

I consider myself a visual art teacher, working through the medium of dance. Unlike the static forms of sculpture, photography, or painting, my medium is constantly changing and evolving, but the underlying principles of visual art remain constant.

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?

Prior to teaching and choreographing, I was a working dancer, performing around the world. I danced for Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, as well as concert work with MOMIX, Danny Ezralow, and Dario Vaccaro.

What is the most challenging thing about practicing your craft? How do you deal with that challenge?

The biggest challenge for choreographers and teachers relates to funding and time management. Fortunately, I have had some serendipitous opportunities that allowed me to pursue choreography and teaching in an unfettered way. I know many teachers and choreographers who simultaneously juggle multiple jobs just to continue practicing their craft. It must be a labor of true love, otherwise it would be too frustrating and unsustainable.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?

My personal practice sessions are primarily geared toward conditioning and maintenance of my own instrument (the body). I ask a great deal from my dancers, and I believe in leading by example. I would never ask a dancer to do something that I am not able to physically demonstrate (knock on wood).

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration for me comes in the form of a curious mind. I strive to maintain an attitude and environment of saying “yes” when a new experience presents itself.  Whether it is a food I’ve never tried, a location I’ve never seen, a film I’ve never viewed...whatever. As a visual artist, shapes, forms, textures, lines, geometry, symmetry, asymmetry all inspire my movement in different ways.  And all these things give me information when I am developing new processes of creation. The final dance is just a documentation of the process that my dancers and I conducted.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?

Usually in the dance studio. There is a quote that says, “Creativity is making mistakes, Art is knowing which ones to keep.” When I am in the studio with dancers, we intentionally create a playful atmosphere, that allows us to make lots of “mistakes.” My job is to select a handful of these “mistakes” and mold them in a meaningful, mindful way.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?

One of my personal favorite exercises, involves the Russian Turkish bath on East 10th. It is wonderfully shabby establishment, rich in history and culture. The heat is almost unbearably intense, and will “creatively meditate” in that warm darkness. Something about the tranquility of the flowing water and the visceral sting of the radiant heat, creates a highly sensory mental place that feeds my creativity immensely. My mind goes wild when I am there.

How much do you rely on feedback from others to help shape your ideas?

Feedback is helpful when I am creating an immersive environment for the audience. However, if I am making a statement through my work, I am more concerned with the authentic justification that I use as the foundation for my movement. And since this authenticity originates internally, I tend to disregard outside feedback, since it lacks the perspective that I have in the first person. Its like putting on noise cancelling headphones to create the sensitivity required to hear your inner voice.

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?

If you work from a process-based approach, you must take into account that the process will yield a final product, but it might take some time. Its like waiting for a seed to germinate. The commercial market demands high productivity and prolific content. But the smart artist knows that each process is different, and sometimes quality takes time. For example, Pina Bausch would create just one show a year, since six months of rehearsal was dedicated to research. For Richard Serra’s first show, his process involved hundreds of experiments with different material combinations, resulting in just few, interesting “mistakes” that made the final cut and were included in the gallery exhibition. But it literally takes hours and hours to drudge through the “process” before the final product reveals itself.   

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?

It depends on the client and the project. If I am working in a commercial environment, it is more important that the client is satisfied and happy with the result. So in this instance, I play a much more active role in making sure that the result falls within “industry standard.” Its as if a client says, “I want something that tastes like a Caramel Machiatto from Starbucks.” Well, in that instance, I am not going to generate a process that “might” yield a product that tastes like a dirty martini. It must fall within the client’s expectations, but with a “signature twist”. Using the coffee analogy, I would make sure that the product tastes like Starbucks, but was served in far more sophisticated glass, with an unexpected flourish of cinnamon garnish. In this way, the client is satisfied, and I can walk away from the project having improved the original concept. On the other hand, if I have the luxury of time and there are no pre-determined expectations to be met, I love to go on a wild adventure, without any notion of where the final product will take us!

How do you know when you’re done?

In the same way you know that you are done feel full and satisfied

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?

If its a commercial client, the trick is to allow them to think that the idea was their own. This is especially true if I am dealing with a middle manager, who is trying to impress their superior (CEO, director, etc)  I am more than happy to lavish credit on someone for an artistic choice, knowing that the long term dividends are more valuable than short term validation. On the other hand, if I am collaborating with other creatives on project, I am careful to choose like-minded individuals, who understand that no one “owns” any idea, and we are all on the same mission to find the BEST solution for the show, no matter whether it originates from me or someone else. Leave the creative ego at the door.

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?

I probably wouldn’t agree to do a project that failed to resonate with me personally….I mean, what’s the point? I suppose I could do it for financial reasons, but to me, art is sacred and I would feel massively uneasy doing something “artistic” just to pay bills. I would rather do something non-artistic or gratis.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?

I am very proactive in making sure I don’t get stuck in the first place. I am constantly creating content and documenting it. I am perpetually writing down ideas for future processes I want to try. I don’t wait for a deadline to present itself and then create. I have a stockhouse and reservoire of ideas and concepts ready and waiting when the opportunities present themselves.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?

One of the beauties of process based art, is that you become keenly aware and skilled in the art of “rules.” A creative process is like a game that you play for a specific project.  And like all games, it has “rules.” For example, I might say that today’s dance project has three rules: “all the movement must be related to the color green, it can only involve your elbow and your hips, and it must alternate between stillness and bursts of speed.” Interestingly, people generally associate “rules” with limitations, but in this sense, it gives my dancers a focused and specific area, within which they are able to play and explore. If I give them too many choices, it becomes overwhelming and unfocused. So to answer the question, if budget is an issue, I will simply incorporate it into the “rules” of that project. Humans have been creating works of art for thousands of years, with little to no “resources” at all. For the tenacious artist, a “limited budget” is just an opportunity in disguise.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.

1. My passport

2. My music editing software

3. My five senses

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?

1. Constantly replacing self-doubting thoughts, with what I know to be true internally

2. Surrounding myself with non-dancers (designers, musicians, animators, physicists, etc)

3. Living everyday with a deep sense of gratitude and curiosity

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?

Originality is were “original” the day that you were born...therefore, since originality comes from within, it is not an external goal to be discovered….the more sensitive you are to your inner voice, your background, your heritage, the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, the texture of your lover’s skin, the time you got stranded in Albuquerque, the moment you realized that you were no longer a virgin, the earliest memories you had from childhood, your most personal insecurities, your receding hairline, your cellulite, your bad ankle….every single thing that makes you who you are….when you bring all of this into your art, it is DEEPLY original and no one can deny you that….they might be able to critique your execution, but they can never argue your source….PERSONAL IS UNIVERSAL