The Dance of Creativity

by Merle O’Brien

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo


As the fields of art and science move to a common space in the 21st century, creativity is taking centrestage in all fields of human endeavor, driving a new form of economy and redefining itself from an art into a lifescience.

Working as a Futurist at the forefront of creativity, design and front end innovation – while also being an Odissi danseuse, training in one of the world’s oldest forms of codified creativity, I see that the future of creativity looks remarkably similar to its most ancient past. If this holds true, Odissi may find itself becoming increasingly relevant as an educational technology for neuro-muscular entrainment to unlock human creative potential.

In 2010 I began doctoral research into the (re) emerging lifescience of creativity based on principles of Odissi dance, as codified on Vedic lifescience 2000 years ago in the Natyashastra (the science of dance and drama).

As the only African Odissi dance scholar, this line of thinking presented many challenges in a modern Cartesian academic context. It was exacerbated by South African politics and cultural dynamics.

My thesis was that by moving the body rhythmically and repetitively to certain spatial arrangements and sound patterns, a flow state of awareness is enlivened which enhances creativity. Leading creativity expert Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as a “holistic response or optimal state of experience in which there is order in consciousness. It happens when psychic energy, or attention, is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunity for action.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) Among sportsmen, it is described as the “inner game of mastery” (Timothy Gallwey) integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions (Roy Palmer and Lyoto Machida) and ‘a different dimension’ (Ayrton Senna).

My embodied, lived experience of ‘the zone’ as an Odissi Indian classical danseuse, is a transcendental state of dynamic equilibrium – within and without – in which spatial, temporal, corporeal and relational aspects of being alters: my senses sharpen, I observe myself observing the audience observe me; while moving, I see minute detail. It is as if time slows down, my state of rhythm peaks. What looks like a split-second movement and I feel a euphoric sense of deep love and connection’ This experience correlates with six factors of the flow state described by Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi (2009).

Since J.P. Guilford highlighted creativity as a phenomenon in 1950 during his presidential address to the American Psychology Association, creativity research has largely been biased to the west; approached from the fields of psychology, education (pedagogy) and the performing and creative arts. Its relationship with intelligence is understood in five sets; creativity subsumes intelligence, intelligence subsumes creativity, they overlap, they are different, and they are the same thing (Sternberg, 2004). It must be noted that in at least three ancient cultures – Indian, African and Chinese – intelligence has more to do with metacognition: self-referral (Vedic), interconnectedness (African Ubuntu) and homeostasis (Chinese Dao). Ontological differences in approaching spirituality, consciousness and mysticism are challenges to reconciling eastern and western notions of creativity.

If, through Odissi dance, we can discover the moderating principles by which art (a) = xyz and science (b) = xyz, making a = b – we will understand the science to dance as we know the science of human movement in the form of sport.

Odissi is a graceful, refined and subtle, yet powerful, dance. It is performed to complex mathematical rhythmic patterns. The movement technique involves shifting the body weight across the central plumb-line of the body between symmetrical and asymmetrical postures based on geometrical patterns; the chauka (circle), the tribhangi (triangle), brahmari (circles) and chari (vectors). The body is divided into three areas: the head, torso and lower limbs to enable the dancer to approximate a helix; moving in a signature S-curve. This highly refined technique is achieved by using the stabilizer muscles, without moving the pelvic girdle.

Unlike the ballerina who seeks to defy space, Odissi is uses gyrokinetic principles; working as close to the ground as possible with ‘Mother Earth’ in squatted postures. While moving, the dancer uses refined movements of her eyes, fingers and face to express a range of emotive states (Rasa) and code of non-verbal language to tell stories. To unblock the intuitive faculties and enhance self-referral, it was written that ‘the hand must follow the eye’ in movement. All this is executed with mathematical precision to percussive music based on the Sanskrit sound scale. Odissi dance training has a unique pedagogical approach known as Guru Parampara Shishya, which upholds the central Vedic tenet of teaching is that ‘the wise teacher aspires defeat by the student for unless and until that happens, the world cannot evolve’.

As an ancient creative art form, Odissi was codified on the ontological worldview of Vedic Philosophy that art and science are one. In Sanskrit, the root for understanding creativity’ is ‘Shakti’, translated as ‘the kinetic energy’. Shakti is embodied in the form of a Goddess by whose energy the entire cosmos is co-created in perfect motion. This is described in Indian mythology as ‘the dance of creativity’ by Nataraj, the divine dancer. Shakti is not unlike ‘the Higgs-Boson’ (God-particle) that is part of the Standard Model in Physics. This particle is operative with gravity to manifest the unseen into material form from the ocean of creative particles in which we dance. For this reason Indian dance accepts that space-time and gravity are a compact as described by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. And by stamping our feet, we activate the power of sound within a time-space-gravity compact to release creative energy into the universe. All ancient aboriginal dance forms, including African dance, has this dynamic. What is evident, is that modern science is slowly re-discovering the deep structure underlying universal creativity that ancients believed since time immemorial. By unearthing the old, we can make better sense of the new.

In the 21st century, software coding operates on the same two-sided principle of creativity as art and science. A coder uses mathematics (science) at the back end of a website to create art experienced by users at the front-end of the worldwide-web.

Understanding the (xyz) principles that moderate art and science, is key. Here Odissi, Indian classical dance and the Vedic arts have a lot to share to help the world understand the paradigm of art and science as one. In fact, everything may be one by applying these xyz principles to all existence for in spiritual terms, man, as the Divine’s creation, is His/ Her art of xyz principles. And man’s creation is the science of knowing the Divine’s art. And if there is an art to creating the world (the picture the Divine is painting); man may be interpreting this as science. But is art and science then different? Clearly not. Only the human mind has defined it as two separate things. For if the principles apply as a fixed formulae for the Divine’s perfection that (a) = xyz principles = (b) then everything in creation would be both art and science.

Therefore, in the 21st century our global paradigm is shifting to redefine creativity as a lifescience using common principles of art and science that also relates with spirituality. The rich context in which the Sage Bharata codified Indian dance and drama as a science, may well have been within a highly creative economic system where the value of a spiritual aesthetic experience was as rich and valuable as it is becoming today.

Real creativity research, by its very nature, would be disruptive to the conventional pedestrian path of knowledge. As the world transits to this new paradigm, hold outs of the old are doing battle with warriors for the new.

Going beneath the foundations of the modern thinking, I am unearthing locked up knowledge about principles of creativity that held true 2000 years ago in a creative movement form – that still holds true in modern science in the 21st century. With this, we hope to enhance human creative potential to deal with the challenges of our time.

Working in front end innovation, I apply the creative intelligence of Odissi to approach choreography as ergonomic and spatial design. I apply Rasa Theory in experience design with deeper empathy and complex things become much simpler after practice. Odissi, as a unique way of knowing, has a central axis of truth which reconciles east and west, ancient and modern, art and science in a coherent paradigm of the universe.

Therefore, Odissi is a sleeping giant stirring. In the years to come, those who have been blessed to train in the Guru Parampara Shishya tradition have a responsibility to uphold its lifescience and tradition. If it took 2000 years to move Odissi from the Temple to a theatre, in the 21st century it must hold its own on the global stage.

What does an Odissi dancer know? How does she come to know what she knows? These deep questions can only be answered through rigorous academic research into the ontology and epistemology of knowledge locked up in the lifescience of Odissi dance. This is why, it is important for Odissi dancers to pursue research and open new pathways for ‘the dance of creativity’ to be shared with the world.

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