Identifying your Creative DNA: Bios vs. Zoe

Why do you choose to make the art you do? Is it part of your creative DNA? This is a question tackled in our November book club pick, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

Twyla Tharp is a phenomenal choreographer who has created over 160 works since 1963! She describes how there are two competing natures within us, illustrated with the Greek words bios and zoe. Both mean life, but they are not exactly the same. Zoe looks at life in general, as a universal, collective experience without end. Bios examines a specific life, as well as what distinguishes one life from another.

According to Twyla Tharp, “Balanchine was the essence of zoe. Most of his ballets do not need language to explain themselves, nor do they try to tell a story. Their content is the essence of life, not the details of living. Three women unbundle their long hair at the end of Serenade and we feel something, without attaching a name to it, because there is a common structure between the dancers’ gestures and some gesture we remember that moved us.

A beautifully filmed and danced performance of one of Balanchine's most beautiful works. The leads are Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Maria Calegari, Adam Luders, and Leonid Koslov.

Jerome Robbins, on the other hand, was pure bios. When he created a dance, he was always accumulating details about the roles- from what the characters would wear to whom they were sleeping with- and out of these details of life he would construct an engaging narrative.”

Jerome Robbins' famous West Side Story choreography!

Are you driven to create dances about a life force, or to create dances that tell a specific story?

Sometimes, I have a strong, vague feeling, or an overpowering general emotion, and I dance that (zoe). More often, I have a story I am trying to tell (bios). I also gravitate towards others’ bios-driven art- to me it feels like they have spent so much time observing others and the world that they are able to capture even the most minute mannerisms. This is why I love the authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Bob Fosse.

Identify if you naturally gravitate towards bios or zoe by analyzing your own art, as well as your favorite artists (books, movies, etc.). Twyla recommends that you do what comes more naturally to you most of the time, while challenging yourself to experiment with the other on occasion. For example, she gravitates towards zoe, and feels her best works are ones that don’t try to tell a narrative, but this hasn't stopped her from choreographing several successful Broadway musicals.

Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.
— Twyla Tharp

Freestyle dance exercise: Think about your own art, as well as your idols, and see if you can identify where you prefer to work. If you are a Bios, turn on a song that does not have any lyrics and dance out a particular emotion or feeling. If you are a Zoe, choose a song that you associate with a particular memory. Dance out the story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Record your freestyle and then watch your video. Was there anything you liked that you can incorporate more? Did it spark an idea for your next dance piece?

What do you think about bios and zoe? How does it show in your work? Let me know in the comments! (And also let me know what book we should read for December!)

Val OliphantComment