The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Interlude on making it Interesting

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Interlude on making it Interesting

The ballerina Natalia Makarova who defected from the Soviet Union to dance with American Ballet Theater, illustrates another way in which the mind can be present during performance. In an interview with Robert Sherman she claimed “it is physically impossible for me to do the same performance twice” (Sherman, 1977). And what she means by “physically impossible” is not simply that because the human body has so many degrees of freedom, one could never perfectly reproduce a movement even if one tried. (This is probably true, but beside the point.) What she meant, rather, was that she cannot bring herself to try to reproduce it again. And the reason for this, I presume, is in part her desire to constantly improve, and in part her desire to think about what she is doing, to make decisions, to use her mind, to tinker, to play and experiment. Perhaps the idea of improvement was not always guiding her, because she also says that if something went well, even then she cannot reproduce it – but it does seem to be a way in which the mind is present and which nonetheless may very well lead to improvement.94

Why is tinkering so important? One reason is that it is a means of improvement. Another is that it eliminates boredom. Yet another reason why conscious awareness during performance is important may be that – in the arts, at least – it is often the case that relying on the same approach for each performance can, as I earlier suggested, result in a performance without any spark. Indeed, it may be that the glimmer of artistry one perceives in great performers requires creativity in action, which itself often involves attention to one’s movements. To be sure, creative ideas on how to approach a piece sometimes arrive unbidden. For example, some choreographic ideas do not arise out of prior thought, but seem to happen almost automatically once the music is played. And in dancing, often one is inspired on the spot to move in a particular way. But this does not mean that all artistry ought to be automatic. Rather, it seems that in the arts the best performances allow observers to witness some deliberate, conscious thought in action. (Think of the difference between listening to someone lecture on her feet and listening to someone read a paper. Part of the interest of the lecture is that we experience thought in action). The performance bereft of the mind would be, in certain respects, like watching a machine; although the output could be amazing, that most interesting of spectacles – the human mind – is lacking.

A further factor may be that automatic responses tend towards stereotypes more than well-thought-out ones. This is especially apparent in improvisational theater, where all but experts tend to portray, say, a caregiver as a woman, a scientist as a man, and so forth. It seems that the merely proficient performer proceeds spontaneously, while the expert thoughtfully guides a scene. And what goes for improvisational theater would seem to go for improvisational dance as well. Letting the body move automatically may result in patterns of movements that lack novelty.

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