By Chantal Cherry
Sometimes failure is helpful as the ‘happy accident’ leads the artwork in a new, exciting direction and in this way is generative of innovative material. As a society, we accept failure when it leads to success or when we’re able to learn something from the outcome of the failure. However, failure as mere failure seems difficult to digest. Understanding that failure is intrinsically woven into the artistic process and inevitable to the artwork itself might allow an artist to look at and cope with failure differently. I’d like to share a personal experience of perceived failure and the thoughts it provoked in me.
I created a twelve-minute choreography – a duet that explored repetition as a choreographic strategy. Throughout the work dancer A repeatedly throws flower petals from silver buckets over dancer B while she performs. This happens five times. The arrangement of petals specific to the order of the bucket thrown was crucial to the intention and concept of the work. The first and second buckets were filled with only pink flower petals; the third bucket contained pink flower petals mixed with purple Jacaranda flower petals. The fourth bucket contained red Rose petals. The fifth (and final) bucket held white Rose petals.
The performance started off well. I was proud and thought ‘so far so good’. It appears I thought it too soon. Dancer B was tasked with performing the same phrase about ten times intercut with duets between her and dancer A. I soon realized that dancer B had progressed too far ahead in her series of repetitions for where dancer A was in her solo phrase. It was clear to me that dancer B was about to omit a section of the work.
I watched as the unhappy accident unraveled: dancer A approached to begin their second interaction of the duet and dancer B led them into the third duet section. This meant dancer A had only thrown three buckets of flower petals instead of the total five she should have thrown by this point in the work, resulting in the stage being scattered with pink flower petals and a few purple Jacaranda petals that had shriveled over night and looked absolutely horrid to me in that moment. I reiterate the importance of the last two buckets in leaving the stage scattered with red and white Rose petals as central to the concept of the work. Not to mention the fact that four minutes had been shaved off the work as a result of this mistake. My vision was left unrealized.
After the showing I was incredibly disappointed. Throughout the rest of the day I kept re-living the exact moment it all went wrong, running through the same thought pattern of realizing I could not intervene or salvage the mistake and thus had to merely watch it unfold. Why did I feel so distraught about a simple mistake, particularly considering the fact that the audience did not notice it at all?
Sarah Lewis discusses failure in her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery and makes a noteworthy point – we often call the failed event “something else – a learnt experience, a trial, a reinvention – no longer the static concept of failure” (2014, p.12). In this way, the mistake becomes something other than failure. I question whether failure once thought of as something else is still failure or whether it has morphed into a something else that can no longer be classified as failure. Moreover, could this something else be the starting point for success and if so, is this failure still considered failure as it leads to success?
When expressing my disappointment about the failed event, the solace I received was that I’d ‘just have to restage the work’ and now I had the motivation I needed from the desire of wanting to see my vision realized. This addresses the need to turn failure into something else (such as motivation) in both my empathizer and in me. The imperfection becomes the driving force. The question arises: would I have wanted to restage this work if not for the unhappy accident? If the answer is yes then the possibility of the failure providing motivation is disqualified. But, motivation to re-stage it would have been felt regardless. So, in this sense the event remains mere failure.
It is important to note that failure is relative to a specific individual’s or community’s own criteria and value system. It seems that I live in a society wherein a failed event is only acceptable insofar as it will eventually lead to success, as it transforms into a happy accident that can be incorporated into the artistic work, or as generative in that it allows the artist to see the work in a new light, and inspires the artist to devise something they might otherwise not have created. However, a failure that does not lead to success is often deemed worthless; mere failure for failure’s own sake. This brings up another crucial aspect of failure – our own perceptions of failure. Is failure then a state of mind?
According to my own criteria for success and failure, the personal experience I have described exemplifies failure as mere failure. Several more questions arise: have I turned this failure into a success in having a research paper topic or am I using the unhappy accident to my advantage with the event itself remaining a failure? Am I choosing to see this event as failure when it has the capacity to be seen as success, particularly because no audience member considered the work a failure? The answers cannot be known, however, what should be noted is the necessity to avoid and the difficulty to accept failure as mere failure, arguably as a result of community and societal values ingrained in me.
Lewis discusses the phenomenon of the ‘near win’ as failing when the goal is within reach and seemingly attainable. The closer the artist is to reaching the goal the more difficult it is to be satisfied with a near win, as the intended outcome is considered to be an attainable possibility ‘if only’ a minor difference had been made. While the near win is more painful and difficult to digest, it is much more generative because the goal is within sight in a way it might not be when the goal is missed by a long shot. The artist has the necessary motivation to ‘do better next time’.
The personal example I have given could be classified as a ‘near win’. The entire piece was performed with a minor slip up that was hardly noticed by the audience and the illusion of perfection established. If only dancer B had grabbed dancer A’s hand rather than jumping into her arms, the dance would have continued as intended. This minor alteration in movement turned the dance from a success to a perceived failure of intention. The intended outcome was well within reach and arguably should have been attained.
Sara Bailes, in her book Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, highlights the importance of failure and asserts that “it is the artist’s obligation to fail” and to resist failing in art “would be to practice something other than art” (Bailes, 2011, p.25).
Artists and audiences in conjunction have established certain constructs and boundaries that have to be obeyed in order for a performance to exist. Contributing to this is the unspoken understanding that what is being staged is not real even as it aims to portray reality. Consequently, the artwork is inevitably and continuously failing. It will remain in that state of failure as the work can never be the thing it aims to represent but rather remains a symbol for the thing it wishes to communicate.
Furthermore, the gap between the artwork as representation and the thing the artwork is epitomizing can never be closed no matter how realistic or believable the artwork. In understanding that as artists we are always undoubtedly failing, perhaps we can reprogram our mindsets to see that a failure as mere failure is not as bad as we perceive because we have already failed regardless.
I conclude with this: as artists we should learn to embrace failure, the inevitability of failure in our work, and understand its purpose as generative or motivational, which could lead to success. Above all, we should accept that failure will sometimes be merely that: failure.
Chantal Cherry is a South African dancer and choreographer currently enrolled at UCLA for her MFA in Choreography. Her most significant achievements as a dancer and choreographer include choreographing and performing in international conferences Confluences 6 and Confluences 7, hosted by the University of Cape Town, as well as her participation as a performer in the Crossings International Artistic Workshop hosted by the Gordon Institute of the Creative and Performing Arts (South Africa) and lead by renowned choreographers Vincent Mantsoe and Germaine Acogny. Chantal’s dance film debut A Bigger Bang For Your Buck was screened at both the Dance Transmissions Festival (Uganda), and Re-Visioning Dance Festival (South Africa). Chantal recently performed inDear Me (USA) by Taiwanese choreographer Hsiao-Mei Ho.
Dancers: Jingqiu Guan, Daeun Jung