Embracing Limitation

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.Charles Mingus

After sharing last weeks post on collaboration, I’ve been thinking about other ways to get oneself out of a creative rut. It sucks to feel stuck. If I’m choreographing and hit a road block, or I’m just not feeling that inspired, one of my go to – JUST MAKE SOMETHING ALREADY – tools is to start working with a limited vocabulary. More constraints! It’s a fun exercise to see just how far you can push something into severe and specific structure.

For Example

Painting Limitations - Hand

I fell in love with limitation as a creative tool in a contemporary choreography class where we made work inspired by different artistic movements in history. Primitivism, Surrealism, Dada, Pop Art, etc, etc, you get my point. Anyway, during our foray into Minimalism I made a piece where I painted the area between my thumb and index finger (Ya know, the LOSER hand gesture you probably did in middle school) and found how many different areas that angled shape could fit on my body [Spoiler – A lot!] At first I had major doubts about taking the limitation so far down the minimal rabbit hole – thoughts of ‘one shape and one repetitive gesture for the whole piece…what am I thinking?‘. I was worried it would be boring as hell—for me as a performer and for the audience. I questioned if I would have enough to play with, or if the final product would be anything at all (besides my paint covered self). Turns out, I was wrong. The piece was great, and I loved how it came out.

The original piece has been lost to time, but we set up a quick photoshoot to capture the essence of the piece

Edit Edit Edit, Simplify Simplify Simplify

Embracing limitations and working with constraints is a great way to put aside your creative habits and push yourself in a new direction. Think of it as pre-editing. By starting off with restrictions you limit your scope, right off the bat. That’s helpful if you aren’t sure where to begin, or are feeling overwhelmed by possible directions to take.

Staring at a blank canvas (real or metaphorical) can be extremely daunting. Too many choices! Too many options! What do I do?!? – Ahhhh!!!

Now when I choreograph, I always try to look at my work through a limited/minimalistic eye. I’m constantly trying to edit my work down to just the essentials (or what I think are the essentials). Asking: does everything NEED to be here? When Luke composes he always starts by placing at least three restrictions on himself, and likes to think of it as a puzzle. Puzzles are fun; embrace the puzzle!

We’re not the only ones

Artist Phil Hansen has a great TED talk Embrace the Shake that’s all about creative limitation. Due to a tremor in his hand he was forced to expand his personal practice, and in doing so he pushed his creative boundaries. I like how far he takes the idea of a limitation and all the different structures he plays with. If you’ve got ten minutes I highly recommend it.

We need to first be limited in order to become limitlessPhil Hansen


I’m not suggesting you embrace limitation to the point you feel you are limiting your imagination. Not every tool will work for everyone. Creativity is personal, but why not strip things down and see where the process takes you? Don’t get caught up in the results! Think of it as jumping off point; it might take you somewhere new and exciting!

There’s strength in simplicity. Limitations don’t have to be limiting.

Limitations can be fun!

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