Dancing with the 21st century

The role of the imagination in contemporary life


Life is comprised of dances,
emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual dances.
We dance within ourselves,
and we dance with the people in our lives.
We dance in our homes, in our place of work,
in the city in which we live, the country, the continent,
in the places to which we travel
for pleasure or for business.

Our overarching partner in the dance of life
is the time in which we are living.
This is now the 21st century, the beginning of a new millennium.
The choreographies of our dances
with this strange, volatile partner, are complex.
The steps we need to execute with it are difficult to invent.
We stumble and fall easily,
and end up dancing wildly in unclear ways
that leave us in the dark,
unsure of where to turn next.


Other periods in human history were less complex as dance partners – the parameters of the dance floor were clearer and thus the choreographies somewhat easier to construct. But over the course of the 20th century, many established principles were thrown into the air, and have yet to land in any clear formation.

It was discovered that what had been considered to be the smallest possible unit of matter was capable of being divided further; the nature of art was questioned; the rules of war degenerated; borders between nations became more fluid; political systems lost their cohesiveness; enemies and allies no longer fall into clear camps, effectively blurring the line between good and evil; long established management practices ceased to meet the needs of global business, with nothing concrete emerging to take their place; the speed and quantity of information circulating in our daily lives increased rapidly, creating a mass of vapid and valuable information through which we continually need to wade to discern order and meaning. Overall, many of the fundamental techniques for the dance of life became outdated.

By the time the second millennium ended, humanity found itself in a dark unsettling world. Dancing in the resulting obscurity is difficult, as our partner – the 21st century – is wily. It changes direction and intention with little warning. Using lies, vested interest, megalomania, greed, banalities, violence and crises of many kinds, it attempts to dip us into a deep bend, from which it is unclear if we will have the strength or technique to straighten up again to continue the next part of the dance. It seems to be attempting to spin us towards a highly sophisticated dark age, where we will stagger, unable to perform our part in life’s dances with any kind of grace.


Yet throughout history, we human beings have proven ourselves to be naturally good dancers, capable of finding new choreographies that enable us to step, leap or spin out of darkness into light. To emerge from the darkness into which the 20th century has led us, we need to shift our focus from the form of our dances, to the inner world of ourselves as dancers. The source for the choreography of 21st century life is not out there in the world somewhere, but rather it lies deep inside of ourselves, deep inside of our own imaginations. People in diverse fields are recognizing that the imagination is the new frontier for human exploration, and that within it lies the way out of the darkness that has heralded in this new millennium. The business strategist, Gary Hamel, writes,

‘What matters in the new economy
is not return on investment, but return on imagination.’


What is it about the imagination that can take humanity forward; why has it emerged now as the most vital source of life’s dances; and how can we develop it in our lives and work?


The imagination is rich and teeming with unexplored territory. It’s flexible, and crosses borders easily – within ourselves and in our surrounding environment. Its nature is perfectly tuned to be able to respond to and converse agilely with the fluidity and unpredictability of our global world. Einstein said,

‘The imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. The imagination encircles the world.’

The imagination contains something that is expansive. Though we cannot understand exactly what this something is, it holds the potential to bring us into the depth of our humanity and yield new approaches to our lives and work.


Just as the imagination cannot be clearly defined, the structure of 21st century life is nebulous as well. Speaking about the nature of our time, the writer and former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, said,

‘Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period.
It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself,
while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.’

Activating the something that the imagination contains can enable us to develop choreographies that will move us towards the realization of that something that is attempting to arise from the rubble. The parallel between the intangible nature of our time and the intangible nature of the imagination makes them good partners, capable of evolved dances.


To develop the imagination in our daily lives, we need a means of traveling within it. When we travel, we usually use a map of some kind. Yet a comprehensive map of the imagination is contrary to its nature. To find our way through it, what we need are signposts that bring us in the vicinity of different aspects of its make-up, and then allow us to discover and employ the realm of possibility these areas offer.

I am a choreographer and a dancer. What fascinates me is how the arena of the imagination nourishes movement. Through my work on stage and in the studio as a performer, director and teacher, I have come to perceive the imagination as a vast architectural formation comprised of seven colored spaces, each of which provides a fluid frame for related movements, thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas and states of being. Exploring how to navigate through these colored spaces led to the development of an imaginative technique that I call The Iris Map.

This technique can be used to develop and refine all kinds of dancing – on stage, in our lives, in our work, within ourselves. The colored spaces each contain something that cannot quite be defined, and yet serve as signposts that offer one means of access to the full spectrum of our imaginations. What follows is a brief description of each space, and thoughts from diverse fields where the state of being is manifest.



1 Turner Snowstorm 1842

William Turner 1842

The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place:
from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper,
from a passing shape, from a spider’s web

A vast mysterious space where thoughts and ideas move freely.
It houses your inherent desire and need to explore,
to innovate and to engage with the world around you.

In a non-linear world,
only non-linear ideas create new wealth


2 Monet Waterlilies 1 - 1919

Claude Monet 1919

‘The connection with the Self makes for
a certain quietness and constancy in the personality.’

A fluid space of calm that has emerged from experience and self-awareness.
In it you feel equanimous, empathetic, and capable of clear sight.

‘Dedicate yourself to the good you deserve and desire for yourself.
Give yourself peace of mind. You deserve to be happy. You deserve delight.’


3 Pink Chagall - Song of Songs 1960

Marc Chagall 1960

‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.’

A luminous positive space full of hope and possibilities for new directions and ways of living.
When you are in it, you look for light and humor, and you have a sense of play.

‘To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.’


4 Vincent Van Gogh - Branch of Almond Tree in Blossom Red Vincent Van Gogh - 1890

Vincent Van Vogh 1890

 ‘…he that dares not grasp the thorn
should never crave the rose.’

A vibrant space with enormous reserves of energy,
which can be channeled through acute concentration.
In this space, you are driven to take decisive action.

‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy,
a quickening that is translated through you into action…’



5 David Hockney Arrival of Spring 2010

David Hockney 2010

‘Borders don’t exist. Borders are invisible lines that stir up war.
They are as incredible as unicorns.’

A borderless space where you are fully focused in present time.
You are aware of the growth and change occurring continually around you,
rendering you open and flexible.

‘In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time
but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time
that depends on where is is and how he is moving…’


6 Giotto Bondone - Angel, detail from Arena di Scroveggni - 1305

Giotto 1305

‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’

An elegant, vaulted space with perspective, in which you have a sense of the universal.
In it, you are disciplined, aware of histories, and capable of clear perception.

‘Myth, the knowledge embodied in stories and traditions,
connects us to past and future humanity,
thereby situating practical knowledge within the stock of knowledge
that is our collective heritage.’


7 Rauschenberg - Untitled (Gold) 1956 - Close-up

Robert Rauschenberg 1956

‘Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.’

A radiant space that holds your capacity for power and for creation.
It houses your values, and your ability to live those values
to influence others and effect change.

‘Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.’

Learning to navigate within this architecture can open up our imaginations and give us a means of directing the movements of our daily lives. Our life’s dances are in our hands when we animate our imaginations. The Iris Map does not pretend to be a comprehensive technique or analysis of color. It is one internal architecture that has emerged from the chaos of life, to be used however you may choose to use it.

‘For there to be a mastery of the real…it suffices that there be a system,
even if that system is apparently illogical, uselessly complicated, curiously disparate.’


My father was a mathematician whose specialty was probability. One evening when I was about 12 years old, we were sitting having dinner. The darkness of the forest outside of our kitchen pressed against the windows. He turned to me and he said,

‘We think the sun will rise tomorrow, and in all probability it will rise tomorrow,
but there is no definitive proof. We can never know anything for certain.’

The following morning as I emerged from my dark dreams, my young mind was relieved to see the sun filtering through the sheer curtains that floated gently across my window. In ballet class after school later that day, I remember feeling, as I danced across the floor, that no matter how uncertain the world around me may be, the aliveness I felt when I was dancing was something of which I could be sure.

The concept of the prevailing uncertainty in the world that my father infused into my being the previous evening, served to strengthen my resolve to develop my ability to enter the beauty of life in present time through my dancing. For that sensation of aliveness and beauty that I felt when I was dancing, was somehow certain; I could take charge of it, by engaging something residing within myself, though I did not yet have a clear sense of what that was. This desire to dance well – which later extended beyond the stage and studio into other aspects of my life – led me eventually deep inside of my imagination, and towards an exploration of the role that the imagination can play in life.

Our imaginations, though intangible, are not things that may or may not exist; they are there inside of us, perpetually ready to be explored and developed. We need to employ them now, more than ever, in order to be able to meet our chaotic, aggressive 21st century partner in a dance of beauty, strength and grace that can guide us out of the darkness.

As the mathematician, Daniel Tammet, eloquently puts it,

‘Where chaos is subdued and the arbitrary averted, there lies beauty, and it is all around us.’