On Dancing and Choreographing in the Modern Age

Most dancers have someone to tell them what to do; when to move, where to move and how to move. She's called a choreographer and its not a bad system. It solves many problems, but also gives rise to certain others.

For example, one problem is that the dancer becomes so accustomed to that structure and those instructions, that he or she finds it hard to do alone, i.e make the transition to choreographer. Add to this, the simple biological fact that It is hard to use the body in a strong way, or let's say, to its limit, and think at the same time!  Just try it!  It is both the blessing and curse of being a dancer.

I have choreographed for 30 years. Sometimes I have had a specific commission or contract to fulfill, ususally though I simply do it on my own, for its own sake. I make solos and group pieces, or sometimes just phrases.   I couldn't tell you which, if any, will some day be on a stage .

This is not a tragedy.  On the contrary, I am happy that I have the chance to do this and sort of proud I guess you'd say, that I can do it at all.  Its not easy!  This little article is about how I do it.

But first, why choreograph?  Answer: the world needs choreography.  It is a greatly underdeveloped art form (compare it to, say, literature, or music ... or anything!).  It has had neither the respect nor the history. 

Add to this the current trend to avoid it -- two trends really:

The first is that of improvising on stage. It can work, dance will result, but my opinion has always been that if there is really a good quality to be had, then why _not_ fix it? Fix the good things and delete the weak ones. Why leave such an important decision up to chance?  The coveted sense of freshness and spontaneity does need to suffer under the rehearsal process -- indeed the opposite is true.  You work it out. Rehearsal doesn't lead to dryness or sterility, it leads to cogency, confidence and relaxation on stage.

Having said that, there are some good reasons to have dancers depart from choreographed material, i.e. some improvisation is helpful.  For example, variations in timing and phrasing from performance to performance lets a piece breathe. This kind of improvising -- around fixed material -- helps the dancer to feel what they are doing and does indeed help keep a piece fresh.

In interactive pieces this is especially true. As I have often said, if the dance and media are completely fixed and repeatable, then there is no reason to do it.  It would look just like the dancers are dancing to the music, i.e. the usual thing!

The second thing that is killing... well, injuring, the art of choreography is the trend (since 20 years or more) to let the dancers do the choreography. This not only saves a lot of tedious work, but also brings in the special individual qualities of the dancers.

I believe that both of these trends, improvising and delegating, are dangerous. They short change the piece by essentially bypassing the art of choreography. While audience may see wonderful dancing, pieces suffer.  They will be no "hand of an artist" behind what they see.  In other words, It will not have been worked out. You see it all the time today.

Empty studios are actually pretty intimidating. Believe me, I understand the problem. Dancers, social animals that we are, rarely relish the idea.  To this I can only say be brave!  I face them down everyday, and so can you. Here are some things that help me:

1 Always start with training. Merce did. It is something you can rely on day in and day out. It not only warms up the body, but the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain where movement connections are made. The method of training you use hardly matters, just pick one. If you don't have one, then copy someone else's (I sometimes just follow a yoga DVD). Or make up your own -- Just keep it simple, repetitive and short (I do 40 min. non-stop; not more, not less).

2 In chess it is said that you should always have a plan. Dancers are easily distracted by the physical sensations of their own dancing (which is ironic of course because these movement impulses are the very things that make it worth doing in the first place!). These may lead to an idea or two, but they won't lead to a dance. Choreography comes out of a plan of some kind. Don't ask me what the plan should look like.  There are a million possibilities. What ever it is though, follow it through. Don't forget it!


3 Every 20 minutes or so stop and take some notes, diagrams, lists, etc.   Go over the plan. Do something left brain (talking to yourself also helps this kind of rational thinking).  Ask: "Is this what I want?"  For example, yuo ou follow a thread, it leads to another and another. Too many threads and chaos soon follows. Slow the process down with little breaks.

4 Apropos plan, break up big plans down into smaller ones.  Work on the level of modules, or smaller units of material such as phrases or gestures. Something manageable.

5 Never lie down on the floor. Roots will grow out of your butt faster than you can say "Bill T." And when you sit at your little table in the corner, don't stay there longer than 5 or 10 minutes. You'll get cold!

6 Don't use music, or if you do, don't listen to it. This is very important. Movement is an art form and it needs to have its own values and impulses; Its own rhyme and reason. Music makes it more fun, I know, but it also leads to clichés. First make movement, _then_ think about music.  Very important.

7 Once you have some stuff (movement), count it out. Even if it doesn't need a beat, its helpful to have counts.  Use music (as a metronome), a metronome or just count.

8 Take a break in the middle for tea.

9 I will often set a minimum number of minutes to choreograph.  I have heard that many writers require a certain number of words from themselves, etc.  Its like that.  I ususually end up going past my "minimum", but some days it is a total fight just to reach them!

10 Run through things more times than you think you need to.

11 Don't keep throwing stuff away and starting over. Everyone does it, but you have to break this habit. Try not to judge what you have done. Just make, don't judge, not yet. Even though you think its shit, its not. If you just keep repeating it and improving it, it will probably become something.

12 Work outside of studios, as well as inside them. Good places to choreograph are abandoned parking lots, train yards, behind warehouses. Ferry boats are good too. The best are old forgotten asphalt roads where the grass is coming through the cracks.

13 Don't wait for a special reason to choreograph, such as a performance. When you make something good, the venue will come.

14 Don't work with video cameras, at least not often. To remember what you have done, just repeat the thing a couple of more times. its faster. I do find them ocaissionally useful as an "outside eye" or when I know I a have to leave something new for a while.

15 Find inspiration. When they asked Mozart where he got his ideas, he said,"I wake up in the morning and pray for inspiration".  When I say inspiration, I don't mean ideas for movements, that part comes by itself once you are in motion. What I mean is that which keeps us believing.

Where do you find it?  Hell if I know.  But don't hesitate to travel great distances and spend your last dollar on a hunch.  It doesn't need to relate directly to what you are working on.  Maybe its art, maybe its science.  Maybe its nature. Maybe its love. There are no road maps to help us find it. If you are anything like me, you will lose it regularly, but then find it again, sometimes where you least expect.


10 July 09

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