Thursday, January 6, 2011

Making Dances

The totally awesome momentum I'd gained working on my rewrite has petered out a bit. This isn't due to lack of motivation, but something a little less controllable.

It's recital season at the studio. Technically, recital season doesn't start until the end of May, but actually, for me, it starts in January. Why? Because that is the point at which I start working on choreography for all of my classes.

I thought I'd give a little insight into the often mysterious process of creating dances. Everyone goes about it differently, but, for me, it is like rotting. Rotting backwards.

I'll explain.

At the beginning you are faced with nothing but empty space. A big old box of it waiting to be filled. The wind whistling across an empty desert.

1) So, the first thing you do is create a skeleton. Decide where the high points and the low points will be. Which bones are big and which are little. Try to determine what kind of an animal it might be. This means picking out music, deciding on a structure for the dance, figuring out whether you're going to tell a story or go with something more abstract, picking out a primary movement quality or progression of qualities, and knowing where it will start and where it will end. In an ideal world this is all done before ever working with any dancers.

2) Then, there are the tendons and parts of the animal that scavengers prefer not to eat. You start to build those. At that point I start figuring out how things will attach. I start playing with actual movement to get an idea of various bookmarks within the dance and more specific qualities and themes that I want to expand on. Sometimes this is done before meeting with dancers, sometimes it occurs in class. Generally, the less advanced the class is the more I prepare ahead of time. More advanced dancers are more capable of experimenting and working on the fly.

3) Then, the scavengers attach all the bits of flesh. Suddenly the dance has a personality and the structure becomes clear. It is something that you can actually look at and understand. Layers are added onto it and vaguenesses become clarified. Granted, it is usually still a big mess, but if you squint your eyes you might be able to imagine how it will look onstage, or running free across the savanna.

4) Then, the dance dies. Or, rather, begins slowly to live. This is the point at which your students actually get it. The structure is in place and you begin having conversations about motivation and story. The students come to an understanding of where the dance exists and what it feels like to be in their character's shoes. Some delving is done. Real life examples and imagery are drawn upon to give them a tangible sense of what they are portraying.

5) Then, the big moment comes. The dance gets up on its own four/two/whatever feet and walks away without you.

I'm not going to pretend that these steps don't ever occur out of order. Sometimes I'll get obsessed with one aspect of a dance, maybe its eyes, and build the whole skeleton around them. This can make for some odd, but interesting characters. Sometimes step four is a fail. The dancers never really connect to the choreography and you lose that sense of life. Then, the dance is just an exercise or an obligation. It never really takes off.

You might be thinking, "Gee! That sounds a lot like writing a novel." Cept, here's the thing. Imagine that you have to work on... oh, let's say fifteen writing projects within the course of six months. A couple are novels, five are novelettes, and the rest are short stories. Not impossible. Now, imagine you can only spend a half an hour on each project, then you have to switch to another project. So, you're constantly flipping between various Word documents, feeling like you're just getting the flow of one project, before you have to switch to another. To make it worse, the words you're using aren't really words, but twitchy, jumpy, crazy human bodies.

So, if I seem a little strange at times, this is why.

Currently listening:
Baby Blue - Martina Topley Bird


  1. So many years of wondering...explained!

    Excellent break-down...and love the picture.

  2. Well done on creating the visual. That certainly helps a great deal in my own understanding of the process, on a general level.

    Also: "vaguenesses," not "vagaries."

  3. Krista- Years of wondering? Really? By years do you mean one isolated incident in which you wondered, "What the heck is going on in her head?"

    Vagary = caprice, wandering journey, unpredictable, something hard to pin down.

    Vagueness = fuzzy, not defined.

    I'd dare to argue that both might work, but you're probably right that the latter is what I actually meant. Mr. Correcto. :p

  4. What a great picture you have painted for me!!

  5. I stand by "years." I'm six :p

  6. Oh, I've always wondered! I have a friend who does some choreography (I think). I've always loved dance, but as a kid I played sports and money was thin... so that's all I did. Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like to take a class, but then I remember that I hardly have gas money...


    (Also, it's amazing that you can flip through all those ideas. Sure, it can probably be hard, but you DO it and that's fantastic!)

  7. Suzanne - Thanks!

    Jessica - I am deeply grateful to my parents for always finding a way to pay for my dance classes. They were not inexpensive. I hope it works out for you to be able to experience it for yourself! Dance has been one of the greatest trials and gifts of my life.