I, like everyone else, have my preferred genre(s) of dance to perform, create, and view. I say this to recognize the fact that there were works in this show that I simply did not like, although this is valid, I also found myself walking away frustrated that choreographers seem to be missing the point of KEEPING IT SIMPLE.
Last weekend while I was visiting a friend in New York City, I attended a dance festival performance in Queens. The performance featured nine different choreographers in a variety of genres including tap, modern, and performance art. The festival was created to gather artists from the local area and promote their work; a wonderful concept, indeed.
Keep it simple; this phrase has been the hallmark for my work, and remains to this day, one of the best pieces of choreographic advice I have ever been given. A dance is an idea; a phrase is a sentence, and the way we arrange phrases creates paragraphs and chapters of this idea. Throughout my evening in Queens, I realized that almost every piece contained enough movement ideas to create at least four more pieces. I asked myself these questions:
- Why are there so many phrases in each piece?
- Are we afraid that repetition will bore the audience?
- Were the choreographers trying to showcase a ton of their ideas in one dance in order to impress the audience in a short amount of time?
- What happened to costuming?
- When did modern dance become so predictable?
All these questions left me with was a feeling of frustration and the need for concert dance to give me so much more.
All you need to make a piece is one interesting, innovative movement phrase…ONE. The true work of creating dance comes in the ability to manipulate a phrase, seeing it from multiple perspectives. For instance:
- What happens when you take all of the arm movements and invert them into leg movements?
- What if we retrograde the phrase and make the audience see the movement as if in rewind?
- How about creating a version of the phrase that never leaves the floor, or one that travels from one side of the space to another rather than staying in place?
By answering these questions alone, you have taken your one phrase of movement and created several new versions.
Manipulating the phrase gives the audience an opportunity to see the movement from different perspectives. It allows viewers time to digest the nuances and find meaning in the work. This method also helps create a through line; it ensures that the gestures are related and make sense when placed next to one another. In essence, phrase manipulation gives your story substance, direction, and order.
Although one phrase is all you need, I would suggest using two or three for the sake of variety. If this seems contradictory, please refer to the above questions and take each phrase through these steps. You now have about fifteen different phrases to choose from, which is more than enough movement to create an evening length work that is dynamic, interesting and cohesive. What I saw on stage was a lack of cohesion. The dancers would start with one phrase and one piece of music and then TRANSITION to a completely different thought that often seemed completely unrelated to the first with no resolve at the end!?
I understand that there may have been rules for the performance regarding time spent on stage. I also understand that budgets are tight and costumes often come from the dancers’ personal wardrobes. Having been in these situations many times myself, I have found that you can work in costume changes without leaving the stage. You can create a piece of transitional choreography that helps the audience move from one idea to the next. There are methods to create a more cohesive performance experience if you seek them.
It would seem to me that modern dance has hit a point in which movement is less experimental and more predictable. Based on what I saw in the performance, if I combine leg swings, inversions/handstands, clapping and/or stomping, and text then I will have a modern dance. Does this seem a bit harsh? Probably, but I am just reporting what I saw. What happened to seeking your own movement voice and rejecting the common movement vocabulary that we are taught in classes?
The point I am trying to make, is that dance, like any other art needs to be created thoughtfully. Write down an idea, find a photo or a piece of music, take a life experience and externalize that into a gesture, use a quote, or challenge yourself to move in a way you never have before.
There are so many ways to create and manipulate movement, so WHY are we putting dances on stage that have twelve ideas in one?
In the words of the great Doris Humphrey, “All dances are too long…a good ending is forty percent of the dance” (p. 159).
The next time you are in the studio, remember to keep it simple, use one idea and see how far your incredible creativity can take it.
These videos provide a quick example of how to make a phrase and then manipulate it. I choreographed a short traveling phrase, then tried to invert it, meaning turning it upside down or sideways in some manner.
Travel A Original Phrase
Travel A Inverted
Resource: Humphrey, Doris. “Check List.” The Art of Making Dances. Hightstown: Princeton Book, 1987. Print.