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Danseur Ignoble: The Challenges of Choreographing for Non-Dancers

Right now, as a dancer, I’m just sort of an intermediate student; a returner — but I’m pretty good at it, and I have an amazing relationship with my body: I can ask it to do things with a fair degree of confidence that it’ll do them, or at least approximate them. In short, I trust it in a way that a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to come to trust theirs. Gymnastics and ballet have been part of my life for so long that all that stuff is really deep in my bones.

Which is a long way of saying that I really don’t have a very clear sense of what it’s like to be a pure, raw beginning dancer with no conceptual framework for dance — and I really, really can’t conceive of what it might be like to be a very verbal thinker — someone whose brain is better at thinking in words than at thinking in movement — and trying to learn to dance.

…Which is why I am so, so very glad that my dear and lovely husband has gamely jumped feet-first into my choreography project, becoming at once a sounding board, a test pilot, and an idea generator.

The most useful insight he’s offered me so far?

It’s this: most people dance with their feet.

People who aren’t dancers tend to think of learning dances in terms of learning steps — not lines, not pictures, not even in terms of sequences of movement: just in steps. Right foot and left arm forward, left foot and right arm back; left foot and right arm forward, right foot and left arm back (I’m pretty sure I just described what some of us call “The White Boy” and Denis calls “The Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robot”).

At the very most basic level, it’s even possible that those steps can only involve the feet/legs or the arms — that trying to move both at once might be too much.

Here’s what I’m discovering: you can model the “pictures” that occur between movements with the whole body, but it’s a good idea to transmit the transitions between those pictures with care.

Here, we do some port-de-bras, described clearly and demonstrated. Here, we keep the arms where they finished the port-de-bras component and we take three steps forward. The next “picture” is a little bit of fondu, but I’ll have to find some other way to describe it, lest people worry that they don’t have any of those little long-handled forks. Then we rise (releve optional) with arms coming to fifth: gonna have to ask Denis how to describe that, for the verbal thinkers in the room.

Watching new students in class, I’ve realized that focusing intensely on technique isn’t going to work for this project: instead, I’m going to try to focus on feeling. Adults get really hung up in the idea of doing it “right,” and they get in their own way a lot at first. I’m hoping to avoid that roadblock in this context.

My goal here, obviously, isn’t to create professional dancers — it’s to invite people to dance, and to help them see what their bodies can do when they’re given some space to swing them around and play.

Technique, if you’re a dancer, is important. It’s immensely important. A solid foundation in good technique is the basis of long-term progress as a dancer.

However, technique takes time. If you’re totally new, and you’re hoping to learn a couple of dances in the span of a week so you can show them off a little at the end, you can approximate: there’s a difference, after all, between good approximation and bad technique.

Little kids in our pre-ballet classes learn rhythm, balance, and freedom of movement and so forth; there’s no reason adults can’t do that. We can focus on feeling the music and letting it move us. That’s going to be a lot harder with the Philip Glass part of the program (which, for those who aren’t musical/spatial thinkers, will involve counting like crazy: fortunately, the structure of the music makes that fairly easy) than the anthemic pop part, but that’s where demonstration and modeling come in.

This has all made me think really hard about how to put things together, and that’s been a pretty interesting experience. It’s an exercise in the meta-cognition of movement: I’m thinking about how I think about movement. That’s hard for me to do, because movement is, for me, both a natural language and one in which I’ve been formally schooled since I was but a wee bairn, so to speak. This process forces me to slow down and figure out how to explain what I’m thinking; how to translate movement to words in a basic and effective way.

In a way, this all hearkens back to a conversation with JustScott in the comments on my class-notes post from yesterday: how we (at least, before we study ballet) tend to think of ballet as something you do with your legs and feet, when in fact arms and heads are really important.

Learning to really use port de bras and epaulement and so forth has actually made it much easier to feel the music, and in turn to use all the music and finish my movements (which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine: it drives me crazy to see someone dancing full-out with solid technique but basically truncating every single movement). My dancing looks way better for it, but the really cool part is that it feels way better.

Anyway, I should really stop here, because I’m currently avoiding my household responsibilities and the dryer is buzzing at me. I have more thoughts about this forthcoming. We spent last night working through some choreographic problems and some teaching-dance problems, and I think we’ll probably do more of that tonight.

So that’s it for now. Happy March, everyone … Spring is just around the corner.

I hope.

Ballet Squid Chronicles: The Philip Glass Project — Possibilities

So I’ve been listening to lots of Glass, and I’m feeling like his short piece “The Poet Acts” (from the soundtrack for the film, The Hours) and his longer piece “The Light” are going to work brilliantly.

I’m envisioning a pas de quatre for “The Poet Acts,” with no hierarchical distinctions, just a lot of fluidly-interchanging parts. I suppose if there were any hierarchical distinctions, it might not properly be a pas de quatre.

For “The Light” I’m envisioning something with a larger corps (recruiting and setting the piece on more than 10 dancers might be pretty much impossible; I’m not that organized and, you know, Burning Man, so it’s not like I can suck up everybody’s entire week, unless they really want to spend a week the desert trying to make ballet happen as much as I do) and maybe a couple of featured dancers who emerge from and are absorbed back into the corps at various points.

“The Light” is much longer than “The Poet Acts,” and there’s a lot of opportunity in there to play with lines, circles, and lifts. What I’m envisioning for the principals regardless of gender is something more like what Bourne does with the Swan and the Prince in his version of Swan Lake: less traditional; almost more catch-and-release than lift-and-support (or, heaven forbid, lift-and-separate, which is what happens when your lifts go badly, from what I’ve heard).

There’s also a lot of opportunity in “The Light” to make use of groups of dancers doing different, even opposing things.

I can’t help but notice how the percussive instruments in “The Light” actually remind me of Tchaikovsky in the context of ballet. There are brilliant little cues built in to the music. That’s one of the thing I really enjoy about watching the Tchaikovsky ballets — Tchaikovsky tucked these beautiful little cues in all over the place that are profoundly useful both for dancers and for the audience.

The funny thing is, this doesn’t seem like it should be much more daunting from a choreographic perspective than Copland, and I’ve seen Copland ballets (including Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring”).

So I think it will work, if I can give myself a crash course in creating and setting choreography on dancers.

I’ve got a year. How hard can it be*?

*Yes,  that’s supposed to be ironic, there.  Don’t worry; I’m not that manic.  Yet.

Ballet Squid Quickie: Two Things Forgot To Mention

So last night I mentioned to our friend Kelly that I was planning on choreographing a sort of post-post-modern story ballet, if you will (actually, I’m not sure it’s post-post-modern at all in the technical sense; it might not even be modern — but here on the Innertubes we play fast and loose with our English all the time), to some of Erik Satie’s piano works and that I was planning on possibly putting up a small ad-hoc performance together at Burning Man next year.

Kelly immediately said, “Meh! It’s already been done. Now, if you can choreograph something to Philip Glass, I’ll be impressed!

I replied, “I could do that! I love Philip Glass!”

And Kelly said, “Ha! If your dancers can count!”

And thus was the choreographic gauntlet cast. So I guess I’ll be selecting something from Mr. Glass’s oeuvre (but NOT the whole of Koyaanisqatsi!) and trying to whip up some kind of little ballet for it next summer. The idea is to do some collaborative choreography, spend a little time rehearsing it, and throw out a little performance.

I might still see about doing selected bits from Simon Crane (that’s the working title of my Satie ballet, which is not, coincidentally, about a stunt man — though that, too, might make a cool idea around which to build a ballet). Maybe just a few pieces that give shape to the story. We’ll see.

Sorry I’m so chatty today. Just trying to put all this stuff down so I’ll remember it, and also in order to force myself to do it.

In other news, I find WordPress’s simplified post editor very annoying, and am irked by the fact that the “New Post” feature now defaults to it unless you go to Dashboard>Posts>New Post. Most irritating.

That’s all, really, I promise. I’ll shut up now.

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