This is an excerpt from Choreographing From Within by Diana Green.
As a choreographer, you need to know what dance is good at expressing and what it does not have the ability to express well. This will help you be more successful in your attempts. For example, I do not recommend that you attempt to tell the story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland even if you are choreographing for children. Although it is a familiar story and has been created in many media, the charm of the story is in the written language. Although the characters are interesting, they are interesting because of the way they speak, not because of what they do. It is possible to create interesting costumes for these characters, because they are unusual, but it is impossible to project the play on words that is so critical to Lewis Carroll’s success with this story.
So what does dance do well? Martha Graham (1894-1991), one of the pioneers of American modern dance, was a very expressive choreographer. Her work focused on the psyche of the human mind and spirit. Although you might see Graham’s work as dated, you cannot deny that she, along with others during her time, discovered the ability of dance to tell the innermost secrets of the human condition. And although she told stories, the story was not the focus of her work, but the subtle psychological turmoil that each of her characters experienced.
Dance uses the body as an instrument. Body language can be exaggerated and abstracted in dance to project an infinite number of feelings, subtle moods, and emotions (see figure 6.1). Many choreographers, especially those rebelling against what they thought was the overly dramatic early modern movement, have ignored this side of choreography and embraced only the abstract craft of movement. Today it is important to recognize both sides of the spectrum and to be able to create both with abstract craft and with literal emotion, especially as a beginning choreographer. Eventually you will discover your personal strength and passion for creating movement, and you will lean in one direction or the other. But as a student, you must explore both methods of intent.
There is no getting around it: The body tells stories about the feelings of human beings. George Balanchine believed that it was not necessary to apply emotion to choreography. Choreography uses the human form, and an art form that is connected to the human form will tell a human story regardless of whether you intend to create a story. Audiences naturally read emotion and feeling when watching someone move on the stage (see figure 6.2). Balanchine focused on creating abstract movement and expected his audience to read stories and emotional content from the work, even though he never layered it there himself. And true enough, many of his pas de deux were read as complex emotional relationships.
Working with emotion and dance can be a trap, which is the reason Balanchine, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), and Alwin Nikolais (1912-1993) tried to separate emotion from their work. It is easy to become melodramatic and clichéd. Although exaggeration has its place, too much drama can be insulting to an audience. Emotion that is layered on top of movement rarely works. And facial expressions that are superficial and disconnected to the choreography lack impact. A golden rule for portraying emotion is “Let the movement tell the story.” Antony Tudor (1909-1987), known for his psychological ballets, related his experience at American Ballet Theatre, where his ballet Pillar of Fire was so successful that it was being repeated often. The dancers had performed it many times, and Tudor felt it was losing its impact. He discovered that his dancers knew the story too well and were feeling every emotion deeply in the emotionally charged work. Tudor asked the company not to think about the emotions in the next performance. They were simply to do the steps as beautifully and as accurately as possible because emotion was already built into the movement. The next performance was the best performance of the ballet. After following Tudor’s instructions, the dancers came off stage completely drained emotionally. The movement had told the story, and even the dancers had listened.
So what are these tools that may be used to express emotion through dance? You have already explored the elements of time, space, and energy and made discoveries about the way these elements communicate. You have learned that curved shapes are soft, comforting, and welcoming, whereas straight lines are usually strong, sometimes intimidating, and menacing. The best way to find movement that expresses a particular feeling is to imagine the feeling you want to express and improvise movement that seems to express that feeling. To ensure that it is movement that is expressing the emotion and not you as an actor, ask yourself to express the emotion in different body parts. How would your head move? Your torso? Your arm? Your big toe? If you are still having trouble, go back to your notes and look for the elements of dance that you have identified to express a particular mood; use those elements first. Then fine-tune the movement by adding the nuances you need for a particular statement.
When creating choreography with an intent for expressing an emotional landscape, it becomes imperative that you never “drop the ball.” You should not go from expressive movement to abstract, getting caught up in the design of the movement and forgetting the original intent of the work. This will cause the audience to lose their place, so to speak, in the sequence of emotional events. Also, you must never jump from one emotion to the next without allowing for a logical transition that may be read by your audience. The journey on which you take your dancers and that you expect your audience to follow must be clearly created through the elements of choreography that will express your intent (see figure 6.3).
Although expressive dancers are wonderful to work with and a joy to watch, you should not depend on a particularly expressive dancer to carry your story. The responsibility of telling the story lies with the choreographer. That dancer may help you define the choreographic elements you need for your intent. For example, you may wish to tell your dancer a story in order to obtain a particular mood. But then you must watch the performance to decide which choreographic elements work and which choreographic elements do not work. If you want your choreography to be lasting, you must be able to switch dancers without losing your choreographic intent.
Take a moment to record in your journal any personal discoveries you have made concerning the way movement is able to express emotional content. After you have reviewed your thoughts, the following sequence of projects will take you through a process of personal discovery as you translate your emotions to movement that you create on yourself as the expressive dancer.
This movement study has three parts. Part 1 involves drawing. Part 2 requires building a wire sculpture. Part 3 involves creating choreography. This movement study is taken from Eugene Loring’s choreography classes at the University of California at Irvine in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
You will need a large pad of newsprint and a strong crayon (I like to use the husky crayons because they are less likely to break). Think of an experience you have had that was very emotional and is still vivid in your memory. There is no limit in amount of time this experience took, but make sure you can recall all the details of the experience, what happened when, and how you felt each step of the way. You will not have to share the actual experience with anyone, but you should be able to work with it for a long period. Therefore, do not pick something that has not yet been resolved or that may be painful for you to dwell on for long periods. Once you have selected your experience, spend a few minutes reviewing it in sequence. Think of it as a story and recall each part of that story in your memory. Focus on the places that are vague and see if you can bring them back. Notice the places that changed your feelings or attitude and make sure you remember these transitions well. Now sit on the floor in front of your newsprint with a crayon in your hand. Close your eyes and draw the experience from beginning to end. Use the first extended improvisation in chapter 4 as a guide for this activity. Instead of using the music to inspire your drawing on paper, you are using the emotions from your experience to create the lines on your paper. Place the crayon on the paper for the beginning and draw your emotions on the page while you imagine the entire sequence of events. You may want to do this several times until you are happy with the reflection of your experience on the paper. You may realize on your first try that you have forgotten some transition or important occurrence in the experience. Or you may have been perfectly happy with your first try and go with that.
Now you will take the line drawing you created and transpose it into three dimensions by creating a wire sculpture. You will need some pliable wire, such as picture-framing wire, or electrical wire. Coat hangers are too hard to bend. You will also need something to anchor your wire at the base. It could be a small block of wood or a box top or a plastic container. An old CD will work if your wire is not too heavy. Looking at the lines you created on your paper and thinking of your experience again, make a line sculpture with the wire, beginning at one end of the wire and molding it through space, until you come to the end of the experience. Make sure you reflect your emotions through the shapes made in space by the wire. When the wire sculpture is completed, bring it to class and share the sculpture by describing the emotions in the experience while pointing out your interpretation of those feelings in your sculpture. You do not have to share the details of the experience, only the feelings that were involved.
Create a movement study that reflects the entire experience. Use the drawing and sculpture to give you movement ideas. Remember to use body shape, floor patterns, and movement patterns through space. Think about how your wire sculpture may be translated through movement with energy, space, and time. The sequence of your drawing, your wire sculpture, and your dance should be the sequence of your experience. Pay particular attention to the transitions in the experience, the points when your emotions change. Do not rush to complete the dance. Explore each important moment in your experience.
Use these assessment tools in evaluating your progress toward understanding emotion as a key concept in choreography.
- First look at the drawing and wire sculpture in relation to the choreography and see if the relationships between all three seem logical to you. To clarify, have the choreographer describe the creative process of all three creations (the drawing, the wire sculpture, and the dance). After hearing the explanation, make suggestions of where things need to be clearer or where you are confused, paying particular attention to transitions or changes in emotion.
- Identify the choreographic concepts that were used to portray particular emotions, and evaluate their success. Make suggestions for change and try them.
- Since this is a narrative form (something that follows a sequence of events), there should be strong evidence of a beginning, middle, and end. Evaluate this form in each work.
Following is a sample rubric that you may use in evaluating all three parts of the movement study on emotion. You may use this rubric in evaluating your peers, and your peers can complete rubrics for you. If you wish, you may change the criteria to be more in line with what you believe to be important content for this movement study.
Rubric for Emotions
Write comments on your drawing that explain where the emotional content is depicted throughout the experience. Write a description of your wire sculpture, explaining the relationships between the sculpture and the emotional content in the experience. Save all of your work in a safe physical location to be included with your digital portfolio. Or you may want to photograph both your drawing and your wire sculpture to include in your digital portfolio. Make sure you take photos of the wire sculpture from multiple perspectives so that you can see the entire sculpture when viewing it. Record your choreography and include a description of the relationship of the choreography to the emotional content in the event. If you have the software necessary, add narrative to the video so that you can be very clear about the connections between the event and the choreographic content. Evaluate your work by including comments from your peers and mentor.
This is an excerpt from Choreographing From Within.