Choreographer or Fan – Why Dances Fail

Gregory Hines

Designed movement

You think you have all the right moves. The music is frenzied and full of power. Your dancers are fulfilling your expectations and are really gifted. The future looks bright. Still you’re nervous on premiere night. Who wouldn’t be?

You think your dance concept is genius. The movements flowed out of you like water. Yes, you sweated your guts out at moments but any artist does that for their art.

So why are the critics panning the ballet now? Why did the judges give you and your partner a 3? Why didn’t your tap routine work?

Because, you say to yourself, The judges don’t understand you and seem to hate everything you do. You take this criticism personally.

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Egos aside, dances often fail because they lack choreographic craft. Of course, sometimes dances fail because the dancer or dancers are under-rehearsed, lack presence and a whole slew of other reasons having to do with performance, technique and training that will not be touched on here. That’s another post.

Many dancers who have had fulfilling careers go on to choreograph. They may be teachers and need routines for their students. They may head a dance company and have an interest in putting dances together.

All too often, these well-meaning dancers choreograph as the dancers and teachers before them have – believing that choreography is simply putting steps together.

Choreography is a craft. It can be taught. That’s why I’m writing and why, after dancing professionally a short while when I studied to be a dance educator, choreographer and dance critic, I changed direction. I coined my own term for an aspect of what I offer – dance analyst.

A dance analyst knows dance and can help choreographers and dancers by offering a different perspective than critics, instructors, judges and well-meaning fans.

From my viewing experience, many dances fail because they are not well crafted. They fail because they are a string of steps that felt good as they flowed from the choreographer’s dancer self.

If they felt good, chances are they were the steps most easily accessed – like the first ideas that strike a writer when s/he sits down to write. Usually these are easy to do and feel good. They are the stuff of stream of consciousness. They do not provide the coherency and connection needed for a work that inspires, engages and involves others and thus score points with judges.

If that dancer self learned these stream of consciousness steps from Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine, all well and good. Those choreographers all display knowledge of the craft of creating dances… Robbins knew theater… Taylor studied art first… Fosse grew up watching vaudeville… Balanchine studied music… So you – if you’re a choreographer who danced under the tutelage of Robbins, Fosse, Taylor, Graham and Balanchine – learned craft by osmosis and hopefully, through observation. That may not mean you know why a dance or phrase of steps evokes what it does.

Steps borrowed from somewhere and thrown together with other steps are often a hodge podge with no rhyme or reason. They leave out a whole lot of the infinite possibility of the art form.

Dances fail when the choreographer worked with a vague intention and had only a glimmer of a concept of the dance. Never mind designing the look of it. Never mind captivating us – the audience. Never mind that the piece is a patchwork quilt of hackneyed moves from every dance a wannabe choreographer ever learned.

Great crafters choreograph for the eye. They know audiences respond to what they see – line, shape, air and floor pattern, spacial relationships, tension, surprise, emotion, the physical body gesturing, sculpting, responding.

street dancer

attention to shape and design

Great crafters notice nuances. Aware of craft, they note the elements of dance, group work, duets, trios, solos, moments of stillness. They see how past masters used moments of rest and breathing time, as well as tempo, rhythm, attack, lyricism, and patterns and motifs. They are aware of how dancers bring a movement out of themselves with a sense of inner connection and conviction.

Good crafters are also conscious of historicity – of the time period of their dance – and of the elements of a specific style, for example that Argentine Tango is not American Ballroom Tango.

Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough

Attention to shape, use of levels, surprise, humor, design, drama

Sadly, dances also fail when a well-meaning choreographer does not have basic gifts for creating movement. When s/he only knows how to improvise, throwing steps together but has no understanding of music, and little ability to create flowing organic phrases that connect one to the next. When creating a story ballet, many choreographers have little to offer through the story and the chosen theme. They know little about creating drama through the dance and movements that need to convey so much that comes from the theater.

Choreography is a craft. Craft can be taught and learned. That craft is taught mainly in colleges and universities helps those dancers who go to college. Craft of choreography needs to be taught in dance studios and professional dance and dance theater schools so professional dancers gain the benefits. Exploration is required. Trial and error. And hours in the rehearsal studio.

Why do dances fail? Why do dances work? See what you’re aware of now with regard to this dance from youtube, then check my short list afterward:

My short list – why the dance works:

  • that low dip they take – a change in levels – which adds the unexpected
  • lots of circling motifs: they dance around each other, they go in a circular pattern around the dance floor
  • their connection
  • air patterns and shape – the dancers make pictures in the air as well as on the dance floor and in their bodies
  • variety: the dancers dance together, facing each other and side by side. They also dance apart.
  • changes in rhythm and timing

Thanks for stopping by!