Choreography can make or break a dance performance. It can create the illusion that a performer is exceptional when they have basic skills. It can make a great dancer look awkward and ineffective. It can be a transformative experience similar to a great painting or symphony.
Today, there is a tendency to be all about relentless attack, and sometimes to have technique, sex appeal, or music drive the choreography. In contemporary dance that is trying to break from tradition, there can be a pattern of linking together big body moves (like going from lift to lift or from shape to shape) while eliminating steps and phrases made up of steps.
What speaks to the soul? What inspires and moves us? What exactly is choreography and how do we know when its working?
One philosophy says, great choreography works on three levels: story, shape and time period.
Even an abstract work can tell us a story and we can ask ourselves questions about the piece to show us there is meaning suggested behind the movement as it is arranged in the space. Then there is shape or form as a whole (is the piece organic, does it flow from one seeming core), as well as shapes within the whole.
Time period can be suggestive of a particular era and also might ask the question, can we see the choreographer speaking with movement within the time s/he lives or lived? In the age of technology does something in the piece suggest mechanization, machinery, lack of humanness?
Choreography is basically the language of dance. It is how a movement craftsman has dancers speak without using words.
Here is a checklist to consider when you create or watch dance.
- Subject matter. What is the dance about? What underlies the entire idea? Is there a theme? What motivated the choreographer to create the work?
What drives it–music, tempo, the dancer(s) used, the kind of dance it is, dancers’ personalities or skills?
- Design – shape – form – sculptural effects – pattern. Are these interesting, engaging, varied?
Timing – rhythm – tempo – syncopation: slow, fast and all manner in-between.
Color. Are there nuances that convey light and dark or show differences or comparisons so we recognize that there is something going on that carries emotion, so we feel something as we watch the movement?
Levels. This can also be contrast. Are the dancers always performing on the same level? Can leaps, or something that creates height add to the intensity or design or create more interest? What about moving from high to low, to very low? What happens when a dance is all in a middle range?
Effort, dynamics, or qualities used. This can also be contrast or color. How do the movements feel to the dancers and the audience kinesthetically? Are the movements hard-edged and driving, or are they light, easy and never ending, or weak and undefined?
Laban Effort-Shape is a wonderful tool to use to look at choreography. Creative dance for children that uses Laban effort-shape has children generate action words or action sentences that put together qualities of movement and can show choreographic craft.
Consider some of these action sentences and the different qualities they might evoke when performed:
TANGO. kick slap stomp whirl thrust scintillate. OR: swivel greet focus grow run nail nail nail drive shatter.
WALTZ (or ballet). glide flicker meander sustain pop glitter crest teeter.
QUICKSTEP. open skip follow snap slink patter leap walk slash quit.
CONTEMPORARY. Gyrate sizzle swish taptaptap freeze flick toss collapse.
Make a list of action words, put them in your own sentences. Move with them. Explore and see what you discover. We’d love to hear about some of your experiences with these in the comments area of the blog. Enjoy!