10 January 2016

Day Ten - Dancing In Character

My latest project for National Choreography Month is turning out to be more of a big musical theatre number than a tap piece. This didn't surprise me too much, based on my post-secondary education thus far, but then I started to realise that the few dances I have managed to choreograph over the past few months have had distinctive characters in them. They're no longer twelve more-or-less-the-same beautiful dancers without a personality. Even though all of the dancers in a piece might be following the exact same kind of character (or stereotype), at least they have a character. It's not just bodies flailing around in a stylised fashion anymore. It's bodies moving with purpose, at least setting a theme if not telling a story.

A quick perusal of my recent choreographic output finds a tired old man, being escorted to heaven by a child and a dozen angels. There's a young woman grieving the death of someone close to her -- to the point where she's hallucinating. There are three game-show girls in the sassiest piece I will probably ever dream of choreographing. There's a legion of angels surrounding and comforting a terrified child in the dead of night. There's the wind running through the prairies -- grass, grain, and water dancing in praise of their creator. There are the aforementioned couples at a party and the dangerous-but-attractive man leading the naive girl on in Surrender.

And maybe this is where I'm getting stuck. For so long I've choreographed beautiful-but-plotless pieces (Speechless, Early In The Morning, God's Promises, more recently Dancing On Light...). And I still sort of expect that of myself. I love watching huge dances with lovely choreography and it usually doesn't bother me (in fact I often prefer it) if there's no main characters/soloists, so I try to emulate it. And in some pieces, I think I've done a decent job. But I haven't been allowing my choreography to move in the direction it wants to go lately. Apparently right now the creative brain wants to make characters, to create a mood at least (though not necessarily a specific story). Are rules and restrictions on particular pieces necessary? Absolutely, or nothing worthwhile would get done -- everything would have too much variety to make sense and not enough repetition to hold it together in one cohesive whole (this previous sentence is brought to you by my music theory profs -- I knew that music degree would help my choreography).

Part of why I've been reluctant to move into a realm with more character(s) is that I don't really know how. The first time I'd ever really been asked to take on a character of any kind in a dance was in my first year of college. I had been dancing for over ten years and the idea of dancing in character had never even crossed my mind until that teacher asked it of us. I mean, I knew about all the big ballets -- Swan Lake and Giselle and Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty and so on -- but it had never occurred to me that they had to dance in character. I assumed the costumes, the sets, and the story written in the programme did all the work without really giving it any thought at all. It took me at least a full year to begin to wrap my head around it (and my head is still not completely around it -- how can you be in character non-verbally?). I always understood the concept of acting in character, but dancing...? I don't really even know where to begin. Dance is so codified... actors get to use the English (or whatever) language and street-level body language -- things that the average audience will understand, at least at a subconscious level. Dance, however, is so rare, so elite, so stylised, that the average person doesn't know how to watch it and as a result won't pick up on any of the subtleties that are supposed to be conveying character.

So how to choreograph a character clearly? Some of it is the responsibility of the performer, yes, but some of it is dependent on me, the choreographer. And to make it more difficult, I'm not even choreographing within my primary training -- I only started tap dancing when I was eighteen. I've still got a lot to learn about the dance form itself, never mind within the choreographic side of it.

Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. But I found the recent infusion of characters (or at least stereotypes) into my choreography interesting.

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