Creating Dance on the Future
As choreographers, we all dream of creating the most innovative works on the most inspired bodies. We visualize world class dancers executing our most intricate movements with expert quality and unlimited ability.
The reality is of course that most new works will be created outside these situations. Some works will even be created on students, each with their own path and skillset. The question then becomes: How do we as choreographers still create meaningful work while considering the limit of our tools?
Play to the strength of the dancer.
All choreographers know the best way to create a quality product is to recognize the dancers' abilities and engage those talents. Unfortunately with a young dancer, it might not always be as easy to identify those gifts. Young dancers often struggle in the beginning with retainment and details, so they are not always able to demonstrate their true potential until their comfortable. A strategy for dealing with this issue is to give a very simple task that will challenge their physical ability first before the choreographer addresses the specificity of quality or nuance. The choreographer can then observe their successes and more importantly their limitations and craft a step syllabus that will incorporate their natural tendencies. After some initial exploration, it should be easier to go back through and imbue style, complexity, and meaning.
Intent is a 20 minute piece created on 40 dancers in three weeks as part of the American Youth Ballet's "Solstice Dance Project." Solstice is a workshop that brings young dancers and emerging choreographers into the studio with experienced choreographic mentors. During this time, pieces are created with the process and educating in mind.
Know how to take a complexity back to its root.
Professional dancers in companies generally share a common level of ability and general aesthetic. That's why the director hired them in the first place. However, students and even very young professionals can vary wildly in ability and understanding. Maturing dancers come to information at different times. This is why it's important for the choreographer to know the simplest form of the steps they are setting. Being able to break down new information into a vocabulary and form that's recognizable makes it easier for the dancer to retain and get comfortable quicker. It might also create some moments in the process of self-discovery for the choreographer.
Don't try to hide them.
Who are we fooling? The dancer who's truly struggling will still be seen in the back. In fact, the audience will probably spend the whole time trying to look around the people in the front to see what's being hidden back there. It's just human nature. The only way to truly create a piece that is about the subject matter and not the struggling performers is to help them. Seriously though, help them. Every choreographer should spend time on the dancer who needs the help. Sometimes it can be humbling for a dance maker to watch their steps be executed poorly over and over again. This part of the process can breed self-doubt and insecurity. However, most dancers will get it eventually with enough effort. If they continue to struggle past a certain point, it's the choreographer's job to simply have them do less or continue to find steps that they can accomplish. Changing a step to facilitate the dancers' abilities doesn't alter the work's initial intent, but having a young person failing consistently in the back might be too distracting for the audience to overcome.
Demand the dancers do it your way.
Often when working with students, it is easy to say, 'they're not good enough to get it.' In all honesty, that might be the case sometimes. An overwhelming number of them will get it though, Students are being sold short all the time. Everyone started somewhere, and very few dance steps at the highest level come naturally to anyone. If a choreographer needs something to happen in a work, then they should try to make it happen. Coaching dancers is a lost art form. The dance community is obsessed with phenomenal facilities on the youngest dancers. Too frequently, dancers who will get it but need a little bit of help are overlooked.
A choreographer should be demanding in a supportive way but should resist the urge to give up on a performer or concept. If the dance maker knows their work, they should be able to reach most dancers at some level.