For the purposes of my own practice, I wanted to blog some further thoughts about refining the work and performance coaching that I did not feel would be appropriate on a teaching blog. Apologies if its reads disjointedly at times – the below are extracts written as part of other posts that I have brought together here.
Best laid plans…
Early in the process I imagined I would ask the dancers to read some of the poems and letters and write short texts noting their physical and emotional experiences in response to them. I didn’t do this – partly out of my own concern that this was rather cheesy. However I did this myself and it helped concretise the work for me – it possibly would have done so for them. At the very beginning of my notebook for this work I wrote some thoughts about my response to one of Keats’ letters to Fanny Brawne in relation to the track/section Convulsion, as my response to the two felt linked. The letter, dated 3rd July 1918 and posted on this blog, along with some thoughts by Jane Campion (director of the film Bright Star) on the letter. Keats sent it after their separation, and for me it starts with the intention of lightness but has a real intensity to it. As Campion notes ‘…Keats poured out his heart, He was self-mocking, pleading, vulnerable, jealous, funny, tender and stunningly truthful.’ (2009: ix) In my notes I wrote
‘Reading it gives me tightness in my chest, and heaviness in my heart. I can almost feel a pain in my eyes and heaviness of eyelids as if I had been crying or were about to cry.’
What followed was a note to read the letter, write a response and then improvise. This was for my own process, but would have been useful for the dancers too. Part of my reticence to do this, perhaps, was a fear that they would not feel the intensity of response that I do. I also noted a comment by improvisation practitioner and scholar Kent De Spain, where he states that emotions trigger somatic responses. The experience of reading this letter, and this thought, were the impetus for the theme of the work.
One of Matt’s suggestions was to have the dancers read the poems aloud to help them understand and engage with them. I did this myself multiple times since deciding to make this piece – especially with Ode to a Nightingale. For me, these comments demonstrate that I knew what I needed to do with the dancers to facilitate their performative engagement, but wasn’t sure how to do it in such a short period of time, and focused on producing material rather than how it would be danced – which is odd given my aims for the work.
One of Matt’s frequent comments is that dancers need to devise material that challenges them – this did not happen in this work, and I take some responsibility for that as I did not reject material that I knew was too simple or not dense enough to provide continued interest for the dancers and an audience. I made this decision not for artistic or choreographic reasons, but because I was terrified of the limited time I had/I felt I had to produce the work. I accept that it would have been better to make a shorter work with richer material and performances than the 15 minutes I had set myself with the soundtrack – looking back, I could have made an interesting work just using the first and/or final track, exploring improvisational skills further, particularly working with images and visualisation, and engaging with the text and performative skills. I created the anxiety about time and ‘getting it done’ by setting myself this task, and this anxiety I created affected numerous decisions I made throughout the process.
Whereas I think the changes we made for Ode dealt with the issues Matt raised after the draft showing, and I myself had observed in watching the work, the issue was more fundamental – I did not engage with and devise this section as I had originally planned, getting the dancers to engage with the poem more explicitly through discussion and improvisation tasks and was inherently dissatisfied with the section because of this. I needed to facilitate the devising of material and engagement with the soundtrack (namely the text) in this section differently. I should have worked with my original instincts, to discuss the poem in depth before devising movement material so the dancers had an understanding of the context of what they were making, and to use improvisation and movement images to make. Again, a decision made due to my fears over time constraints. Both for this section and for Lake in Negative Capability, I assumed the dancers would make a connection with techniques and skills learning in their Technique and Moving Body modules for performance, but needed to deal with this more explicitly. It made me think about Matt’s approach to his improvisation practice and teaching of skills needed to engage with it. Whereas this lends more towards physical skills and competencies in relation to his approach to contact work, the same is of course true of choreographic work. One of the tasks I have set myself is to write a post on the skills needed to engage with my work – specifically this work, or my initial intentions and visions for it. This would include engagement with visualisation, sensation and image based improvisation work, which would have aided the dancers in Fall and Swell in the devising and performance of material.
In our work on Yearning I felt confident that I could coach a rich and embodied performance out of the dancers – as noted in previous posts, through a series of phsycial tasks, discussions and readings of texts and intentions for the section Meghan and Caitlin performed the face-to-face duet in a way that was, at times, quite moving and gave me the an experience of the somatic changes triggered by emotion. However, when we returned to the duet material, I found the intensity/performativity that we had reached the previous session had been dulled with time. The face-to-face material did not have the same level of impact. I remember the way we had devised this section – I purposefully asked them to devise the opening duet with touch and remove it, to infuse the movement and their performance with a sense of connection. One of the considerations for my own practice is that I can coach the performance through a workshop/session with the dancers, but not so that it is sustained over time.
A lot of the feedback at the draft showing focused on the dancer’s performance, and although much of this was aimed at the dancers, I had been considering for some time the role of the choreographer in coaching and facilitating the dancers performativity. In fact, it was something that I mentioned in my talk at the Roundtable event in November. Due to my fears about ‘getting it done’ in time (a recurring theme), although some of the devising tasks were designed to give experiences to the dancers to draw on performatively (particularly Convulsion and Yearning), I needed to give more directed tasks to dancers much earlier on in the process.
One of my own reflections on the development on the theme of the work is the role of Keats’ poems and letters, particularly those read over the soundtrack. In exploring physical and emotional responses to poetic texts, Keats’ letters and poems become a source material – that from which I drew the physical and emotional experiences I wanted to explore in the work – and also a performative tool for the dancers. The blog was also intended in this way as the piece progressed – but I only made this explicit to the dancers in the latter half of the process. I posted on the different poems and letters that they might read and respond to in dancing the material, but did not explain this to them. I assumed an engagement with the blog and understanding here. In his feedback Matt asked if the intention was for the dancers to dance to the music and their manner/performance to respond to the text. As noted in my post on the draft showing, my answer was yes – but I had not been explicit enough about this.
As such, one of my points of refinement for the work was to work on the dancer’s performance of material, giving them specific ‘ways in’ and coaching. I did this primarily in two sessions, the first working with the solo, duet and trio dancers and introducing them to the poems and letters I had posted on the blog in relation to different sections, and asked them to read them aloud whilst others danced. We discussed the poems and what their response/understanding of them was, but the dancers struggled to deal with the language and got caught up with specific meanings. I sent them away to learn the text to speak and dance in our next rehearsal. Later, I remembered the opening of the piece:
“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.
And that I needed to facilitate this kind of engagement with the poetry.
We also worked on Yearning in this session – I asked Meghan and Caitlin to hold hands for 3 minutes and then dance the first duet in the section. I considered asking them to put the touch back in to explore the moments of connection between them, but realised this would be potentially confusing and time consuming. This physical contact was to be carried through their dancing – the intimacy this held. For the second duet, we had discussed how they had moved quite far apart over the course of the devising process, and what had once been intensely close, standing face-to-face, had become quite distance. We repeated the material multiple times and I asked them to move closer together. We discussed that it was an intense thing to do, and I expressed I felt they were avoiding being close together for that reason. They needed to let go of the other person being Caitlin or Meghan, and accept that the intensity they experienced in being close together what part of the intention for the material. I explained that, for me, the time when they stand whilst Maisie dances is similar to the hand holding preparation – they should take that closeness and intensity through their dancing. Through coaching and repetition, we got to a point in this section where the second duet genuinely moved me. I felt it in my chest and my eyes welling up. That as what I wanted for the audience.
In our second session on this, I made more specific notes about my tasks for the dancers to facilitate their performative engagement which I will reproduce here.
Firstly I got them to dance the duet a number of times, alternating who spoke the text – a section from the end of Ode on Melancholy that associates melancholy with beauty and women:
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
We discussed the poem again, but this time focused more on their emotional response and experiences of melancholy. I then gave them a task – rather than to write their response to the poem, I asked them to write about an experience they had had that is related to the themes of melancholy and associating it with a person/relationship. Meghan, who dances the majority of the material, I asked to write about an experience when someone had caused her pain or sadness – not an intense kind of sadness, but the kind of sadness that lasts over time and becomes a demeanour. Caitlin, who offers support through moments of touch in this section of the work, I asked to write about when she had caused someone pain and sadness, but still wanted to comfort and support them. I asked them to write about what happened, and how it made them feel physically and emotionally. I was clear that these would be private and not shared with me, to encourage them to be honest – in other instances I would ask them to share these, but as I do not know these dancers very well as yet, I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. It was my intention that writing these down would concretise the experiences and make them easier to respond to. I accept that this is problematic, as I cannot be certain of their engagement, and how they applied this as without knowing the detail, it was difficult to coach them through it. We went through some moments of the material in detail, such as how there should be a shift for Meghan through the section of when she looks at Caitlin, that when she moves away from Caitlin she is trying to get away from her, and that the ‘half movements’ instigated by the treatment should be hesitant. I found this useful, but worried that I was overloading the dancers with things to respond to, giving them too much choice and information.
Negative Capability (Lake)
I discussed the concept of Negative Capability with Meghan and Caitlin, as I realised we had also never done this explicitly, although I had written about in on the blog. This was important for the walk that opens the piece, and we discussed the idea of something problematic but beautiful. I then set them both further written tasks – Meghan to write about an experience where a mystery about someone or something fascinated here, and Caitlin something she wanted to try as a child, a sport of a game. I wanted a sense of childish curiosity, and we discussed how Caitlin carried the relationship in this section of the work.
I realised the task for Meghan was too abstract, so I went back to the idea of luxuriating in the movement, and asked her initially to work with some of the tasks and approaches from the Moving Body module to engage with the kinaesthetic sensation of the movement. Later, to further facilitate this, I asked her to perform the material a few times with her eyes closed. This began to have the desire effect, and I pointed out moments where her engagement and sensory experience began to become clear to me watching as intentionality. I realise this was a mistake in hindsight, as it have markers for Meghan to ‘hit’ to represent kinaesthetic engagement, rather than allowing her to concentrate on her sensory experiences. We also discussed how Meghan needed to prepare herself before the piece began – perhaps by closing her eyes and focusing for a few minutes – to prepare her to engage in this way as soon as the piece began. Whereas I think the principles of engagement in here are sound, I think I rushed through them and did not spend enough time working through these tasks with the dancers.
Further to the previous work on Meghan and Caitlin’s duet, I asked Maisie to write about her experience of longing for something to work with in performance to complement the work I had done with Meghan and Caitlin on their duets. I asked Phoebe to do the same for Convulsion, after reading a letter Keats had written to Fanny Brawne. The letter, dated 3rd July 1918 and posted on this blog, along with some thoughts by Jane Campion (director of the film Bright Star) on the letter. I asked Phoebe to read it, to consider its emotional intensity and to write about a similar experience she had had.
Ode/ Negative Capability (Butterflies)
For Ode we discussed the poem, and I asked each of the dancers to go away and consider an image or idea that they felt resonated with them as the basis for their performance. Whilst I think this was a useful task, again I think I needed to spend some time talking these through with the dancers and helping them engage with them further whilst moving. I said I wanted them to continue the sense of dialogue and conversation that I had previously asked for, as even though it wasn’t there yet this was important to make sure the material did not end up sitting as separate solos in the space. They needed to direct their movement towards a person – look them in the eye, dance to them. We talked about the difference between talking to someone and talking at them, and that being significant here. The sense of connection between people was lacking, as a lot of the time they didn’t look at each other whilst on stage and also because of the physical distance between them. As such, we spent some time on the staging. The same is true of Butterflies in Negative Capability – it lacks the sense of community it needs because the dancers don’t acknowledge each other as they enter the space and join them. I suspect this is partly nerves and anxiety, and wasn’t helped by the addition of the hocket. For Butterflies, I asked each dancer to come up with a narrative for the section and their role in it – we discussed PDC rep Route which is set at a train station, where the dancers are asked to do the same thing.
Mary’s feedback from the draft showing was useful as she talked about perspective of the dancer of rep work from PDC, and it had made me wonder if the blog was a potential help or hindrance to the dancers performance. Mary asked if they knew the poems and what they were about, I said they and some information about them were on the blog, but I wonder if in making it readily available, I stunted potential research/engagement/curiosity of the dancers. If I had left it open, would they have gone and found out for themselves, and engaged further? And, also, would I have discussed it with them more explicitly in class rather than relying on the blog as a source on information sharing.
We had two weeks after the draft showing to refine the work in response to feedback. The main areas of work I identified in my previous post were:
1) Re-introducing a ‘gear shift’ in the hops section in Negative Capability – the hocket which I had in some of my structure plans.
2) Augment the Ode material to make it more dense, add in other dancers/material to give work more density and texture.
3) Work on the dancer’s performance of material, giving them specific ‘ways in’ and coaching.
The first two deal with changes to the material, whereas the third deals with coaching the dancers in their performance of the material, and as such I will deal with this work in two posts.
My original plans for the structure of the hops section in Negative Capability (referred to as Butterflies) involved A-B and B-A hockets.
Definition: A-B hocket
Where the odd numbered ‘segments’ of a phrase are followed by the even numbered segments of the phrase like so: 1 3 5 7 9 2 4 6 8 10. In this context, each segment is a count of 4.
Definition: B-A hocket
As above, with even numbered segments followed by odd like so: 2 4 6 8 10 1 3 5 7 9.
I intended to begin with the phrase being performed by one dancer, with a second dancer performing an A-B hocket. The two dancers would move in to unison after one loop of the phrase and hocket, adding in a dancer with each subsequent loop. When all 4 dancers were on stage, the group unison would be broke with the introduction of A-B and B-A hockets.
Following Matt’s feedback at the draft showing, I decided to introduce A-B and B-A hockets on the fourth loop of the material. For this, I split the 8 dancers in to 2 groups of 4. The group on Stage Left (group 1) would begin an A-B hocket on the fourth loop of the material, which they would repeat for the fifth loop. The group on Stage Right (group 2) would begin a B-A hocket on the final group of the material like so:
Group 1 Group 2
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 3 5 7 9 2 4 6 8 10 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1 3 5 7 9 2 4 6 2 4 6 8 10 3 5 7
The shift to the hocket for group 1 happens on a dancer’s entrance, and the fourth loop allows for unison at the beginning and the end of the phrase (the 1 and 10 stay in the same place). There were parts of this shift I quite liked – the dancer’s entrance appearing to instigate the hocket, the two groups of unison moving in different directions in space, coming together at the beginning and end of the phrase, but I wonder now if sticking with unison (albeit in two small groups) was a cop out. The intuition was to shift the expectation – having built up the premise of a dancer joining and continuing the group unison, a dancer joining instigates a change in structure – and this did that. Something is instinctively telling me that it would have been better to break down the unison further. If the break in to two groups of dancers on the fourth loop had been followed by another break in to four groups on the fifth loop, it perhaps would have made more sense moving in to the duet in the next section. The exiting of the dancers always felt odd in this section, narratively and structurally.
The changes in Ode happened in three ways. Firstly, I decided to shorten the repetition
1 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 4 5
2 3 2 3 4 5 6 4 5 6
3 4 3 4 5 6 7 5 6 7
5 6 5 6 7 8 9 7 8 9
7 8 7 8 9 10 11 9 10 11
9 10 9 10 11 12 13 11 12 13
11 12 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15
13 14 13 14 15 16 17 15 16 17
Although the material definitely needed augmenting to develop complexity and interest, I had always felt in watching the work that the repetitions at the beginning of Ode were too long and monotonous, so the open of the section was quite boring to watch and, I suspect, to dance (this was confirmed I feel when the dancers expressed they were happy at the change). Also, it had also slightly frustrated me that I had set a pattern that develops at a different rate – we being with the 1 2 3 and then move on to odd numbers 5 7 9 and so on at the beginning of each line. So, I cut the second line of the pattern, and added in a further, final line of the pattern before the phrase was danced in full.
1 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 4 5
3 4 3 4 5 6 7 5 6 7
5 6 5 6 7 8 9 7 8 9
7 8 7 8 9 10 11 9 10 11
9 10 9 10 11 12 13 11 12 13
11 12 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15
13 14 13 14 15 16 17 15 16 17
15 16 15 16 17 17
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
I made a further change in that the ‘17’ material was danced by Meghan, who danced the final phases in full on her own. I felt structurally this made more sense, as the work was so dominated with solos, duets and trios it seemed odd to end on large group unison and worked narratively with Meghan as a dancer being a ‘thread’ running through the work.
Whilst working on these changes, to maximise time I asked Phoebe, Meghan and Caitlin to augment the material for Ode and teach it to the other dancers (Maddie and Kaylie, whom the removal of the second line of the pattern affected). My instruction was that the material for each count of four should be performed in two counts rather than four, with an additional two counts needed to be devised that sat with the style and qualities of the original material. This meant they were changing each count of four rather than adding new material on the end of the existing phrase so as not to disrupt the pattern and require the dancers to totally relearn the section. The change would be difficult enough to master in time for the performance (at this point it was only a week away) and this seemed the most straightforward shift.
At the same time, I asked the other dancers to work in pairs to devise 3 x 10 counts of 4 – 2 that travelled from Stage Left to Stage Right and 1 that travelled from Stage Right to Stage Left. These would then be performed alongside the existing material in Ode to include further dancers in the work and add further texture and interest to the section for the audience. It would also work with the very static nature of the material as it sat in the draft. I asked the dancers to think about the qualities of the existing material and devise around these, giving them an existing count of four as their starting point. These duets (one ended up being a solo, due to an uneven number of students) happened at the following points (in bold) alongside the larger sets of repetition by one dancer:
1 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 4 5
3 4 3 4 5 6 7 5 6 7
5 6 5 6 7 8 9 7 8 9
7 8 7 8 9 10 11 9 10 11
9 10 9 10 11 12 13 11 12 13
11 12 11 12 13 14 15 13 14 15
13 14 13 14 15 16 17 15 16 17
15 16 15 16 17 17
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Some changes were also made in positioning, to bring the dancers dancing the pattern closer together in the stage space, and to work with the new travelling material.
The dancers produced a lot of material for me, and in this session and I made very quick decisions about what worked and what didn’t. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid to say no outright to material and ask the students to devise again. As with many other points in the process, there was some interesting material made that just didn’t sit with the aesthetic and style of this section, or the rest of the piece. One of Matt’s frequent comments is that dancers need to devise material that challenges them – this did not happen in this work, and I take some responsibility for that as I did not reject material that I knew was too simple or not dense enough to provide continued interest for the dancers and an audience. Whereas I think the changes we made dealt with the issues Matt raised after the draft showing, and I myself had observed in watching the work, they were rather functional and the issue with this section was more fundamental – I did not engage with and devise this section as I had originally planned, getting the dancers to engage with the poem more explicitly through discussion and improvisation tasks and was inherently dissatisfied with the section because of this. This would also have facilitated a performative engagement more explicitly, which I shall deal with in my next post.
On 28th November, two weeks before the performance at the Open Studio, we did a draft showing of the piece for staff members Matt Gough, Tim Halliday and Mary O’Brien for feedback. The intentions behind this were many – for me it gets to a point with any creative work I do, including writing and making, where I need an outside eye and a critical conversation to move forward. In the intensity of creating I get bogged down in the details, and struggle to see the bigger picture. Preparing any work for showing, and the conversations that follow, help me step back and get some objectivity, as well as getting feedback from my peers. For the students, it was partly intended to give them an opportunity to perform the work to an audience in advance of the Open Studio to get rid of some of the performance anxiety. In terms of their learning, I wanted them to see how we give and receive critical feedback on work, and how this might drive you forward as you begin to refine the work for performance.
I am going to write the feedback in note form, and deal with my own critical reflections on the work and feedback when I post about refining the work. The notes are split in to sections, as the feedback in class tended to focus on the students performance of the work, followed by another conversation between Matt and myself on the work choreographically.
Although there are a number of points in here for me to work on, both choreographically and in terms of coaching the students performatively, I sought out a further conversation with Matt that dealt more exclusively with the work.
How this feedback was taken forward will be dealt with in a post on refinements, but I decided to work on three things:
1) Introduce a ‘gear shift’ in the hops section in Negative Capability – the hocket which I had in some of my structure plans.
2) Augment the Ode material to make it more dense, add in other dancers/material to give work more density and texture.
3) Work on the dancer’s performance of material, giving them specific ‘ways in’ and coaching.
Sessions 8 and 9 involved the structuring and choreography of the raw material that had been devised over the course of the module. I was acutely aware throughout the process that I only had 2x2hour sessions to structure the work and rehearse it ready for the draft showing in session 10. As such, I spent hours pouring over patterns and structures and combinations of dancers and material. I recongise how problematic this is, as the physicalisation of these structures wasn’t necessarily going to match up to my mental conception of them. An idea for a structure would germinate and I would notate it in as much detail as possible – I realised that my obsessive planning in this way was not helpful. I changed my mind so many times, and threw out ideas that I struggled to work out on paper that I could have worked out physically with the dancers (I will post all of my ‘plans’ the blog to see how my thinking changed/developed). What I needed to do was to try out the structural ideas physically as they came to me, rather than writing them down in so much detail. I got lost in the detail of the structures and the patterns, and forgot the dancing – which is exact what I DON’T want the dancers to do. I accept that this was party a necessity due to time – but I need to be aware of it for my future work.
As we worked across numerous sessions and extra rehearsals to structure the work, I am just going to do one post to try and find some coherency in the process. The below provides some description, but primarily tries to provide rationales for decisions making and some critical reflection.
We worked through the piece chronologically, as I wanted them to think about the narrative and journey of the piece as we structured it. We began with the first half of Negative Capability (called Lake) which was material organised in to the ABABCDECDE rhyming structure of Ode to a Nightingale. The piece opens with a dancer walking in a curved pattern around the stage, focusing on the floor of the stage space. The first track starts about half way through this, with the following text:
‘I still don’t now how to work out a poem.
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought.’
As we hear ‘Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery’, the dancers begins the patterned material danced as a solo. A second dancer enters, watching the first, and dances the original phrase alongside the patterned material like so:
1 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 4 5
3 4 3 4 5 6 7 5 6 7
1 2 3 4 5
8 9 8 9 10 11 12 10 11 12
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
In this way, the person dancing the original phrase appears to be copying, with the material coming together at a couple of points.
I planned many versions of this structure, including the second dancer hocketing the first. I wonder now why I rejected a more complex structure, like a hocket, for an intermittent performance of the original phrase. I briefly considered that this was because I wanted to focus on establishing the relationship between the dancers – one copies and responds to the other – and that the hocket pattern would have been too complex for this. I am not sure this is true, as this relationship could have been developed performatively. I think that maybe I was anxious about working with something too complex for a number of reasons. We didn’t have much time to structure the sections, and therefore little time to work out and learn hocketed versions of existing material. As many of the dancers were struggling to retain the material we had created thus far, it might be too much of an ask. I also felt a responsibility to come to the lessons with firm ideas on how I would structure the sections that I was sure would work in practice, and I think I feared the complex unless it failed. I was, once again, looking for it to be perfect from the off.
The second half of Negative Capability, Butterflies, again began as a more complex structure. The section begins with two dancers lopping the phrase, and gradually builds to 8 of the course of the repetitions. As the umber of dancers builds, the intention was to build in complexity – dancers would break out in to various hocketed versions of the material. Eventually, I settled on looping the original phase 5 times with dancers entering and exiting throughout. The decision making here was more to do with the music and the context of the piece – it sounds like a Regency garden party, and I was thinking of the unison social dancing of the era that the film is set. I had been thinking about Regency Dances throughout the making of the piece, as dance assemblies and balls came up often in my research in to Bright Star, John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and I wanted to echo either the unison or the movement in and out of the centre I always observed in these. Given the music, this seemed an interesting place to do it.
However, when we began to do this in class it became problematic – in part because few people knew the material well enough to enter and exit at different points in the phrase. As such, I had to give them some time to rehearse. When we eventually tried the structure a few times, I found the exits and the spacing/formations it resulted in messy so I left the entrances and cut the exits.
We then spent some brief time treating the material for Return – I wanted to pattern the movement with periodic repetitions, not of sets of counts but individual counts. This worked as follows, where each row in a count of four and this:
1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28
29 30 31 32
1 1 2 3
4 5 5 6
7 8 9 9
10 11 12 13
13 14 15 16
17 17 18 19
20 21 22 23
23 24 25 26
26 27 28 29
29 30 31 32
Again, we ran in to problems with people not knowing the material well enough to treat it.
We got much less done in the session than I planned due to unfamiliarity with the material, and I think the dancers realised the need to be really on top of the material for when the sections are being choreographed – things rarely stay the same! Because of this, I began to organize rehearsals outside of class time. The first of these occurred a couple of days after the session on the Sunday when I was filming the raw material with three dancers. We worked quite quickly, so were able to use the studio time to work on Return and Convulsion.
Return is another duet, this time with the second dancer watching before offering physical support with movement through moments of touch. I wanted this theme of watching throughout the work as it is so prevalent in the film, with the construction of this image of watching and distance being an important part of its narrative and aesthetic. I worked with Meghan and Caitlin to choreograph these moments of touch, which developed in to a couple of lifts at the end of the section. I have really struggled with this duet throughout the process, and realised that I have endgained in trying to make it – I have gone for the end result of asking them to support each other rather than improvising and experimenting with providing support and guidance through touch in numerous, cumulative tasks. This was in part because I did not have a very strong idea about this section, so have been fumbling around in the dark a little. I realise now I should have devised this in a similar way to Yearning as this would have given the dancers a clearer sense of possibility and the ask – the material I got from them in session 7 was derivative because I had set them an endgaining rather than exploratory task.
For Convulsion I am using Phoebe’s version of the solo, because it has a speed and urgency to it that I do not see in the others. I realise this is partly performative, but it is also to do with how she has worked out the pattern – so many of the dancers slowed it down so that the material became easier to perform. As I have blogged many times – it is meant to be difficult to perform at speed. The treatment I gave Phoebe to work on was a simple instruction to make sure the material travelled across the space (from SR to SL) – all the material that had been reversed in the previous treatment should travel forwards, all the material that had not been reversed should travel backwards. This was intended to make sure the travelling was not direct, as this would not sit comfortably with the urgent, fragmented quality of the movement, and also to ensure a sense of back and forth – perhaps a sense of uncertainty.
I asked Caitlin, Meghan and Phoebe to teach the rest of the group these structures in rehearsal time, which I would join in the week to work on Yearning and Ode.
My ideas for Yearning changed many times throughout the process, originally a duet it became a trio for a number of reasons – partly because I felt the duet heaviness of the work was forcing it in to a narrative structure about Keats and Brawne (which was not my intention) and also because I wanted to continue the theme of watching in the work. When working with Caitlin, Meghan and Phoebe I asked them to show me the duet material we had devised for Yearning as solos to see if they would translate coherently. They did, so when I met the dancers for rehearsal on the Thursday we worked on structuring Yearning in to a trio.
I was keen not to arrive immediately at the face-to-face duet and its intensity – I wanted to build to it as I have discussed in previous posts. So, the opening duet devised by Caitlin and Meghan would begin as a solo with the second dancer joining half way through. Alongside this, another dancer would enter and dance in unison with the first dancer, but alone. The duet then waits, standing face-to-face, whilst the solo dancer begins their version of the second duet. I wanted to give the audience and the dancers time to adjust to the intimacy of this closeness, of standing face-to-face and looking each other in the eye for such a long period of time. The solo dancer finishes their phrase and moves in to a hocket of the duet, watching the duet all the time. I have realised over time that this section is the centrepiece of the work – it is intended to have a visceral effect on the audience with it emotional intensity.
Finally we worked on Ode, where the pattern was split amongst four dancers to act as a dialogue/conversation. Each dancer was allocated counts of four that were their ‘speech’ – so one dancer danced all repetitions of 1 2 3 4 and so on. This was followed by the 4 dancers performing the original phrase to finish. Again, this was difficult due to unfamiliarity with the material. I realised as we were staging it that the dancers weren’t always carrying the level of repetition, and although part of this is a problem to be solved performatively it felt too bland structurally too. I knew I had no time to fix this before the draft showing, so was interested to hear responses before I had another go at it.
I usually avoid just blogging my notes as writing them in to prose makes me consider and select what is significant (I tend to write down everything) and to reflect on it as I write. However, in the case of Matt’s talk to the DanceHE Early Careers group, I found everything to be really significant in terms of reflecting on my own practice and the scope of the DECO resource, so wanted to make an exception to my own rule and type up my bullet pointed notes.
For me, there is again some really important stuff in here about coaching and working with dancers on the devising and performance of movement material that is an important part of the choreographers practice. For my own practice, I want to take forward the following which I also think will feed in to the development DECO resource, perhaps as a section of guidance/advice from professional practitioners:
Here is the script I prepared for my presentation - although I didn’t stick to it and ‘riffed’ off these ideas and the other panel members, it is still useful as it articulates my position on the roundtable themes and some of my reflections on the working I am making currently.
In the current work I am making with first year Dancers here at the University of Northampton, they are making a creative contribution to the work in two ways: devising movement material, and responding to physical sensations/experiences to embody in performance of movement material.
The work forms part of my teaching on the module Foundations in Choreography, the first term of which involves a staff member (myself) choreographing a work on the students. The pedagogical rationale is that one of the most productive ways to learn about choreography is through participation in a choreographic process. The studio work is accompanied by critical discussions, unpicking ways of working and decision making, and a reflective blog that documents the work as it develops, to demonstrate process, evolution and development of the work, and also to give students insight in to my thought processes, decision making and reflections as a choreographer.
The task I set myself is to write a reflective account of every devising session with the dancers. I have found this to be very revealing about my own developing choreographic practice and ways of working, but also in reflecting on the role and function of the choreographer in a wider sense. Approaching this choreographic work and reflection as a pedagogue, I have begun to realise that this is also an inherent function of the choreographer. I refer to pedagogy as distinct from traditional teaching or schooling, as the craft of creating an environment for discovery and exploration in which learning can take place rather than the transmission of information. I would argue that one of the myriad of roles of the choreographer, specifically when working with devising dancers, is to create an environment for discovery and exploration where creativity can take place. The old fashioned model of coming in and teaching a work to dancers - the transmission of material - doesn’t require this pedagogical crafting.
I am not arguing that the choreographic process is an educational experience or environment for the dancer (although it can be), nor am I reducing the role of the choreographer to teacher. I am trying to articulate that pedagogy is one of the many crafts of the choreographer - a craft I believe is necessitated by the role of the devising dancer.
One of the roles of the choreographer is to construct tasks to prevent devising dancers from ‘end gaining’ - a term borrowed Alexander Technique that I use here to refer to devising dancer’s working towards an end goal or result that they believe the choreographer desires, rather than exploring an idea or task. I acknowledge that choreographers do work like this for a multitude of reasons, but when dancers are devising towards a predetermined goal, I do not consider their contribution to be creative.
I set tasks for my dancers to devise movement material because there is an idea, experience, sensation, image…that I want to explore. These tasks help clarify my choreographic intention - the work comes in to focus once my ideas have been physicalised by the dancers through the devising of movement material)- and gives me a range of movement material from which to choreograph. This contains an assumption that I have been discussing with my first year students as I make my current work - devising movement material is not choreography. I could break apart the meaning of choreo and graphy and make an argument about defining the term, but I am more interested in the practice. In the same way that the choreographer has a myriad of role, choreography contains a myriad of process of which devising movement material is only one. I noted earlier that one of the creative contributions my students are making to my current work is in embodying experiences and sensations in the performance of the work - similarly, performance isn’t choreography.
I do not deny that the dancer is playing a creative role when they devise, but that creative role is not choreography, and it is carefully constructed and facilitated by the choreographer. The dancer is making a creative contribution to the work but they are not a collaborator. A collaborator implies ‘a clearly stated and consciously shared purpose’, and I learnt the hard way that a clearly stated and consciously shared purpose and treating dancers as collaborators isn’t the best way to make choreography.
The dancer as collaborator implies shared decision-making. I set my dancers devising tasks - the craft of which should not be undervalued. When my dancers devise material, I decide what we move forward with in developing the work. I then structure the material into phrases and sections and begin to work of the piece as a whole. I give the dancers ideas and experiences to embody whilst performing the movement.
I am not trying to devalue the creative contribution of the dancer. I am trying torevalue the creative contribution of the choreographer, by acknowledging that contemporary choreographic processes, involving dancers devising movement material, requires further craft and creativity from the choreographer.
On Saturday 8th November I hosted a roundtable discussed with my colleague Matthew Gough, who is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for Dance, as well as acting as a choreographic mentor for me on the DECO project.
Matt and I invited colleagues Dr. Tamara Ashley and Rachel Farrer from the University of Bedfordshire, and Julia Gleich from London Studio Centre, Laban Centre and Gleich Dances to discuss and examine the complex interactions of devising dancers and choreographers, with the aim of reassessing the assumptions that have emerged around the concept of the devising dancer by unpicking the intention that lies within the choreographic process. Each of the panel members offered a 5-minute statement on their position, followed by a longer discussion on the themes and ideas introduced.
The different backgrounds and practices resulted in a lively and compelling debate. One of the key discussion points was around the notion of responsibility and hierarchy in the choreographic process. In her 5-minute statement, Julia referred to the Butterworth’s process continuum model of didactic to democratic approaches to making choreography, and how the different functions of a choreographer and dancer in a choreographic process should be seen as a creative tool to be used as and when appropriate. As someone who makes Ballets, Julia primarily operates didactically. To talk openly about working in this way has almost become shameful, as we are (particularly in the UK) driven by Government imperatives for democratic working and the promotion of agency. Julia articulated that didactic and democratic ways of working have become aligned with morality – and she thought we were involved in art. Julia expressed concern that the drive to avoid hierarchies is narrowing our vision of what it means to be an artist, and that if everything is collective no one is responsible for the work and its artistic integrity.
Tamara took a very different position, and discussed her improvisatory practice of ‘composing in the now’ and described her work as more democratic on Butterworth’s process continuum. She articulated that in her practice people work as a collective so that everybody has agency, as they work as an ensemble in an improvisatory content. This led to a lot of discussion of about the efficacy of working democratically – largely questioning whether it was possible to work democratically at all given that someone organizes space, arranges dancers/participants, sets tasks…
Matt said he doesn’t believe choreographic processes have ever been democratic, and that democracy is a post-Judson myth. Even though the Judson Dance Theater operated as a collective, their works were still single authored and they functioned as such to be useful to each other as dancers. In his 5-minute statement, Matt outlined that dancers do take responsibility in choreographic processes, but that someone else defines that responsibility – the choreographer. For Matt, the choreography is not the work; the dancers performance is the work. From the perspective of his work, when the dancers are on stage they have agency and choice about how they work with material performatively – but these choices have been coached and shaped by the choreographer.
I found this particular comment really useful, as it lends me towards thinking about the DECO resource and the other skills and functions of a choreographer. My own statement addressed the idea of the choreographer as a pedagogue – I will post the script I wrote on the blog but I deviated from it quite a lot on the day! Matt is addressing this too, but rather than discussing nurturing creative responses to devising tasks specifically as I did, he is talking more generally about coaching and shaping the performativity of the dancers. Matt made it clear that he shares his practice with his dancers to help them to devise articulately, and that if a choreographer doesn’t share their practice with the dancers, they aren’t developing them. Also, understand you understand the work and the choreographer’s practice you have nothing to contribute as a dancer, as you are just bringing to devising tasks what you came with.
Sharing your practice with the dancers and helping them understand the work so that they can make a contribution to it, structuring and delivering devising tasks to facilitate creative responses and knowing how to work with the dancers to perform your work/practice all play important roles in choreographic practice, and should therefore be supported and facilitated by the DECO resource I am creating.
On Tuesday I sat in the office planning my first solo studio session for the DECO project - more on this is a moment. As I had primarily been working on the work to be shown in December - Fall and Swell - I had not had much opportunity to consider what I needed to explore on my own to develop and understand my practice.
As I was watching Playgrounds Dance Company rehearse for the premier of a new work on 8th November, I started to think about what I responded to in Matt’s (Gough, AD of PDC, SL in Dance) work. One of the things i enjoy about Matt’s work is the complexity. From observing rehearsals and having now seen four evening lengths works and several smaller ones, i can begin to see the complex patterns in the movement material. I know from watching him work there is repetition, but it doesn’t feel like repetition to work. I thrive on works likes Both Sitting Duet by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion as an audience member, where the repetition is much more overt. I enjoy the pattern and structure and the opportunity to see intricate gestures multiple times. However Matt’s use of repetition is much more subtle - perhaps because of the complexity of patterns and loops, but also because of how he works with the dancers in their embodiment and performativity of the work. Part of this is skill as a pedagogue, and the ability to nurture the dancers and coach dancers towards technical, embodied performances, you often see one or the other but only very rarely the two together. One of the things I want to get out of my PDC observations is how he facilitates this, both as a pedagogue and a choreographer. But back to complex structures and patterns. In my work with the first years, I am beginning to feel like my patterns were too rigid. until I saw one of my first year dancers working with the following:
It was drawn from the rhyming structure of Ode to a Nightingale, and there was something quite interesting about the looping and accumulation of the material, but it comes to a point where the structure because uninteresting because to watch due to its simplicity. Recognising my interest in accumulations, I decided this was what I wanted to explore in my first studio session fro DECO, and making more complex, interesting and challenging patterns. As I sat scribbling, trying to figure our different ways to loop and reverse accumulations, Matt recognised what I was working through and sent me a link to a post he wrote some years ago about patterns, loops and accumulations that are used in choreography but rarely articulated. His articulation of complex structures (or rotors, a term borrowed from Enigma machines) was exactly what I was looking for. I had made a note in my journal a few weeks ago about Engima coding and ciphers an how the process might be used as choreographic structure, what was struggling to find a reference point or a point of articulation. Without knowing the details of how Matt uses patterns and structures, I became interested in accumulations and the multiple coding’s of Enigma machines. I don’t know if this was me subconsciously picking up on what he does during my observations of PDC or just a similar way of thinking. As such I feel a bit less lost in approaching structures, but a bit more like I’m reinventing the (Matt’s) wheel. Matt’s response interested me:
‘I have always considered loops, accumulations (etc) to be self evident; mathematical and musical patterns/structures have long been a part of choreographic practice and they lie in plain sight. Perhaps it was/is more puzzling that no-one took the time to document the possible strategies and articulate their application. The same can be said of the ‘rotors’: if a base phrase is patterned to the point of re-encoding then geek/nerd minds will turn to encryption machines.’
I feel like I have a plan for my Sunday session, and also that I have a structure (which appeals to be geek/nerd mind) within which to begin to explore and articulate my own practice.
The work began in advance of our Friday session, as I gave them a devising task to work on in their rehearsal time on a Thursday evening. This was to devise 8 counts of 4 for Return on the same theme - spinning when you are a child – so that we could concentrate on working on the material for Ode in our timetabled session.
The next morning Matt was away at a conference so the group had some of their Friday morning technique class as rehearsal time. As they ended up sitting around, I used it as an opportunity to give them another task to devise material for this section of the work. I asked them to devise a duet of 8 counts of 4 exploring the same theme – spinning - with the supportive, guiding touch from the original duet. I had become anxious about having the time to turn the first task material into the duet I needed so thought I might try and save time. This was in spite of the fact that I knew working in stages produces more interesting and useful material - like the duets in Yearning – rather than asking for duets, as it results in churning habitual approaches and movements. When they showed me what they had devised, what I got from the duet task was manipulation not guiding and interconnected arms, but when I refined the task to not allow this the material was still highly derivative. In being worried about time so tried to skip ahead to the goal even though I knew the response would be problematic. I ended up going with material from the first devising task to treat and structure in to a duet at a later date.
I have rewritten this section of my reflection multiple times, and I still think it is confused. My inability to write about and reflect on these tasks and decision-making processes in a coherent way is perhaps indicative of t my state of mind and the way I approached it.
I responded in this kneejerk way because I was starting to panic about getting the material made to schedule - because i knew 2 weeks to put the piece together is nowhere near enough. I’m wishing i hadn’t spent a session going over things as it feels like wasted time now. I know there are multiple things that need to happen, including drilling them on the material, as they don’t rehearse enough/properly, but the constraint of 2 hours a week makes that unfeasible. It’s a real challenge to distill making in to such a short space of time - I need to be more precise and less exploratory than I was when making ANFSCD. But this does not mean making kneejerk decisions or trying to cut corners.
In the session, we worked on devising the material for Ode, the final section of the work. The material was devised in sets of 2 counts of 4 (and 1 final count of 4), with each set responding to an image from each stanza of the poem. There were:
1&2 drowsy numbeness pains my sense
3&4 fade away
7&8 flying on poetry/mystery (Negative Capability)
9&10 synaesthesia (seeing as smelling)
11&12 quiet breath
13&14 waves crashing on the shore
15&16 word like a bell, to toll me back
17 wake or sleep
Some of these images/experiences needed breaking down or clarification – so for synaesthetia, I changed it to seeing incense hang in the air because the concept was too complex to grasp. We devised each set, I chose the material and it was taught to the group and added on to the phrase. This meant that the material was repeated multiple times in the class, which I don’t think was a bad thing. They worked in pairs, and different people responded to different kinds of images – as such the finished phrase has material from a wider range of people in the group than any previous task. As such I wanted to record of who made the material:
1 Phoebe and Lucy
2 Caitlin and Meghan
3 Maddie and Georgie
4 Maddie and Georgia
5 Bisola and Valerie
6 Bisola and Valerie
7 Maddie and Georgia
8 Maddie and Georgia
9 Maddie and Georgia
10 Jodie and Shontelle
11 Caitlin and Meghan
12 Caitlin and Meghan
13 Caitlin and Meghan
14 Caitlin and Meghan
15 Bisola and Valerie
16 Bisola and Valerie
17 Caitlin and Meghan
I think it helped that the devising task was a strategy to produce a range of movement material for one phrase, rather than an attempt to embody or convey specific images in Ode to a Nightingale. As such, I was more open to a variety of responses.
There are a number of engagements with the text of Keats letters and poems that I wanted to approach in this piece – dwelling in a physical sensation, and the resonance of images in Ode to a Nightingale, that were not possible due to the limited experience of the first years with practices of improvisation and embodiment. To introduce to this would have been beyond the scope of the module and the work. As such, I want to work of these things as part of my own practice (and the DECO project) rather than abandon them as ideas.
This session was the most productive devising session so far. We worked on the track Negative Capability, which is most clearly tied to the ‘spine’ of the work, and was the origin of a lot of my ideas for the work. It begins with Ben Whishaw (as John Keats) saying the following:
‘A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.’
One of the reasons I wanted to work with the Bright Star soundtrack was because of how this quote resonated with my experience of the world, and my experience of dancing. The idea of luxuriating in the sensation of water is something I have a visceral response to, so it was a useful starting point for the movement material. I had trouble forming the tasks for this track - firstly it is really in two parts, and secondly because I kept constructing tasks around the goal, and doing what the students have been doing in the devising tasks I set them - endgaining.
The first section we devised - Butterfly - is actually to the second half of the track, as it felt like a more straightforward task. Although I have not included the track ‘Letters’ in the work, one of Keats’ letters read over the music has stuck with me:
‘I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days - three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.’
The image of a butterfly - the way it moves, light and almost bouncing around as moves up and down in the air (have you ever noticed butterflies don’t fly in straight lines?). The fluttery and almost bouncy nature of this movemnet is something I wanted to capture, as it sits as a nice refernce to the physical experience of falling in love, and the metaphor of butterflies in your stomach. Originally I intended to talk to them about the movemnet of butterflies, but this seemed like endgaining, and reaslised I’d end up with flapping wings rather than what I wanted. Instead, I just asked them to develop 10 counts of 4 around hops. Some struggled to differeintiate between a hop and in the material they devised, but it was generally pleasing to see people try not to be too repetitive in what they were doing (esspecially as the material is going to be in unison adn looped 4.5 times). I made it very clear that in rehearsing this they were to make it clean and precise - the unison would need to be tight and the hops needs to be light and neat.
For the opening of this track - which I am calling Lake - in performance I want the sense of luxuriating in sensation and movement, and began to develop tasks which invovled luxuriating in movement, or movements that were pleasent to perform on the level of sensation - there is something about a sustained circling of the arm and torso that is satisfying to perform, for instance. But this was the end goal. In the end, I rushed a task which asked them to develop material from the starting point of ‘moving in water’ and going up and down from the floor. When observing my colleague Matt’s class in the morning, he taught the same group some material in 7s with slow and sustained movement, with the length of this movement decreasing over time. For the first count of 7, 1-7 was all slow and sustained, but for the second count of 7 1-6 were slow and sustianed and 7 sharper, the then 1-5 with 6 and 7 sharper and so on. This seemed like a useful structure for a devising task, as it required them to create theh kind of movement I was envisaging without putting performance prequisties and the ‘end goal’ on to the task. So I gave them the following structure, along with ‘moving in water’ and up and down from the floor to create 12 counts of 4:
This was one of the first times that I felt everyone had a sense of what the task was, and I had more choices of material. They all ran out of steam from about the 6th count of 4 onwards, and the ‘sharper’ material was problematic, but there were some more creative responses to the task. One pair did a lovely movement which involved articulating very slowly through the foot as they walked forward - it comes in a different form in this phrase due to transitioning between the floor and standing, and I will use it elsewhere in this section when I begin to structure it. When piecing together the material I chose, I felt more connected to the material and therefore more able to make clear decisions about transitions between different people’s material. Some of these were complex, as they involved ending on the floor and starting standing for the next count of 4, but the decision making process felt much more organic. Partly because I felt that I could see my intention for this section of the work clearly in the movement material I had chosen. In watching the movement material the students had devleoped, the section became much more clear to me. I ended devising this section by giving them a pattern for the structure fo the material - the same pattern which we will use for Ode. I have given them the task to think about the origin of this pattern (as it is far from arbitrary) and to think about the text at the beginning of the track, and how it might inform their performance of the material. I have not discussed my thoughts on it in depth in this reflection because I want them to come to their own relationship with and udnerstanding of it. The structure is as follows:
1 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 4 5
3 4 3 4 5 6 7 5 6 7
8 9 8 9 10 11 12 10 11 12
I have since been thinking about why this session felt so satisying in terms of the material developed, and although the students increased ability to respond to the specifics and subtlties of the task certainly helped, I think it was because I had both a clear idea going in of what I wanted from the material, but also how it linked to the ‘spine’ of the work. This is perhaps why it contrasts to my dissatisfaction with Human Orchestra, and also with Return where I came to the realisation of what I wanted after I had made material myself and begun devising with the students. Although in other circumstances I could use this as a method of exploration, to come to an understanding of what I want out of different sections of the work through making material (and then scrapping it), with time limited I know I need a much clearer idea of what I want and how it links to the spine of the work going in to the studio.
I used this session to go over some of the material we already had. Some of this was running through – I planned to get them to dance material as solos/duets, but as they didn’t know the material it felt like a waste of time.
As Caitlin and Meghan knew the Yearning duet (they made it) we spent a brief amount of time working with this duet to the music and structurally (joining the touch and face-to-face duets together, and looping the face-to-face duet for the time being). I got them to travel the face-to-face duet from SR to SL, do it almost of the spot for the second loop, and to only travel half way from SL to SR for the third loop. I wanted to see how the duet would look loped but with different spacing, so I got them to repeat and try a couple of different things. I won’t stay with this structure, but it was an interesting process to get them to keep repeating it with different instructions/notes. It helped develop their performance, and clarify the material for me. It was the first time I felt like it was a piece, and the first time I felt like I was choreographing and in full control of the process. I am afraid to get them to repeat things in class as part of the rehearsal/development process. I don’t know why. I worked with Meghan and Caitlin in this way unintentionally, and then cut it off once I realized what I was doing. I felt that maybe working with the two students wasn’t beneficial for the rest – on reflection it is more beneficial as they get to see my decision-making and experimentation, the piecing of the work together. It also felt like a productive way to work for me. I would like to be able to work intensively in this way with the material to structure the work. As we are short of time in advance of the draft showing, I think I will work this way in class as we piece the material together. I have plans for structure to try for the draft showing, but some aspects of the work – particularly spacing and transitions between sections – I plan to experiment with with them. I will (roughly) get an hour person section, which is reasonable when each is no more than a few minutes long, to play with the material and structure it. I think I am also worried that the draft I show in week 8 needs to be ‘finished’, so I cannot use this as an opportunity to try things out.
I also got them to redo the Bass line of the Human Orchestra track. I used the same task, to try and get them to reflect again on what I had asked for and how to produce it. It was certainly better, and the material they produced was much closer to the task, although they struggled with staying static so when I put them in a line (how I imagined it would be performed) they ran in to problems. It still wasn’t quite what I wanted – but that is a lot less to do with their response to the task and a lot more to do with me. I feel hugely dissatisfied with this section. The material is not what I wanted it to be – I don’t know if I have ‘settled’ for material or if I am just not clear enough myself on what it is I want. Maybe it is also to do with the fact that, as we develop material, the ‘spine’ of the work (to use Tharp’s term) is becoming much clearer – and I’m not sure how this fits within it. Perhaps my dissatisfaction is not with the material, but how it sits within the wider context of the work.
The fourth devising session was actually two sessions on the same day – I utilised a session from the module Moving Body to work on the piece, as I wanted to work with improvisation to develop material for Yearning.
I have a very clear image of this section in terms of structure and intention – the visual representation of Keats and Fanny in the film as close but never touching, often on the opposite side of a door or a wall. I wanted to develop a duet where the dancers are always close, face-to-face, but never touching. There are elements of sexual tension in the film, but this wasn’t really what I was looking for – I wanted a sentence of intimacy without touch, and a sense of (non-romantic) connection and dialogue between the performers. I did not have a fixed idea of what I want for the movement material, just the structure and an overall quality of the section. I therefore decided to work with improvisation tasks – I wanted to see a range of response to the structures, and use these to decide the quality and content of the movement material.
I began with a task we had done in a previous class, where I asked them to work in pairs and travel across the room using touch as an impetus to move. They were to consider the quality of touch and contact with the skin and respond to it through movement. I noted the following as I watched them, and used it to refine the task:
No arm to arm contact, or arms moving together
Stay close together, don’t travel to far apart
You seem unsure of each other – this is about dialogue and trust
Think about the quality of touch and your movement, there is little differentiation at the moment
Try and make the touch an organic part of your movement
We repeated the exercise, and I asked them to pay attention to the above. The first version of the exercise was mostly for filtering out the ‘obvious’ responses i.e. relying of arm-to-arm contact. This time, I became was drawn to the duet between Caitlin and Meghan. They used touch to guide each other’s movements, and the duet had an interesting quality at times where they moved towards and away from each other.
We reset and repeated the task. This time, I asked them all for this quality. I described by likening it to the awkward ‘dance’ you do when you say hello or goodbye to someone and you are not sure if you should hug. Whereas this was useful to communicate what I wanted in movement terms, it did bring ‘awkwardness’ in to their response. I need to phrase my instructions more carefully so that I don’t give accidental, implicit instructions that I don’t want.
In watching this third iteration of the task, I noted that Caitlin and Meghan began to develop a playful quality when focusing on this specifically. It reminded me of the playfulness of Keats and Fanny as they followed Toots, pausing every time she turned around, when this track occurs in the film. I also noted that the majority of the students went back to arm centric movement, which didn’t get at the quality I observed and responded to, in Caitlin and Meghan.
I asked them to repeat the task again, this time with half the group watching. I wanted them to see how the group were and were not following my instructions for the task. I observed and noted a variety of movement material that I thought was interesting and had potential, and considered structuring a movement phrase from that. I also selected material based on my ultimate goal – knowing that I wanted them to perform this phrase without touching in the lead up to the face-to-face duet. I wanted them to explore and embody the touch more to take it over in to their performance of the phrase when they are not in contact. I observed at this point that this task had two purposes for the dancers, and one for me.
For the dancers:
Improvising gave them possibilities for devising
It gave them experience of the quality I eventually want them to perform it with
It gave me possibilities and therefore helped clarify what I wanted in movement terms
I asked them to devise 15 counts of 3 responding to the ideas of using touch as the impulse to move, moving towards and away from each other and playfulness. I asked them to show this material, and then to remove all touch from it. There were a lot of questions about whether they needed to pretend to give the touch impulse, and I explained the redundancy of this. The point was to infuse the movement with touch so that when it was removed, it created a pause, an absence and distance between them. I asked them to perform the material as if they were still coming in to contact.
When they performed this material again, I asked them to think about what they were doing in the moments of pausing. Much like the other duet in Return, if they aren’t moving they tend to stand very awkwardly. It also stopped travelling, which was strange, and the pulsing quality of the duet was lost, along with the sense of the material. I asked them to rehearse and work on these things.
In the afternoon, we worked on the main content of this section – the face-to-face duet. We worked from this task to begin with, and I was clear about the physical closeness I wanted, and the importance of a lack of content. I explained that it needed to be difficult movement – not to explore what it was easy to do always staying face-to-face, but what it was challenging to do. They were to devise 18 counts of 3 and I also told them I wanted them to structure to alternate between being static for one count of 3 and travelling for the next count of 3.
When they showed the material, there was a lot of unison and mirroring so I asked them to revise their material taking this out. I wanted the movement to feel like a conversation – like one person was speaking (moving) and the other as responding. By this point, I already had a strong sense of the movement material I wanted but wanted to give everyone the opportunity to refine their response to the task. When the class was finished we had a discussion about how and why I am choosing movement material, and the important of responding to the task. For instance, in the Bass material they produced for homework a lot of them interpreted a low centre of gravity as floor work. I told them they needed to consider the specifics of the task in more detail – if I had wanted floor work, I would have asked for it.
I have to admit, I preferred this way of working to the strategies I have used so far in getting the dancers to devise material. I felt the most involved in the process, and the most satisfied that my intentions the material generated were in sync. I remember working like this for the ‘River’ duet in And Now for Something Completely Different – although the duet became improvised, I liked this way of working, setting an improvisation task observing the movement qualities I wanted and asking for devised material from this. Perhaps it is because using improvisation feels less fixed and limiting? Because it feels like I, and the dancers, are exploring the possibilities of an idea thoroughly before making decisions? I’m struggling to articulate why at the moment. But it is interesting, and something I need to explore further in my own practice. I think perhaps it has something to do with moving me away from focusing on the specific content of the movement material - I find I am fixated on the need to generate the majority of movement material in the piece, and need to keep reminding myself that this isn’t choreography, or the work.
I’m also painfully aware, having giving a session on the importance of reflection in documenting praxis this morning that this account is heavily descriptive. I wonder if my desire to map out the process is tied to my desire to document in detail this way of working so I can explore it further?
In the third session we worked on the track Human Orchestra. Originally I had intended to give them the beginning of four phrases and asking them to ‘finish’ them with the style and movement qualities of what I had choreographed.
My response to Human Orchestra uses the structure of the music, and it is my intention to create multiple layers in the dancing through overlaying different phrases/material, and having different dancers work with different voices. It is the central track in my work, and draws on imagery from the film, in particular, the detailed shots of Fanny sewing which accompany this track in the film (it appears at multiple points).
I began preparing for working with the dancers by separating out the lines of the music, which I have named Bass, Melody, High and Keats for ease of reference (I recognise that the ‘high’ line is actually a treble, but this is just a small niggle). The Keats line is named as such as the actor who plays Keats in the film sings it.
When mapping out the piece, I decided the Keats phrase would come from existing material for Convulsion. This is partly to do with the loose narrative I have established for myself to find logic and coherency in the tracks I am using. This is not something I plan to share with my dancers – given my reflections from last week I am not sure it is helpful or necessary, as I do not wish to represent it. It is more about giving myself a structure within which to work with the different tracks, so that it functions as one coherent work rather than a series of studies.
I worked in different ways for the other three phrases. I realised I wanted something quite specific for the ‘high’ line, which would use gestures based on the shots of Fanny sewing in the film. I also recognised that the likelihood of my dancers having sewn by hand was very small, and so developed this material from my own (extensive) experience of sewing by hand. I therefore developed this in advance of the session and taught it to the students.
My second way of working followed by original intention – for the melody line I taught them 14 counts of 2, and we discussed the movement qualities and recurring movement themes in the phrase. This included an echo of the High phrase – the hand gesture of holding thread or a needle – as well as 180 degree turns, moving from standing to a crouch position and being punchy/accented - moving between sustained and quicker movements. I then asked them to devise material responding to this that would be added on to then end of the existing phrase. Expecting to have to mine everyone’s material for the odd count of 2, Caitlin produced an entire phrase that worked really well with the existing material. What they struggled with here was not just responding to the specifics of the task (and being clear on them), but actually thinking about the style and quality of the movement material I taught them. People produced material with body ripples and various things, which sat really uncomfortably with the existing material. In devising they are resorting to what they know and are comfortable with, and not thinking through the wealth of information and expectation inherent in the material I had taught them. I think I need to be more explicit about this in the future. Partly because dancers are expected to work within the choreographer’s style – Hofesh Shechter’s company is an obvious example of this. Also, I remember issues with last year’s final pieces where the students struggled to find a common ground amongst their groups. They all devised material in different styles, and performed the same movements dramatically differently which meant the work lacked coherency and a clear aesthetic. If I had more time, I could re-choreograph their movement in the style of the work – but I don’t. It’s also not useful for me as a choreographer – it’s the same reason why I am not drilling them on the existing material, and expect them to rehearse it in their own time. When they have it clean and are performing it, not marking it, I will give direction and refinements according to my intentions for each section of material. As so far we are just devising material, we are not setting anything structurally (I would argue that so far we have generated material, and there is little to no ‘choreography’, in terms of design and organisation).
The third way of working was to set them a homework task to work on independently of me. This was another opportunity to respond to the specifics of the task. These were: pivots, a low centre of gravity and moving towards and away from the body. They had the option to work individually or in small groups.
My hope is that, in approaching devising this material with differing levels of developing movement material from me, they might come to understand the specific structure of a task – for instance, how the movement material from the High phrase related to the devising task I had set myself – in order for them to consider their own responses to devising tasks.
My own struggle has been that, as I developed the High and Melody material over two days (I have to take short slots of studio time when I can get it), when I came back to it I was dissatisfied with it. I am finding this is generally the way I feel about the material I create – I can be happy with it at the point of creation and then when I revisit it to teach it or rehearse it, it begins to niggle at me. Small things – the odd movement or placement of the arm – bother me. I want to tinker, but I know from developing the phrase I taught in welcome week (Return) that eventually the phrase will be totally re-choreographed. I went through about 4 versions and only settled because I had to teach it! I think the treating of the material has made me feel better about it. Even though I have issues with the performance of it by the dancers at the moment, I feel like I can see the potential more clearly. I wonder if the judgement of the material is a confidence issue – the niggles I have about it certainly feel like anxiety – and distancing myself from the material through treating it allows me to move past anxiety to ‘see’ it more clearly. I also worry about my anxiety about producing copious amounts of movement material myself – after all, the movement material is not choreography and it is not the work.
At the beginning of the session I had the dancers show me the material they had rehearsed and developed as homework. I was frustrated by the lack of dancing and performativity in their showing of the movement material - they had clearly forgotten some of the material, and they couldn’t get through the duet without stopping and looking at each other for cues as it what comes next. Also, the movement material they devised was marked through, disjointed and very difficult to see. They had paid no attention to the movement qualities I had given them – constant motion and rotating, like a carousel or the final movement in the original phrase. I told them they needed to dance it full out each time to get the patterns in their heads - it wasn’t meant to be easy due to the repeats and shifts in the material, and its order. It needs intense rehearsal so it becomes second nature.
After the frustration had subsided I was able to reflect on the task I had given them, and realised I was skipping ahead. In the same way that I felt an intense pressure to arrive in the studio with finished material, I felt pressured to quickly get to clean structured, coherent and performatjve material. In doing so, I wasn’t allowing the dancers time to get to know the material. In many ways, I was going against my intention to allow the material to develop and be messy to allow the dancers find their identity and potential therein, as I had watched Matt do a couple of weeks previously. I also was rushing as I felt like, at the end of the session, I need a track or section set and choreographed. Again, I was rushing ahead. I was still seeing the performance as the work.
I moved on to working in the track Convulsion, which mirrors return and comes either side if the central track Human Orchestra. As such I knew I wanted the sane movement material, but treated and with a radically different quality, I also knew that it would be a solo. I wanted the material to feel fragmented, and difficult. The tempo is fast and I wanted the dancer to get exhausted and out of breath by the end, much like a sprint I want them to give their everything to the track, which is only 52 seconds.
Firstly, I got them to recount the original material in to 4s not 5s this would cut the final movement short by two counts which works for me thematically as the movement embodies the qualities inherent in the section Return. This would change the emphasis if the material, and gives the dancers the feeling of fragmentation and confusion. Is that the right word? I want to come back to this with them when they have the material, as the feeling of being lost and confused when I gave them the task is something akin to the quality I want to see in the performance of this material, along with exhaustion and work.
Then, I gave them the pattern
3 6 9 12 6 12
4 7 10 1 7 1
12 10 8 6 4 2
11 2 9 4 9 6
7 9 5 11 3 1
Anything underlined is reversed in terms if order of material.
We had a long discussion after this about the film and music, and my intentions for the work. It helped clarify for them (I hope) the tasks I was giving them but feeling they had context. They clearly had an emotional response to the film, which is positive as it gives them something to work on performatively, I’m not sure I want to recreate this feeling in the audience (actually I’m sure I don’t) but the emotions they feel watching the film gives rise to physical, sensations, which I can use later in the process to develop the performativity of the material. People expressed they liked the Human Orchestra track in particular, which made me consider my choice to include it, as I have been thinking about why I have included it in the work as I don’t have the same response to the track as I do to the others, I feel like I’m including it because I like it, not because it makes choreographic sense.
I asked them to work in the above for homework, in their own as it would be a solo. I gave them the qualities of fragmentation, that the transitions need to be more difficult physically, and not body pooping or robotic. I retracted this later which I admit wasn’t great, but I realised I had jumped ahead again, I also asked them to read ‘spine’ and ‘box’ for The Creative Habit to continue the discussion of the work next week.
On Friday of Welcome Week I had the students/dancers for the first time to work on the piece. I taught them a phrase - 10 sections of 5 counts - that I had devised through filming an improvisation and setting the material. It shifted several times over the course of a week. The key theme was spinning, and wanting them to find themselves off balance.
After giving them time to rehearse the phrase, I asked them to treat it and reorder the sections of 6 counts. I gave them the following:
3 8 2 5 7
4 9 3 6 8
Asking them to pay attention to the fluidity of the movement and detail.
On reflection, even though it was their first time doing a task like this, I gave them too much time as they were second guessing themselves. They also weren’t thinking through the transitions, and were rather placing the material next to each other instead of finding the logic within the new order.
These were then developed in to duets where A danced the original phrase and B found opportunities to support them, devising a new second phrase to accompany it. These seemed forced, and had too much unison movement. As I watched their versions, I realised what I wanted was something more simple and contemplative. So I devised a version, cherry picking moments of theirs, where B gives simple support through the placing of a hand on the body and watching/observing A. This felt more in line with my intentions, and the placing of the music in the film.
It is my intention to have a phrase danced by a soloist, with the duet coming in part way through when more instruments join around 20 seconds in.
As homework, I asked them to:
Rehearse the original phrase, and the duet
Treat the phrase to develop the following:
5 10 4 7 9
6 1 5 8 10
7 2 6 9 1
8 3 7 10 2
Watch the film
Listen to the Music
I am hoping that we them have a decent amount of material to play with for both Return and Convulsion next week.
‘The Creative Dancer’
The role of dancers as devisers feels like one that is unquestionably accepted in practice, but not often written about in theory. One of the fascinating things abut the Siobhan Davies Replay archive is that it presents rehearsal footage and the results of devising tasks and rehearsals in the form of ‘scratch tapes’, which showcase the contributions of dancers to the work. Sarah Whatley, the lead investigator on the project, discusses this in her 2013 article ‘Siobhan Davies RePlay: (Re)visiting the digital archive’ in International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media. Specifically, Whatley outlines how dancers feel their live presence performing in the work ‘is sufficient to claim a stake in the work, but when the same work is recorded and becomes a ‘permanent’ record in the archive of the choreographer, the agency of the dancer is somehow diminished.’ (Whatley, 2013: 91) The scratch tapes foreground the dancers creative contributions, which is furthered by their listing in the archive as contributing dance artists.
Farrer discusses the intangibility of dancers contributions as these contributions tend to be embodied (Farrer, 2014: 96-7). The scratch tapes on Siobhan Davies RePlay go some way towards addressing this, perhaps. In reading the article, I reflected on my own recent choreographic work And Now for Something Completely Different (an anti-dance sketch show). I remember vividly an exciting morning where I took an idea into the studio – that we constantly appropriate everyday gestures and movements in choreographic work, but don’t necessarily recognise the appropriation of dance movements in our everyday lives. I am fond of doing arabesques when picking things up off the floor, for example. We began to develop phrases of material that explored what we called ‘unnecessary dancing’. Upon discussing the work before our break for lunch, the dancers started a conversation about David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries, and before I knew it we had a plan to develop the material in to a mock-umentary as part of the work. I found this exciting because I never would have reached the final concept on my own – I had an idea and the dancers ran with it. Their contribution here was vital, but in the same sense that I would never have reached the final concept on my own without the dancers input, the dancers wouldn’t have got there without me either. The context of the work was important here – its title references the use of subversion strategies and themes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in particular the use of TV and News parody. Similarly, the task and its intentions were fundamental to the development of the idea. There is a clear symbiosis here, and consideration that the increased role of the dancer doesn’t necessarily result in the diminished role of the choreographer. The article therefore opens up scope for discussion and re-evaluation of the importance and role of the choreographer in contexts where dancers devise material/content as part of the choreographic process.
Farrer also discusses the issues with how and if dancers recognise their input, during the process and after the fact (2014: 97-8), which I think deals more with issues of power and authorship, and how dancers might be taught to perceive their role in the creative process. I could go in to a discussion of Foucault, knowledge and power here…but I won’t. Nonetheless, it is something that could be considered in a re-evaluation of the role of the choreographer in the creative process, and the power relationship inherent in a single voice guiding the overarching aims and intentions of the work when the dancers generate content. Farrer begins to touch on this towards the end of the article, and I think it is an interesting ‘jumping off’ point (a phrase I hate, but is appropriate here).
Farrer, Rachel (2014) ‘The Creative Dancer’ Research in Dance Education vol. 15 no. 1 pp.95-104
Siobhan Davies Dance (2009) ‘Siobhan Davies RePlay’ [online] Available at:www.siobhandaviesreplay.com [Accessed 6/2/14]
Whatley, Sarah (2013) ‘Siobhan Davies RePlay: (Re)visiting the digital archive’ International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media vol. 9 no. 1 pp. 83-98
A sister blog, the DECO project blog documents the DECO: Development Choreographic Practice Online project as a whole, led by Kelly Preece funded by the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education at the University of Northampton
The Creative Habit
A reflection on making a work in May/June 2014.
As someone who has had little opportunity to make work since being a student (being a lecturer and PhD student has meant a lot of supervising and writing about other peoples…), I have to admit that when asked to make a 20 minute piece as part of my job at Northampton, I was terrified. Mostly because I didn’t know if I could do it, if my work would be good enough, and if my way of approaching the creative process was too theoretical. I had a range of unconnected ideas and influences but very little of the piece mapped out in practice. As I knew my students/dancers were used to working with more experienced (and more decisive) choreographers, I was worried I would appear inexperienced.
I wish I had read The Creative Habit before I made the work.
Firstly, Tharp expressed her own insecurities about creative work (in the chapter ‘Rituals of Preparation’). Reading her ask the questions will people laugh at me? and will the idea be as good as it is in my mind? was a huge relief. (2009, 22-23) Even the most prolific and experienced choreographers are scared. Being creative and making something is a vulnerable experience. I knew this instinctively, but seeing it in print was a huge comfort.
A lot of Tharp’s practices resonated with the own way in which I go about making work – because I so rarely have the opportunity to make work, I do not have my own rituals of practice, or an understanding of the intuitive choices I make. As I was reading, I realised I too ‘start with a box’ (Chapter 5) – although a physical box does not exist. I collected inspirations, ideas, books, theories, notes, videos, images – anything that resonates with the central idea (or in Tharp’s terms, ‘spine’, outlined in Chapter 8) of the piece. I collected these on my desk at home, and on a tumblr blog. At the end of the process, I had a pile of books, print outs of text, exercises, rehearsal notes, ideas for material that never made it in to the studio, and I didn’t know what to do with them. So when I finished reading, I put them in a box. I also immediately started a box for my next work.