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Increase your confidence in all phases of choreography

By Sandra Cerny Minton

Characteristics of Effective Choreography

Although there is no single approach to creating a dance that has a clear sense of development, certain characteristics are common to many effective pieces of choreography. Those qualities are unity, continuity, transition, variety, and repetition.

A dance must have unity. The separate movements in the choreography must flow together, and each must contribute to the whole; eliminate phrases not essential to the intent of the work. An example of a dance that lacks unity is one in which all movements seem at first to have the same character or ambience about them, but then suddenly a movement or series of movements appears that is very different in feeling. Such movements do not fit with the feeling of the choreography; rather, they stand out as distinct from the essence of the piece and interfere with the interconnectedness of the dance. It is easier for observers to absorb and get involved in a piece of choreography that maintains unity because it has the capacity to attract and hold the audience’s attention.

Continuity is another characteristic of an effective piece of choreography. Choreography with continuity develops in a way that leads to a logical conclusion. The emphasis is on the process of happening, and the observer is swept along to the end. The choreographer provides a natural and organized progression of phrases so that one movement phrase leads naturally into the next.

Transitions from one sequence into another are acceptable because each is an integral part of the choreography and contributes to the unity of the dance. On the other hand, if the observer finds progression from one phrase to another noticeable, the transitions are probably poor. Poor transitions are distracting to the audience because they interfere with involvement in the performance of the dance and draw attention to the structure and design of the choreography rather than allow the audience to focus on the overall feeling or form of the work. Transitional movements and phrases help choreography hang together (Schrader 2005).

To maintain the audience’s interest, the choreographer must include variety in the development of a dance. The same phrase or movement performed again and again becomes tedious and boring. Contrasts in movement forces and spatial designs in the unity of a work add excitement.

Some repetition, however, is important to dance form. Certain phrases need to be repeated in choreography so that the audience can see those movements again and identify with them. Repetition gives a feeling of closure to a work. Repetition emphasizes movements and phrases that are important to the dance; such familiarity with movement is a comfort for the audience (Schrader 2005). Successful repetition of movements usually occurs later in the dance after other phrases have been presented in the intervening time period.

You have probably guessed that a choreographer must maintain a delicate balance between variety, or contrast, and repetition. A dance consisting of contrasting movement phrases throughout is just as ineffective as choreography composed of continuously repeated phrases. In the first situation, the audience can’t identify with the unrelated string of movements; in the latter instance movements become predictable. Too much variety destroys unity. To help balance variety and repetition, remember that variety is essential to good composition, but it must be used with discrimination.

All the characteristics of effective choreography-unity, continuity, transition, variety, and repetition-are organized to contribute to the development of a meaningful whole. All phrases in a work should be designed to form the integrated sections of your dance, and all the sections of the dance should be placed in a sequence that moves toward an appropriate conclusion. The development of a work should lead the audience logically from the beginning through the middle and on to the end of the dance. The conclusion is the choreographer’s own choice; it could be sudden, or it could be gradual so that the dance fades from view.

Observing and Responding

Experience in Action

Keep a written record of your discoveries as you go though the following exercises.

  1. Watch a videotape of a piece of choreography and decide if the work has a sense of unity and continuity. If you think the choreographer has used those characteristics effectively, point out why you believe it is so.
  2. Look at a videotape of the dance and decide if the work contains enough variety. Can you point out or describe some of the actions that provide variety in the choreography?
  3. View the videotape with an eye for the way in which the choreographer has included transitions. Does one phrase lead appropriately into the next, or is the sense of the whole disrupted at certain points with movements that do not fit?
  4. Notice how the choreographer connects the separate sections of a dance. You might find that use of lighting or music provides a link between sections or that dancers remain onstage to perform transitional movements to connect parts of the dance.
  5. As you continue to view the videotape, be aware of repeated movements and movement phrases. Describe how those repeated movements are used throughout the work. In other words, are the movements repeated in the same way, or has the choreographer changed them? Do you find that some movements or phrases are repeated too many times?
  6. Discuss your observations with a classmate who has observed the same videotape. Then write your observations in a journal.

Developing Your Skills

Variety and Transitions

  1. One way to include variety is to avoid repeating a movement or phrase in the exact way each time it is included in a work. Try changing the direction, use of energy, or timing of a selected movement.
  2. Another method of varying movement is to avoid repeating the movement or phrases on both sides of the body. Constant repetition of a movement right to left or left to right is predictable and uninteresting. Stop and reconsider when you begin to fall into this pattern. Develop a phrase that has one continuous thread of action and that avoids repeating the same movement on the right and then left sides of the body.
  3. To practice transitions, find two shapes for your body. Assume the first shape. Move to the second shape by finding a transitional action that carries you to the second shape. Repeat the process several times.
  4. Experiment with a variety of transitions between the two shapes in exercise 3 by using both direct and indirect pathways to get from one shape to the others.
  5. Choreograph several short movement sequences. Then decide in which stage areas the sequences are to be performed. Finally, choreograph movement transitions that take you from one stage area to the next and that create continuity between the sequences.

This is an excerpt from Choreography, Third Edition.

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