As a choreographer, you need to know what dance is good at expressing and what it does not have the ability to express well. This will help you be more successful in your attempts. For example, I do not recommend that you attempt to tell the story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland even if you are choreographing for children. Although it is a familiar story and has been created in many media, the charm of the story is in the written language. Although the characters are interesting, they are interesting because of the way they speak, not because of what they do. It is possible to create interesting costumes for these characters, because they are unusual, but it is impossible to project the play on words that is so critical to Lewis Carroll’s success with this story.
So what does dance do well? Martha Graham (1894-1991), one of the pioneers of American modern dance, was a very expressive choreographer. Her work focused on the psyche of the human mind and spirit. Although you might see Graham’s work as dated, you cannot deny that she, along with others during her time, discovered the ability of dance to tell the innermost secrets of the human condition. And although she told stories, the story was not the focus of her work, but the subtle psychological turmoil that each of her characters experienced.
Dance uses the body as an instrument. Body language can be exaggerated and abstracted in dance to project an infinite number of feelings, subtle moods, and emotions (see figure 6.1). Many choreographers, especially those rebelling against what they thought was the overly dramatic early modern movement, have ignored this side of choreography and embraced only the abstract craft of movement. Today it is important to recognize both sides of the spectrum and to be able to create both with abstract craft and with literal emotion, especially as a beginning choreographer. Eventually you will discover your personal strength and passion for creating movement, and you will lean in one direction or the other. But as a student, you must explore both methods of intent.
There is no getting around it: The body tells stories about the feelings of human beings. George Balanchine believed that it was not necessary to apply emotion to choreography. Choreography uses the human form, and an art form that is connected to the human form will tell a human story regardless of whether you intend to create a story. Audiences naturally read emotion and feeling when watching someone move on the stage (see figure 6.2). Balanchine focused on creating abstract movement and expected his audience to read stories and emotional content from the work, even though he never layered it there himself. And true enough, many of his pas de deux were read as complex emotional relationships.
Working with emotion and dance can be a trap, which is the reason Balanchine, Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), and Alwin Nikolais (1912-1993) tried to separate emotion from their work. It is easy to become melodramatic and clichéd. Although exaggeration has its place, too much drama can be insulting to an audience. Emotion that is layered on top of movement rarely works. And facial expressions that are superficial and disconnected to the choreography lack impact. A golden rule for portraying emotion is “Let the movement tell the story.” Antony Tudor (1909-1987), known for his psychological ballets, related his experience at American Ballet Theatre, where his ballet Pillar of Fire was so successful that it was being repeated often. The dancers had performed it many times, and Tudor felt it was losing its impact. He discovered that his dancers knew the story too well and were feeling every emotion deeply in the emotionally charged work. Tudor asked the company not to think about the emotions in the next performance. They were simply to do the steps as beautifully and as accurately as possible because emotion was already built into the movement. The next performance was the best performance of the ballet. After following Tudor’s instructions, the dancers came off stage completely drained emotionally. The movement had told the story, and even the dancers had listened.
So what are these tools that may be used to express emotion through dance? You have already explored the elements of time, space, and energy and made discoveries about the way these elements communicate. You have learned that curved shapes are soft, comforting, and welcoming, whereas straight lines are usually strong, sometimes intimidating, and menacing. The best way to find movement that expresses a particular feeling is to imagine the feeling you want to express and improvise movement that seems to express that feeling. To ensure that it is movement that is expressing the emotion and not you as an actor, ask yourself to express the emotion in different body parts. How would your head move? Your torso? Your arm? Your big toe? If you are still having trouble, go back to your notes and look for the elements of dance that you have identified to express a particular mood; use those elements first. Then fine-tune the movement by adding the nuances you need for a particular statement.
When creating choreography with an intent for expressing an emotional landscape, it becomes imperative that you never “drop the ball.” You should not go from expressive movement to abstract, getting caught up in the design of the movement and forgetting the original intent of the work. This will cause the audience to lose their place, so to speak, in the sequence of emotional events. Also, you must never jump from one emotion to the next without allowing for a logical transition that may be read by your audience. The journey on which you take your dancers and that you expect your audience to follow must be clearly created through the elements of choreography that will express your intent (see figure 6.3).
Although expressive dancers are wonderful to work with and a joy to watch, you should not depend on a particularly expressive dancer to carry your story. The responsibility of telling the story lies with the choreographer. That dancer may help you define the choreographic elements you need for your intent. For example, you may wish to tell your dancer a story in order to obtain a particular mood. But then you must watch the performance to decide which choreographic elements work and which choreographic elements do not work. If you want your choreography to be lasting, you must be able to switch dancers without losing your choreographic intent.
Take a moment to record in your journal any personal discoveries you have made concerning the way movement is able to express emotional content. After you have reviewed your thoughts, the following sequence of projects will take you through a process of personal discovery as you translate your emotions to movement that you create on yourself as the expressive dancer.