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Making (and Re-making) Choreography:

Moving Forward, Moving Backward, Moving!

by Cera
posted March12, 2009

I am resetting a piece I made at this time last year. It feels like reading an old journal. As we move through it, the movements feel inevitable, familiar, like an old coat that I remember having loved totally but don't know I what was thinking when I bought it.

Primarily, making art is making choices. Only when it's still in its seed idea, fledgling stages, is art a vast ocean of possibility and potential. In many ways, art is at its best, its most exciting, its most artful when you haven't done anything yet, and it's all still in your head, itching to come out. In the beginning, there are endless options.

As soon as you set the first movement, one of those options has been limited. Then, when you make a second choice, a third, and a forth, the possibilities get smaller and smaller. The process is, essentially, painting yourself into a corner, and by the time you set the last count, the song is done; the choices are over, and they have become inevitable, solid. They stand on their own—without you, potential-less. Pens down! Flip the paper over. Choices have been made.

Art and choice making is a practice that becomes less scary over time. You learn to trust yourself. You learn to trust your choices. After all, only your choices make your art; accepting your choices form the path to making work that reflects your truth.

My choices are a kind of "Occam's Razor" process. At every step, on some level, I am asking myself: "What is the most natural thing to put here? What feels the most organic? What takes the least effort?" I never want choices to look forced or shoehorned-in. I want to use the best resources I have at my disposal at the moment, and make the most effortless choice possible. I try to get out of my own way intellectually, and ego-wise, and let the choices make themselves—using my technical skill and craftsmanship as a vessel.

Choice making moves forward. Each choice compounds upon the last; your choice making (and your art making, by proxy) becomes more sophisticated, as you learn from past mistakes and triumphs. Faster, more instinctual, natural choices flow from us as we practice making a works of art.

Sometimes, at the end of creating a piece, I'll hold it all up against the light and flip it around a hundred different ways, asking repeatedly, "Are these choices honest?" If a moment doesn't work, if a movement looks or feels forced, it's usually because it is. It's because the choice made was an ego choice, or a brain choice, and not the most natural one for the progression of the piece. ("I really look hot when I do a backbend," or "I wonder if the audience will feel bored here?" etc.)

Those choices get changed, reigned in, and smoothed over. At the end, I have a piece I can hold up and say, "Yup! These are the decisions I would make. They're the best choices I could make right now." The potential is all gone, and the result is a testament to my craftsmanship. How does what I created measure up to my original idea? How similar they are reveals how close my technical skill is to my vision.

That's the gap we're constantly striving to fill, the endless hamster wheel of making art. Hopefully, it will never quite match up, because the striving through that gap is where brilliance happens.

Going backward: Resetting an old piece, this is a new one for me! I teach it to dancers who were in it the first time, and I observe how much stronger they are as dancers than the first time we set the work. When teaching it to a dancer who's never performed it before, I notice where she's not reflected in the piece, places where the choices (made last time) don't vibrate with the energy of everyone present—like a hand-me-down that doesn't quite fit.

As we dance through it, many of the choices still feel perfect; they tell the story, fit the music, feel like me, and make sense in my body as well as my heart. However, I hit movements sometimes that itch at me from the inside, "I remember making this choice, ...but I don't think it's the choice I would make now." That's a good feeling, I think! If the choices I would make now remain the same choices I made a year ago, it would indicate a lack of growth. I'm different now. I'm stronger. I'm more sophisticated as a choreographer because I've had more practice in making my choices. Now, my dancers are different; they're stronger and more accustomed to working together. My group is a balance of different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and energies now.

I can't put up a piece that doesn't fit us. I can't send us to the ball in last year’s gown. The changes are subtle, but distinct. We're capable of greater technical and physical feats. We're capable of greater ease and subtlety, and moments that were once muscled-through may have become easy. We're better at taking our time; we're better at pacing ourselves and letting things unfold. In short, we're more mature as dancers.

When the dancers leave, I watch the videos of rehearsal over and over, making notes. I set the video across the room, I watch it squinting, I run the piece with my eyes closed, and eventually, I put the music on, and I review it without them, repeatedly, until I can re-run it without thinking and get out of my own way. Everywhere I feel an old, itchy choice, I move through it differently. I try to smooth it over, rough it up, do it backwards, do nothing at all, I let my body search for the me that's in there now.

Eventually, in the space in between the old choices and the new, I can appreciate how much I've grown. I can see how much we've all grown together, and I think that I can feel proud.

Occam’s Razor: "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" ("Entities should not be multiplied more than necessary"). Refers to trying the simpler solutions first before adding complexities.


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