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What is "thinking like a choreographer?"(And not "thinking like a dancer playing around with movement?


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#1 Farrell Fan

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 08:50 AM

In his brief remarks on the new choreography program seen recently at the Miller Theater, Leigh Witchel made that distinction in reference to the piece by Tom Gold. Most posters liked it, but Leigh didn't and said there was a danger in having good dancers perform an inadequate piece: They make it look good, so the choreographer never fixes it. Does anyone care to expand on this? I admit to being somewhat mystified. Leigh?

#2 Helene

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 01:21 PM

To speak to the title, I thought immediately of the comment in Ballets Russes about how Balanchine's choreography didn't look like much in the studio, but was great onstage, because he could see the patterns. To extend that farther, I would say that he was acutely aware of both structure and pace. I don't know of a single Balanchine ballet in which I've ever felt pounded into submission. He knew when to peak and when to draw back to allow the audience to absorb what has just happened, before the next wave.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 01:29 PM

Having a plan, an overall structure. Knowing what the ending is before you start. Sounds obvious, but I've seen ballets that are so obviously unfinished that I'm not surprised to learn that the choreographer was still coming to grips the morning of the opening with this or that section, which is why the dancers had spent five minutes running around flapping their arms :)

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 01:47 PM

Alexandra stated some of what I meant. Someone who thinks like a ballet choreographer isn't making a dance that feels good on their body or with how they move, or stringing together steps that come from playing around in a studio - though that may be part of how the movement is gathered. A dance is more than movement. It's a full structure thought out with a beginning, middle and end.

As to the other part - when you have dancers as good as Bouder and the rest of the cast and given the current ethos of American dancers, they take whatever steps you give them and make them work. Even if they don't, and even if there could be a better idea. Gold relied almost entirely on the dancers to put the dance over. Choreographically, there wasn't much there - What was with the head waggling from bad belly dance stereotypes? Does he really think all Middle Eastern/Semitic movement is undifferentiatedly the same?

#5 drb

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 02:57 PM

Is part of "thinking like a choreographer" not thinking like other choreographers?

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 03:26 PM

No, that's part of creativity.

Creativity and craft are not mutually exclusive. Part of thinking like a choreographer is knowing basic elements of craft. You can do something any way you like, but it helps to know what you're doing, instead of assuming that knowledge of how ballets can be structured is just something placed on earth to cramp your style. But the biggest element of thinking like a choreographer is not thinking of your own habits or how a ballet might feel as a performer, but rather about the ballet that you are presenting to the audience as a coherent work.

#7 bart

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 06:29 PM

Pacing, Structure. Coherence. Having a beginning, middle, and end.

You mean choreography ISN'T just about stringing together lot of interesting (preferably difficult) steps and combinations and ending things when the time runs out? :)

#8 Klavier

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 07:51 PM

No, that's part of creativity.

Creativity and craft are not mutually exclusive. Part of thinking like a choreographer is knowing basic elements of craft. You can do something any way you like, but it helps to know what you're doing, instead of assuming that knowledge of how ballets can be structured is just something placed on earth to cramp your style. But the biggest element of thinking like a choreographer is not thinking of your own habits or how a ballet might feel as a performer, but rather about the ballet that you are presenting to the audience as a coherent work.


What you're saying makes perfect sense in itself. But if you are right in saying here that "they take whatever steps you give them and make them work" and on the other thread that "[Gold's] dancers are too good for the choreography - a dangerous thing because they make bad ideas look acceptable," then how is an audience member like myself who has little experience with this art form to know they're "bad ideas"?

#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 18 September 2006 - 09:39 PM

It doesn't have to be your job, frankly.

But if you'd like to take it on, it's really not that different from deciding what makes any other art good.

I wrote "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers" a decade ago and some of the works may not be familiar and my opinion may have evolved in the ensuing decade, but I think it may answer some of your question.

http://members.aol.c...hel/looking.htm

#10 Michael

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 05:19 AM

Most ballet choreographers tend also to be/have been professional ballet dancers.

Almost anyone who has spent ten to twenty years training and performing ballet can string together a dance in a way that looks very nice to an audience, that looks like "ballet," and that looks really good when performed by the likes of these dancers. Almost any company member at NYCB, given a good live string quartet and Ashley Bouder, Sean Suozzi, Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans, would make a dance that the audience would respond to as professional and be happy to see. Me included. A frame of reference for judging whether a performance like Works in Progress is better than this would be, how much does it differ or does it achieve more than what anyone trained in ballet probably would accomplish given these resources?

It's at that point that questions of structure and progression, of how the piece fits together, and of how it compares with other work enters the picture.

#11 Mel Johnson

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 12:36 PM

A choreographer sees "The Big Picture".

And that picture not only includes the stage picture where the ballet under discussion fits on a program, but where it fits on the whole scale of performing arts to date. That was where Balanchine and Ashton both ended up, although they had taken vastly different paths to get there. They were both amazing showmen.

People who make dances have to realize what this Big Picture is, and how to fit into it. Most choose to enter discreetly, with a little pas de deux or pas de trois made especially on themselves or their friends. This is fine. You have to start somewhere. But as Balanchine wrote, anybody can make a solo, pas de deux, or even pas de trois. In order to learn, the entry-level choreographer has to work, and produce a variety of works, and size isn't the only construct that has to be explored. You could produce a ballet based on The Lord of the Rings that no one could understand, and was butt-ugly in the bargain. How the material is put forth to the audience is really of the paramount importance, and not forgetting that your medium is ballet.

#12 Klavier

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:13 PM

It doesn't have to be your job, frankly.

But if you'd like to take it on, it's really not that different from deciding what makes any other art good.

I wrote "Looking at Dance, Looking at Dancers" a decade ago and some of the works may not be familiar and my opinion may have evolved in the ensuing decade, but I think it may answer some of your question.

http://members.aol.c...hel/looking.htm


Thanks for the article, I learned a good deal from it. Inevitably, however, when one has felt enthusiastic about a performance, it's something of a let-down to hear someone else pan it. Perhaps you didn't go that far, but after your comments I keep thinking of Yeats's famous line, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" I recognize as well you're a well-known name in the dance world, and I have very limited experience with it. It is entirely possible that with greater experience and knowledge that I would have seen deficiencies in Gold's choreography and Suozzi's technique that I am unable to see now. I come here to learn, and not to dismiss the judgments of people who have spent decades with this art form. And so I contribute only a few comments when I feel able to. But as for "deciding what makes any ... art good," there is a difference with dance and that is its evanescence. Unlike a painting or book or musical score or CD I can return to, with a dance like this, if not captured on video, it is very difficult to relive the experience to see things again with a fresh or more practiced eye as one can only rely on one's memory. And for someone like me, who has very limited visual memory, it is harder still.

I conclude that in the dance world as everywhere else, there are going to be differences of opinion even among knowledgeable people.

#13 Hans

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:36 PM

Even knowledgeable people have different tastes. :smilie_mondieu:

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 06:51 PM

Klavier - I'm very marginal in the dance world. A lot more so than any of the choreographers in that performance, for instance. Take my opinions for what you will. Nothing said here should stop you from enjoying a performance, nor trusting your own eyes as to what you saw. If you liked it, nothing should change that.

But part of the job of Ballet Alert, and I think part of the reason Alexandra started it, was for there to be a place for people to discuss the difference between, say, Masada Songs and Valse Fantasie - and why one is in fact a better work than the other. And for that matter, why The Four Temperaments is a better work than Valse Fantasie. (No, you don't have to rank every work you see.)

#15 carbro

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Posted 19 September 2006 - 07:04 PM

Well, here's the difference (from one who's been watching ballet longer than the too-modest Leigh, but not seeing quite so much, and who enjoyed Masada). I have no doubt that if there were a video of Masada, or if it entered the NYCB rep, I'd find it at best mildly amusing by the seventh or eighth viewing. :yawn: I'm still discovering moments of Balanchine's profound invention in 4T's, which I may have seen a hundred times.


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