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What is "thinking like a choreographer?"

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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?

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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.

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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 :)

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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?

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

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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.

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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? :)

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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"?

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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.com/lwitchel/looking.htm

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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.

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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.

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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.com/lwitchel/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.

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Even knowledgeable people have different tastes. :smilie_mondieu:

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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.)

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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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I'm still discovering moments of Balanchine's profound invention in 4T's, which I may have seen a hundred times.

And which I have yet to see once, though the DVD is near the top of my to-buy list. But I certainly will be at the State Theater for it next February.

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.

To tell you the truth, I can entirely relate to that comment. However much I enjoyed it, it felt slight - and not at all inexhaustible.

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This thread -- along with the Link to Leigh's mid-1990s dance writing -- is provocative. The Link provided by Leigh led me to one of his mid-90s reviews: a performance in NYC of Amor Brujo by the Victor Ullate company. Here's a brief description:

In Jaleos, towards the end of the work the women push the men. Why? Why ask why? It has nothing to do with any movement motif that occurred before it or with any emotional motif either. It happens because it's sexy, and because Mr. Ullate had four more minutes to go, and hadn't used this trick. The men then do double tours to an Ă  la seconde. The women then get on the floor and split their legs wide open to give us a pussy shot. The whole thing proceeds with this sort of grinding lunacy. And I've only described about 5 seconds of the ballet.

I've never seen this ballet -- though I have seen, and very much liked, Ullate's version of the old Don Quijote, and his dancers were generally quite wonderful. But I've certainly seen this approach to choreography many, many times. From companies big and small. Classiscal companies trying to cross over in order be reach young audiences. Just about every kind of company, come to think of it. It's the choreographic version of a sugar high: quick to go up/ quick to go down.

Reading Leigh's review I can imagine all the bravos, whooping and frenzy as the curtain falls and during the bows.

Then, as the house lights go up, there comes that sudden dissipation of emotional energy -- almost a sucking away of audience feelings that were there just a few seconds before. (This is NOT the same as the subdued or pensive silence audiences sometimes experience after sharing something truly powerful and moving.)

We plough our way up the aisle to the lobby, trying to think of things to say about the performance and ballet. Trying to REMEMBER something we have seen. Something to keep the excitement going for a while. ("Costumes were great. Did you see those big jumps? Have you ever been to Granada? Do you want a drink? ... Did you hear that X and Y are selling their house?")

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We plough our way up the aisle to the lobby, trying to think of things to say about the performance and ballet. Trying to REMEMBER something we have seen. Something to keep the excitement going for a while. ("Costumes were great. Did you see those big jumps? Have you ever been to Granada? Do you want a drink? ... Did you hear that X and Y are selling their house?")
This is why I have a lot of single tickets to things :smilie_mondieu: When I'm with other people, I my recall goes down about 75%. I don't know how critics can talk to other people at intermission and still remember what to write.

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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?

Well, as I said on the other thread (New Choreographers....), I enjoyed it and liked the little head waggling, which is not from belly dancing, but South Indian dance (with which I am familiar). Probably Tom doesn't know any more about Middle Eastern, Semitic, Indian dance than any other dancer in NYCB -- they do not teach dance history and ethnology at SAB, but I'm not going to hold it against him. Only Mark Morris is really educated about different forms of ethnic dance.

I do look forward to reading Leigh's article, which I have bookmarked for when I have a moment. But although my response to Tom's piece was primarily visceral, I felt he did a lot with movement themes/motifs, dancers, footwork and energy that are also considerations of good choreography. I did feel that the design/groupings was a bit weak, but overall, it was a great "closer," with lots of vibrance.

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Last Friday, at a round table discussion by University of California, Berkeley, scholars on the treatment of King Arthur in legend and in music (held in conjunction with the American premier of Mark Morris's production of Purcell's "King Arthur" on the UC campus), Professor Davitt Moroney, an English musicologist and authority on Purcell, and the University Organist, said that as a scholar and performer of music, he listens to music in a very particular way; and when he saw how Mark Morris choreographed Purcell he was struck by the fact that Morris listens to music like a professional musician: his choreography makes "close listening" visible.

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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? :clapping:

yeah, I've read something on that (i don't remember) - someone said that you shoudn't be able to take a section of it and perform it separately; it should be cohesive; it should flow as one piece.

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I wonder if some worthy choreography doesn't have a core or a seminal section(s) that can stand alone. I have total subjectivity here as the parent of an emerging choreographer, but I have actually watched this person choreograph over more than a decade. We have also discussed choreography for as long or longer than that. Often these discussions follow performances and inform our reactions as audience members. I have also watched in classes as teachers put together combinations and noted the differences between classes and combinations taught by teachers who are choreographers and those who are not. Most importantly, I have noted the total disjunction among the skills needed to be a great dancer, great teacher, and a great choreographer.

I disagree that great choreography will never have stand alone elements. We have all seen excerpts from our most treasured ballets that are not only integral to the overall ballet, but are also quite satisfing as stand alone pieces. Two of my daughter's longest and most successful pieces were built around core stand alone pieces that were presented independently and well received, then later integrated into longer works. In both cases the choreographer intended these independent pieces to be part of longer works from the very beginning.

My daughter has also discussed choreographic techniques with established choreographers, and shared aspects of these conversations with me. As a result of observing the choreographic process in these ways, I have become convinced that:

#1 choreography, like dance, is partly a gift and a passion; it can be learned, but for some it is a calling, and has aspects that often (more often than dance itself) defy the ability to teach

#2 different choreographers choreograph differently; some, for example, work mostly in their heads, others prefer to actually move physical bodies in space (obviously each choreographer is a mixture, but tendancies are usually very clear cut)

#3 choreographers hear music differently; some seem to actualy hear it as moving shapes, dynamic formations, negative space, etc.; this is related to how dancers feel music in their bodies, but certainly not identical

#4 coherence/intent/meaning are crucial to choreographic success; this relates to the choreograper's vision (which in a particular piece may be more or less grand and ambitious—some pieces honestly are more modest or even actually slight!)

#5 transitions are very important in making choreography meaningful, moving, lasting, and successful; memorable choreography usually relies on the "in betweens" to transcend something more than what any well-trained dancer can simply string together

#6 good choreography relies on a shared dance vocabulary and will engage an audience with the occasional unexpected passage, but ultimately will say or at least suggest something to the audience that is familiar enough to be intelligible, but unusual enough to be informative and neither predictable, nor trite nor banal.

This sounds more set in stone than it is. It's merely my opinion, but is gleaned from conversations with a very articulate (also a writer) person actually trying to create choreography and open to discussing the process.

Has anyone else had occasion to discuss choreoraphy with choreographers (established, emerging, or somewhere in between), and/or witness the process? I suspect this happens only rarely...

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Has anyone else had occasion to discuss choreoraphy with choreographers (established, emerging, or somewhere in between), and/or witness the process? I suspect this happens only rarely...
Good question. I've only seen choreographers at work teaching (and tweaking) what they've already conceived -- or on panels discussing after-the-fact what they've already set.

Anyone able to answer 2dds's question from personal experience? Or have a published source that you can suggest? :)

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My maiden piece of choreography was set to bits and pieces of La Source, which at the time I didn't realize was the cut used for "Suite en Blanc". After I set it, I had to take it back to the woodshed, because, as I had set it and rehearsed it in one week, some bits weren't classic, or would have been called derivative of Balanchine's "La Source" setting, which debuted two years after mine. Seems Mr. B. and I agreed about which steps belonged in which phrases of music. As he had the greater audience coverage, I had to go back and revise what I had put there to avoid charges of plaigiarism. Then somebody taught me parts of "Suite en Blanc" and I had to change some more for the same reason! What all this produced was my realization that, a. sometimes great minds steal from the same gutter, and b. incredibly difficult movement is not necessarily beautiful movement. These, and if you have a dancer exit on one side of the stage, it is best to have him re-enter from that same side. :)

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