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Where do choreographers get their ideas?

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I just came across two passages that got me thinking about the process by which choreographers begin visualizing the patterns, movements, styles, and even the music of the ballets.

From Ivor Guest The Paris Opera Ballet. This passage refers to Pierre Beauchamp, Louis XIV's dance teacher and the arranger of court dances.

To those who complimented him on the variety of his entrees, Beauchamp said that he had learned to compose the patterns for his ballets from the pigeons in his loft. He would go up their himself to give them their grain, and throw it to them. As the pigeons ran to the grain, the different patterns and the varied groupings they formed gave him ideas for his dances."

And this, from the booklet included with the DVD of the Paris Opera Ballet's production of Jewels: It's slightly edited:

Balanchine, who always passed by Van Cleef & Arpels' boutique on 5th Avnue on the way to his morning dance training, told the music journalist Antonio Livio how Jewels came about:

"I always found jewels fascinating and often also inspiring. Just think of Palais de Cristal. I don't know what moved me that particular morning. There was a showcase with diamonds, one with emeralds and one with rubies. In the middle of the window display there was a wonderful tiara like those at the court of the Czar. I was mesmerised and went thoughtlessly from one show case to the next and back again.


Balanchine told Claude Arpels, who, alarmed by the behavior of this unknown man outside the window, had come out to question him: "I have learnt from your showcases that emeralds go with Faure, rubies with Stravinsky, and diamonds with Tchaikovsky. This will become a ballet I will call Jewels."

Does anyone have other stories of choreographic inspiration -- real or apocryphal -- that you can share?

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I never quite believe stories that include Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds in the original Jewels, because both Melissa Hayden and Arthur Mitchell spoke about how originally, there was to be Sapphires for the two of them, which was ultimately replaced by Emeralds. Each expressed disappointment with being left out of Balanchine's great new ballet and being off his creative radar.

(Sorry, Scrooge again. But I have no doubt the Balanchine was inspired by the jewels he saw in Van Cleef & Arpels' window.)

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now, I'm not an 'advanced choreographer' or someone famous or anything, but

I normally just get ideas from the music, the music sort of tells me or tells my mind what to think. Perhaps it depends on how I'm feeling that day. I cannot choreograph anything w/out music. We had to do a few works w/out music, and I was still singing a made-up tune in my head while doing it.

also, any prop that I may be holding inspires a whole story. I was holding a chiffon scarf one day and had an idea for this ballet (which i'm still working on) called The Red Scarf.

<where a wise old man gives a magical scarf to a young girl during hard times/war. then her parents make her sell it for money, but then the scarf blows away to a new town. Each town has different people and they use it differently. One little boy will be sitting on a rock on a lake, lonely and the scarf will gust by him. Or a village of gypsies will use it for clothes, another woman will use it to wrap her helpless baby in, another for shelter, etc. And each person it comes by, the more power it will receive. maybe power to bring hope.>

all of this by holding a long scarf in class.

and once I was wearing a trench coat on top of ballet clothes.

Inspired me to do a ballet set in London where they're wearing diff. colored trench coats and in a scurry holding umbrellas, newspapers, and doing semi-modern/ballet poses and steps. (still haven't thought of it all) Some will be happy/jumpy/petite allegro-y in the rain while others will be down and dreary and others will be rushing across town covering themselves w/ newspapers, etc.

I'm sure other choreographers can find an object and focus on the form of it and immitate it into their movement.

Like a ribbon, it should have soft steps, curvy movements always flowing and moving - not rigid throughout.

or perhaps inspiration comes from everyday experiences. Like composers, they'll compose a piece for someone they love who's dying or a tune for their country. Well, choreographers can base their work on their life or incorporate movement reflecting on a significant event or person.

I can't remember nor find the person who said something like - they think of a story first, then the types of movements and formations they want, then they think of the steps.

and, of course, everyone is different.

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I find that comment you referred to by Arpino as very interesting. I am an architect and find much resonance between classical ballet (some modern dance) and architecture. It's more theoretical than practical, but both involve very formal elements "strung together" to create the "work"... following formal principles.

Both ballet and architecture are concerned with space, volume, form, light, shadow movement and even time. They each use the elements of symmetry, repetition, mirroring and so forth to create formand define space and volume. Both are "rule" based as defined by principles of physics. The relationship of ballet to architecture is best appreciated when viewing the work from above as opposed to from the orchestra level.

Do choreographers study their works from "above"... because some pieces are quite stunning and as intricate as architecture or even a flower or Swiss watch movement.

When ballet goes to the literal with storylines with realistic costumes and sets the abstract relationship to architecture and pure form often seems to break down.

Do ballet positions and movements have somewhat universal meanings... like words do in language? And why do nobles and commoners, for example, move differently?

Do choreographers ever write about their work, the way modern painters and sculptors do? It seems that the intent of the artists is often expressed in written commentary... after the work is completed.

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Yes, floor patterns are of extreme interest to choreographers, who can sometimes just change their point of view from straight ahead to overhead in their heads. Others will stand on chairs, pianos, etc. to get an idea of the traffic pattern.

No, steps don't have a universal meaning, as gesture in classical mime has. But some choreographers use them to have meanings. Antony Tudor was famous for using classical vocabulary nearly like a narrative language.

And speaking of mime, a lot more of it used to be a semi-danced structure than we see nowadays. Balanchine's Nutcracker and the works of August Bournonville today show us the intertwinedness of mime and steps.

Some choreographers do write about their work, others just say, "It's there, watch it; it speaks for itself."

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I wish SanderO's observations were applied by more choreographers. So many these days seem to go into a studio with a "let's see what happens" attitude -- nary a notion of structure or motif.

My own preference was pinpointed by a friend the other night. Why did you choose that music?. Balanchine showed us so much about the music -- and even with his ballets where both the steps and the score are (we think) thoroughly familiar, we can still find epiphanies that explain why, when the composer does X, Balanchine's response was inevitable.

The choreographer who prompted friend's remark, btw, was Elo.

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I never quite believe stories that include Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds in the original Jewels, because both Melissa Hayden and Arthur Mitchell spoke about how originally, there was to be Sapphires for the two of them, which was ultimately replaced by Emeralds. Each expressed disappointment with being left out of Balanchine's great new ballet and being off his creative radar.

In Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets he mentions the Sapphires.

(I thought of using sapphires, too, and had Schoenberg in mind, but the color of sapphires is hard to get across on stage.)
(p. 324 in the 1977 edition)

I guess Balanchine didn't consider the two stories mutually exclusive.

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I've been reading [finally] the April 2007 issue of Dance Magazine and many choreographers get their ideas from their dancers. What they do inspires the choreograper to suit both their needs:

Mats Ek says,

I take a lot from the dancers' way to absorb my suggestions. Their mistakes are often better than my intentions.

Boris Eifman states,

When I see my dancers and start to work with them, they wake up the choreography in me. My dancers are the biggest impulse and inspiration in my creative process.

Donna Uchizono replies,

I consider the dancers collaborators. They are absolutely integral to the work, and contribute to it as much as I do.

The same seems to be true with choreographer Jorma Elo. As with many of these choreographers, music also has a big impact on their works.

Are all choreographers musical; is this a necessity? Is this term defined differently because I know some contemporary/modern teachers/choreographers that don't seem they have musicality since they don't finish on the certain phrase of counts, but they say that they "move through the music." Implying that being very structured with counts is more for classical ballet rather than modern.

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Thanks for those quoations, artist. You raise a couple of very interesting questions. I hope there'll be lots of responses.

On musicality, I am often confused because there seem to be so many definitions of it, so many way s to identify it (or its absence). What did the historically great choreographers considered it to be?

On the influence of dancers on choreography: there's the famous Robbins story about getting the idea from Faun after seeing a very yong Edward Villella alone in a pactice room. I also wonder about Balanchine. There are, of couse, numerous stories concerning the way Balanchine encouraged dancers to develop their own movements for certain passages in ballets he was creating or reviving, and it's well known that his choreography was often in response to the gifts (or limitations) of certain dancers who interested him. But: Are there examples in which the ideas, example or the potential of a of a single dancer -- or group of dancers -- actually were the catalyst for the creation of the detailed choreography of an entire work?

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