Dance is one of the most beautiful art forms. The ability to tell a story through movement is an incredible feat. While dancers make the piece come to life, it is the choreographer who lays the ground work and leads them toward a collective goal. Choreographing can be a very difficult process, but with these 7 steps I've laid out, you'll be one leap closer to success!
1. Understand the story
In almost any art form this is an important factor. You have to know what is happening and how you want to tell that story to your audience. It is imperative that you be as clear and specific as possible when choreographing because you only have the movements of your dancers and usually three to four minutes. In any good theatre or performance art, the piece will end somewhere different from where it started. Think about what causes the dance to start and work from there. Conversely, give yourself another signpost or marker at the end of the piece and know where it ends and what comes after it. On stage we as an audience want to watch the dominos fall; one event causes another and another and so on. Find how this domino, your dance, fits into the larger scheme of things.
Understanding the story as a choreographer is also important because many times you will have collaborators. In the world of musical theatre for example the choreographer is one in a team of creative members. The choreographer must understand the story just as well as the director so the movement coincides with the staging and blocking. It is important to have an open line of communication with these other collaborators because you want to ensure that every aspect of the piece points towards the same vision and story. Know the story as a choreographer and you will be set up for success.
2. Know the characters
Second to knowing the story it is important to know the characters in your dance. Whether it's musical theatre or a stand alone dance piece, you must know who is moving in order to know how they move. Examine each character individually. Think about what he or she wants and what tactics they use to try and get that. Then start to look at relationships. How does this character relate to another character? Are they in love, do they hate each other, are they bargaining? The possibilities are endless. Finally step back even further and look at the whole community of characters. Explore how the individual traits of each character and all their relationships affect the mini society you create on stage. When you do this, it opens up so much creative material for you to play with. Take what you've learned and implement it into the movement. How do the characteristics of each person influence how he or she moves? How do the relationships push or pull certain dancers to different parts of the stage? How does the overall community's quality facilitate spacing on the stage? Examine all these different angles of your characters and you will be sure to create interesting and motivated movements.
3. Listen to the music
This may seem obvious but listening to the music is a crucial part of choreographing. Find the music you will be choreographing to and listen to it non-stop. You should know the sounds inside and out. Only then can you begin to embody the song. Explore the style and mood of the music. Play with how the tempo influences the movements. Find accents that you can mimic in your choreography. One thing I like to do is find the different sections of the song. Is it a standard AABA structure song that utilizes verse, chorus and bridge? Or does the song have a more complex structure that requires a custom outline you must design? Understanding the different parts to the song can be very insightful and also help you manage your workload. Artistically it informs you of shifts in the music. When the music shifts the dancers should shift as well. Whether it is a formation or drastic level change, matching your broad strokes with the music's broad strokes will better integrate the two and make your piece seem complete and more professional. Sectioning a song is also helpful from a time management stand point. Giving yourself smaller chunks and markers in the music can help you complete simpler goals when choreographing. Tell yourself that you are going to finish the first section by the end of the day. Rather than looking at the full song you can focus in on a shorter portion and find more success. Know your music inside and out and you're sure to start finding how it moves in your body.
4. Develop vocabulary
As you begin to understand the story and the characters and have listened to the music, you can start to build a vocabulary for yourself as a choreographer. What this means is to come up with certain moves or steps that you think fit within the story, characters and music. It can be a single gesture on an accent or an entire phrase of choreography. Creating this vocabulary for yourself allows you to develop building blocks you can use to structure your dance. So rather than sifting through every move ever done in dance to find your next step, you can simply pull from your lego bin and build from there. This technique provides you with two things. One it makes it much easier to put a dance together. Narrowing your scope cuts down on unnecessary time that's wasted filtering through every possibility of what step could come next. This is not to say you must only use the vocabulary you have set forth. Dance should come from an honest place of expression. But having a word bank allows you to focus on putting the dance together and not the technicalities of movement which can halt creativity.
Another reason this technique is helpful for choreographers is that it starts to create style and continuity. You might think the best dances are the ones that have the most steps and the highest jumps and the faster turns but in reality they are the ones that convey a message. And developing a vocabulary creates a uniformity to the dance that continually keeps the audience in the world of the story. Rather than coming up with three different phrases of movement, simply construct one and then play with it. Choreograph it facing a different way, or change the timing and tempo, or do it in reverse, or have it be done in a cannon with a group. The possibilities are endless. Not only does this become much more fun than pumping out an endless number of steps but it is a great storytelling tool. The audience will remember the different moves and then when they see new variations on the original it will create intrigue. Develop a vocabulary for yourself; it's well worth it!
5. Use the space
So often I choreograph in my basement with a limited amount of space and then get on the stage and realize I'm only using 1/8th of what is available to me! As a choreographer we use movement to convey a story. So why wouldn't you want to use all the space you are given? Over the years I've gotten better about remembering to allow my choreography to travel. When I do, it always creates a more exciting and dynamic piece. Not only does the dance come to life but it starts to open up technical and artistic possibilities. First, technical possibilities. As I mentioned earlier when listening to music, you want to notice sections. When the music moves to a new section you should mimic that by having your dancers move as well. One of the best ways to jump from section to section is to integrate a formation change into your dance. The change allows the audience to refresh and see the dancers from a new perspective. Formations are usually a very technical aspect of choreographing because you want to make sure all the dancers have enough room to perform the steps you have given them. Use the space when creating these formations to allow your dancers to feel comfortable and confident when they perform.
Formations and spacing in a dance create artistic opportunities as well. For one the formation you choose will highlight certain dancers or areas of the stage. You want to create intriguing formations that point the audience to what they should be watching. Whether a dancer is in the front of the stage, or they are the highest point, or everyone else is surrounding them, there are many ways to throw focus when creating formations. Using the space can also be an artistic component if you want to convey an aspect of people's relationships. Putting two dancers far away from each other will create a sense of tension while putting them right next to each other can create a feeling of unity. Again these possibilities are endless, but think about how you want to use the space when you choreograph your next dance!
6. Record your choreography
Capturing your dances in a way that you remember them is such an important skill to develop as a choreographer. Nothing is worse than being excited about teaching your dance to a group of people and then forgetting all of it the second you begin. It will happen! Be prepared. Start to come up with a system for how you want to notate your dances. This is especially true if you are choreographing an entire show. Multiple numbers with different styles, steps, people and formations can get very overwhelming quickly. Make sure you start to notate your choreography from the beginning. I personally like to film myself doing them. Once I see it visually I can usually remember how the dance goes. Other people like to write down all the steps for their choreography. They keep large binders or notebooks that have all the steps written down so they can refer to it when teaching. There are pros and cons to both. Filming yourself allows you to see the dance visually, but it's tricky to shout out formations or have multiple variations on the step at the same time. Writing it all down is very helpful for spacing and variations for different people, but unless you have a clear system for writing down steps, it can be hard to remember what some of your squiggles mean. There are many different ways you could record your choreography. It doesn't matter how you do it though, it just matters that you have a system that works for you.
7. Working with dancers
So now that you've choreographed your dance it's time to teach it! While this isn't necessarily the creating part of choreographing it is still very important. After all if the dancers don't execute what you choreographed correctly, all your work goes down the drain. This is not to say though that if your piece doesn't go well you can blame it on the dancers, but that it's up to you to convey what you want clearly and thoroughly. Now I'm not going to tell you how to teach your choreography, (that's another discussion all together). But I will tell you the types of information I have found effective to tell dancers in order to get what I wanted out of them. First off, talk about the story and the characters. Let them know what is happening in the dance, who they are and the overall message you want to convey with the piece. Point out accents or parts of the music you find significant to your choreography and allow them to listen to it once without dancing. Show them the vocabulary you have developed and what each move means and how the variations affect it. When spacing the routine make sure the dancers have enough room to do the steps and adjust accordingly. Also convey to them how their spatial relationships to the other dancers affect the message of the piece. All of these things will help your dance come to life the way you imagined it.
If you haven't noticed, I simply ran back through the list of items we already talked about. That is because if you want your dancers to execute your dance well you have to let them into the process. Allow them to be collaborators and understand where you are coming from. Don't just give them the steps and walk away, tell them where each move comes from and what it means to the overall picture. Choreographing may be a one person job at first, but it's important to then include everyone else involved so your vision can come to life!
I hope some of these tips will help you when you're putting together your next dance. Remember that choreography is storytelling with movement; know what you want to say and then start moving. Think out of the box and go start dancing!