The art of choreography has been around for generations, and the act of creating movement is changeable, rigorous, and sometimes temperamental. Throughout history, choreographers have come up with rules, broken those rules, created new rules, and subverted the rules to make movement, marking large shifts in the various eras of dance, and even asking the question: What is dance?
Take a look at Merce Cunningham, for example, who broke away from a more literal approach, to dive into an experimental form of creation. Stripping away overt emotions in his movement, he relied on “chance procedure” in structuring his work. This allowed random processes to put together his pieces. He would oftentimes come up with strands of movement, and solidify the order they were performed in using procedures as open-ended as flipping a coin. This frequently resulted in big shifts in energy and focus, which became a staple of his work.
Yvonne Rainer, another choreographer who played with process, took a different approach when creating her famous work Trio A. Curious about her desire to be viewed when performing, she decided to take away showmanship and stripped down her movements to everyday and pedestrian motions. Carefully crafting her execution of this work, she took away all accents and dynamic shifts, choosing instead to create a streamlined sequence of motion that challenged the audience/performer barrier by almost having a ‘nonchalant’ air about it.
But playing with choreographic processes isn’t something of the past...choreographers today still find their own methods of creating work and finding what interests them about it. For Cleveland-based Megan Young, social climate has a direct influence on her work, “I’m interested in the ways regulations and social codes influence actions,” Megan says, “This comes up when I consider how I’ll respond to increasingly restrictive legislation on reproductive rights, my unwanted role in displacing communities through gentrification, and my distress in seeing flawed science in the US surveillance state.”
Sometimes Megan finds herself not creating movement at all. Instead she curates situations and opportunities for performers to create movement on their own, “It seems disingenuous to create work about agency while taking choice away from a performer...my process includes a deep exploration into alternative modes of making,” Megan explains, “I say alternative, but there’s a rich lineage of what we now call directed movement, structured improvisation, instructables, or scores in traditional cultural practices. I listen to the ancestry of embodied practice.”
Process varies from person to person, and sometimes project to project. For Anne Howard, founder of Levity Dance and Physical Theater, the choreographic process is tied to the experience of not only the audience but the performers themselves, so that everyone is experiencing the work simultaneously, “While my process always includes a thesis, I aim for the performers to have the same allowance the audience does to fill in their own personal expression and experience of the movement,” Anne says, “My strategies only vary when I have a large group versus when I work with a soloist. Either way, it is most important to me that everyone involved walks through the work together.”
Inspiration is everywhere. For Catherine Meredith, this keeps her engaged in making work, “The majority of my work is about the human condition. I am constantly observing how we (as individuals) navigate our relationship to loved ones, acquaintances, and the world,” Catherine says, “As a woman/mother/artist I make work that speaks to my life experience. Of course, I love creating abstract dances as well as choreographing for musical theater. I don't ever want someone to view my work and think it all looks the same.”
Catherine’s next commission is through New Dance Partners in Kansas, working with Storling Dance Theater. A helpful hint from this seasoned choreographer? Keeping a notebook on hand, “I keep a notebook on me at all times so I can write down ideas. Inspiration can come from anywhere and I have my eyes wide open.”
Finding an artistic voice in such a large world may seem intimidating, daunting, and impossible. But continuing to push through the mental blocks and finding processes and ideas that interest you is a great way to remain tethered. Everyone has something unique to bring to the table, and fresh perspectives keep the art of dance and choreography alive. Dance is visceral. Dance is dynamic. Dance is a tool we can use to understand and explore the world around us.
Modern/contemporary dance in particular has always pushed forward new ideas and welcomed experimentation. The art of choreography and the methods used when creating movement will continue to shift and shape the artform. As we move into newer and unexplored eras of dance, it will be exciting to see how future choreographers make their choices and why.