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Exploring Dance Composition

This is an excerpt from Discovering Dance With Web Resources by Gayle Kassing.

Dance composition is learning how to make a dance. During the dance composition process you explore a movement idea by creating dance movement or selecting steps in some dance genres, then you manipulate these elements and materials of dance into movement modules of various lengths to compose a dance. To understand how to use your tools for composition, you need to be familiar with choreographic design principles, structures, and devices. For a dance work to have solidarity and value, the choreography should connect to aesthetic principles that underlie art works.

In the Movement Invention activity, you invented two contrasting dance phrases (a short series of movements that connect into a pattern) or longer sequences. In the next activities you will create a movement sequence (a group of movements that form a unit), and then you will develop a movement statement (similar to a sentence). All of these movement segments contain a beginning, a middle, and an end. Coupling movement sentences together builds a dance segment similar to a paragraph in writing. Regardless of how long or short it is, a dance composition focuses on the beginning, the middle, the end, and on the movement between these points. Creating and composing the movement is one part of the choreographic process. Checking to ensure choreographic principles underlie the dance modules requires you to analyze your composition during the process and when it is complete. Table 4.1 lists the basic choreographic principles that underlie a dance composition.

The following sections lead you through the choreographic process as you compose your movement segments.

Creative and Choreographic Processes

Different dance scholars present similar creative and choreographic processes. Some scholars write about the creative process, while others write about the steps to create a dance. Both processes underlie making a dance.

The creative process in dance making requires a period of preparation in which you collect ideas. This preparation time should include time for developing choreographic ideas; in other words, you need to figure out the central idea and how to approach it. Next you have to experiment with movement for a deeper insight into the movement ideas. In later sessions, you evaluate the movement and determine what works and what does not work as part of the dance work. The final step in the process is elaborating on the movement ideas you have selected.

Another dance composition process uses similar steps. First, observe the world around you, and explore ways of imitating or symbolizing what you have observed using bodies and movement. Working by yourself, do movement explorations and collect external experiences by observing the work of others. During the composition process, group reflections and discussions provide feedback that should be sorted out as to how well it applies or transfers to the dance in progress. In creating a dance, use your synthesized information from exploration and reflection. After the performance, a final group reflection helps to analyze the process and the product. Then extend the group reflection to a journal of what you learned and what ideas have been sparked for future choreography.

You should know the reason behind your writing activities in relation to your movement activities. Choreographic journaling has been part of dance composition courses since at least the last quarter of the 20th century, and this type of journaling continues today.

In academic dance courses, you usually keep choreographic journals to collect written records of your observations, movement experiments, research, and findings as you go through the dance composition process. Often you write about personal goals in the class and challenges you have faced during a course. You also write about how as an individual or in a group you responded to the process or what you learned from it to help you frame or propose your next project.

With the creative and choreographic processes in mind, the next step is to survey your ingredients for making a dance. In chapter 3 you learned about the elements of dance that play a central role in creating a dance. However, other ingredients also contribute to dance composition.

Activity 4.2 Explore

Create a Movement Sequence

Using the locomotor movements from chapter 3, select two, three, or four even and uneven locomotor movements, and join them together into an 8-count movement sequence. Often movement sequences are parts of a longer movement statement. If a sequence appears to be complete, it may be referred to as a movement statement or sentence. This activity has two parts.

Part 1

Decide the order of the locomotor movements. Practice your movement sequence until you have it memorized. To add variety to the movement sequence, here are some ideas to try:

First, do the movement sequence as you created it. Repeat the sequence once at slow speed, then repeat it again at a faster speed. Changing the speed or timing on movements changes your energy or qualities of movement. Memorize these movement sequences in the order you chose.

Think about what energy, effort, or qualities you used in these repetitions and how they changed. Review the list of effort actions or movement qualities from chapter 3, and identify which ones you used. If you find a couple of undistinguishable efforts or movement qualities, try the movement again to clarify them.

Part 2

Now select two, three, or four different even and uneven locomotor movements or basic steps presented in chapter 3; these movements should be ones you are less comfortable with. Use these movements to create another movement sequence.Practice and memorize your new sequence. Again, perform the sequence four times using two or three different speeds. Then, do the first movement sequence followed by the second, or longer, sequence.

Reflect on these ideas about both movement phrases or sequences:

  • The locomotor movements or steps you chose
  • The differences in speeds
  • How the energy, effort, effort actions, or movement qualities changed

How does the first movement sequence compare or contrast to your second movement sequence? Identify at least two similarities and two differences in movement, energy, effort, effort actions, and movement qualities when you changed the speed of your movement.

Summarize your reflections either on paper or in your mind. In a small group, take turns doing your two movement sequences following one another. Then present to the group your summary of the similarities and differences between the two movement sequences you created. Ask the group, "What did you see as similarities and differences after viewing my two movement sequences?"

Listening to the feedback of your peers may give you new ideas to try or to incorporate into your sequences. Observing others perform their movement inventions may give you more ideas to store away in your movement memory bank for future use.

Sources of Movement

Creating new dance movements comes from exploring and experimenting with movement possibilities. Exploring new ways to move may take you out of your comfort zone. As you mentally and physically record these experiments, keep in mind that they may or may not turn out to be movements you want to add to your movement memory bank. But don't let that stop you from experimenting. Although it does involve taking movement risks, your experiments are being done in the safe setting of a dance class.

Improvisation is creating movement or movement invention for making dances. Using different stimuli creates new movement. Internal stimuli could include exploring your spontaneous individual movements based on touch, auditory, or visual sources. External stimuli could come from music, a work of art, nature, or an everyday task.
During improvisation, the teacher can provide valuable feedback or suggestions about the movement or poses being created.

When a group is looking for solutions to a problem, they often brainstorm, and together they consider a number of options. Improvisation is similar to brainstorming; in fact, it has been called body storming. You can practice body storming by yourself or with a group. Doing movement improvisation with a group can be a lot of fun, and it allows you to gather or share new movement ideas. While improvising, use the somatic movement awareness principles and Laban effort actions. Experiment with how these important actions connect to space, time, energy, and weight to create new dynamics in your dancing.

Sources for improvisation can be visual, words, poetry, tasks, senses, or someone else's movement or dances. These movement experiments or improvisations have several forms:

  • Free-form improvisations are self-expression based on the premise of you moving and responding to music. This type of improvisational study can be a movement response to auditory, visual, textural, or a combination of stimuli.
  • Semi-structured movement experiments solve a problem, answer the question, or have different points that the teacher or you determine as the criteria for composing the work.
  • A structured improvisation is an experimental movement sequence that is loosely structured and practiced. Quite often a group work, the choreographer identifies movement sections or specific movement pictures that the group has developed during practice. These sections or pictures give the work an overall form and an artistic focus.

When you view or discuss an improvisation, you need a framework to help keep the discussion focused on the composition instead of on personal likes and dislikes. One system for discussing dance is known as RADS,which stands for using the following components: relationships, actions, dynamics, and use of space. Try it after a movement invention session or apply it as a self-analysis to your own movement improvisation.

Improvisation is a creative way to extend your personal movement repertory and styles. Practicing the many forms of improvisation helps you tap into your own creative force, enhancing your experience as a dancer and as a dance maker.

Learn more about Discovering Dance.

More Excerpts From Discovering Dance With Web Resources