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Methods to Support and Incite Partnered Engagement in Creative Practice

This is an excerpt from Dance Partnering Basics With HKPropel Access by Brandon S. Whited & Joshua Manculich.

Although dance partnering skills and mechanics may be less familiar to students, the instructor can tap into dancers’ innate creativity to develop unique and intentional partnering that supports the overall movement culture or aesthetic of a piece. For beginning students and novice choreographers, cultivating confidence is a vital first step to unlocking creativity.

Tapping Into Creative Potential

Some choreographers come to rehearsal with preplanned steps, movement patterns, and spatial formations. This preplanning may stem from choreographers’ anxiety regarding preparation or their desire to visualize and actualize that vision in the studio. For these choreographers, the addition of partnering is challenging and thus limited, not emphasized, or excluded entirely. When choreographers avoid mapping out an entire product or outcome and center their creative practice on the process, the development of partnering material that links seamlessly to the movement language of a piece is more fruitful. Partnering is complex, requires communication and problem-solving, and takes time to nurture. If instructors foster a culture of exploration, play, and evolution, the bounds of creativity expand toward unexpected and surprising moments that could not be imagined when working alone.

Creative potential enables teachers to create a space where rich conversation, including how they talk and interact with dancers in rehearsal and educational settings, leads to idea making and exploration. When teachers explore a new creative method or process, they may judge their work prematurely when deciding whether a phrase of material or section of choreography is successful, interesting, exciting, or just right. When they follow impulse without immediate justification, step back, and objectively assess their work, they can move beyond habitual, predictable, and conventional choreographic tendencies. Students educated in K-12 settings with a teach-to-the-test approach tend to seek the endgame—that is, they apply the most effort to work that directly affects their grades or assessments. These students tend to experience anxiety and stress and find the open format of creative processes difficult to manage. With a lack of set parameters or guidelines for dance composition study, their creativity can be blocked. Similarly, their tendency toward perfectionism significantly inhibits artistic creative expression. I have had choreography students ask for a checklist of what they should include in their study. Although I develop studies from a particular skill, method, or combination of compositional ideas, it falls well outside of my pedagogy to give students such a list in what should be an open and creative project. In “Redefining the Ideal: Exquisite Imperfection in the Dance Studio,” Robin Prichard reframes students’ need for perfectionism by identifying common challenges in partnering, improvisation, and technique classes (Prichard 2017). The author provides practical solutions to avoid negative self-talk and self-judgement while students are still in the learning phase. Prichard also encourages readers to avoid risk aversion by changing the goals and reference points during technique practice.

Teachers and creators can increase the time allotted for dialogue, collaboration, and creative exploration within instructional and creative spaces. Creating a laboratory-type setting in rehearsal emphasizes the process, which allows material to evolve and fosters deeper student investment. That pride of contribution within a process and the community of creativity that is cultivated seeps into partnerships. Dancer communication and connection can then become deeper and more effective when creating and executing partnered material in performance. This meaningful bond, often framed as chemistry and instinct between partners who exude an effortless connection, can be developed over time within a partnership or among a group of dancers who find synergy.

With a positive and curious environment, the class becomes a workshop. Participants have equal weight, with the teacher and choreographer serving as a guide. For dancers new to the partnering and creative process, moments where the intended outcome is not achieved can result in interesting or unique partnered interactions. For example, if a hip ride motion (exercise 13) fails to reach its full flight, the way a student rolls off might be interesting and ripe for further exploration. By fostering an environment where dancers can take risks, make mistakes, and celebrate happy accidents, instructors remove the burden of perfection and help students find new ways of moving. With more experienced dancers, a positive and open work environment leads to playfulness and empowers them to make spontaneous decisions and use their heightened responsiveness. In those moments, the choreographer can capitalize on dancer instinct and experience to create seamless and organic partnered movement passages.

Choreographers should watch for artists who possess a natural love of movement. In many ways, these individuals lead the playful, curious space. New connections are made, and the room takes on a productivity that is contagious. Partnering contexts require suggestions, communication, and problem-solving from inside the partnership, but they also benefit from a neutral outside eye to fine-tune the timing and mechanics. When all collaborators are invited and encouraged to engage in the choreographic process, a pluralistic mindset emerges and everyone involved has a voice; this is how teaching partnering as part of an instructor’s practice can positively influence pedagogy and creativity overall.

Improvisation: Composition in the Moment

Relative to curriculum planning, improvisation is an effective course to place at the beginning of a student’s journey within a series of courses focused on creative practice. As a technique and performance modality in its own right, improvisation training helps young students tap into a more personal and authentic way of moving that might help them depart from prior training and conventional movement aesthetics. An organizing principle that frames improvisational practice is the development of movement scores that become the plan or map of an improvisation. When individuals work in groups and partnerships in dance improvisation, these scores do not dictate what happens within and results from improvisational practice or performance. Rather, movement scores provide an organizing frame for all parties to follow. Learning to respond creatively to the often narrow parameters of an improvisational score can also help students understand that limitations lead to more creative and unique choices. This skill is helpful when students approach the movement generation phase of choreographic practice.

As mentioned in chapter 1, contact improvisation uses a simple movement score: two partners fall into one another toward a single point of connection. Although the skills and techniques that emerge from contact improvisation practice and performance are complex, the root of the score is simple. When a contact improvisation jam becomes too risky, an improviser can return to this simple score to recenter and focus the experience.

Partnered improvisation is another creative tool used to generate material through exploration or as an approach within the performance. Although partnered improvisation can be simplified and experienced by beginning dancers, advanced understanding of its techniques, possibilities, and safe mechanics fosters the most exciting expression of the form. When a partner has developed sensitivity in physical listening, refined their reaction time, and gained understanding of the physical possibilities within partnering, ease and calm can be located within partnered improvisations that outwardly appear risky with drive and momentum.

Improvisation also serves as a pedagogical tool or framework in which students explore a skill or exercise within comfortable boundaries before they learn set material using that technique. Although this approach may seem counterintuitive because students will not have a predetermined phrase of material to learn, improvisation used for simple skills can help students understand the movement within a comfortable range of their current abilities and even find unexpected and creative outcomes. In this pedagogical application, the skill becomes the score for the improvised exploration of the approach. This dynamic is used in many exercises in this book.

To begin the creative process, choreographers approach movement generation in numerous ways. Some choreographers like to generate movement based on narrative and character development, whereas others emphasize movement first and craft material with body-based initiation, exploration of physical dynamics, or authentic movement or improvisation. Put simply, movement generation is the initial step in choreography that develops phrase material that can be further developed in the compositional phase of dance making.

Partnering might enter either phase (or both) of the choreographic process. If a maker develops partnering material first, solo phrases can be transposed from the partnering passage. Conversely, a choreographer might generate partnered phrases by combining or extrapolating on solo phrases of material. The next section outlines both approaches with suggested prompts. The upside is that either approach results in partnering material that shares the same movement language and aesthetics of the remaining material in the dance. When choreographers isolate duet or group partnered interactions from the unpartnered material within a piece, there is often a clear disconnect inside the work and the transition into and out of partnered sections is usually clunky and inorganic. For makers who engage partnering development in multiple phases of both movement generation and compositional processes, there is potential for seamless partnering expression and clarity of movement language in the work.

Independent Creative Projects

If students engage in dance composition through choreography workshop settings, independent creative projects, or other situations in which they will work on their own and with a group of other dancers, their foundational skills will be vital. There is great responsibility in leading a classroom or rehearsal process, and student choreographers should be encouraged to lead with intention and care.

Students in leadership roles should be mindful of their peers’ capabilities and comfort levels and maintain open communication regarding the depth of skills and mechanics of partnering. It is important for student choreographers to provide clear demonstrations and take their time when imaging and practicing a new lift or partnering sequence assessments. When the instructor loses communication channels with dancers or creates a space where students feel embarrassed to speak up, accidents occur and uncomfortable dynamics often arise. A choreographic process managed with open communication and collaboration fosters full class engagement and can be exciting for growth and creative expression.

More Excerpts From Dance Partnering Basics With HKPropel Access