Elle: How I Like to Choreograph

We now have the privilege to hear from RDT Dancer Elle Johansen about her choreographic process and her method for creating her piece in EMERGE in 2019.

Most times when I’m choreographing I rely on specific choreographic devices rather than picking a topic, story, or piece of music as a springboard. I step into the studio and will generate movement and then ask myself how I can manipulate it using the elements of dance: time,space and energy. Or, I will give dancers simple tasks to generate movement and then manipulate it in a similar way. I like for movement to be organic in either my own body, or mydancers body.

VO-V26 by Elle Johansen

However, when I was choreographing for RDT’s Emerge show in 2019 I knew I wanted to create something rooted in a specific topic. I decided to bring two worlds together that I love so dearly. I wanted to explore how to bring my passion of the outdoors into a choreographic work. I made it more specific and decided on exploring my love of rock-climbing,and at the same time pay some homage to my dad who is the best rock climber I know. It was definitely a new experience for me trying to choreograph to something so specific, but I’m lucky that rock climbing, more specifically bouldering, is a dance all its own.

VO-V26 by Elle Johansen

To start the process I took myself and two other dancers to the rock climbing gym to let them experience it for themselves. One thing I noticed is that rock climbing is so much about accumulation. Climbers make the first move, and then the second move, and then fall. They try again, able to make the first second and third move, but then probably fall again. I loved watching my dancers try and figure out these problems for themselves that way. As dancers we constantly solve problems in our bodies, so the two dancers in my piece were naturals at this. I decided that using accumulation would be something really important in my piece. If you want to think about accumulation in terms of mathematics you might look at it like this:

1,2 1,2,3 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4,5

With a formula like this I then gave each dancer a creative problem that went something like this. For your number one you need to complete a rock climbing move that only requires your hands, then number 2 needs to be a move where you only move one arm, Movement 3 should be as if you are falling off the wall. While each dancer has the same “springboard” to work from,the movement ended up looking very different as each dancer had different “routes” in their mind. It was a really great way for us to generate material without having to think too much about it. I then could mix up the dancers’ accumulations by making them reverse them, repeat things, or learn and add in someone else’s accumulation into their own. One thing I love about repetition and accumulation is that I get to see and digest them more than once, while still being given new information. I personally think it’s so satisfying to see something twice, and if you choreograph something where you put a particular movement in the piece multiple times it puts a certain importance on it.

VO-V26 by Elle Johansen

From there I was able to put our accumulations together into even more complex patterns. Rock climbing is complex, and so is dance, so it was satisfying to bring those complexities together into what I believed to be a cohesive world.

Lesson Plan: Accumulation in Choreography

If you want to think about accumulation in terms of mathematics you might look at it like this:

1,2 1,2,3 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4,5

Let’s play with this idea of accumulation by creating a dance of your own. Create a movement for the following numbers:

  1. Reach for something with a body part
  2. Lift a foot and place it somewhere very gently
  3. Shift around in the shape your body is in while maintaining some resemblance of the shape (shrink, wiggle, stretch, bend, etc.)
  4. Quickly dart a body part in the same direction 3 times, eventually stopping in the direction you were darting to.
  5. Melt into a shape on the low level

Now make it into a dance by using the accumulation from above.

1,2 1,2,3 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4,5

Now let’s make it even more complex. Try doing the accumulation in reverse.

5,4,3,2,1 4,3,2,1 3,2,1 2,1

If you need to change part of the choreography to accomplish this do so. What if you accumulate the accumulation like this?

1,2 1,2 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4 1,2,3,4,5 1,2,3,4,5

There are so many other ways you can manipulate your accumulation to create a piece of choreography. If you want to see a beautiful example of accumulation I encourage you to watch“​Accumulation​” by Trisha Brown. It is available on YouTube here:


Feel free to share these videos, embed them for your students, or link to this page. New online educational resources are being developed every day. If you have suggestions for what you’d like to see let us know: rdt@rdtutah.org.

Elle Johansen, originally from Salt Lake City Utah, began her dance training at the age of 9 with the Janet Gray School in Salt Lake City Utah. There she was disciplined in Ballet, Modern, Jazz, and various forms of African dance. Elle earned her BFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah in 2015 where she received both the “Outstanding Senior Award” and the “Student Service Award.” Elle has a passion for dance education and is currently a teacher at the Janet Gray School, Tanner Dance at The University of Utah, South Valley Creative Dance, and a teacher with Repertory Dance Theaters AIE program. Throughout her training Elle has had the privilege to work with Hubbard Street, Alvin Ailey, and the Staaliche Balletschule School located in Berlin Germany. Elle has been a guest dancer with RDT since 2015 and officially joined the company in 2017.


RDT appreciates the generous funding provided by the Utah Legislature and the Utah Board of Education that help make our Arts-in-Education Programs possible in Utah’s Public Schools.