The art of choreography must be continually practiced and refined. There is no way around the work. Starting may always be the hardest part, but allowing yourself to see a self-choreographed piece for what it is rather than what you had envisioned will always be a battle. Rarely are you happy with the work at first. The highs and lows you experience when choreographing are all informative and all valuable, and there is no skipping a step.
Choreography also draws upon life experience and imagination, so you must exercise those skills frequently. Give yourself and your collaborators love, time, and coaching to work through the hard parts. Do not be afraid of the unknown. Lean in to the challenge, and allow yourself to constantly search for your voice. That searching is where the magic happens. These are some bits of advice I would give to myself if I were just starting to choreograph. At first I was daunted by the task but delving into the process and enjoying the challenge has helped. Dancemaking may not be an easy task, but it can be a rewarding and fruitful endeavor that I encourage everyone to try at least once.
For my choreographic process, I often begin with the idea of exploring an emotion. This starting point allows me to branch off in a myriad of ways that inspire me. Dance is about community and communication. The constant dialogue between self, performer, audience, and community helps to mold my choreographic vision. The idea of emotion constitutes an idea of expression, of journey, of a connection to the human experience that drives us to create art. While I sometimes abstract or do more movement based pieces, the idea that germinates a piece will involve emotion.
It also allows me to begin crafting a soundscape that helps inspire and push me forward in a piece. I try to shape a piece that will have a rise and fall in movement quality, meaning, and texture to hopefully take the audience through an experience rather than hitting one simple note, even if one feeling sparked the piece. By allowing contrast, this leaves more room for interpretation and complexity within a piece, and magnifies certain moments or motifs that can be absorbed by an audience rather than giving the feeling away too quickly.
In my piece for Repertory Dance Theatre’s 2020 Emerge Concert, where the dancers and staff choreograph the pieces, I used this jumping point to create until you are no more, in collaboration with Kerry McCrackin. The piece deals with a relationship that is in the process of breaking, even though the broken parts are still beautiful. For this piece, I generated the movement in conjunction with Kerry in a collaborative process. I would often have phrase work and material, teach it, then adjust as I saw the information on a different body. Then I would coach textures and choice making within the movement, such as where to suspend, make bigger, slow down, etc. In the following lesson plan, we will use emotions as starting points to create phrases that can be manipulated, and then strung together to make a dance.
Lesson Plan: Small Dance – Solo Emotion
- Choose an emotion: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Trust, Distrust, Surprise, Anticipation.
- Choreograph an 16 count phrase on yourself portraying what the emotion means to you. If you are filled with Joy, does that make you move big and bold, or small and giddy? Trust your instincts in each move. There can be a longer exploration of the emotion since it is not just one movement. Think about quality words you associate with the emotion, such as with Surprise, you may think of the word “sudden,” “shifting,”, or “unexpected.” Find the journey of the quality words and move in space.
- Next, you will choreograph a 16 count phrase based on another emotion from Step 2. This time, explore different levels and facings, seeing what those choices do to the movement.
- Now you will take moments from the phrases you created in Step 2 and Step 3 to make a hybrid 16 count phrase, changing quality as you see fit. Maybe a movement that was previously fast can take more counts, or instead of a flowing moment, it becomes sharp and staccato. You actively choose what quality is happening through the phrase.
- Combine all three phrases and practice them in your body. See what makes sense for yourself, and see how you can make something more meaningful, possibly by slowing down a moment, making a moment bigger, or even finding stillness. Try the combined phrases to multiple songs, record the Small Dance: Solo Emotion, and see what emerges when you watch. Remember, choreography is a practice and must be continually done to move forward. Choreography is also about choice making, so when you begin, I encourage you to trust your instincts, and then see how you can make those ideas bigger, smaller, more grand, or more simple. Rehearse the solo over multiple days and revisit it after a period of time to see what it means to you.
Bonus: Retrograde your phrase completely, as if someone was playing it from reverse. See what differences arise from doing the phrase backwards.
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Jonathan Kim graduated in 2017 from California State University, Fullerton with a Bachelor’s in Dance. He worked with Lineage Dance Company, SJDanceCo, Kelly Alvarez and Artists, Embark Dance Theatre, and most recently performed with SALT Contemporary Dance for their 6th season while directing the SALT Training Program. He has performed works by Doris Humphrey, Donald McKayle, Gustavo Ramirez-Sansano, Brendan Duggan, Penny Saunders, Nicholas Palmquist, Hilary Thomas, Joni McDonald, Lar Lubovitch, Andy Noble, and Noa Zuk/Ohad Fishof. After guesting in Repertory Dance Theatre’s 2018 fall concert SPIRIT, he became a full time company member in 2019.