Of all of the courses that I teach, Dance Composition II has always been a class where, year after year, profound things occur. This course focuses on different forms of group choreography with an emphasis on the students creativity, movement invention and performance quality. At my institution this class takes place in the fall of one’s junior year. This is a point in students’ careers when they have finally gotten past the first two years of just figuring out the expectations of dance in college. It also seems to be the moment when they become aware that their college days are in fact numbered. Every year, students in this class show me that they have matured enough to be open to making drastic shifts in their artistry.
It’s about 11am on a Wednesday, late October. My composition class has been working on a choreography project for about the past hour. It’s a simple project really—they are choreographing duets. I ask them how things are going and the overwhelming response is: ‘This is hard.”
I hear this a lot from the dance majors in this class and it amuses me. I wonder (sometimes out loud) who told them or when did they decide that choreography was supposed to be easy?
This particular project is a duet, but there are some rules for how they should shape them. Each dancer must be absolutely essential to the choreography at all times. This could be done a number of ways—there could be partnering work, or their relationship to each other in the duet could be defined in such a way that it renders them essential, or focus or spacing could be altered to affect this goal. Each student must continually work at expanding their own movement vocabulary. Because there are only two dancers, they must have a clear relationship to each other, so the choreography can not be unison. There must be unity and variety between the two dancers phrasing, along with contrasting elements, such as dynamics, rhythm, and use of space. They have to consider transition and the overall sense of a beginning, middle and end of the work.
The students finish their first drafts of the duets and they prepare to show to each other their work. After each student shows their choreography, the rest of the class gives constructive feedback before I do. Because of their work in Composition in previous years and earlier in this semester, their feedback is really getting quite good. It is objective, well thought out and really intuitive. It makes me very happy that they are picking up on a lot of the same points that I would make.
After each student has shown their work, they take their list of feedback and begin to work on their revisions. In the beginning of the semester, when told they would have to revise a project, they act as if they are being punished—they make faces, grumble and mutter under their breath. At this point, they have gotten so used to it, that they just get to work. They have begun to realize that it is a very rare occasion when the choreography comes out phenomenally the first time.
Even though this class is a choreography class, the work has to be performed for each other. We focus a lot on how the works they create are performed, noting especially that a change in performance quality can change how the choreography is perceived by the audience. This work on students’ performance quality really helps to draw out their voice and their artistry.
Another aspect of the choreographic process that is stressed in this class is the continual expansion of one’s ‘movement vocabulary’ or the movement and language of that particular piece of choreography. It is in assignments where this is the focus that I also often hear “This is Hard!” This is at least the third course that the students have had that deals explicitly with this concept and at this point I think that they are really starting to grasp how the tools that have been provided to them can really help with the process of expanding their vocabulary. This expansion is evident in the work that they are producing. It is obvious to me that they are no longer regurgitating ‘steps’ that they learned in some dance technique class years ago. I can see that they are exploring and creating ‘new’ movements and they have created a language that is appropriate to the ‘intention’ of that piece of choreography.
It is the ‘perfect storm’ of these elements that comes together in this Composition course. Through their culmination of experiences, these students find their artistic voice and begin to hone and shape it. They are on the journey moving from pre-professional to dance artist.