What does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’?

There’s a great quote in an interview with Philip Decoufle where, asked about his solo work, he states:

“There is no choreography in a solo. Choreography begins when there are three dancers. When there are one or two I don’t believe it’s choreography. ” (Pakes, 2004)

And yet here I am, as I think are many others in this Covid world, seeking to do what Decoufle states is impossible: to choreograph on myself. To the countless artists for whom working alone is an ongoing fascination and choice, Decoufle’s words possibly say more about the expectation of what it means to choreograph, then the impossibility of self-choreographing,…perhaps?

Which leads me to wonder: what does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’? And, more to the point, why does it feel so difficult?

Perhaps so much is made out of the difficulty of being alone in a space, that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the emptiness of it? I know my challenges are not so much around what to do, but why I do it. Why this leg instead of that leg? Why now and not later? What’s the point of it? Who wants to see this? Why would anyone want to see this?

Which is why the question, ‘what does it mean to self-choreograph?’ is not just a question of definition. Of course it feels significant that I describe it as ‘self-choreography’ and not simply ‘solo choreography’. Solo choreography can be performed by another after all. By self-choreography I mean to forefront the authorship over the singularity of the performer, I mean to direct the viewer not just to the presentation of a dance, but to the self-choreographed nature of a dance. And there-in lies it’s stickiness.

Self-choreography involves engaging with the multiple facets of ‘self’ (a loaded term, for sure). It involves recognising the different voices that are present in the mind when one starts dancing alone. The alone-ness, the emptiness, the silence may feel like a harsh denial, but, like meditation practices, it’s simply a momentary restriction on stimulus that allows those voices to become really present. And don’t they know it! Working alone is difficult because it acquaints us with ourselves. At this point I recall Ben Spatz’ question in ‘What a Body Can Do’:  ‘Is this theatre or therapy, spirituality or research?’ (Spatz, 2015)

The answer depends on what you do with it.

For me, the emptiness is filled with a single strident critic. Working with my mentor, Rosalind Crisp, I’ve become aware of the gazillion ways ‘that voice’ stifles my dancing. Nothing I do is right for her, nothing interesting, nothing good enough. She embodies every single person who has told me I’m no good, every programmer who turned me away, every bad application outcome. She has a bloody loud voice, she’s cynical, critical and deeply unhappy. That bit’s the therapy.

But now someone else walks in. She tells the critic to shut it and sit down over there, tells the dancer to stop fussing over her clothing/ the cold floor/ her hair and ‘just get on with it’, whatever that is. And then she invites the choreographer to watch.

The choreographer suggests something. She offers an intersection, a disruption (large or small) that contains, directs the moving dancer. Each suggestion comes with a caveat: try it first, you can always leave it. The dancer is not bound to do exactly what the choreographer says. The dancer can make choices within the rules she is dancing with. The choreographer watches, and stretches the spaces around the rules. She clarifies, brings more nuance to the rules, more layers, more textures. She holds the dancer to those spaces, and then she lets her go and watches again, watches as the imprint reveals itself in the dancer’s movements, watching the echoes of that exercise dissipate, collect, re-collect.

The comparison with therapy is not so far off. My mentor and teachers are currently stand-ins for my own choreographer. They enter the space like a gardener, weeding out the stuff the quells the flowers. Putting things in their place, giving space and nourishment to the delicate buds so that they have space to bloom. The result is an instant relief. The skill of self-choreography is to be your own gardener.

Sometimes Rosalind jokingly asks: ‘why can’t you do this yourself? If you spent long enough working alone, 20 years down the line you’d work this out for yourself’. But that’s only if I learn how to work with myself and don’t have a massive falling out that leads to self-destruction! It can be a dangerous game to delve into working alone, precisely because of this self-confrontation.

But I do persevere, which begs the question, why? Why self-choreograph?

To me self-choreography has been a deliberate choice. The embedded-ness of author/performer is both an aesthetic and a political statement. It is about dismantling the hierarchy of performer/ choreographer models and challenging the outside-in approach, (the grand artistic vision), with an inside-out process, one of ‘material handling’ (to quote Barbara Bolt), of finding something rather than producing it.

All this is, in fact, what it means to ‘self-choreograph’.

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