Choreographic, Choreography, Composition

What is the difference between choreography and choreographic?

At the end of last year, frustrated by the lack of opportunities, I decided to commit to a weekly practice session, on my own in the studio. Every week I enter the space to ‘practice’ being a choreographer. The only problem is that I seem to have forgotten how to ‘choreograph’.

A quick dictionary search reveals what it means to ‘choreograph’ :

compose the sequence of steps and moves for (a ballet or other performance of dance). “the ballet was choreographed by Diaghilev”

The quickest explanation is: to set steps.

And how does the word to choreograph differ from the notion of ‘composition’? From the Cambridge English dictionary:

When you talk about the composition of something, you are referring to the way in which its various parts are put together and arranged.

Composition is the technique or skill involved in creating a work of art.

It feels as though choreography relates to something of the intricacies of setting movement, whereas composition is more about the whole…. In the dance world the two are often used interchangeably, but I feel that there is something to be unpicked here.

By contrast, improvisation is about not setting movement, but responding in the moment. This is not to say that improvisation is easier. It’s an approach which requires a different set of skills.

A shift in the dance world has been the use of improvisation as a means of resourcing movement for choreography. Perhaps this is similar to the devising process in theatre? Rather than walking into the studio with a script, a final plan, we have a general aim and we develop the actual material through an organic, emergent process.

I’d like to think that the latter is a better way to work, because it’s more democratic. The performers have more sense of agency, more creative input into the actual content of the work, rather than focusing on delivery alone. But it raises questions. If I invite a performer’s collaboration, how is my role different? Is increasing performer agency, reducing the choreographer’s ownership? Perhaps it’s no wonder that a dancer colleague remarked that “it’s dancers who make the choreography anyway”…

I think my own struggles with this relationship between dancer / choreographer have led me to be both and work alone. And so here I am stuck in a space wondering how to be both the resource-er and choreographer. How do I capture my own material and give it shape from inside it?

Muddying the water, solo performer and choreographer Rosalind Crisp calls her practice “choreographic improvisation”. She has developed a set of tools that she engages with as a means of directing/ choreographing her dancing. She doesn’t know what will come next, she says, but she knows how she will find the next move. Sometimes she calls her tools “choreographies” because they give shape to and direct what’s coming out. They are choreographic in nature because they carry a logic, a direction, a specificity. But they are improvised because the actual resulting steps are not pre-set. They simply happen by being present to the choices in the moment.

I cannot help feeling that what Crisp is talking about when she talks about “choreography”, “Choreographic” and “the choreographer” is choice. And I agree that the resulting performance is engaging, playful and choreographic.

But where does that leave me, as I wonder back into the studio on my own? Am I setting? Must I set material? Is the desire to set simply a lack of confidence in my ability to improvise in a way that is engaging and choreographic? Or is there something else? Have I forgotten how to choreograph? Is the presence of my own body and my own movement just getting in the way? Have I spent so long improvising that I cannot shift my approach back to setting? My sense is that just moving is such a seductive option, that it takes some curiosity beyond the movement to engage with its composition, to choreograph. And then setting feels so bland, like flattening the material resource. Is there a way to keep the fullness of material whilst setting? Is there any need to actually set?

 

 

The Elephant in the Room

Last night I watched / played / participated in what is undoubtedly the best immersive theatre work I have ever come across: The Justice Syndicate at Battersea Arts Centre. In brief, 12 audience members sit around a table as ‘jurors’ and proceed to review evidence in a case, discuss their thoughts and then go on to cast their vote of “Guilty” or “Not-Guilty”. Apart from highlighting the flaws in the judicial system (or are they flaws?) the work brings to the fore the nature of decision making itself, and especially the dynamics of decision making within a group of people. At the end of the performance the neurologist, who advised the company in the making of the work, talked through the particular patterns of decision making that have been observed in this work. A key point was the interplay between intuition and reason in the making of decisions.

Dr  Kris De Meyer explained that intuition is like an elephant and reason is a small rider sitting on the elephant’s back. What most people would like to think is that their decisions are governed by reason, who tells the elephant where to go. But in fact this is seldom the case. For most of us the elephant is calling the shots, with the little rider on top making up stories for why the elephant is moving in one direction or another. To take the reins back into reason’s hands involves an active engagement with a different perspective, causing moments of dissonance. It is interesting to note that neither reason, nor intuition are necessarily right or wrong. Ignoring intuition can be just as harmful to us as ignoring reason. De Meyer pointed out the significance of this in the current political climate, where an in / out vote on the EU, led to entrenchment on both camps and a thoroughly divided UK.

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Dissonance.

Our ability to disrupt our patterns of choice, to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing, of accepting our own fallibility, our inclinations towards manipulation and coherency. To really see ourselves. These are all aims of the solo practice I am developing, using the process of disruption as an awareness generating tool. The aim is not to hang in perpetual uncertainty, but to understand why we make the choices we make, not just as artists but as individuals.

Not Knowing

Over the last couple of months I have committed myself to a weekly solo practice session. I spend three hours per week alone in the small studio at Chisenhale Dance Space. As you walk into the reception a sign-in sheet asks you to tick off why you’re using the space: Rehearsal, Workshop, Performance etc. Somehow I find it hard to tick the ‘rehearsal’ box, because I don’t feel as though I’m rehearsing. The word ‘rehearsal’ suggests something known, linear, attainable. But when I walk into the space I never feel that I “know”. Instead I feel immersed into a constant inner dialogue of self-doubt, frustration, boredom. When you’re on your own in a space you are confronted with yourself on every dimension. What I’ve learnt to do is settle into the process, accept the chatter and self-doubt and be present to the space. I carry words into the space with me, because words have a comforting clarity when all else you have is form and motion. This week I was buoyed by a line from John Cage:

Not working = Knowing

Working = Not Knowing”

– John Cage

 

Hands (2019)

‘Hands’ is a short dance film that can also be performed live with real-time projection. The work explores dialogue and form through hand gestures that reach, curve, invite and retreat. Hands is a soliloquy about loneliness and longing, drawn out through a dialogue between the artist’s right and left hands.

Play

It’s apt that the two buildings I have worked creatively out of this week, are surrounded by the sound of children playing. It’s an appropriate sound track to creative practice, the sound of play, messy, loud, unintelligable and yet distinct in its cocophony. For school children play is a moment of relief, where the urge to move, to imagine, to role play, to create, is finally allowed freedom to express itself. And, importantly, this expression is unstructured and messy and you probably wouldn’t pay to sit and watch it.

Is it the money, and the expectations that come with it, that turns creativity into work, or is it just the extension of creativity into art that requires the focus of work? And if the answer is both, in different ways and at different times, then is there a way to be at play as we work? To sustain the openness and joy of play as we create, inspite of expectations, both internal and external, or the weightiness of what we make?

 

Outwarding

Today is the final day of my residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Well, technically it’s “tomorrow” because I’m cheating and writing this a day earlier to save time for the looming deadline of Friday’s “sharing”. In Hink’s Five Facets model of creative processes, Assaying is followed by Articulating. ‘Articulating’ is the stage where the work becomes known, established, defined. But it simply doesn’t feel right to suggest that this is where I’m at. It feels impossible to know what a work is until it’s been “seen”. Which is why I’m skipping to Outwarding and placing Articulating aside for the final evaluation.

I normally find sharings more terrifying than performances. The work is always messy and unfinished and there really is no hiding behind stage lighting. The bare bones are revealed for… dare I say it… judgement..? And it’s all of you out there that people are watching, in-between lunch and a cup of tea.

This is where I’ve found Hink’s description of Outwarding most useful. He frames it as a part of the process, a chance to see “if the work lives beyond me and brings liveness to others”. The idea of empowering artists to gain and manage useful feedback in a way that supports their process, is well-known in the dance world, thanks to the excellent work of Liz Lerman and her Critical Response Process. But Hink’s poses questions that highlight the process of Outwarding itself:

Is it important to you that your work is seen?

If so, do you have a more precise sense of what it might be like for it to be seen more? What might come from that for you?

And do you have a sense about who you would like to see your work?

If so, how can I introduce this work to its right audience? How can I help it find its lovers?”

Whilst sitting in another artist’s sharing yesterday, I realised the importance of this last question. A member of the marketing team, sitting in on the sharing, offered her description of the work that we had just seen. Not in a judgemental way, but as a means of explaining the importance of clearly articulating the work so that it found its right audience. I had never considered this before. I just thought, and still do to some extent, that good work is just good work. But of course it’s pretty hard to know whether something is actually good or not. All we can know is that we’ve put something out there. In Seth Godin’s words:

Here, I made this. I hope it changes you.”

Assaying

Days 3 and 4 at Dance City for Creative Summer.

Today was about Assaying.

From Google:

verb
gerund or present participle: assaying
1.
determine the content or quality of (a metal or ore).
“the man who assayed gold was more than a technician”
2.
archaic
attempt.
“I assayed a little joke of mine on him”

Day 3 was about Attempting / Determining. I had to let go of my judgement of the movement material and just try (attempt) to find out (determine) what kind of thing this work could be. What kind of shape it might have.

Josiah Hinks writes:

In Assaying there are processes of probing, questioning, and detailed exploration of themes, trials, tests, research, studies and other attempts. This can be systematic, or it can be a time where there is a lot of rough drafting, studies for all types of iteration… Assaying is a checking, verifying, open-ended and exploratory process.”

The process felt very much as though I was excavating, a common sensation in my work and one which I have spoken about before. The creative process is not about knowing the outcome and finding a way to match reality to the idea in my head. It’s more about looking for, uncovering what’s there. Excavating. Or as John Cage put it:

Not working = Knowing

Working = Not knowing

Raising

Whilst walking down the hill towards Dance City this morning, it occurred to me how the creative process is a lot like gardening. I was chatting to Andrew, who’s putting me up for the week, talking about his allotments and about learning to trust in the process of growth. I think that the availability of food in supermarkets has somewhat dampened our appreciation of the growing process. I think that many times I simply haven’t trusted that you can plant a seed and it will grow, and bare fruit and vegetables that we then eat. And perhaps I haven’t always trusted that if I enter a studio and start working, something will surface and ripen.

Day two is typically the less fluid day in the process. I had to finally give up on the idea of using image as a starting point. All I had now was words, and they had started to bare fruit. I just had to let go of quite a lot of my expectations, and simply nurture the initial saplings of this idea.

The second stage of the 5 Facets process is Raising. This is what I did yesterday:

In Raising we lift up what interests us. If in Delving a fish might nibble your line, in Raising you would lift it up and see if you want to cook it. It is the facet to begin to bring out initial themes, issues, ideas, puzzles, images, conceits, concepts, movement etc. that you clearly know you want to work with or explore more. – Josiah Hinks

I’m not really sure whether the description of the process came first, or whether, on reading this description I realised that my process had naturally shifted into this facet. I expect it was a bit of both.

I’m about to start my third day of work. Today’s step is ‘Assaying’, and in my mind I’m rolling around another thought that came out of my morning’s walk. Andrew said that a lot of gardening is not actually about growing, but about controlled killing. The systematic exploration and then expiration of drafts. This is my work for today.

A short 30 minute sharing of my work in progress will be held at 2pm on Friday 24th August 2018, at Dance City, Newcastle, (Studio 4).  

Delving

Today was my first day of Residency at Dance City in Newcastle. Once again, I’m developing ‘Fold’, or some iteration of it.

Working solo has become a natural thing for me. As has schlepping around a whole suitcase packed with projector, laptop, computer, tripod, cameras, a lot of postcards and other miscellaneous gadgets. Whilst preparing for this residency, I recalled an idea that Andrew Morrish taught during his solo improvisation workshop: if you build your own architecture in the space, then you’re not alone. By architecture he meant both real and imagined props, prompts, ideas that hang in the space with you. Frames?

So far, ‘Fold’ has been a visual piece. Last year I worked with camera and projector to create three versions of my movement that ‘conversed’ with each other. ‘Hands’ became the most clear image of this. But today things started on a different page. Rather than working with physical ‘frames’ I started by working with words. I created audio scripts to lead me into movement, ending up with a word score.

Score is the S in RSPV, the iterative cycle that I’m working within: collecting Resources, developing Scores, performing them (to camera), evaluating them (without judgement) in order to refine the Resources and Score that feeds into the next cycle etc.

RSVP is a system that I’ve adopted to support the making process. It’s another architecture in the space, and one that I have used for the last year. But this year, wanting to explore movement again, I’ve drawn on a second architecture: Josiah Hinks’ 5 facets process. If RSVP is the meta-structure, then 5 Facets offers different kinds of resources, questions. It’s a supportive, soft structure that feels more pertinent to the creation of movement material.

It begins with Delving.

In Delving the situation is already given and allowed, we enter and play there. We are like a child exploring within givens it would never stop to think about. This is the space, this is the size of the paper, these are the colours we have, this is the body I have and this is the situation I am in. – Josiah Hinks

The Virtuosity of Paying Attention

Have you ever played with a child? I mean spent time with them building castles that are never completed? Repeatedly banged out the same tune, because each turn never stops being highly amusing to them. Children have an innate ability to just play, not to find the meaning of things, but to explore the pleasure, run with it a while and then change, move on, let go. It’s highly frustrating for an adult, because we’re so used to seeing the end game, or seeing the point of it all. I know I am.

The resounding impact of a 3 day workshop with the improvisation performer Andrew Morrish, was this realisation: perhaps I’ve forgotten how to play!

Andrew’s workshop was titled ‘Solo Performance Improvisation Practice’. It involves at least three of the most terrifying propositions anyone could face: performing, solo and improvisation. Imagine entering the space, facing a whole audience, no score, no pre-rehearsed movement, just you and the space and the audience. No props or other performers to lean on. Andrew’s starting point is always to think that the audience likes you, they’re on your side. But I’ve seen audiences walk out of theatres, so I’m less convinced.

As an experienced improviser Andrew admits that there’s a lot of bad improvisation out there. Improvisation is often the fall-back of choreographers and directors when they cannot quite fill a section of their work, or performers when they forget their lines or make a wrong move. “Just improvise” is an often heard comment back stage, “no one will know”.  But when improvisation becomes a practice in its own right, the result is a performance that is skilled, authentic, endearing, humorous, engaging. An improviser over-comes so much of the natural chatter that prevents us from fully revealing who we are, they place themselves in a place of ultimate vulnerability. The experience of being in this space develops new muscles of authentic communicating, which is what gives this work its multi-dimensionality. The good news is that it’s not magic, it’s a practice that takes time to develop. And the key to developing this skill is to pay attention:

improvisation is the virtuosity of paying attention”  – Andrew Morrish

To frame Andrew’s teachings, I’m going to use his own structure of Beginning, Middle and End.

Beginning

Beginning starts with noticing.

Andrew says that having ideas is great while you have them, but what happens when the ideas run out? The key to being present, is to notice what’s here, now. We’re taught to listen in to sensation, and become aware of where that takes us in terms of movement, sounding, talking, imagination. When you attend to what’s there in the room, you never run out of resources.

“Pay attention to the child”

Andrew relates how he worked on a project where his job was to improvise alongside a child. Paying attention to the child was his source material for his own role in the duet. I know that Andrew was talking about a specific event, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels with Julia Cameron’s suggestion that our creative side is a child. Suddenly this idea of tapping in to my inner child just opened up something for me.  I’m here in this workshop because so many years of dance training dulled down any real ‘presence’ in favour of physicality. We were physical beings, but not human beings on stage. And now I just find that presence so stale. I’m here to work out what it might mean for me to be present on stage. If I could cut out all the negative chatter that prevents me from making a fool of myself and notice what my inner child was drawn to, perhaps something more real would come out of me?

Staying in this childish space, Andrew suggests following your pleasure. The game is not to find something that’s “interesting”, it’s to find something that’s fun for us now. It’s function-less, frivolous. But if you find it then developing it is a pleasure too. It sounds like a good life mantra…

Middle: Developing what you’ve noticed

I’m very bad at the middle bit. I find myself wanting to know the outcome right from the get go. Only a few seconds into an improvisation task, I find my mind panicking to know the end point. I find  it so hard just to settle in, notice and develop what’s there, whatever that may be. I sense that Andrew knows this and one of his tools is to get us to move around the space.

“a solo is a journey”

Andrew places groups of people around the space, so that as we improvisaed solo we have to move from one audience to another, shifting ourselves spatially. Each new audience, or new sapce brings a new energy. Somehow, using this structure, we each do a 4 minute solo improvisation on the first day!

“Change!”

If the first job of an improviser is to find something pleasureable, then the second job is to find the next thing that’s pleasureable. It’s so easy to get stuck in what we’re doing, that sometimes we forget to change. Andrew suggests introducing something that prompts us to change, like a change of scenary or a change of focus. I think that my inability to change more frequently comes partly out of feeling very invested in what I’m doing, so that I find it hard to let it go, and partly in the fear of not being able to find the next thing. Andrew suggests the Andrew Morrish App: it follows you around shouting “change!” every 30 seconds. Sadly it doesn’t exist, but it’s not a bad idea.

“you need to feel safe to be creative”

There’s something about this remark that holds so true and yet is so little understood in the arts world. Everyone somehow expects artists to bare their soles, to be really ‘out there’. But that’s not a safe place to work from, and when you’re acting from a place of fear, you cannot really be creative, you can only do what you already know which is the opposite of being present. So how do you create safety when you’re facing an audience with no pre-known moves / score etc?

“supportive architecture”.

Andrew talked about creating supportive architecture. One exercise involved each of us performing with other members of the group sitting / standing around the space. When you’re in relation to another body the space feels less empty. More resources appear. Later Andrew suggested using our imagination to create that supportive architecture, or thinking about the audience as a supportive architecture.

Ending

“Be aware of what’s happened”

Finding an ending involves the ability to be aware of what’s happened and to somehow hold that in our body in a way that will lead us to an ending.

I don’t think I ever really found an ending. It would be safe to say that I’m still trying to find a sense of play. But each time my turn came to an end, I seemed to come out of performance and suddenly I was me. In Andrew’s words: how can I find more of her?

This blog is dedicated to my work as a dance artist and choreographer. If you're looking for my Pilates work, please visitmy Pilates website at www.margueritepilates.com