Do you know what makes you unique as a dancer? Usually it is much clearer to our trusted friends, dance colleagues and teachers, because we are too engrossed in the inevitable highs and lows of being a creative person. But do you have those people in your life telling you what makes you unique? Do you know your strengths, celebrate them, work with them in your performances? Do you take the time to tell other dancers what you love about their performances? This is the greatest gift you can give another dancer. By telling them what you love about their act, you help them to forge their sense of self and identity on stage. Once a dancer has this sense of self and identity, they can choose what to do with it in performance. They can be deliberate in expanding upon their strengths or throw a curve ball by doing something completely different. And being deliberate is key. So next time you see someone dance, or if you prefer to reflect on your own dance experience, here is a list of strengths to consider (just a few):
Usually as we evolve and strengthen certain attributes, others will naturally take the back seat. As we go along our dance journey, our attention can be drawn to different aspects. This is part of becoming more well-rounded dancers. But integral to this journey is to know what we have strong now. If you don't know, ask your dance friends for feedback.
More and more we see dancers who are trained in a multitude of genres. But how do we meld those styles without looking like a mish-mash? Here are some lessons I've learnt along the way...
1. Be clear on your inspiration. When dancing within a genre, it is ok to make the music your inspiration. But when melding genres, the music is not enough. You need a theme or a story that infuses the whole dance.
2. Let one genre dominate the others. Each genre has its principles and rules. For example in contemporary dance, we are trying to use impetus and natural momentum as much as possible. It is ok to subvert or deconstruct a genre by breaking those rules or contrasting it with another style. But this works more effectively when one genre has been well established first.
3. When you do bring in your other genres, do it with commitment. Bring in their spirit. Bring them to life. Even if it is fleeting, let the audience know that your soul speaks different languages and tongues, not just your limbs. Consider what 'voice' these different genres bring to your piece. Having different voices emerge in our dance gives it textual richness.
4. Use an intuitive choreography process (mine involves filming lots of improvisation to the chosen song), not just a cerebral process. Sometimes the feeling of music demands something very different to its purported rhythm, tempo or melody. Your intuitive self can imagine seamless transitions between styles as an authentic expression of you.
5. Keep at it. It can be a very challenging and disheartening creative process full of "where is this going?" - don't let that stop you. Keep going. Just keep going.
1. Move always with a connection to your centre and breath, rather than driving your arms and legs. It will turn your body into a storytelling vessel rather than a collection of moving limbs.
2. It's great to include vocabulary that you have learned but most of the time, the music calls for an elaboration of a motif rather than a string of moves.
3. Ground yourself by humbling yourself before performance, remember that we are all students striving to expand and explore our own art. Remember most 'stuff' out there that we laden and torment ourselves with is just a story - a story you can turn off.
4. In choreographed dance, stay in the precipice between the right and left brains. Stay attuned to the choreography, but trust yourself enough to wear it and not let it wear you. Remaining yourself is the key to expression and presence. This also means you need to know yourself (improvisation practice helps).
5. Embrace absolute stillness on stage.
There is a little concept talked about in theatre and literature called the alienation effect. It suggests that stories become most compelling when what seems familiar to us, suddenly becomes alien, estranged, distant. This is what I love about great dance choreography. Bangarra Dance Theatre's Lore is my latest inspiration: Butoh-esque men covered in blood dancing with she-oak to the tenderness of mystical turtles hailing from the Dreamtime. In these performances, ordinary activities take on supernatural qualities; and the audience is unsettled, disturbed even, by the treatment of familiar movements, conventions and storylines. Of course, there are beautiful dances that enchant us because they are nurturing, soft, natural, joyful. For some reason, I cannot do a straight performance like this. I actually rally against it. There always has to be an element of the uncanny; the twisted, the mystical. Contrasting ugly and beautiful; convention with radical resistance.
It is often said that more mature dancers create more enriching performances because they have more life experience, but is this true?
Is it the intensity and depth of one’s emotional experiences that gift a dancer with the potential to carry an audience, even change them a little?
TS Elliot when writing about good poetry, said that authors who treat poetry as a confession booth to channel raw emotions were destined to write bad poetry. He argued ‘it is not the ‘greatness’, the intensity of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.’ He writes that 'the mind of the mature poet differs from that of an immature one not precisely in any validation of ‘personality’, not being necessarily more interesting or having ‘more to say’, but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations’ (Elliot's essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919).
Of course, this is where experience and fluency of a dance form, and an eye and an ear for composition become important. We can advance this ability by dance practice, by choreography practice, by performance practice and by appreciating the arts. But this idea that we do not need to find some fancy feeling, but instead learn how to transmit ordinary ones in ways that demonstrate poetic technique, is interesting. It means age is no barrier. Life experience is no barrier (?).
There is a distinction between choreography and performance of course. While we might try to have some emotional detachment in the choreography process, it is possible to channel raw emotion while performing it - in fact, I would argue this is desirable (depending on the genre). That is perhaps where a sensual life full of ecstatic joy, tragedy and thwarted dreams becomes an advantage.
Some people have asked me how i cultivate a strong stage presence. Here is an example of how i prepare. Of course, every dancer approaches things quite differently. Does this resonate with you and your practice?
1. Create a space where you can dance, and really let loose.
2. Put the music on. Dance. Film it. Do this as many times as you can before physical or creative exhaustion sets in. Stop intermittingly to watch the film and reflect on what moments really ‘soar’ (if any).
3. Lie on the floor in a heap and let the music wash over you. Visualise yourself dancing to parts of it. Visualise a limitless version of yourself dancing to it. Visualise dancers you admire dancing to it. Listen deeply. Hear the moments of stillness, of release.
4. Play the music occasionally in the car and don’t dance to it for days. Let the energy build. Pay attention to the feelings coalescing in your body. What moment/story/feeling/character comes to mind now?
5. Deepen your awareness of visual composition and character development. Read beautiful stories, witness visual art, stunning cinematography (visual detail is accentuated for us in foreign films), listen to epic classical music. Interpret everyday scenes into portraits of the human condition: for eg, sitting on the train observe the detail of other passengers, wonder about their stories, desires and conflicts. Practise feeling what it is like to be them, sit like them, and see the world through their eyes. Imagine a music soundtrack playing to this scene. Notice the beauty in random things and sounds. Craft visual compositions out of everyday scenes like a photographer would. Make your life artful so that eventually you can make your art full of life.
6. Do not avert your eyes from injustice and suffering. If you were bestowed with a difficult childhood or life, take time to feel it and know it is carving out the depths from which you can draw from as an artist. Giving you fuel for more intensity. Know what is like to be bottom of the heap and queen of the mountain. Similarly, look for experiences of joy, delight, innocence. Experience these emotions like a movie that you can start and stop.
7. Start your next dance session bursting with a desire to dance. Film immediately. Breathe. Settle. Practise looking into the eyes of your audience, let them see your soul. Do weird shit. Do virtuous. Do it all.
8. Repeat step above to different music, including other musical genres. See what sequences start to gel.
9. Watch the film of you dancing. Pick motifs in your movement that you want to play with more.
10. Start to approach your work more intellectually. Think about the directions you are facing, levels, more or less use of space, speed, the quality of your movement, the flow of your movement. Are you harnessing or ignoring momentum?
11. Ask yourself are you being true to the music? Are you capturing the moments where energy is building and where it is released?
12. Ask yourself are you building to a climax, do you progress or stay at one level of dynamic the whole way through? Give particular attention to the opening and the end.
13. Ask yourself are you revealing enough about your character? Do you need some non-dance moments? Body language, gestures?
14. Ask yourself are you taking people on a journey? Where they feel a little bit changed by seeing this dance?
15. Ask yourself what you might change to be less predictable?
16. Don’t tie yourself down to a chronological or linear approach. If you rather fill in each scene in random order (as inspiration comes to you) this is more natural.
17. When you are creatively or physically exhausted, stop. Believe in your ability to create the perfect amount for that time. Take time to rest, to nurture yourself.
18. Ask someone you respect to review your work and give feedback (private FB groups are great for this).
19. Practise it in whatever way feels natural and comfortable to you. Leaving it semi improvised is fine. Trust when you have had enough of practising it. Your body is letting you know to conserve energy – to start building energy (duende) for the performance.
20. When you go to perform it, let the choreography go. Trust in your ability to remember and tune into your intuitive, breathing, grounded self. Master your ego to magnify and intensify your feelings when you perform but don’t let your ego master you. Humble yourself. Let go of expectations that might weigh you down. Be open to the moment.
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