CHOREOGRAPHIC NOTES 2: COMPOSITION, CONTINUITY, DECONSTRUCTION

Dance is also sometimes explored as a visual language (we cannot perceive it without sight), that is, as a system of visual means of communication, using concepts established for verbal language. This point of view allows us to talk about movement vocabulary and structure in dance. Certain similarities with verbal language help to better orient ourselves when we talk about composition and choreography. The compositional process can be understood as the search for such a movement vocabulary and structure that aptly communicates the meaning of the choreographer’s ideas through the means of movement.

 

Elaboration of movement material and composition

The movement vocabulary of dance can be formally more or less closed by established aesthetic norms. A high degree of creativity can be exercised in contemporary dance, which works with an open form of movement, constantly searching for new ways to communicate actual meanings.

Creating and elaborating movement material into choreography is the first stage of the compositional process. (I have discussed movement material in a previous blog.) By elaborating movement material with precision, specific qualities of movement can be achieved. At this stage I am always interested in how its identity emerges – what it expresses, that is, what it says to me, and also what it refers to, what the viewer can read from the movement. It is a process of recognizing what I felt mainly physically at the beginning when creating the material. (In the case of movement material created by dancers, what I perceive visually first and then can more accurately name verbally.)

I understand this process as the transformation of movement material into a movement-image idea, and somewhere in this phase of creation begins for me the creation of a “choreographic language”. The movement-image idea consists of two components specific to the medium of dance: the visual (imagery) and the felt (qualitative). When they fit together and one supports the other, the movement material takes on an identity of its own with its own inherent meaning.

What I find fascinating about choreography is that although the choreographer often knows “what” the movement material is about, it doesn’t mean that the viewer is able to accurately read that meaning (of the movement idea). My experience is that when the movement material is more complexly developed, the audience is able to feel something “behind” the movement, although they cannot verbalize “it”.

In the course of the compositional process, the choreographer clarifies his/her ideas through further creative work: the arrangement of movement-image ideas. The arrangement (composition) creates relationships between individual movement materials/ideas, which creates new meanings resulting from relationships and their connections.

 

Composing Multilayer Relationships

Arranging – creating relationships in movement forms and sequences generates another level of meaning. Dance as a visual-movement language is specific in that, by its very nature, it cannot convey facts, therefore it cannot be fully narrative (tell a story). This means that it can use a distinctive logic. Narrative is built on causal relationships, which dance does not primarily use. Most movements of the human body do not have a specific meaning (like words), so dance has more freedom to create a logic of development. The choreographer has a wide range of possibilities for his/her own invention and creativity; the sense of creating relationships that generate meanings plays an important role.

In dance composition – as in musical composition – relationships emerge in a temporal sequence. Therefore, the arrangement of choreographic ideas and movement sequences is essential in creating relationships. Choreography is clearly more interesting if the choreographer does not only create simple linear relationships (one directly following another) but is able to create a more complex network of relationships. A multi-dimensional or multi-layered composition provides more surprising impressions than a simple linear structure.

Studying Laban movement analysis allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of structures that can be created in choreography. In particular, I began to more accurately distinguish and better understand the two aspects of dance – the visual and the energetic. (Perhaps the term “energetic” aspect of dance is not quite accurate, but I have not yet found a more appropriate one to express the vitality that is for me an essential quality of dance.)

Each aspect manifests itself in specific relationships. Visual relationships (shape and spatial) are sometimes referred to as formal relationships because they are more objective. Energetic  relations (temporal and dynamic) are closely connected with the expressiveness of bodily being and are therefore more subjective. The terms form and expression make more sense to me from this perspective.

Dance works with visual relationships in a similar way to visual art. It works with temporal and dynamic ones similarly to music. However, dance is exceptional compared to music in that the performer is both player and instrument, and the aforementioned aspects are uniquely intertwined in a living event – a psycho-physical being in the present moment.

Focusing on visual and energetic relationships in movement helps me to create multi-layered web of choreography. I focus first on each aspect separately and then in their interconnectedness. This allows me to understand the particular logic of relationships in movement more accurately, which is a broad and fascinating subject. The history of modern dance offers many interesting inspirations.

Movement theorist Rudolf Laban created his spatial theory of the movement of the human body by using the analogy of musical logic and the logic of geometric relationships valid in architecture and translated them into a living architecture of body movement. He offered a comprehensive solution to the relationship of the three elements body – space – time. The American choreographer Doris Humphrey, in her publication Art of Making Dances, writes about a visual logic based on symmetry and asymmetry. These explorations of movement are still interesting stimuli for experimentation. For example, William Forsythe was inspired by Laban’s spatial theory in a unique way when creating his Improvisational Technologies.

Other inspirations for me are research on the functioning of perceptual logic – how the human brain perceives visual (abstract) information. Gestalt psychology, which is used by designers in their work, offers interesting explanations. I recommend them to the attention of aspiring choreographers as a basis for understanding visual relationships that can be creatively applied in choreography.

I understand choreographic composition as a search for understanding the specifics of how logic works in dance. As the logic of body movement is freer, it gives the choreographer the opportunity to use the visual and energetic relationships of movement according to his/her own invention. As the basis of “logic” in movement, one can consider its smooth flow – continuity.

 

Continuity

In choreography as a temporal art, creating continuity is not just a matter of simply connecting movements into sequences. Continuity is not only about continuousness, but also about connection – it manifests relationships and their development. The ways in which we perceive continuity is a fascinating topic that has been addressed by neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy.

The property of continuity as an unbroken connection is fluidity. We live continuously every moment of our lives – that’s why continuity seems to us to be self-evident. Rather, we become aware of its existence by its interruption, which is evaluated by our nervous system as a kind of threat, which is why more or less tension arises in the organism according to the circumstances. This tension, however, cannot be evaluated only negatively, because it is an important stimulus to increase attention – refining the focus, where it needs to be directed. The mechanism of the functioning of our nervous system is set up to register changes – the passage of time without breaks becomes invisible to us.

Sometimes it is associated with pleasant feelings. For example, when we manage to connect ideas one after another in a meaningful flow while writing a text, we perceive it as a smooth flow of thoughts and feelings. As soon as the smooth flow of thoughts stops, we begin to feel an unpleasant tension, first physically and then emotionally.

Flow

We perceive continuity based on the fact that our brain composes for us a meaningful picture of the situation we are in as a whole – it organizes the individual elements/forms that make up the situation into meaningful relationships. Organizing, as a basic operation of our mind, is done by means of patterns that manifest interrelationships between elements/forms. If the mind cannot find familiar patterns of relationships, we experience tension and discomfort in the situation. Either the mind can satisfactorily create new patterns for the situation, or we will want to free ourselves from the given situation in some way.

The choreographer can play with this basic mechanism of human perception processes in an interesting way when creating a composition, because composing movement means organizing relationships. The choreographer controls the continuous flow of the movement by creating patterns – changes in the flow of patterns signal changes in continuity.

I consider the part Piano Fase (duet) from Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich by Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker to be a great example of the play between continuity and subtle shifts in musical patterns. She was inspired by music based on the same principle of subtle shifts in musical patterns:

I understand this artistic intention as a particular application of the method of deconstruction, which artists have been using in their work for more than a century.

 

Deconstruction

Continuity appears as a counterpart in relation to deconstruction. Deconstruction disrupts the continuity of set relationships, creating a break where the smooth flow (of events, patterns) is interrupted, creating tension. As a compositional method, deconstruction uses analysis (breaking down the whole into parts) and leads to a deeper understanding of the whole through the recognition of the individual parts, but especially the relationships that make it up.

Choreographic structuring that plays with disrupting the compositional integrity by deconstructing it brings unexpected twists and turns. They give the choreography an unpredictable quality and thus an extraordinary uniqueness. If used skillfully, deconstruction can be one of the interesting ways of creating unconventional coherence in choreography. The prerequisite, however, is knowing what kind of whole (formal or semantic) the choreographer id deconstructing.

Nature can create amazing random compositions

One of the playful de-composition methods is to randomly select the arrangement of movement materials/sequences. This method was already used by Rudolf Laban, inspired by the Dadaists in Zurich in the 1920s. American choreographer Merce Cunninham made it the main method of his choreographic work thirty years later. His intention was to limit the influence of his own aesthetic preferences on the final shape of the choreography. Cunningham and composer John Cage (influenced by neo-Dadaism) also fundamentally deconstructed the traditional relationship between music and dance. Dance and music only had in common that they took place at the same time in the same place. For dance, this meant a shift towards greater independence from music, which we now take for granted.

By consistently using the method of chance – and later by using computer programs – Cunningham eliminated the choreographer’s subjective decision-making in the creation of meanings in choreography. In fact, he believed that the random selection of movement elements or sequences, their order or spatial arrangement, would create the most correct sequence of events at a given time. Indeed, the method of random selection often brings surprising solutions, because it disrupts the usual procedures handed down by the choreographic practice of previous centuries (especially in relation to musical structure).

The method of random selection works effectively in pure dance, of which Cunningham was one of the main protagonists (according to Cunningham, the content of dance was exclusively movement). It is a choreographic practice that focuses on composing the elements of the dance without engaging emotional experience.

If the choreographer does not want to exclude the subjective point of view and works with feelings, states, ideas, and thoughts (his/her own or those of his/her dancers), it will not be possible to rely only on random selection when composing movement material. Psychic contents manifest their own meanings and create relationships with a particular logic. Finding a movement form to express them is the domain of dance and physical theatre, which also use methods of deconstruction (especially narrative) in creating surprising relationships and setting the right tension for the impact of the work.

Deconstruction can bring humor

 

Choreographic sketch (video)

The short choreographic sketch for this blog was created from an improvisation on the theme of continuity. The idea behind the creation of the material was to gradually sit from standing to sitting while the movement is guided by the touch of the hands and other parts over the body. The slow pace provided the dancer with the opportunity to maintain a continuous flow of touch while being aware of where touch might lead the movement next. The form of the movement in the details was thus influenced by feeling.

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