Balancing Act: Where Do You Draw the Line between Choreography That's Inventive ... or Over-the-Top?

By Macel, Emily | Dance Magazine, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Balancing Act: Where Do You Draw the Line between Choreography That's Inventive ... or Over-the-Top?


Macel, Emily, Dance Magazine


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Great dancers, costumes, music, and props will only get you so far. It's the choreography that counts most when it comes to wowing judges and audiences. It can be worth taking constructive Chances, but how do you find a fresh approach? And where do you draw the line?

"Without a doubt, the last five years have brought a dramatic change in how studios approach choreography," says Joe Lanteri, executive director of New York City Dance Alliance. He sees a greater emphasis on inventive concepts and criss-crossing genres. "There's this fusion of jazz and modern and contemporary. I think that can be exciting and push the boundaries." Yet he warns that focusing too hard on making a winning routine can be a trap. "You end up with a predictable series of steps and dance tricks that someone believes to be the requisite formula."

Choosing the right story line can help. Dance Connection Performing Arts Centre in Concord, CA, has competed for close to 30 years. Recently the studio won an award at a Star Systems competition for Lola, a routine that was an homage to the classic Fosse Damn Yankees number made famous by Gwen Verdon, but with a contemporary twist. "It stood out because it told a story," says owner Paula Henson. "And it was funny." A male dancer portraying a nerd, complete with taped-up glasses, finds himself taken--and taken over--by the cool, confident Lola, and ends up stretched at her feet, gasping into an inhaler. Henson says, "Routines like that set us apart because of their entertainment factor."

She also matches stage elements and props to the choreography and her dancers' abilities, like a routine that featured a dancer who had strength and flexibility hanging in the middle of the stage by a bungee cord like a spider in a web. "Props don't do it by themselves," she says, citing the glasses in Lola as part of the number's overall effectiveness. "One element isn't going to win." She also warns against relying on technically proficient dancers to mask dull choreography.

"Technique alone can leave people feeling empty. A high developpe doesn't always make someone's day."

She's not alone. Competition directors warn against filling the stage with technical tricks. "Great choreography can be made from the simplest steps and vocabulary," says Lanteri. Choreographer and teacher Bethany Hooks agrees. A judge at Dance Masters of America, NADAA, Thunderstruck, and other competitions, she says, "It's not about how many leaps and turns and jumps." Sometimes a dancer's passion transcends all the other elements. She recently saw a lyrical piece that had been choreographed by the student who performed it. "Technically she was amazing, but what struck me was her emotion," says Hooks. "It was as if she was by herself in a room dancing. As dancers, we have many walls, and when we get onstage, letting them down is what performing is all about."

However, heartfelt isn't all that's needed. Randy Allaire, executive director of L.A. Danceforce, notes it can be hard to gauge what will be considered excessive. "Choreography that does not necessarily move the piece forward can be considered over-the-top," he says. "On the other hand something outrageously funny and 'over-the-top' can be perfect."

He notes that even some of the most experienced studios make mistakes in this regard. "When the choreography doesn't work, remember the same thing has happened to someone else," he says. "Everyone has to make mistakes to progress." One of his pet peeves is sexually suggestive or provocative choreography, particularly for younger dancers. "I would consider something to be tasteless if it was inappropriate for the performers in genre, styling, movement, and content," he says.

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And while taste and originality will impress judges, choreographers don't have to reinvent the wheel. "I would hate to have a choreographer think that the only way to be successful is to come up with a new dance vocabulary," says Lanteri. …

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