There is a certain connection to choreography that does not always come naturally to dancers. If you look at it in the same way as the culinary arts – a baker is a great pastry chef but may not be very good at cooking a steak to medium rare, as a chef cannot make a cake to save his/her life.
While I have a very organic way of developing choreography, there are specific methods I have learned that facilitate the process.
First of all, the vocabulary of dance, generally speaking, is ballet. All the terminology from the classic French and Russian methods can be used to translate movement positions from other dance styles. Most of jazz dance choreography stemmed from tap dance, most of modern dance technique stemmed from techniques derivative of its pioneers. Overall, ballet is still the go-to vernacular of dance for choreographers and dancers alike.
The scientific method of analyzing movement and placing it into a more specific structure is called Labanotation. While I have delved into this system many times for my more academic work, many choreographers who create more non-structured and less-researched dance routines steer away from this complicated methodology of choreography because it can be quite restrictive and take away from the adherence to more expressive compositions.
I was always a choreographer. I learned how to dance by reading books and acting in musical theater. By the time I started taking dance classes at University, all of my fellow students had over 10 years of training so I had a lot of catching up to do.
The music is always the most important element of choreography for me – it is rare that I will choreograph something without music unless it is some sort of interlude or prelude to a piece.
Choreographers must first attain a sense of the rhythm structure of the music and decide if they are going to work for or against it – as music notation is very important. Many renown choreographers suggest a system of marking each measure of music with the appropriate note structure of counts (the music meter etc.) in order to successfully inject movement compositions that are synchronized with the music. This of course becomes a big challenge with jazz (one of my favorite dance forms) because of improvisation and syncopation.
In order to catch the rhythm or the beat of the song, I do a very simple exercise to see if a pas du beurée will fit into the selected music. This is an alternating, three step movement, named “the drunken lady step” that is commonly seen in most ballets as a preparation for turns and leaps; it is a staple movement for choreography.
This gives me a very clear picture of the music meter structure and rhythm and sets the course for whether or not I will have to adhere to a perfect 8 count structure or work my way around the different structure of movement.
There is another issue for choreographers/dancers when it comes to teaching/learning. I for one am not a 5,6,7,8 guy. I was always horrible with math and I am a left brained guy, so putting numbers into my choreography is like mixing oil and water. I am more of a umph and dah dah kind of choreographer who uses words and emotions to count out the composition. This becomes a challenge (especially with ballerinas) when you have dancers who really need to wrap their head around the numbers in order to figure out placement and rhythm. I do counts only when asked.
In this video you can see that while there is a certain syncopation in the music (a 70s style funky jazz from the musical “A Chorus Line”), there are returns to a specific rhythm structure that carries throughout the music at certain intervals.
I had prepared the choreography for the middle piece solo and stayed after class to choreograph the rest of the song in accordance to how well the students picked up what I had already showed them (examining and analyzing skill sets and abilities), and keeping with the overall lesson of the class.
Here you can see a lot of what I do is trial and error – sometimes the pen and paper is not necessary at all and you just have to put the vocabulary and rules aside and feel what the dance wants to say.