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The word “choreography” directly translates from its Greek root words to mean “dance writing,” but that definition may be misleading. Choreography, unlike the written word, can never be exactly reproduced.

Dance choreography has an ambiguity beyond language. While a gesture may be comparable to a single word in terms of time progression, there is no single, universal meaning behind any given gesture. This openness of interpretation has allowed dance to become a movement language all its own.

Modern dance performances in particular can be challenging to process, as they often stray from the clear narratives that characterize classical ballets. But if audience members watch a performance with an open mind, and pay attention to a few key details, the viewing experience can become significantly more enjoyable.

As a human being, each person enters the theatre with a different background and different life experiences that shape the way he or she perceives the world. Due to this, it is important for individuals to be self-aware when viewing art in any form. No two people will see the exact same thing when viewing a piece of abstract art, and no two people will have the exact same experience when watching a piece of choreography. And that’s okay.

The lenses through which a single dance can be broken down are endless, but here are a few to get you started.

Who is dancing?

Dancing bodies are the ink of choreography, and they can project different things onto a dance based on their physical appearances alone. The dancers’ sexes, races and ages, and the quantity of dancers onstage allows an audience to begin forming opinions about a piece before physical movement ever comes into play.

Sex

  • A group of women dancing triggers a very different set of cultural and historical associations than does a group of men performing the same choreography.
  • A coed group of dancers may be a conscious choice by the choreographer to address gender issues, homosexual and heterosexual relationships.
  • The sex of the dancers chosen may be completely insignificant. For example, a group of students who are paying to take a dance class will all perform in a dance recital piece, regardless of their physical appearances. In this example, all of the following appearance criteria would also be void.

Race/Culture

  • Cultural identity can create drastic overtones or undertones in a piece of choreography. A black man performing an African dance would resonate very differently than a Chinese man doing the same.
  • Different styles of dance are indigenous to specific locations or religions. When movement vocabulary from such dances crops up in modern dance choreography, it usually holds some significance.

Other physical factors

  • Age, height and weight influence how an audience perceives a piece. A group of seniors channeling youth and a group of toddlers doing the same look and act very differently onstage.
  • Costuming will also affect how audiences characterize certain dancers. More about costumes at a later date.

Quantity

  • How many dancers total are performing a piece, and how are they grouped? Viewers should notice solos, duets, trios and choreography done by the complete ensemble.
  • The way the dancers interact with and relate to one another will give the audience clues about a work’s overarching themes.

What are they dancing?

Movement can be assessed at varying levels – one could analyze a dance gesture-by-gesture, phrase-by-phrase or section-by-section. (A dance “phrase” is a string of movements that typically has a set meter. Sections within a piece of choreography are typically indicated by a change in music or lighting, or both.)

A piece of choreography can also be analyzed as a whole, or, in a broader context,  in relation to the other works presented in the same concert.

For those with a broader familiarity with the dance world and dance history, choreographic comparison and analysis can occur horizontally or vertically with other choreographic works. A horizontal comparison would compare the choreographic work in question to work being created by the choreographer’s peers during the same time frame. A vertical comparison would look to dance history (and recent history, too) to find choreographic influences or similarities among choreographers.

More about dance analysis at a later date.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong answer when one is assessing the meaning of a dance! Be confident in your individual experience, and don’t be afraid to talk to others about it or to ask questions. You may find that hearing others’ opinions validate or challenge your own, which is the beauty of consuming art in any form.

If you have any questions that you would like me to address in future blog posts, or if you have a viewing dance experience you would like to share, I would love to hear from you! Just leave me a comment and I will be sure to respond.

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