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The expert choreographers of the future have to start somewhere, so it makes sense that not every choreographic work along the way will be a success. Though there is no formula for brilliance when it comes to dance choreography, there are some easy ways to separate the good from the bad.

My “Bad dance” series will highlight some common choreographic pitfalls, and will offer suggestions for choreographers about how to shake up their work. Today I’ll explain and examine the “gestural freakout.”

The “gestural freakout”

Modern dance composition classes introduce young choreographers to the idea that, though there is a time and place for high kicks, splits and pirouettes, technical dance vocabulary can lack widespread relatability. In other words, most audience members won’t watch a dancer who is leaping across a stage and think about their own similar experiences. A good way for a choreographer to tap into more human elements is to incorporate universal gestures or movements that are recognizable from everyday life.

The problem here exists when young choreographers tell dancers to stand still and perform a gestural phrase, and then to gradually increase the speed. Though the intent here is often genuine – most choreographers use this technique as a way to convey the craziness of everyday life or the dancer’s internal conflict about something – the execution is often sloppy and tends to overdramatize the situation. I would equate using this technique in a dance to throwing a temper tantrum in public; it demands audience attention but does so in the easiest possible way.

INSTEAD: Choreographers should channel their inner Alfred Hitchcocks by becoming masters of suspense.

Hitchcock said that to get real suspense, a director must let the audience have information. A choreographer can do this in a dance by letting the audience in on a destructive element of the dance before introducing it to the dancers, or by briefly referencing conflict between two dancers early in a piece and letting the conflict escalate throughout the work.

If a choreographer wishes to portray a dancer’s internal conflict, he or she should pepper some gestural vocabulary throughout the dancer’s “normal” choreography to give it a “nervous twitch” quality. By developing that dancer as a character before he or she makes a major statement of personal conflict, the choreographer allows the audience to build an understanding of that dancer’s “freakout,” which ideally would not be quite so literal in content. By juxtaposing different movement dynamics (like suspension v. fall or sharpness v. softness), a choreographer can effectively communicate conflict onstage. 

Stay tuned for part two: Onstage Chaos