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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 highlights some common choreographic pitfalls, and offers suggestions for choreographers about how to shake up their work. Today I’ll explain and examine facial expressions.

Facial Expressions 

Studio-trained and competition dancers are often taught that when it comes to onstage facial expressions, bigger is better. Some organizations tell dancers to use Vaseline on their teeth to encourage smiling, while others choreograph “facials,” as they are often called, into routines. Though larger-than-life facial expressions can be necessary when dancers are performing to arena-sized audiences, they are not often appropriate for proscenium or black box theater productions. The use of facials can prove to be a difficult habit for dancers to break when they enter academia.

There exist many opinions regarding what a dancer’s face should look like during a modern dance piece; the “modern dance face” has become a point of contention over time. To some dancers and choreographers, the expression in modern dance exists purely in the body, so the ideal accompanying facial expression is blank and emotionless. Merce Cunningham‘s work is a good example of this (although I wouldn’t say his dancers were ever devoid of emotion).

Other dancers interpret modern dance as being rife with emotional angst, and thus slip into over-dramatized, pained facial patterns. This is often a characteristic of competition lyrical dance that finds its way into other styles.

And for whatever reason, smiling gets a bad rep in modern dance; this notion may simply be bred of the misconception that modern needs to be “weird.”

INSTEAD: Choreographers should strive for authenticity in their dancers’ facial expressions. If a dancer is making a face onstage that he or she wouldn’t make in real life, chances are that it is overdone.

It helps to consider how emotions develop in real life. Not every emotion plays out at a level 10; some feelings start out big, while others grow over time. During a 2009 ADF interview, Batsheva Dance Company Artistic Director Ohad Naharin compared the intensity of dance performance to the sound on a stereo system, creating a metaphor that, in my opinion, also applies to facial expressions.  Naharin said that a person wouldn’t turn a stereo to full volume to hear a song, noting that the preferred volume level would differ for different songs, or at different points during the same song. A dancer should treat his or her performance with the same attention, creating a gradient of movement intensity (and facial intensity) that best reflects the work’s choreographic intent.

Check out Bad Dance Part 1 and Part 2, if you haven’t already, and stay tuned for Part 4, which will focus on design elements and how to avoid performance gimmicks.