The Choreographer Equation, or Process

Recently, the subject of my process has come up a couple of times in conversations with others. I thought I would ponder on this a bit and share the results here. I wrote this thinking about the works that I’m proudest of: Dancing with Death from 2011, and The Forgotten Angle from 2015. My guess is that The History of (my) Dance will join those ranks shortly. I’m gearing up for the final onslaught of activity on History. (We open in just under 2 weeks.)

The common equation is stated as “Artist + Athlete = Dancer”. But for me, the more important equation is “Academic + Artist + Athlete = Choreographer”. Stated another way, it’s simply mind, soul, and body working together to create art. I have always been a bit of an egghead. I think about and analyze stuff all the time. Conceptualization is at the core of my best work. Artistry and technique are also vital components, but it’s thought that lives at the center.

My shows always start with a simple idea. But there’s a long way to go from conception to finished project. I take the idea and journal about it. I see where it leads me. Once I have an idea that I like, I create a rough flow for how I envision the final piece. This is basically an outline, one-liners that define different components. This is rarely the final form, but it is an important step that gives me a general trajectory for my next step, research.

I read. A lot. I amass huge collections of material about the subject of the show. I have always enjoyed learning new things. I get bored if I don’t. One of the reasons that I like to create new shows is that they give my quest for knowledge direction and motivation. It was a lot easier to get myself to read Edward Said’s Orientalism, an important book written in 1970s-style Ivory Tower academic English, when it was directly applicable to a lecture that I was writing. And the shows give me deadlines. I have to finish this research by X date because I need to move on to the next step. I never get through all of the material that I amass, but collection and using that material are essential to my process. I never really stop researching throughout the life of a project, though the rate at which I continue to consume that material does dwindle as other activities ramp up.

The research drives the next activity, the actual creation. I will return to my flow and start creating in pieces. I get “far enough” to refine the pieces as I go. The flow is always close-at-hand as I create. I may go back and journal about the flow to see where the story of the show is going. The flow provides the through-line to the story that I want to tell. Even if my rough, bullet point outline doesn’t mean much to other people, it helps me to keep the end-game in sight. As I create the individual pieces in the flow, I get to feel accomplished as I “check them off”.

And then there’s the revision. I may discover logistical issues that I need to resolve. I might discover that one piece didn’t take me where I thought it would. I’ll have to revise other sections, or even add or subtract parts as I go. No creation is ever springs forth fully formed from my head like Athena from Zeus. It’s important to remember this, and not hold to those first thoughts too tightly. In my current show, I’ve had to drop whole threads that I really wanted to cover because my show is limited to an hour and I simply don’t have time to even touch on them, let alone do them justice. Just last night, I gave up on including an historic thread about the battle between Ida Craddock and Anthony Comstock around their opinions of bellydance in 1893 that I find utterly fascinating, but doesn’t really contribute to the direction of the show. And so it goes.

Once that initial spark and flow are created, I continue a cyclical process of research, creation, and revision. Those activities ebb and flow in concert with one another as I refine my show up until the very end. And the refinement has been known to continue into the run. At last year’s Angle, I made two tiny adjustments mid-run based on audience feedback and reaction. One of those ran contrary to my original vision of the show, but it made everything much clearer to the audience.

And then I finish the run, and I collapse. The thing that has been driving me for months, or perhaps years is done. I stare at the wall. I might even get depressed without that thing that has brought so much meaning to how I spend my time. Then, I dust myself off and find my dance again. And I look for the next idea.