Thursday, June 25, 2015

choreography final — narrative form

For many years I have used narrative form as the choreography final for my beginning students. I have found that this works well as a culminating project for the beginners — they have gotten some dance elements under their belts, and it's a simple and accessible way to start them down the road to thinking of dance as a way to communicate something (besides "these are my favorite moves to my favorite music").

I start by showing a few short examples of narrative dance from my library: usually one humorous (Paul Taylor's Snow White), one dramatic (the final scene of Romeo and Juliet); and one created by a pair of former students in turf dance/ hip hop style. Then the assignment is to create a dance that tells a story using only movement (no narration!) — whether an already-known story (like Snow White or Romeo and Juliet), a story from real life, or a story made up for the project. Since it is the final, I also require a few simple elements we have worked on: both locomotor and axial movement, movements and shapes on various levels, and movements in contrasting tempos. The only requirement for music is that it be instrumental, to avoid the temptation to mimic the words of a song.

I'm always interested to see what kinds of stories students choose for their projects. I usually see quite a few dances depicting well-known stories — often stories from movies, and especially Disney movies (these sophisticated adolescents can be charmingly eager to look back to their childhoods). I don't know whether this is because of the examples I show, or because known stories are easier for groups to agree on... but at any rate, this year was no exception: we saw dances portraying Pocahontas, Alice in Wonderland, the Titanic, the Little Mermaid, and three versions of Cinderella (one in each class). It was fascinating to see the diverse ways all these stories were treated: while one Cinderella group used mostly pedestrian movement and mime, another set the story into a more formal dance structure, with an opening unison section and characters freezing into still shapes while inactive (in lieu of going offstage). The Pocahontas group opened with a tableau of three dancers on their knees using a canoe-paddling gesture while the other three circled them with stylized wave gestures; the Titanic group used partner dancing as if showing a ballroom, before two connected dancers depicted the prow of the ship and then all dancers sank to the floor. I was especially taken with the Alice in Wonderland group, which used simple, stylized movement and symmetrical patterns to turn the story into a nearly-abstract (though still narrative) dance — opening with four dancers in a square, gesturing to the center with straight arms while the center dancer spiraled down to the floor ("down the rabbit hole").

Of course, not all narratives were from known stories — many groups or soloists made up stories, often using real-life issues such as bullying, cliques, and even human trafficking; and some performed stories from their own lives and experiences. Of these, some were quite dramatic and emotional: one story depicted how the choreographer's friends helped pull her out of depression in a difficult time; another depicted a family member returning after a long absence then committing suicide. I was impressed and encouraged by the seriousness with which all the dancers treated this project.

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