Tortoise Tuesday: A Choreographer’s Methodology
Throughout my whole life, both dance and writing have served as crucial ways for me to channel my creativity, but these two passions have felt predominantly discrete. Only recently have I considered how these two mediums of expression are actually quite interrelated and analogous, especially when comparing the process of choreographing to the writing lexicon.
Several weeks ago I was in the midst of choreographing a new dance for BodyHype — one of Princeton’s dance companies that specializes in contemporary and hip hop, and of which I currently serve as the President. Unfortunately I can’t share many specifics about the piece itself here in order to make sure its debut onstage at the end of April (!) comes as a full surprise, and I regret not being able to include concrete details and vivid descriptions, which are what I usually love most in writing. However, I can discuss my choreographic process, which — like the rest of these Tortoise Tuesday posts — further demonstrates how ubiquitous the writing lexicon really is.
Choreographers have many different starting points, techniques, and approaches for creating new work. In analogizing this to the lexicon, a choreographer’s methodology, or exactly how they arrive at the end product (in writing, the final draft of a paper; in dance, the final iteration of the piece) differs. For me, my choreographic methodology usually starts with the music, which can be understood as one of the sources that I utilize and interpret through movement. Indeed, the original vision for my most recent piece came to me as I was listening to several songs by the same artist during the first few weeks of the spring semester.
After I receive my initial inspiration and have a rough idea of the song(s) I want to work with, I enter what I call the “obsessive listening” part of the process. I play the song(s) on repeat, listening to them constantly as I walk around campus. This strategy can be likened to close reading. I pay attention to the consistent rhythms, accent beats, melody, and lyrics, as well as how all of these elements build or diminish throughout the song, in order to ensure I have a strong understanding (or in writing pedagogy, a strong with the grain reading) of my sources.
After I essentially have the song(s) memorized, I start breaking them down into smaller sections and make a rough cut of the music, be it a shorter version of the original song or a mashup of a few different ones. I view this part of my process as synonymous with evidence choice. In the same way that writers should select only the most important parts of their sources that will most effectively aid them in making their argument, I strive to identify the parts of the music that will best help me realize my vision for the piece.
The rough cut of the music is very connected to and naturally leads into considering the structure of the dance. For my most recent piece, I had a clear progression of narrative and character development that I wanted to manifest across three different songs that I had spliced together. With this progression in mind, I began mapping out different sections for the piece — okay, full group unison section to this first song, a smaller quartet when this melody comes in, a cannon effect mapped to this echo, transition to larger movement when the crescendo of the third song begins, etc. In the same way that one’s argument should be cumulative and thus the paragraphs of one’s essay shouldn’t make sense if they’re ordered in any other way, it was important to me to make sure that the piece wouldn’t make sense if the sections were arranged differently, to ensure I was realizing the narrative development I originally envisioned.
Within my choreographic methodology, completing the aforementioned steps arms me with a clear understanding of the skeleton of the piece (in other words, an outline). It leaves me feeling prepared to tackle the next big step: actually creating the movement, or writing the essay! The last lexicon-related choreographic reflection I’ll offer here is about key terms. As I go through the process of building the choreography that fills in the outline of the piece, I pay close attention to the specific movements I experiment with that “click” in my body and to the music, and that stand out as embodying the essence of the dance. I mentally bookmark these movements, and make sure to intersperse them throughout multiple sections of the piece. In this way, they become the dance’s key terms. The repetition of these key movements helps create a specific vocabulary for the piece that becomes recognizable to the viewer, and facilitates the dance becoming a cohesive final product.
Although I’ve previously viewed choreography and writing as two separate avenues for creativity, superimposing my dance-making process onto the lexicon clarifies how interrelated they actually are. Understanding the harmony between these two mediums of expression helps illuminate why I’ve been so drawn to them my entire life.
–Jasmine Rivers, ’24
Photography credits to Stephanie Tang.