“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If there is one thing I’ve learned over my 17 years as a choreographer, it is that you can’t be is too precious about your work. The process of editing and refining your choreography requires you to look objectively at the dance that you have made and figure out what to keep, what to polish, and most importantly, what to lose. My choreography mentor Sara Pearson once told me that you have to be a “ruthless editor” to succeed as a choreographer. It’s easy to get attached to every movement, moment, and musical choice, but that attachment can blind you to the fact that sometimes your first idea (or second or third or tenth…) isn’t always your best. As a choreographer, you have to be willing to let go as you edit and refine your choreography. You can’t be afraid to get rid of what isn’t serving the dance at any given moment. Taking the time to thoroughly edit and refine your choreography helps to ensure it is ready for an audience and presents your vision in the best possible way.
I have two top-line ideas that have made me more comfortable with the practice of editing and refining my choreography: First, I try to journal often as I am choreographing a new dance. Working through my ideas on paper can allow new (and often better!) choreographic ideas to “reveal themselves” to me. Journaling also helps me to figure out why I might be overly attached to different parts of the choreography, even if they aren’t working well. The choreographic process can be an emotional one, especially if you are making a dance that is about a topic that is meaningful or important to you. When you keep a choreography journal, you can work through a lot of those emotions and develop objectivity that will help you edit and refine your choreography in the best way.
Secondly, I like record and save every version of my choreography. I will often video my early improvisations that I use to come up with the movements, as well what the dancers and I come up with in each rehearsal. This gives me a great record of the entire choreographic process, which can be especially helpful as I edit and refine my choreography. If there is something that I decide to cut as I edit and refine, I know that I have a record if it. That way, I can go back to material that was cut to add it back in if needed, or repurpose in another section.
Still, the practice of refining and editing your choreography can be daunting – no matter how tuned in you are during the choreographic process! There are some basic principles, often taught in dance composition classes, that I have found helpful as I edit and refine my choreography. I have also developed some of my own strategies through trial and error throughout my choreographic career. Here are my ten favorite ways to edit and refine choreography to make sure it is ready for an audience:
Consider Rudolf Laban’s Movement Principles: Rudolf Laban’s movement principles are a great lens through which you can edit and refine your choreography. Laban deceived and analyzed movement from 4 perspectives: Body, Effort (Quality), Shape, Space. You can learn more here. You can edit and refine your choreography by ensuring that you have been clear with these four movement concepts both in your intention (the movement you are creating) and the dancer’s follow through (how they are performing the movement). Where exactly is that arm reaching to? Should the a particular movement be sharper or smoother? Are the all dancers curving their torsos to the same degree? A little clarification can go a long way in helping a dance look polished.
Mind your transitions: Dance is all about the transitions. Good choreographers can make up interesting movements, and good dancers can perform them well. But great choreographers know how to link movements together in functional, interesting, and meaningful ways – and great dancers know that those transitional movements are just as important as the flashy tricks. When you are editing and refining your choreography, look closely at the transitions and linking steps. What transitional moments can be deleted, embellished, added, softened, sped up, slowed down, etc.? These moments can often be overlooked, but can make all of the difference in the overall flow and look of the piece.
Don’t force too much technique: As a choreographer, it is natural to want to show off your dancers’ talent and your own ingenuity. We often do this by creating rigorous, complex movement phrases and loading our dances with non-stop action. But dance is more than rigorous technique – it encompasses a range of expressive movement possibilities. One way to edit and refine your choreography is to consider the movement possibilities that lie outside highly technical steps and tricks. Don’t be afraid to simplify complex phrases, or add gestures, stillness, and subtle movements that can catch the audience’s attention.
Unity, Variety, Contrast: Unity, variety, and contrast are artistic principles that help ensure their is balance throughout a work. When you are editing and refining your choreography, consider whether your piece has a balance of all three. Unity: theme and throughlines, Variety: variations on the theme (levels, tempos, qualities, facings, etc.), Contrast: Delightfully different moments that “pop” throughout the piece to keep the audience on their toes. Choreography that lacks unity will feel disjointed and disconnected, as if it is just a bunch of random steps thrown together. Having a motif movement and thematic phrase that reoccurs throughout the dance provides unity. A dance that lacks variety and contrast will feel repetitive and boring. Creating variations on your thematic phrase, as well as oppositional moments that are noticeably different from your motif and theme, will help provide variety and contrast.
Making cuts: Often we include choreography because we like it, not because it serves the concept of the piece. As you are refining and editing your choreography. don’t be afraid to cut out movement phrases that are pretty but not connected to the theme, or to pare down large group sections to solos if it helps to tell the story, or to choose simple formations if they work best to get your message across. Helping the audience connect with the concept, theme, story, or message of the dance is more important than keeping movements and moments just because you like them.
Making additions: On the other hand, a great way to edit and refine your choreography can be to add some extra to an existing moment in the dance. Sometimes, adding a “frame,” such as a large group of dancers moving quickly across the stage during another dancer’s solo, or a slow moving chorus in the background of a duet, can enhance the movement you already have and help the audience see it in new ways.
Music: Many choreographers take their inspiration from the music. When you find a piece of music you absolutely love and are inspired by, it can be easy to get overly attached to it. But the process of editing and refining our choreography should also apply to the music. Don’t be afraid to cut some of the music if it is too long. The audience should always be left wanting more!
Music, Part 2: Another way to examine the music as you edit and refine your choreography is to try the dance to a different piece of music, at least in rehearsal. Sometimes it will bring out a new movement idea, performance quality, or perspective for performers and audience alike. You can stick with the new piece of music if it works better, or apply what you gleaned from the experiment when you go back to the original music.
Spectacle: I believe that the movement should be the most important part of choreography, and that a dance should be able to stand on its own without flashy costumes and props. But the truth is, the spectacle can be an important part of the audience’s experience. As you edit and refine your choreography, be sure to consider the non-movement aspects of your piece, which I call the spectacle. Are the props, costumes, sets, lighting, texts or words, music, and projections best serving the concept of the piece and enhancing the choreography? What would happen if you tried the movement without them? If you changed them? If you added something new?
Use of space: When you are editing and refining your choreography, look at how it moves throughout the space? Are your choices for movement pathways, formations, transitions, entrances, and exits intentional, or habitual? Are the repetitive and predictable? What would happen if you changed them up? We Do they best serve the concept, theme, story, or message of your piece?
Deepen your choreography practice with The Holistic Guide to Journaling for Choreographers, a list of 52 prompts to help choreographers and dance composition students reflect holistically on their creative practice and growth as dance makers.
Find new sources of inspiration, organized your ideas, plan our your rehearsals, and polish your finished product with The Holistic Dance Teacher Choreography Planner, a complete tool for keeping you on track during the entire creative process!
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