When we talk about dance composition, we mean that we choose a choreographic material, we arrange it according to an aesthetic idea or project and we fix it. To do that, we need first to have some choreographic fragments to work with.
In contemporary dance, one of the most common methods for producing that first content of choreography is the practice of improvisation. We use it with the intention of developing innovative movement ideas and generally as the first step in the dance composition process.
(Dance improvisation on stage has a different purpose and is another big independent topic. I’m only talking about improvisation as a part of dance composition, because this last one is the subject of this page. Click here if you want to read an article about Improvisation as an independent art form on stage).
Improvisation before composing usually leans on ideas, music or any kind of associations referred to the piece that is being created. Now, there are as many ways to compose, as choreographers (or even projects!) exist.
There’s really no better method or composing strategy. Every choreographer has her/his own goals and interests and every project usually demands its own methodology.
The following text is the description of a possible way of composing choreography. If you know another great composing method, we’ll all be glad to hear about it.
Since the beginning of the XX century and thanks to Rudolph Laban, modern and contemporary dance use some conceptual tools that allow us to generate movement by the exploration of some of its own basic components: BODY, SPACE and TIME. This is from an abstract perspective, without the need of subjects, images or external inspirational themes.
Now, to improvise this way in the search for movement, imagine that composing dance is like assembling a puzzle. Different kinds of pieces are used and put together to create a whole organic unity.
Let’s talk about those pieces.
We can improvise to create them, exploring the three main categories mentioned above:
BODY: movements of the joints (example: knees, hips, elbows…), movements of the six main segments of the body (legs, arms, trunk, head), movements of parts of those main segments (example: forearms, feet, hands…), movements of the whole body (the center of the body has to be involved), movements that involve the contact of body surfaces between them or with something else (a partner, an object, the floor…), movements that involve supporting the weight of the body on other parts than the feet (on the shoulders, on the back, on the forearms…), and other possibilities concerning movements of the body that you create…
SPACE: there are two possible different ways to think about space.
1. Kinespheric space: it surrounds the body until the limits that our extremities can reach and travel with us across the scenic space. To dance with the whole body considering the kinespheric space it is necessary to move the center of the body. We can also move parts of the body within this space without involving the center. Kinespheric pieces for a dance composition puzzle are considered as movements in place (not travelling more than changing weight from one support to another).
Laban defined that there are 27 seven main directions towards which we can move within the kinesphere:
3, 4, and 5: To the left going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards (some call it low level, middle level and high level).
6, 7, and 8: To the right going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
9, 10, and 11: Backward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
12, 13, and 14: Forward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
15, 16, and 17: To the left diagonal backward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
18, 19, and 20: To the right diagonal backward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
21, 22, and 23: To the left diagonal forward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
24, 25, and 26: To the right diagonal forward going downwards, maintaining the level or going upwards.
27: To the center of the kinesphere (as the center of the body coincide with the center of the kinesphere, it can not move towards it; but parts of the body or its extremities can).
2. Scenic space: it is the total architectonical space defined for the dance (the stage, the studio, the park or whatever).
Laban divided this space in 9 main zones:
1: The center of the stage.
2, 3, 4, and 5: The four corners (left back and front, right back and front).
6, 7, 8, and 9: The four centered remaining zones (back, front, left and right).
We can occupy all this sectors of the scenic space (or spaces in between if you want to think about it that way).
To go from one zone to another we create paths. They can be straight (towards the eight basic directions: backward, forward, to the left, to the right, to one of the four diagonals), circular (to the left or to the right) or combining both ways.
The shapes mentioned refer to the paths themselves and not to the movements that the body performs during the travelling.
When changing the frontal relationship between kinespheric space and scenic space we obtain turns. Turns can be to the right, to the left, with all kind of different degrees (half turn, 3/4 of a turn, 1/8 of a turn, 3 turns, etc…), in the three main levels (low, middle, high), on different supporting body parts, around the three main axes (vertical, horizontal and sagittal), etc…
When reaching higher than the high level and elevating weight over the support area we obtain jumps. If they are performed on the legs they can be classified in five basic forms:
1. From one leg to another.
2. From one leg to the same leg.
3. From one leg to two legs.
4 From two legs to one leg.
5. From two legs to two legs.
Of course there are a lot of other possibilities to search for jumps. Think about leaps that start and arrive, from and to, other parts of the body. You’ll see how many pieces for your dance composition puzzle you’ll find.
TIME: time is a feature that affects both BODY and SPACE movements. It gives them length, allows us to dance rhythmically and offers a possibility to construct choreographic phrases with a musical sense.
Before talking about how to apply time variations to our movements, it’s good to be sure of the meaning of some of the terms concerning the TIME category.
- Beat: is the basic unity and reference for measuring time. It is what we count when defining the length of a movement or phrase. We establish the speed of the beat according to the dance needs. This speed (or frequency per minute) is expressed in numbers and is called tempo.
-Tempo: (or bpm: beats per minute) this is a word borrowed from musical language, but it is used in dance with the same meaning. It expresses the frequency of the beat of any rhythmic pattern, in numbers. For example Tempo= 60 or Tempo = 120. This means that there are 60 or 120 beats in a minute respectively (the higher the number, the fastest the tempo). Tempo is measured by a tool called metronome.
-Length: is the amount of beats that a movement lasts (example: walking forward in four beats or ‘counts’, if you prefer…). When dancing rhythmically, it is always dependant of the tempo. When dancing without rhythm we can measure length in seconds (the chronologic units) which is the same as having Tempo=60.
-Phrasing: organizing movements into choreographic fragments that have unity and the feeling of a beginning and an ending.
So, all your ‘BODY and SPACE puzzle pieces’ can be manipulated in terms of their timing. We can give as many lengths as we decide to one same movement and create different movement qualities.
We can vary the tempo, and by doing so, decrease or increase the speed throughout the whole choreography.
We can organize our dance in phrases, according to a rhythmic-musical feeling, and make it match to a corresponding musical piece.
TIME category allows us to modify movement, creating new shapes and qualities that enrich the shades of our choreography.
Like in a deck of cards, in this group of puzzle pieces there’s a special one between those we already mentioned (some people consider it as belonging to the time category):
The Pause: (there’s not much to say, but anyway…) quietness or stillness. It has a length and is part of choreography as well.
We can create contrasts by the use of the pause. Seems evident… but it is not. It is another piece to work with.
How to proceed:
If you want to try dance composition using this method, start improvising and generating small movements according to BODY, SPACE and TIME.
After you feel you have enough starting material, begin mixing the pieces as you prefer. For example you take a movement of the arms, followed by a diagonal path, a turn and a pause. You adapt this sequence to a rhythmical phrase of, for example, eight counts, and there you are on your way…
That’s it. You can go on and on. The game is endless. Create as many choreographic fragments as you wish, or need, and start thinking about your dramatic structure. Go and read our movement dramaturgy page if you want to know more about that subject.
Now you know how to easily create choreography for one dancer. If you want to convert your basic dance into choreography for two or more dancers, continue reading.
1. Space distribution: creating geometric patterns (circles, triangles, lines, half circles…) symmetries and asymmetries, irregular shapes…
2. Time variations: unison (everybody at the same time), canon (beginning a same phrase in different but regular moments of the counting), dialogs (a dancer or a group of dancers moves while the other is in pause; they switch the situation several times), counterpoint (each dancer or group of dancers performs a different choreographic fragment at the same time)…
3. Ensemble types: duo, trio, quartet, etc., … soloist-group, …
Now, if you go and observe any choreography, you’ll see how it’s easy to recognize some of the dance composition components mentioned above.
For the case of your own practice, just take your time to experience with each one of them with a basic dance material you create before.
You know artists create freely and it’s not really appropriate to say that a dance composition method is better than another. The tools described above are just an option, for the case you want to deepen your understanding of choreography or are in the search for new alternatives.
Still, consider the following methodological aspects as possible issues for future experiences:
- As a choreographer you can create the dance and ask the dancers to copy it, but you can also propose starting points, sources, ideas or structures from which the dancers generate the basic movements themselves. This method expands creative possibilities by integrating the whole group in the stage of proposing ideas.
- You can work in an intuitive way, without analyzing what you are creating. Though, using the intellect (and conceptual elements for dance composition, like the ones described in this page) to observe or create your choreography, allows you to have another degree of consciousness about what you are doing; by that it can contribute to the whole process with alternative ideas or issues.
- Using dramatic texts, music, images or themes as the source of inspiration to generate movement is a common and valid strategy. Just remember that movement itself and its components can be the source of choreography. Dance is an autonomous art and it doesn’t necessarily need a dramatic structure or inspiration coming from another aesthetical language.
- There are two common trends in contemporary dance composition: individual creation and collective creation. Be a choreographer that makes all the decisions is practical. For some cases it is just the only viable way. Though, the practice of collective dance composition has proven to be an interesting experience, as much from the artistic perspective as from the social one.
- And last but not least… your personal aesthetical judgment is an allied but it doesn’t have to be the only ruler of the game. Remember that contemporary dance history considers Merce Cunningham as one of its most important figures. Somehow this is because he was radical with his dance composition method, to the point of leaving the final decisions of his choreographies to chance (he used dice to arrange the form of his pieces)… So, just to keep in mind: dance composition is like a game, an experience to go through and enjoy; it is impossible to please all aesthetical judgments of an audience anyway (including yours), so take that point easy….
We’d rather be in the studio, talking about all these dance composition ideas with real dancing examples. As we find each other so far away, let’s say that this is a good alternative for the moment.
It is very possible that you have questions about what is written above. Don’t be shy. Ask a question. I love dance composition and will be glad to share ideas with you.
We have many other interesting threads related to this topic. Just visit our forum about ideas for choreography and browse!