High-Pressure Choreography Drops

Photo by Tatiana Pavlova on Unsplash

In my mind, I want to make things easy for everyone. Not just easy, but comfortable. I want to do the big thing but take every small precaution along to way to make sure that everybody on the team feels heard, understood, taken care of, and properly briefed. As you might imagine, this is a task that no human has ever been able to pull off. 

Since I cut my teeth with my first projects as a choreographer, I longed to create dances that sweep you off your feet with their beauty and sheer physicality. Watching the bodies of contemporary dancers, I couldn’t help but feel they were these ethereal energies moving boldly and determined toward a goal just out of physical reach. Creating these mesmerizing kinetics was something that he was incredibly gifted at.

When watching him work in the studio, you immediately recognized that he had a way of motivating the dancers to let themselves go and contort themselves into a flurry of sensations and shapes. I desperately wanted to learn how his brain worked, coming up with these sophisticated patterns, always classic but stylized with a quirk.

His brilliance as a choreographer had a lot to do with his biting, direct way of asking for what he wanted to see. He demanded a lot from the dancers, being impatient when they would be too precious with what didn’t or would work. He wanted to see it now, and it needed to be strong but also creative. 

While I was floundering as an inexperienced choreographer, I saw how quickly he arranged whole groups of dancers into stunning formations. It was obvious that this was a skill built over years and years of experience. There was no way it could be brought down to a simple question and answer, so I didn’t bother to ask. But his wisdom still rubbed on me in discrete bits of knowledge as we spent more time working together.

He would get impatient with me and sit down with a piece of paper, writing out the lighting cues that I had spent half an hour spiraling over. He would waltz in with a small toiletry bag to cover for a makeup artist that canceled last minute. He would guide the dancers through feelings and sensations with just his voice, tugging at different moods and textures by the way he would vocalize his commands. 

There was a softness and a poetic quality to what he demanded, but it also came with a definite darkness to his personality when he didn’t feel like the people in the room were working hard enough. His greatest flaw was this biting impatience but it was also a handy tool he used to coax and crystallize some of the most brilliant performances out of us. He had a way of shocking you into being a better dancer, even if the feeling afterward didn’t feel right. In his world, he was always building up towards something greater that demanded more creativity, discipline, and precision out of all of us.

Every lesson from him was dispersed to me along the way drop by drop in high-pressure situations. Years later when working together, he casually asked me to work on a big group section that I hadn’t prepared for. After the ringing in my ears subsided and my cheeks weren’t flush with red anymore, I managed to set something on the dancers that made it into the final piece. I felt really proud then. It turned out I was good at this. 

It wasn’t that he wasn’t generous with his wisdom. It was more that he didn’t want to throw away time theorizing and explaining away if there was no end goal to strive for. He had a way of breaking down big, philosophical concepts into tangible physical concepts that moved the audience and demanded the dancers to also have an emotional response to what they are doing. 

From working with him, I came to understand slowly that designing complicated motions to go through should never be the goal for any dancer or choreographer. It took me a while to realize this and to absorb the brilliance of his vision. He wanted things to be motivated by raw emotions and an almost animalistic commitment by the performers. In this abandon lay the honesty and the genius of his work. When stripped bare, it felt vulnerable giving all of who you are and not knowing what the response on the other side would be.

And this was the way to go. The way to move with beauty was to shed everything holding us back. When I get too precious with what I would like to see in an ideal world, I can feel him getting impatient with me and telling me to just do the damn thing. It’s easier to say what I want than to wonder if it might potentially be a possibility to maybe have it done.

And every once in a while, the movement does end up feeling like magic. 

Sticky Notes Lesson #1: Intensity is a writer’s best friend by Cole Schafer

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