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The Craft of Choreography

6 Jan

Soooo…my first post of 2010.  It’s later then I anticipated it to be, but I’ve been reading Joan Lawson’s A Ballet-Maker’s Handbook and wanted to finish it to post a review of sorts.  Of course, the holidays have also been distracting and I finally got to see Avatar (in 3-D) this past Sunday.  It doesn’t have much to do with dance, but what an amazingly creative and epically awesome movie!  Definitely the best I’ve seen in a long time, when I was actually engrossed in the story and convinced by the characters.  Oddly enough, I didn’t know going in that Zoë Saldaña lent her voice and technically her body as well to the character of Neytiri, but I remember there was a scene towards the beginning where Neytiri flies into action to shoot an arrow at a wild animal in a graceful stag leap and couldn’t help but think of how elegant and dancelike the movement of Neytiri and her people was (not to mention how hard it would be to manipulate a bow and arrow while doing a stag leap).  It was most likely Saldaña herself who leapt in that manner, because the characters were animated on top of motion that animators captured with sensors.  She mentioned that she had to learn archery, horseback riding and martial arts…but we know her dance background probably contributed a great deal to Neytiri’s body language as well.  Honestly, I beam with a little bit of pride knowing that us dance fans knew her way back when from her big break (and loved her first!), because she will always be our “Eva Rodriguez…after no one” from Center Stage (please, as if you weren’t thinking that exact same quote?).  The girl who considered getting breast implants and working at Hooters instead of accepting an invitation to train with the American Ballet Company.

Anyway, back to topic at hand, A Ballet-Maker’s Handbook.  In an earlier post I mentioned that I picked it up at a discount book store (huzzah for Half Price Books!) and hoped it would be a good read…and indeed it was!  Normally I think the “How to…” type of books end up pretty useless unless it’s a more concrete, step-by-step instruction guide (I’m talking origami or beaded bracelets here).  How can one really write a book on how to choreograph a ballet?  Lawson doesn’t really lay out any specific plans for choreography though, only offers suggestions as to where to begin based on a plethora of historical references, whether it’s the origin of certain gestures or what famous choreographers have already done.  She dissects various ballets and labels a few devices employed in the dances and basically organizes things so an aspiring choreographer can get a sense of the history behind choreography itself.  She may have even overloaded with the book with specific examples from ballets, because if you’re like me and haven’t actually seen a great deal of the ballets she talks about, it may not do you so much good.  I could of course understand what she was talking about, but to understand her intentions in writing is one thing, but to have actually witnessed them and attach a visual picture to it is another.  It’s like a dictionary vs. encyclopedia.

Reading her book has made me hungry to see a few of the ballets she mentions, mostly because she speaks very highly of Frederick Ashton (and MacMillan as well…surprisingly, not too much on Balanchine, but Lawson did teach at the Royal Ballet school, so she had her biases I’m sure).  I’ve decided that I’m dying to see Birthday Offering and A Month in the Country (actually, I think A Month in the Country was in that triple bill that came to DC…I’m so stupid!).  A Month in the Country is one of the ballet she talks about the most, the others being The Rake’s Progress, Romeo and Juliet, La Fille mal gardée, Requiem, Mayerling and Sleeping Beauty (OY there was a lot of Sleeping Beauty!).  I don’t know if these ballets were simply the ones that illustrated her examples the best, but I’d like to think she had a special penchant for them.  I think writers tend to discuss the most the ballets they favor (obviously you can infer from that that a reference to her thoughts on Symphonic Variations will appear later on in this post…you expected otherwise from the likes of me?).  While it would have helped to have seen all of these ballets, the book is still very readable, so if choreography is something you’re interested in, don’t be daunted by your personal viewing résumé, no matter what is on it.  She discusses her examples with clarity…it’s just that having a visual memory of some kind always helps to round out the picture.

She begins the book by discussing sources of inspiration, and there was one sentence in particular that caught my eye:

It has not always been appreciated that many successful ballets have been suggested by people on the fringe of the ballet world.

My first thought was “MEEEEEE!” but the essence of her comment is what I find incredible: that ballet is for the people who love it and that it’s the audience that is sometimes overlooked and perhaps alienated.  In terms of sources of inspiration themselves, she thoroughly discusses music, literature, myth, the Bible, drama, poetry, fiction, biography, opera, painting, pastimes and games.  It’s not an exhaustive list because I think inspiration can come from just about anywhere, but she provides examples of ballets under each category to support her inclusion of the ones she selected.  She next devotes a chapter on music, differentiating specially commissioned music, arranged music, chosen music and ballets that are inspired by a piece of music.  It is here she brings up Symphonic Variations (as a musically inspired ballet) and I shall quote a few sentences that I found particularly moving:

Sir Neville Cardus, another great music critic writing about the history of music likened the image of great composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as, ‘looking at a range of mountains, those names are on the summits then one comes along to a plateau – and there standing out and rising from it is the cathedral of César Franck.’ [In Symphonic Variations,] [l]ike Franck’s music, Ashton’s dance flows onwards in simple lines and phrases, each one is of equal value to the whole, neither pianist, nor orchestra, nor dancers indulge in virtuoso passages which would destroy the solemn serenity of the design.

Interestingly enough, she also includes an interesting “review” of Symphonic Variations that I think speaks for itself:

It is perhaps worth recording the remark of an eight-year-old boy on first seeing Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1947): “That was lovely, I know all about the music now.  The dancers told me.”

What?  And where is this eight-year-old today?  I laughed when I read this for its simple charm and because it almost seemed like she was testing to see if people were actually reading her book.  She does this just a couple of other times, including an odd little remark about one of her nephews trying to lecture a Frenchmen as to why the British could appreciate the humor of John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll.  It’s a nice way to personalize her book and I think it serves as a little reminder that she believed ballet is for everyone, not just a certain “educated audience” or what have you.  Totally off topic, but I actually played Pineapple Poll with my high school wind ensemble and the opening has this monstrous run of sixteenth notes that seems to go on forever and your fingers have to fly and you can’t breathe and it’s really hard.  But they didn’t call me “craaaazy fingahz” for nothing and that very run of notes was what we played for our seating auditions and I secured principal chair.  Ha-ha!

Anyway, Lawson also discussed various tools of the trade like leitmotifs, danced mime and mimed dance (yes, they’re different), character dance and danced character (yes, those are different too) and how ballets fall under the three categories of story, thematic and abstract.  But what is perhaps most interesting is the categories of styles she divided ballet into: classical, demi-caractère, romantic, character/national and modern.  It never occurred to me that division of style was separate from division of era, like romantic, classical, neoclassical and modern.  What’s really interesting about this division though is that no ballet is particularly exclusive to one style, because ballets often incorporate a lot of different styles of choreography.  Like La Sylphide has romantic elements as well as demi-caractère (which basically means “half-character,” and in the example of La Sylphide, it refers to the Scottish inspired dances that uses ballet steps and vocabulary).  She even calls Mayerling modern in the sense that it breaks the convention of ballet portraying fantasy, because the characters are developed and portrayed in a way that hinges on reality and comes from a modern interpretation of the actual Mayerling incident.  It’s kind of hard to define what exactly she thinks modern is (is it ever easy to define modern?) but I found it interesting that she had this to say:

Dance is a language of silence.  Everything has to be expressed by movement alone, coloured by expression.  It is impossible exactly to define what is modern dance because the body is the same that has danced for hundreds of years.  Choreographers cannot in any way change the ways in which their dancers move.  The audience recognise physical movement for itself alone whereas those who theorise and attempt to define what they mean by such terms as post or neo-modern, contemporary, avant-garde, etc. base their works on intellectual concepts which need to be discussed in words.  Thus the audience fail to understand everything that is offered.  Dance is firstly a physical activity and if it is obscured by complicated costumes, props, machinery, lighting and stage effects it ceases to be relevant to anything by the cleverness of the producer.

Take from that what you will.  One of the themes in her book seems to be that she was pretty old school in her approach to dance (like researching a composer, the era in which his/her music was written, the background of the story you want tot ell, etc), which may be more relevant than ever today.  I don’t know if she would be appalled by the modern works we see now, but I think if she were alive she might be displeased by how we’re inundated by them.  I guess more than anything her message seems to be that of course we have freedom of expression, but like freedom of speech, freedom of choreography must also be exercised with a sense of responsibility, like the “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” argument.  I think that message is on to something though, because I think it’s widely accepted that there is something missing in the dances we see today…at least for those of us romanticists and classicists.  Regardless, I found her book to be a fascinating read, that really says choreography is more than a matter of having been a dancer and then putting steps together.  It’s a… “craft,” if you will.

Cover photo is by Leslie E. Spatt, featuring David Yow and Miyako Yoshida in La Fille mal gardée with the Birmingham Royal Ballet