True composition is a personal confession arising from an inner consciousness

Mary Wigman

Dance composition has been around for a long time – court dances didn’t just appear out of nowhere. However, it wasn’t really until the 1930s that composition itself was theorized and taught. Now, being able to generate material is just as important as having technical skill.

I wouldn’t call this a thorough guide to choreography; volumes of books have been compiled on the subject. Perhaps the following are just some principles to consider when choreographing, either on the group or on oneself.

  1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE UGLY

Worrying about what you look like is a sure way to get stuck. While having an aesthetic is most certainly a good thing, there is no rule anywhere that says dance has to be pretty. Dance does not have to be pretty. Dance does not have to be graceful. Dance does not need to flow, nor does it need to be any certain thing.

Mary Wigman, modern dance pioneer, “used any movement, regardless of its superficial ugliness, so long as it was evocative…”

Use movement that serves your purpose. Use movement that feels right.

And what is ugly anyway?

This? This? What about this one? And if they are “ugly,” are they at least interesting?

2. DON’T WORRY ABOUT A STORYLINE

Move for movement’s sake. Worrying about creating a narrative and then trying to fit the movement into that mold is a surefire way to get stuck or end up pantomiming for the entire piece.

3. DO CONSIDER SYMMETRY AND ASYMMETRY 

As Doris Humphrey points out in The Art of Making Dances (a must read for any budding choreographer) symmetry and asymmetry are the essential parts of design. Symmetry, as we are used to seeing in ballet, “always suggests stability.” Symmetry is safe. The brain knows what to expect. We see the swans break off into two groups and mimic each other while Odette dances in the middle.

Pretty? Sure. Interesting? ehh….

“Art is for stimulation, excitement, and adventure,” Humphrey says. The brain expects symmetry. It is predictable. Choreography should not be. Symmetry can be used, of course, when it is done thoughtfully and with purposeful intent. It can quickly become monotonous, though, in the hands of a thoughtless artist. Dance demands excitement. Don’t soothe your audience with too much symmetry.

4. DO USE YOUR MUSIC

Ruth St. Denis, another modern dance pioneer, thought of “music visualizations…is the scientific translation into bodily action of the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonious structure of a musical composition, without intention to in any way interpret [it].”

Don’t try to dance “sad” if you hear a sad song. What does the violin strum look like on the body? What is a percussive moment when translated into the shoulders? Use the music to influence your movement without relying on it to make the piece.

5. DO USE PEDESTRIAN MOVEMENT 

Not every moment in dance needs to be grand. Small moments are just as powerful and meaningful as big jumps when executed by a skilled dancer. Simple, everyday movements can turn into something interesting with a little experimentation. Think about walking – how are you walking? Heel then toe? What if you changed it to toe then heel? What if you synchronized your arms instead of swinging them in opposition? A simple walk can turn into interesting movement – just look at the nymphs in Afternoon of the Faun.

Paul Taylor created Esplanade, a very important and critically acclaimed piece of work based off of pedestrian movements such as walking, running, and falling.

6. DON’T RELY ON TRICKS

Yes, we know you can probably do the splits if you’re a dancer. We also know you can probably do triple pirouettes or a nice solid grand jete, and your extension is probably pretty good. But we’ve seen it all before. Tricks are great and feats of athleticism – Nijinsky was famed for his high jumps, and nobody can look at Baryshnikov and claim he’s boring to watch. Neither of them relied on their tricks to create interesting choreography, though.

If your trick does not serve the piece, get rid of it. Does it fit the tone? Does it fit the theme? Does it fit the character, if there is one? Does it fit your intent? Why are you doing the trick? If the only answer is “because I can,” take it out.

Tricks are not bad in and of themselves, but a reliance on tricks is generally unproductive.

7. DON’T USE YOUR MUSIC

or any music.

Choreograph without music. Create movement that is not dictated by the sound around it. Movement for movement’s sake is honest and never seems forced. There is no need for rhythm or counts when it comes to dance; move to the rhythm of your own breathing.

If you allow yourself to improvise, after a while, you will find that your movements fall into a predictable rhythm. Once you find it, try to change it. Allow your self-motivated movement to come.

8. DON’T THINK TOO HARD

At least not when generating your initial material. Don’t sit down and try to come up with the perfect dance. Go to a safe space, put on your kneepads, close your eyes, and move according to the indescribable impulses within your own body. When you find something you like, go back and do it again.

Do what feels natural. Don’t worry about what it looks like. You can worry about phrasing, about music, about formations and stage space later on. When coming up with your initial movement, don’t think so hard about it. Trying too hard will come across in your choreography – forcing it is not the ideal.

9. THINK ABOUT YOUR FRONT

Many of us naturally face the mirror when we are in the studio. But why is that front? What does the movement look like if you switch your direction? The front of our body is not always the most interesting angle.

Not all stages have that one fourth wall, either. Some stages have the audience on three sides or on all sides. Site specific work is not always choreographed with a specific “front,” since the piece might be performed on a street or a staircase where there is no separation between the audience and the dancer.

Front is where you want it to be. We have 360 degrees of possibility; don’t limit yourself by always thinking about front.


This isn’t exactly a beginner’s guide to choreography, nor is it a complete or perfect essay on composition. These are all principles that influenced me greatly as I studied and continue to study dance composition, and they are always worth considering when in a rut or when experimenting.

Quotations taken from The Art of Making Dances and No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century

Advertisements