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Elapse: Composition (The Main Course)

This is the third in a series of posts on the process of creating a new work entitled "Elapse"

Once I've cast dancers, taught phrases, and collected base material, I cannot procrastinate any longer. I have to start composing the actual choreography. This is the layer that the audience will see, and nothing is harder than laying down the first strokes. At this point I look around the studio and wish someone else were in charge. A grownup.

Afraid to start

Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Groups are the hardest, and normally I wouldn't touch them the first week. I like to wait until I know more about characters and the shape of the piece. Also my group sections are informed by and composed of material from solos and duets.

In this piece, however, I wanted to shake up my process and do something new, so I tried starting with groups. I spent my first week on experiments, like How would it look if the whole group did the whole phrase sitting crosslegged in a line, except for one person standing on her head? Some of the experiments yielded interesting results that gave me ideas for how to structure the piece, but I could not bring myself to commit by saying "This begins at x point in the music, and you will be standing at y point, in z formation". I just thanked the dancers and promised to revisit each idea later. It was like sitting on the edge of a cold pool and dipping one toe at a time.

For a whole week.

By Friday afternoon I had a total of 2 messy minutes of choreography. It was an anxious weekend, and on Monday I returned to the way I knew I could get the work done in time. I started making solos and duets. Not everything in a process can be new.

Rehearsal photos by Alberto Gaspar


To start a duet I create a "setup". A setup is a structure for improvisation with as little precision as the dancers can bear. That might mean asking two dancers to execute their separate solo phrases in close proximity; or it might mean asking The first dancer to focus exclusively on maintaining contact with the second, who is focusing exclusively on executing a phrase.

Once they start moving I start to see phantoms, ghost images in the air that instruct me on how to proceed. Though most of my setups don't work right away they provide me with these clues for what will eventually work. And the phantoms aren't usually exact steps; rather, they are indications of a path through space, or a point of tension requiring attention. A clue could be as simple as "touch his elbow" or "spiral downwards to her left". The precise steps along that path will come from the base phrases we established at the outset.

Creating a duet at the National Choreographers' Initiative

Photo by Ty Parmenter

Every dancer knows 5-7 of these phrases, and I rely on them to store and retrieve them quickly, then we cut and paste as needed. I might say, "I need you to spiral to his left, travel upstage then be facing downstage to touch his elbow 8 counts later. What material from our phrases could you use to create that path?" I can see the gears changing rapidly in the dancers' brains as they move between learning and retrieval modes.

Some Happy Accidents

Accidents can be gifts, surprising little bonuses to reward the struggles. One afternoon I wanted to work with Raphael on his solo and asked the rest of the company to review their seated phrase. Spontaneously, with Raphael in the center, they formed tight clusters on either side to discuss and work through the material. The music was right for the moment, and two crosslegged groups were like small, dense self-absorbed tribes. Raphael was upright, moving between the separate tribes like an interpreter. He alone could see the whole picture. At least that's the story I saw and incorporated into the piece.

Rafael Ferreras, photo by Alberto Gaspar

Also surprising is the experience of my life infiltrating my work against my will. In the same way that "I am what I eat", my choreography is an amalgam of what I've done, felt, and seen recently, including, more than once, online cat videos.

I walked into my first rehearsal with Steven and Crystal and overheard Steven talking about the Jim Jarmusch film "The Only Lovers left Alive", which by coincidence I had seen a few days before. We agreed that we'd loved the film, especially its soundtrack and Tilda Swinton's spooky, chalky pallor. Then we got down to business and starting making the duet. While I already knew I wanted it to be about a non-human timescale; I didn't understand until after rehearsal that I'd just choreographed them into being the ancient, immortal vampire lovers from the film---all because of a chance conversation. This became part of the costume design and my overall concept for the work.


This piece was a nail-biter. Because I spent my first week on experiments I was afraid I wouldn't finish in time. My group sections, once I began them in earnest, were rewarding but labor intensive. On the other hand, how better to create a piece about running out of time, than to live in fear of running out of time? I existed inside the work, and to compound the complications, all three hourglasses were delivered broken. (We had to rehearse with temporary wooden replicas while awaiting replacements) I had the process timed and knew I would finish the piece my final Friday afternoon. And then a blizzard was forecast for Friday morning. We needed to sprint to the finish. For my remaining few minutes of choreography I planned less detailed ideas, which to my surprise became some of my favorite parts of the work. We finished the work at 5:50 PM on Thursday afternoon, and Friday was a snow day.

Photo by Alberto Gaspar

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