Finding Meaning in Choreography

The finale of Orchesis’ Evening of Dance was composed of four sections, which, altogether, chronicled the trajectory of global technological innovation.  Choreographic phrases reflected degrees of technological change, from stability to rapid modernization. I faced both the challenge of conveying industrial progress and idyllic peace to the audience, and also explaining to the dancers how these movements represented my vision. In this blog post I will discuss the inspiration behind three phrases, the way the music informed the movement, and the way I explained the meaning to the dancers. 

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“Progress, in Memory”: The Choreographic Process

As the president of Orchesis Modern Dance Company, I choreographed the finale of the company’s spring performance, An Evening of Dance. The finale, “Progress, in Memory,” comprised all 26 company members and totaled about 11 and a half minutes in length. The variety of modern dance classes I’ve taken at the college, and the Orchesis performances in which I’ve both danced and choreographed, formed the foundations of my choreographic experience. Last year, I jointly choreographed a piece with another member of Orchesis. This year, choreographing alone allowed me the chance to develop my individual movement aesthetic further.
“Progress, in Memory” explores the evolution of industrial and technological innovation in society by examining the dichotomy between industrial and technological advancement and human connection with nature. The soft movement and classical music in the first half of the piece emulate simplicity, harmony, and a slower-paced life while the synthetic music in the second half reflects a fast-paced society in which technology is central. When I first started conceptualizing themes and motifs, I hoped to bring to the forefront the sacrifices we’ve made for industrial progress and recall a time and a feeling in which harmony with nature was a priority. For example, in December, about a third of the way into the choreographic process, I wanted the audience to leave the performance nostalgic for a pristine earth, and wary of the grip of technological change. In February I changed my mind. I wanted An Evening of Dance to end on a more optimistic note. In the end “Progress, in Memory” became a forward-looking representation of the impact of increasing technological advancement on humanity. By comparing and contrasting periods of idyllic stability with those of rapid modernization, I attempted to emphasize that innovation need not diminish beauty, goodness, or the natural world.
Matching thematic concepts to movement and formations constituted the bulk of the choreographic process. I found that fluid and graceful arm movement best articulated the harmony, beauty, and purity that is associated with unspoiled land. As a result, a common element throughout the first half of the piece is intricate arm movement that creates rounded and wave-like shapes. I also played with action and reaction–one part of the body initiates a movement, which causes a reaction from another body part. This kind of organic “call and response” movement communicated messages of peace, balance, and accord. Oppositely, when calling to mind industrialization, assembly lines, technological advancement, I employed sharp, staccato movement and unison group work. In this way, the second half of the piece is mechanical, robotic.
C0stumes accounted for the final component of “Progress, In Memory.” Thanks to the generosity of the Charles Center I executed my idea of incorporating a costume change into the piece. The costumes in the first half of the piece consisted of loose “flowy” earth-toned tunics over a black leotard and black shorts. After the second piece of music, the dancers took off their tunics, and finished the rest of the performance in the sleek black leotard and tights. The costume-change manifested the dichotomy between technological advancement and purity of nature, completing my vision.
In choreographing the finale for An Evening of Dance, I found my creative voice. A three-pronged approach colored my experience. In one way, I drew from traditional movements learned in modern class–contractions, under-curves, Horton technique–and then distorted it to fit my aesthetic. In another way, I watched videos of my dance inspirations, choreographers such as Emma Portner, companies like Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and tried to emulate their movement quality. Finally, I took an improvisational approach where I improvised to the finale music and then extracted movements I liked. Finding my voice filled the experience with personal value, and rendered the piece wholly unique.