CHOREO II and “XIV”

Reflection on the Class:

I am so grateful for the experience dancing and choreographing at the university. I wish I had latched onto the opportunity to be involved in choreograph and be involved in the student showcase before my last two years in college so I could have experienced more. I’m really grateful for Thaddeus’ inspiration and input to push the program further. The two choreography classes I took made my whole college career worthwhile because they opened up doors I hadn’t considered possible before. I can choreograph? I distrusted myself with choreographing before, which is absurd, because it comes so naturally and I have wanted to create dances since I was 4 years old. In elementary school and middle school I used to choreograph my own pieces for talent shows (and choreographed on my little sister too, however unwillingly). That was before I began to study ballet seriously and was told to put creativity in the dance studio away. I have come a long way since then, but I had to rediscover that childlike creativity and embrace it.

Our conversations in the studio open my mind and challenge my way of thinking about dance, life, the creative process, or all of the above. I was given new food for thought or a project that I was I was excited about doing each time I came to class. I was inspired to go out and create, which is the best gift an instructor in the arts can give his student. When I came here four years ago I wanted to have a place to safely continue dancing ballet, to stay in shape, I thought, and that’s what I got – the first year. The second year I left to pursue different endeavors, but I rediscovered my passion for dancing instead. Back at USC I had the opportunity to experience more depth to what dance could mean for me. This is partly because I came back and sought out opportunities and grasped them, but also because new faculty made opportunities to expand our dance education and experience available to us.

The university offered me a place to explore in dance that I wouldn’t have considered seriously for myself before. Within the small circle of our class, we were encouraged to experiment with movement (and multimedia) and push the bounds of our creativity that I might not have otherwise. In the university setting, we have a safety net to try and fail, to fall and get up, to explore alternatives. We have the availability of places to perform in different venues on campus, to collaborate with artists from the other schools. I can, and want to continue to create outside of college, but it’s going to be a lot harder, and have to be even more intentional. I want to seize all the opportunities I can while I am here.

I hope the future classes of dance majors at USC are pushed to explore their creativity and limits from their inception into the program. I hope their creative minds are engaged. Mine was, but it had to be wrestled or drawn out of me. It has been there the entire time, but has been dormant. It was saying, do you remember me? Do you remember how I used to come out and dance around and you didn’t care what it looked like? Now that I have the technical basis I dance and have been exposed to other philosophies, academia, and life experiences that can inform my creativity, I believe I have potential to create interesting things that are meaningful and not haphazard.

Reflection for the Creative Process and My Project “XIV”:

It’s interesting to look back and see all the pieces I had that went into creation of this piece of choreography. As part of Thaddeus’ class, it became an entire project. I was prepared to choreograph and incorporate dancers and even a musician, but I had never worked with multimedia in a dance before. That added a whole new aspect to my learning experience. The parameters for our project were minimal: it had to be 10 minutes in length, use a prop that was essential to the movement, and incorporate our work in class.

The music was the easy part. I already had a song by the Sons of Korah that I wanted to use. It was entitled Psalm 14a because it was based off the beginning of the Psalm. It had kind of a world-music feel to it, and was dark and brooding, with a deep-throated voice that started near the middle of the piece which broke into an elevated chant at the end: “The fool says there is no God…” Only the first three verses of the Psalm were sung. Naturally, I read the Psalm, over and over. I was struck that there was much more going on in the Psalm than the morose message the Sons of Korah piece focused on. As I searched for music or sound that would complement it to make a 10 minute piece, I considered using the sounds of a thunderstorm or clapping rather than music. No other piece of music could be put alongside that. The only thing that I found that might complement the Sons of Korah piece were some instrumental metal pieces by Apocalyptica. I mentioned it to my friend Jay one day, and casually asked if he could play anything like Apocalyptica, to which he replied, “of course”. The conversation that initiated our collaboration began.

My friend John (Jay) Coker had been home for nearly a year due to medical complications from an injury to his optic nerve from intense stage lights (why he has to wear sunglasses everywhere) that kept him one semester away from finishing his Masters in Bass Performance at Peabody Conservatory in Maryland. He will return this spring, but this fall was an opportunity that I was grateful to grasp while he was in Columbia. I had written down words and concepts from reading Psalm 14 and from listening to the song that I thought would inspire my choreography, and I shared these with Jay. He was really excited about the themes of thunder and lightning, because, he said, the bass is the perfect instrument to create that. He composed a piece of music for me – using inspiration from the Psalm, basically overnight. We exchanged numerous emails and met to make changes way before I auditioned my dancers. Together we tweaked it to be 10 minutes in length, with three distinct sections for the dance I was to choreograph. I told him I needed to map out the composition so I had something to work from. I adapted his “themes” and “grooves” and he adapted to need for distinct cut offs and dynamics in the music. We continued to converse and change the composition after I began rehearsals. For the most part, I worked off a recording so I could listen to it over and over again.

I used the phrases Thaddeus had us create and videotape, then morphed them using the manipulations we learned in Choreography I such as retrograde, doing them the movement just to the right or left, putting the movement of the legs into my arms or arms for legs, doing only the right side or only the left, repeating it, putting the phrase on the floor. It was easy to come up with dance and transitions and patterns I could see in my head as I listened to the music. I decided to challenge myself by creating some movement phrases without music and then seeing where they would fit into the dance, if they worked with the music or contrasted it. A lot of the movement I created was not typical of my style and did not look like ballet, or contemporary dance.

The phrase I originally created with a roll of toilet paper evolved into a solo for one girl with a longer piece of fabric – resembling a rope, and a hanging. The toilet paper evolved into a long piece of fabric nearly as wide as the stage. I made a make-shift one by cutting up several old sheets into strips and stapling the ends together. Later I decided I wanted two, so I cut up two sheets of the same color into three pieces each and sewed them together. There was so much I could do with these props! I had to choose which to incorporate into the dance. With the availability of dancers and time, and the pressure to get something put together for the student showcase, I ended up using those ideas that were most easily transferable to my dancers. One of my dancers was especially willing to work with the sheet and experiment with the”hanging” with the sheet. That was the most interesting part of the dance for me, not only because it was the embryo of the piece, but because she was interested in making it work as much as I was.

Once I got the dancers into the room, I was limited by how much they could grasp my ideas, but also inspired to keep some of the things they did. I got 7 dancers out of 12 I asked, then added one more to make 8. They were all different styles of dancers, different levels of experience, ad different sizes, which was a challenge in itself, but it made the piece that much more interesting. I told them my background ideas for the piece, that it was based on the Psalm, and my concepts of thunder storms and lightning. I often would use them as “guinea pigs” to create a shape or pattern. Sometimes it worked how I wanted it to, sometimes not at all. Sometimes the dancers helped me to create something entirely new. I encouraged their input and frequently asked them how we could get into such and such a position or pattern, or how they could make this lift or transition easier. Sometime their input made things too easy, however. I wanted to see struggle, tension, and constraint at certain times to convey the message of the music or my theme.

With time constraints on mine and my dancers’ busy schedules, we could only meet once or twice a week for an hour to an hour and a half late at night. Often I would bring a phrase for them to learn, some ideas I had, and see what worked. I tried to come prepared to teach them the material because I knew they would appreciate that consideration of their time, but I would rather work actively with them, creating as we go. I was unable to finish the dance in time for the second adjudication for the student showcase, and it was not chosen to be performed. Also, I told the panel that I was more interested in the creative process than putting something on stage, probably another factor that led to it not being chosen to be performed. I felt bad for my dancers who committed so much time to it, so I vowed to make an opportunity for them to perform it this semester. At the student showcase I learned a lot about composition and projection from watching my peers’ pieces on stage, and I am somewhat relieved I didn’t have to rush through the process and could leave “XIV” somewhat unfinished, with potential to come back to it with fresh eyes in the future.

Other challenges I faced besides limited time and coordinating the dancers’ schedules were the dancers’ commitment to the movement or ideas I presented, and their adaptability. Although we are all students, I expected them to act on a professional level. About half of them did. I like to give those who have not performed with USC Dance company an opportunity to perform, but I will probably be more choosy about who I pick in the future because it is for my learning experience and final product too. I never second-guessed my musicality until a couple of the dancers asked me for specific counts. It was good for me to consider if I needed to count the music, how to count the music, and how to clearly communicate the musical cues to my dancers if I chose not to count the music. I consulted Jay again, who confirmed the counts were too complicated to count, and came to the next rehearsal prepared to explain how I had all the movement mapped out with the music. I asked Jay to come to our next rehearsal t play the different “grooves”, “themes” and “chants” for my dancers, and he played live for rehearsal from then on as often as possible. I was challenged to consider my musicality, if I was on the music, what being on the music or dancing with the music meant, and how to clearly articulate my musicality to the dancers.

I loved working with the multimedia project Thaddeus gave us, but I had not previously worked with imovie and do not own a Mac. After a couple classes working on his laptop and an unexpected project for my Fulbright application came up, I worked at the Mac lab in Gambrell hall. I learned through trial and error and asking the staff there for help. Now I love imovie and am looking forward to using it to document my next choreographic endeavors. I also created a projection with the help of my friend, Jason Steelman, with the idea of projecting a live feed simultaneously on top of it during the performance. My initial idea didn’t work out so well once we got into the space, and ended up being too complicated for the technology we had, so I projected them separately. In the end I was glad I did, because the live feed from the webcam ended up having a cool “glowing” effect from the lights we used and looked interesting by itself. I am looking forward to collaborating with multimedia artists in the future or learning more about it myself.

In the course of a day, we loaded in the floor and set up a performance space for our informal showcase. The space was already challenging for what I choreographed, and was even more challenging once we moved chairs into the performance space. I adapted the choreography somewhat to a smaller space, but at some point I had to let go of the piece in some respect and trust my dancers to use their spatial awareness and “stage smarts”. I was just pleased to see a somewhat finished product after a semester of work. It wasn’t the smoothest performance, but I was very pleased.

What I learned: I have to be adaptable, my dancers have to be adaptable, and collaboration is a wonderful, wonderful thing! I learned I must clearly express my musicality to the dancers, and that we have never listened to the music too much. Also, running through the piece full-out is essential to achieve the kind of physicality in the movement I want from less experienced dancers. Many of my dancers were wonderful, but in the future I would like to work with dancers who are very physically capable and eager to adapt my style of movement or try new things. Although I think it’s interesting to see my movement on different bodies and style of dancers, it was sometimes frustrating that they wouldn’t do what I wanted, and I often settled for less or changed the movement something less complex. I learned to be flexible and in-the-moment with my dancers. I also learned that I must clearly articulate what I want from them, whether it’s physically dancing the phrase over and over for them to emulate, or describing how the movement should feel or unfold, or giving them food for thought what to think about and express through their movement. I believe, with Alonzo King, that “the point [of choreography] after all, is communication”, and that it is pointless to create art void of meaning. But while I wanted to leave interpretation of my work to the audience, I discovered that first and foremost, I must clearly express some intent of what the piece is about or can be about to my dancers in order that they have something to communicate, and I must give my audience likewise, some food for thought. I do not need to spoon-feed them, however, the “mystical is contained in the literal” (King). Adding words, dialogue (however brief or vague), or supplemental multimedia incorporated into the dance are an effective way to do this. This last concept I need to develop more for “XIV” if I perform it again. All of the tools and steps that I experienced through this process were valuable and will stay with me for as long as I create dance.

Sample clip of my work for XIV: http://youtu.be/NIVZHTbWRIU

 

Psalm 117: nearly finished

Praise the Lord, all you nations!

Extol Him, all you peoples!

For great is His steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord!

~Psalm 117, written by the sons of Korah

This is what I am left with after the hustle and bustle of putting together a piece based on the Psalm and giving it over to my dancers to light up the stage. The music and the words inspired the dance – the WORD inspired the dance; it is a living word and is “more powerful than a two edged sword”.

I started this post 2 weeks ago, just as I was finishing the choreography, and I already knew that this journey had become meaningful in more ways than I anticipated. Through obeying what I felt God called me to do (finally, after years of resisting, and I am just beginning to break through the barriers), I gained experiences that taught me a lot about the dance world that I could not have learned without stepping into the role of choreographer: what goes through the choreographer’s or dance master/mistress’ head, why they choose the dancers they do, why it shouldn’t be taken personally if you’re not chosen, etc etc…

The creative part is the easiest for me – put on the music, and the movement flows – so much that I often forget what I just did, which can be a problem for trying to teach it to dancers… the difficult part is the intention behind it, because this is no recital.  What I stressed most to my dancers as the performance aspect came closer to conception was just that – INTENTION, and CONFIDENCE.  To put a dance on stage that has a powerful message – a purely scriptural message – you cannot take it lightly. It has to be intentional and it takes a level of confidence to perform the message you’re willing to portray and to let it speak for you. I did it knowing that afterward, every person in the dance department may see at me and think, “oh she’s the religious girl” from now on. I had to be ok with that. And I can tell you, as a dancer and as an artist, that has not always the image I have sought after. I by no means intend to toot my own horn; I am no upright saintly worshipper – but I am a worshipper nonetheless, because my God has redeemed this mess called Rebecca and made something beautiful out of it. Just like Laura Story’s words – “take all of my life, all of my mind… and make something beautiful…so all will see your work in me…”

I wonder, sometimes, if I had a successful ballet career the way I imagined it, if I would have been able to take a stance in the dance world like this yet…maybe he was gracious in that by breaking me of my pride in my talent and abilities before my twenties, I was able to begin to see his purpose for my dancing earlier…. who knows. But I know that God can make something beautiful even out of the mess ups of our lives, and even when things don’t go as planned.

Although “Psalm 117” seems a trifle achievement in the light of the other pieces in the showcase, it was a huge step for me – the risk of putting a piece onstage that for the first time, to put a religious message onstage, set myself up for exposure and criticism, and to do it with other undergraduates. There were a lot of questions running through my mind. What will the other dancers think of me? the faculty? Is my choreography good enough? Should I really aim to work with style different from what I am comfortable with? It was a big risk, and it was finally time to take that risk. I want to give all credit to the Lord, yet I seldom stopped over the course of the last five weeks to ask Him what He wanted to do with this piece… still I am certain He can and will use it for His good. I stressed “intent” and “confidence” in the words the dancers were portraying through their movements. What was the journey for them? Did it have any significant spiritual meaning? That is theirs to keep. I wish I had been less busy and more spiritually in tune with the Holy Spirit so that He could guide me through the process; yet He was guiding me whether I was always aware of it or not.

I just touched the brink of the experience, both in my spiritual and physical talents the Lord has given me. I am thankful more than anything else for the opportunity to put my creation on stage, and for the patient dancers who bore with my often fragmented process.  While I wish I had more rehearsal and more time to pull it together, I am satisfied with my progress and the consummation of the ideas I was able to formulate and project on my dancers in a short amount of time. Thanks also go to Cindy Flach for putting together; it would not have been possible without her, and to my friend Dana Voravudhi for help with the sign language. I hope it was a positive experience for my dancers and that they enjoy dancing it tonight. More than anything, may God be glorified through our dancing and may at least one person’s heart be touched who sees it. I don’t care what happens to my dance career or lack thereof. I want to continue creating dances for my God. He’s the only one whose pleasure I seek. Praise the Lord!