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Choreography And The Specific Image

Choreography And The Specific Image

Daniel Nagrin
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Choreography And The Specific Image
    Book Description:

    "The world outside has burst into the studio," writes the influential dancer, teacher, and choreographer Daniel Nagrin. Many dancers want passionately to confront concrete, difficult subjects. But their formalistic training hasn't prepared them for what they need to say. This book, the first on choreography approached through content rather than structure, is designed with them in mind.Spiced with wit and strong opinions,Choreography and the Specific Imageexplores, in nineteen far-ranging essays, the art of choreography through the life's work of an important artist. A career of performance, creativity, and teaching spanning five decades, Nagrin reveals the philosophy and strategy of his work with Helen Tamiris, a founder of modern American dance, and of Workgroup, his maverick improvisation company of the 1970s. During an era when many dancers were working with movement as abstraction, Nagrin turned instead toward movement as metaphor, in the belief that dance should be about something. InChoreography and the Specific Image, Nagrin shares with the next generation of dancers just how that turn was accomplished."It makes no sense to make dances unless you bring news," he writes. "You bring something that a community needs, something from you: a vision, an insight, a question from where you are and what churns you up." In a workbook following the essays, Nagrin lays out a wealth of clear, effective exercises to guide dancers toward such constructive self-discovery. Unlike all other choreography books, Nagrin addresses the concerns of both modern and commercial (show dance) choreographers. "The need to discover the inner life," he maintains, "is what fires the motion."This is Nagrin's third book of a trilogy, followingDance and the Specific Image: ImprovisationandThe Six Questions: Acting Technique for Dance Performance. Each focuses on a different aspect of dance-improvisation, performance, and choreography-engaging the specific image as a creative tool.Part history, part philosophy, part nuts-and-bolts manual,Choreography and the Specific Imagewill be an indispensable resource for all those who care passionately about the world of dance, and the world at large.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7225-9
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    A book justifies its existence when it throws light upon what has been ignored or received scant attention. There are a number of good books on choreography. The major thrust of their analysis and exposition is structural, examining the trinity of Space, Time and Dynamics. Viewing the added factors of music, costume, lighting and content through the prism of these three elements supports a formal approach to choreography. The title of this book,Choreography and the Specific Image, points to a different perspective, one that is generally slighted. It seizes upon one of the factors that enters into the making...

  2. The Essays

    • 1 Helen Tamiris and Her Teaching of Choreography
      (pp. 9-23)

      In the summer of my first year dancing, 1936, I saw Tamiris and her group performSalut Au Monde, a suite of dances to the poetry of Walt Whitman. There is a hazy memory of dancers on boxes. Mostly, I recall waiting at the stage door when a friend pointed out Tamiris who was in conversation with someone. I was shocked to see this tall, slightly stooped and weary figure that just a little while before appeared as a towering, glorious, triumphant celebrant of Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”. A year later, I was up out of my seat,...

    • 2 A Method of Teaching Choreography
      (pp. 24-40)

      The only space that interests me is the distance between you and me.

      The only time that interests me is the little we have left to make a decent gesture.

      The only dynamic that interests me is the tenderness of your embrace and the memory of the fist that broke my face.

      I look to the time when there will be sweet air and room for all.

      Then will I have the leisure to arrange three soft lines on a sheet of pebbly paper and listen to them sing to each other.

      In the Introduction, I underlined the belief that...

    • 3 Choreography and the Specific Image FUNDAMENTALS OF ONE APPROACH TO CHOREOGRAPHY
      (pp. 41-54)

      It cannot be stated too often that the approach to the work of choreography presented in this chapter and elucidated through the rest of this book is to be used only when necessary. When would that be? When you sense that there is a gap in the flow of your choreography. When you stop believing in what you are doing. When you hit a wall and nothing is happening despite the hours in the studio. When is it not necessary? When the flow of creative work is sustained by an inner conviction. It is rare that the entire aborning life...

    • 4 Improvisation AS A TOOL FOR CHOREOGRAPHY
      (pp. 55-58)

      Improvisation: the gold mine, the library, the holiday, the forbidden country, the testing ground, the training ground, the meeting ground, the basement, the attic, the house of horrors, the buried treasure, the land beyond the horizon, a time to footle, a time to slip into the music, to do battle with the music, a time to be surprised with what you contain, a time …

      You finish the list—if it can ever be finished. Before the crucial act of pinning down the moves that will be the dance comes the skirmishing, the feints, the experiments, the getting into the...

    • 5 “Rules” for Choreography IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER
      (pp. 59-75)

      This chapter is not being broadcast from Mt. Sinai. It is, rather, a grab bag of hints, tricks and tips that have been accumulated from years on Broadway, in films, the concert stage and teaching. Some I heard, some were dinned into me and some I figured out after falling on my face. As the years roll by, subsequent to this book being published and read by thousands and taught to many, I have a hope for the future: that one by one what is said here will be revised, contradicted and/or proved dead wrong.

      When the curtain rises and...

    • 6 The Play of Metaphor
      (pp. 76-89)

      The premise of this book: nothing is itself only. Everything resonates with something other than itself. Our speech, our clothing, our food, our dwellings, our motions and above all, our actions are what they are and also more than they are. In our speech, the use of metaphor and simile is most obvious, whether it is Shakespeare’s “this is the winter of our discontent;” or Jimi Hendrix calling out “Stone free, like a breeze.” Dance, too, is drenched in metaphors. But, there are those who make much of a dance that is pure motion, devoid of metaphors and free of...

    • 7 Modern Dance Choreography—Ballet Choreography
      (pp. 90-94)

      Could it be that the greatest difference between modern dance choreography and ballet choreography is that the moderns expend mountains of energy teaching and talking about choreography while the ballet people just do it? Witness this book by one from the modern fold. Has anyone since Noverre written anything about the craft of ballet choreography?

      A possible explanation: by and large, ballet choreographers experience, in their bodies and in their rehearsals, the work of many different choreographers before engaging in the craft themselves. Modern dance companies are mostly homogenized, i.e., most tend to perform the repertoire of one choreographer. Thus,...

    • 8 Choreography for the Solo Dancer, Choreography for a Group: THE PROBLEMS AND DIFFERENCES
      (pp. 95-98)

      Earlier in Chapter 5, Rules for Choreography, there appeared this “rule”: “Every dance needs a ‘this’ and a ‘that.’” Call it a conflict, a tension, an opposition, a contradiction, a seduction, whatever, unless an ambivalence of some sort is setup at the very beginning of the dance and unless it is developed throughout, the work will not be alive. It should not be too difficult to succeed in doing this when choreographing for a group, but how is it done for a solo dancer? More to the point, how can it not be done? What individual has ever crossed this...

    • 9 Abstract Dance versus What?
      (pp. 99-104)

      Is there anything more vulnerable than the defining of any art form? That is as it should be. Art, like science, is about what we don’t know, only more so. Who dares define “abstract art”? A friend, a painter named Arthur Getz, once told me of the time he encountered Philip Guston, an acquaintance and also a painter. It was the time dominated by the abstract expressionists and Guston was a well-known figure among that group. Guston asked Getz, “So, what are you up to these days?” Arthur said he answered, a little defensively, “I’m doing realistic work.” Guston replied,...

    • 10 Music
      (pp. 105-114)

      There are as many ways of using music, sound and silence as there are choreographers. What follows are a set of personal observations, reflections and principles that have guided my work and my teaching. If any appear to be useful, fine and if not, fine.

      In Chapter 4, Improvisation, reference is made to the aborted attempt to use the music of Roger Sessions forDance in the Sun. A few weeks of working with it ended in frustration. The constant and intricate metrical shifts were taking all of my mental energy and I realized that the dynamic structure taking shape...

    • 11 Words and Song Lyrics
      (pp. 115-118)

      Over the years, I accumulated comments in my class notebooks when dancers used words with dance:

      Before using words, ask the question, “Could I do this without the use of words? Would my vision be blocked, obscured, muddied without the use of words?” Yes? You must use words.

      When you use words in a score or music, set up a relationship so the words and movement resonate, but do not copy each other. Why dance when the words say it all? Find the movement that the words don’t say.

      Notes on one who spoke as she danced:

      When dancers adapt...

    • 12 Virtuosity
      (pp. 119-122)

      A disappointment: I just looked up “bravo,” expecting to find that it meant “brave.” No, it derives from the language of Italy and means “fine.” How much more appropriate it would be if I had been right, for true virtuosity calls on the courage of a performer. What cannot be denied is that regardless of whether it is relevant or irrelevant, in good taste or really quite vulgar, virtuosity is just plain exciting. Regardless of context, virtuosity is, in and of itself, a metaphor for human daring. We are thinking, “That’s one of us up there;” as we tilt our...

    • 13 Direction
      (pp. 123-128)

      As a youth, to be a writer was one of my many ambitions. I avidly seized any article about writers who would speak of their methods. Obviously, I was always seeking the holy grail of “the way to write.” After coming across a half-a-dozen of these “the way to write,” it became apparent that there was no “the way to write.” There were only writers, each of whom had foundtheir own way to write.

      Choreographers? Some prepare far ahead of the actual rehearsal period. Both Jerome Robbins and Agnes DeMille would gather a group of dancers months ahead of...

      (pp. 129-138)

      The ensuing discussion may appear to be going far afield from the ostensible focus of this book, choreography. On the contrary, there is no single factor in the entire chain of events that goes to make a performance of a dance that is not capable of ruining the end result. Anyone who has the arrogance and nerve to assume the responsibility of creating dances owes it to him.herself to be thoroughly knowledgeable in the matters of the costumes, the lights, the sets and the sound. Further, with each day, advances and complexities in technology and techniques are developing at an...

    • 15 Choreography for the Theatre, Musical Comedy and Opera
      (pp. 139-157)

      The memory of a most radical decision contains a particular moment when “everything became clear.” We go along in life and sometimes things begin to pile up. We take vague notes, but take no action and then when least expected a minor moment is transformed into a momentous summation and we discover we have changed.

      My first work in the theatre came in 1940. In the years that followed I danced in summer theatres, Broadway, the Rainbow Room, films, TV and assisted in the choreography of five Broadway shows. In 1956, I was performing in and directing some commercial and...

    • 16 Mindsets
      (pp. 158-164)

      Early morning, after a commuter trip to Stamford, Connecticut, standing before a group of young students of acting poised to take their movement class with the New York dance guru, I muttered sourly, “How is it that you all are so filth … Oh, I’m so sorry!” and quickly removed my eyeglasses to clean them carefully. Some laughter and we went on to begin the class. A little joke, but not really funny. It is not at all possible to perceive anything without a mindset that gives a coloration and a character to all that we behold.

      Over the years,...

    • 17 The Criticism of Choreography
      (pp. 165-180)

      Back in 1957, I was, for a few weeks, in the Rockies, in Steamboat Springs as a guest artist at Perry-Mansfield, a summer arts camp. Apart from my teaching work, I was putting the finishing touches to a long and complicated solo,Indeterminate Figure. The large space I needed for many hours was not available at the camp. A wonderful and awkward space was found for me. It was the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, a former garage converted to a hall for folk dancing. The wonder of it was the enormous space and the new hardwood floor, resilient as...

    • 18 Anecdotal Material
      (pp. 181-187)

      There are classes and workshops in choreography and then there are books on choreography—which is to be preferred? With no further thought, I lean towards a good class or workshop. That living situation reveals, in the most vivid way, insights that can give the young choreographer a few guidelines in the pursuit of their visions in dance. In all of my classes, the students spoke first when the time came for the critique of a new work or study. As I stated in the preceding chapter, the point was made that for students not to participate in this part...

    • 19 The Ethics of Aesthetics
      (pp. 188-206)

      A professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, Francis Sparshott, wroteOff the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of Dance. He asks, “Why has dance played little part in traditional philosophies of the arts?” He examines the writing and thinking on dance by philosophers from Plato to the present. The arguments he presents are dismaying to a dancer. He wants us to recognize that we were either ignored or denigrated by all of the great thinkers as they probed and puzzled the problems of all the other arts. The most devastating evaluation of dance came from the...

  3. The Workbook

    • Workbook Introduction and Outline
      (pp. 209-212)

      As noted in the Introduction, two books preceded this one:Dance and the Specific Image: ImprovisationandThe Six Questions: Acting Technique for Dance Performance. This book lays out a mass of thoughts and tools for the act of choreography. The first book, on improvisation, organized itself by virtue of pursuing the continuous development through time of the Workgroup exercises, games and structures. A chronology determined the logic of its structure. In the second book, examining the craft of acting for dancers easily fell into a clean structure: moving from the fundamental qualities demanded of any performer, scanning the irrelevant...

    • 1 Warming Up
      (pp. 213-219)

      There is no question that dancers should never be expected to doanythingin dance without an adequate physical warmup. There are a few strange ones who can plunge in without this and some get away with it for years. So be it. Good luck to them, but for the rest of us …

      However, when the focus is a session laying the foundation for creative work, something more than a heated body is required. Warming up the psyche, the inner flow, the subconscious, the unconscious, finding the catalyst, connecting with inner resources, unloading the inhibitions … so many words...

    • 2 The Rhythm Series
      (pp. 220-225)

      This exercise and the next two—Pulse Rhythm and Inner Rhythm—comprise the center of The Rhythm Series. These three flow directly out of the Goldfish Bowl, Blind Journey, back to Goldfish Bowl and finding a private place. Then there is the readiness to embark on The Rhythm Series. To lay the ground for fuller energy, start each of The Rhythm Series exercises from a standing position rather than sitting or lying down.

      When you find your private place, remain standing with your eyes still closed. When everyone has found her.his private place, listen to the next sequence: with your...

    • 3 Uncovering Sources of Movement: THE FIRST STEPS
      (pp. 226-235)

      Each of the following exercises introduces important principles and ways of working that pave the way for more complex exercises.

      With your eyes closed, listen to the sequence of the next exercise. You will hear better with your eyes closed. First, you will hear music. After a while, I will say, “Someone or something is doing something.” I may choose any verb: flying, loving, hunting, planting, destroying, shielding, ad infinitum. Let us pick an example at random, “Someone or something is running to or from someone or something.” The “someone or something” can come from any part of your mind:...

    • 4 Metaphor
      (pp. 236-236)

      1. Look up definitions and descriptions of metaphor. Try several dictionaries, Fowler’sModern English Usage, theEncyclopedia Britannica(look under “figures of speech”) and any book that purports to deal with poetry and the making of poetry. Fill a few pages of your notebook with whatever strikes you and makes strong sense to you.

      2. In your reading of newspapers or magazines, as well as poetry and novels, search out and underline metaphors.

      3. Take note of the metaphors that appear in your own speech.

      4. Make a list of literal human gestures (this may be more difficult than it appears) and make a...

    • 5 Sense Memory Sources
      (pp. 237-241)

      Will everyone please get to a sink and thoroughly wash your hands? On the way, or returning, choose a partner. When you return, washed, sit facing each other cross-legged, knees a few inches apart, and close your eyes. When you sit, avoid touching the floor with your clean hands.

      The bemused go to wash, return as partners and sit.

      With your eyes closed, clear a space in your head with your breath. Anytime after I finish speaking and whenever you are ready, reach your hands forward to touch the face of the person in front of you. With your fingertips...

    • 6 Sources of Movement Material THE NEXT LEVEL
      (pp. 242-249)

      The first three exercises should be introduced singly, but later they work best flowing one into the other.

      Start seated, cross-legged and facing a partner with your knees two or three inches apart. Close your eyes and clean out your head. Whenever you are ready, open your eyes to look at the tip of your nose. Unlike the classic yogis who spent a lifetime doing that only, whenever you’ve had enough of looking at the tip of your nose, let your gaze drop to high on your chest and gradually allow your eyes to travel down your body, across the...

    • 7 Finding Gold in “Bad” Habits
      (pp. 250-254)

      The Workgroup had the good fortune to experience several sessions conducted by the Rondos renowned theatre director and founder of the Open Theatre, Joseph Chaikin. Perhaps the most valuable insight gained from him was his suggestion to work through the cliché. This was a startling challenge. Traditionally, artists of every calling are ever en garde against any mannerism or cliché. We are forever checking and being checked by our “best friends and critics” from repeating gestures, phrases and solutions to which we habitually resort.

      Anyone in the arts or observing the arts is aware of artists who grow unself-critical and...

    • 8 Music Sources of Movement
      (pp. 255-258)

      Sit or stand and listen. Take whatever you hear and become that sound; let that sound take over your entire body.

      This exercise heightens rhythmic sensitivity and creativeness. Five to seven dancers sit or stand in a circle. One person starts by beating out, on impulse, any rhythm that rises up out of the moment, clapping, beating on the floor, the body or fingers snapping. Use all the time needed to settle into a rhythm until it can be repeated again and again with confidence. When that rhythm is under control, look at the person to your left and nod....

    • 9 Words and Movement
      (pp. 259-262)

      Make a study for each of the following:

      Creating Wordss

      What motions can you do that will explode or germinate words?

      Being Created by Wordss

      Find words that can move you as fully as music.

      Becoming Wordss

      What words/movements are wrapped so closely around each other that they can properly be conceived as one?

      For this exercise you will need to construct, in your work space, separate enclosures or cells about six feet by four feet. Use cushions, chairs, tape—whatever is available. Step inside the space furthest from where you are now. When you arrive, you have only one...

    • 10 More
      (pp. 263-268)

      Answer the question without words. Try this alone and with an audience. It is not a bad idea to repeat this exercise over the years. You may find that the answers change and that most times they will, in some respect, surprise you.

      One can fire up the imagination to find, create and become using a prop or a costume. It really doesn’t matter from where you start, just so long as you ultimately plunge in deep enough to get your eyelashes wet with the magic “if.”

      Set out in the space anything that is available: a wine bottle, chairs,...