Dana Woodruff is a wonderful friend and supporter of Dance Canvas! She has been a part of the DC team for 6 years as a teacher for our summer intensive and our Production Coordinator for 5 years. Dana has earned her B.F.A. in Dance at Adelphi University and an M.F.A. in Dance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has taught at the Georgia Academy of Dance, in the Public School system, at The Studio Atlanta Dance, and is currently an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University. We value her perspective on the choreographic process. Let’s see what she has to say!
I started off with a question. How do choreographers get from point A to point Z? What choices do they make to reach their final product? I know how I work, but what other ways exist and are other choreographic choices vastly different from mine and from one another? The answer, I am coming to find out, is that the ways in which choreographers tap into their process is as individual and unique as they are as people. There are similarities, but a wide range of approaches. Each artist begins a project and develops it, using their own set of skills, viewpoint and personality.
As a child, I would improvise around our living room. I would put on my parents’ ABBA or Bee Gees album and free style until I landed in a heap on the sofa. Later on, after years of formal dance training, I had the chance to take a choreography class at Dartmouth College. I was in high school, but my dance teacher was the professor of the class and he would often invite the high school seniors with an interest in choreography to participate. At first, I felt intimidated to be working with college students, but soon acclimated to the group. I remember feeling incredibly excited about the opportunity to create a dance piece for the entire class. My teacher handed me the music to use and told me to have fun with it. It was a classical piece and when I heard it, I saw patterns and shapes moving in succession. Not knowing what I was doing, I went about setting my first piece of choreography. I went into rehearsal knowing what movement I wanted to teach and changed things that didn’t quite translate from my head to the dancers. The students were all willing guinea pigs and the end result was not too horrible. Of course, it may have been a boring mess, but in my memory, it turned out rather well.
From that point on, my interest in creating dance grew. In college, at Adelphi University, I was able to take two choreography classes. One focused on the traditional compositional elements, the other used creative exercises to generate material. Both were very helpful in giving me the tools and vocabulary needed for creating not just my own work, but viewing and analyzing other choreographers work as well. We were encouraged to create pieces and have them performed in student concerts, especially our senior year. As a senior, I felt I had just scratched the surface of my choreographic pursuits. A friend was headed to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for her Master’s Degree, so another friend and I followed her there. Taking choreography class from Phyllis Lamhut was an eye-opening experience. I can still remember ideas she spoke of in class and some of our creative exercises. It was incredibly informative, humbling and thrilling to be in her presence. Many of her lessons have stuck with me to this day.
As I have been speaking with choreographers about their process, it has struck me how much our backgrounds and history come into play in our creations. How could it not? We are a sum of our personalities and experiences and all of that comes into play when we’re working. I can’t ignore the years spent training in Ballet and Modern. Even though I try to find unique ways of moving when I am creating new work, all of those years are in there somewhere. An Atlanta based choreographer, Lonnie Davis, has a rich dance history in Jazz and African based Modern movement styles. Those notes come through in his highly articulated, fluid movement. His movement is his own, yet there are nuances and flavors from his past. This seems to be true for most choreographers.
My process usually begins with an idea or concept (sleepwalking, domesticity, isolation ). For many it’s a piece of music that inspires. For some it’s a story. Every artist has a spark that propels them into the dance studio. I like to come in with some prepared material for the dancers, others do not. Stevan Novakovich, a dance professor at Kennesaw State University, likes to come in with very broad ideas and no set movement. He feels that his best ideas come in the moment and are then truly authentic. Most choreographers have some ideas of where they want to go in the rehearsal process, but the style and rate at which they get there can differ a great deal.
A year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of dancing with an Atlanta dance company called Gathering Wild. Jerylann Warner, the director, is well known for being a wonderful, warm human being. Her creative process was a bit different from others I had experienced. The company was comprised of thirteen or so women of various ages and dance backgrounds. The atmosphere during rehearsal was quite relaxed. Some days, there might have been a small child playing in the corner, waiting for Mom’s rehearsal to be over. The dancers were very comfortable with each other, talking and joking around on the sidelines and the overall feeling was one of comrades working together towards a joint goal. Jerylann managed to teach material and steer the ship, so to speak, but I was used to a more formal, focused approach. I think she was pleased with the end product of our efforts and it was very interesting to see how that group works together.
The dancers are a huge part of the process. Many choreographers enjoy using the same dancers for multiple projects and performances. There is a trust and bond that grows in the rehearsal process. Choreographers rely on their dancers to bring their ideas to life. They are the embodiment of an artists’ creativity and it’s crucial that they bring their own training and artistry to the table. One choreographer did comment that sometimes her dancers become “too comfortable” in rehearsal. She felt that even though she appreciated their familiarity with her movement style, they didn’t always approach it with fresh eyes and vitality. It isn’t always easy to find dancers who are dedicated and able to keep all movement fresh.
“Kudzu” by Dana Woodruff
Photo by http://capturelifethroughthelens.com/2013/02/28/dance-canvas/
It is imperative that choreographers also stay nimble and fresh. I have seen many dance performances with established, well-known companies where the pieces look like creations from the past. It seems as though there is no new movement invention, no new information or inspiration. This always leaves me disappointed. I think it’s our job to always be moving forward and to try new things. Sometimes they may not work, but I think the trying is the important thing.
I enjoyed speaking with fellow choreographers about their process and look forward to future conversations on this topic. I have a few projects coming up and hope to try a few new ways of working. It will be interesting to see what unfolds along the way. I don’t know what exactly will happen, but that is part of the beauty of the process and perhaps what draws us back to it over and over again.
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