En Solitaire – (Solo)

An experimental study of solo movement inspired by Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux (1968)

En Solitaire is a creative work that has been created in response to a film that is considered by many to be a masterpiece of early experimental animation. Pas de Deux created in 1968 by Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren is a technically complex, yet visually powerful exploration of time and movement. This film encapsulates the driving concerns McLaren’s animation practice, his vast body of work results from a prolific career (spanning nearly 40 years and more than 30 films) as an innovative experimental filmmaker. His methodologies and outcomes not only shaped the world of experimental film and animation but spoke to his audiences on a deep level. (Collins,1976). Pas de Deux (meaning “dance for two” or “duet”) featuring multilayered, shimmering visual representations of two dancers in a constant flux of movement is “…an extraordinary success on three levels – aesthetic, sensual and intellectual.” (National Film Board of Canada, 1971-72). In approaching the creation of my short experimental study of solo movement I have dissected Pas de Deux using my own observations and have referred to numerous reviews of the work as well as McLaren’s own technical notes and interviews. I have used this analysis to identify key elements as starting points for my exploration. These elements also became guides in my decision-making process and influenced the various methodologies that unfolded throughout my creative process.

Pas de Deux

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Pas de Deux “…portrays two figures in high-contrast lit black and white, moving expressively to the strains of the Romanian Folk Orchestra”. McLaren’s process was experimental “…utilising an optical printer to replicate the image, making the dancers move ahead and behind themselves, their movements slurring and blurring as they move their way between still held poses”. (Hoile, 2012). This effect created a remarkable ethereal quality. Two dancers appear in a suspended time-based reality, as their sequence of movement is broken down into a succession of replicated moments at varying intervals throughout the film. They appear to dance ‘into’ and ‘out’ of themselves at points along the chronological sequence of the duet. “The past and the future that were inherent in the dancers’ movements are drawn forth and displayed side-by-side”. (Melvillan, 2010, p. 2). The result is a blurred representation of two bodies moving through space and time. “By printing the negative in multiple images with each frame introduced up to eleven times, McLaren captured movement just passed and movement yet to come in a most aesthetically pleasing flow of shimmering motion” (Elliot, 1971, p. 44). The bodies themselves at times begin to transform into ‘winged’ or multi-limbed forms. It appears as though time has been slowed down, and as a result, the viewer is able to gain a different knowledge or understanding of time and movement.

mclaren1 pasdedeux

Still images from Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren (1968).

Time

McLaren was interested in the notion of the viewer’s perception of time, and how our experience of the passage of time can be altered by the filmic representation of a sequence of images. Pas de Deux accents the visual appeal of the choreography, but also generates a ‘new choreography’ – that of a new representation of images in ‘film time’. “By using as many as ten multiple exposures per frame, McLaren shapes each movement into a fantasy of his own creation”. (Collins,1976, p.16). The organization of images in Pas de Deux is reminiscent of the chronophotographic sensibilities of the early pioneers of motion pictures Edward Muybridge and Étiene Jules-Marey. Their work sought to “capture and display the stages that comprise the continuum of movement”. (Bukatman, 2006, p. 87). They were the first to experiment with recording sequential movement and showing that time could in a sense be ‘fractured’. (p.89)
McLaren’s interest in similar concepts informed his highly innovative technical process and indeed the outcome of Pas de Deux. In the context of the period (late 1960’s) in which the film was produced, the technical process would have been a lengthy one. In his technical notes McLaren explains:
“To create the multiple image, we exposed this high contrast positive many times successively on to our new optical negative. The same shot was exposed on itself, but each time delayed or staggered by a few frames. Thus, when the dancers were completely at rest, these successive out-of-step exposures would all be on top of each other, creating the effect of one normal image; but when the dancers started to move, each exposure would start moving a little later than the preceding one, thus creating the effect of multiplicity.“ (National Film Board of Canada, 2003, p. 85)

idris-khan 10marey

Early chronophotographs of photographer Étiene Jules-Marey.

Movement

McLaren states; “Movies move! How it moves is as important as what moves.” (McLaren, National Film Board of Canada, 2006, p. 16) This can certainly be identified as a key aspect of Pas de Deux. As a viewer I became fascinated not only by the form and shape of the body, but more interestingly, the way in which the bodies progressed through their chain of movements. In other words, McLaren found a way to accentuate and illuminate, not just the dancers’ movement, but also their movement pathways. As a young man Norman McLaren was interested in painting however when he discovered the film medium he found that “Not only could his film-paintings have those dimensions of duration and movement which are missing from static art, but also they could move through space, which McLaren found extremely kinetic”. (Elliot, 1971). I am interested in the idea that as viewers of film and live theatre we experience different sensations than can be experienced in everyday life. In describing his films in general; “The McLaren films have a marvelous relation to a kinesthetic experience, like dance, a marvelous sense of duration, plus a kind of muscular thing where they speak to your muscles almost directly through the eye and not the head” (National Film Board of Canada, 2006, p. 16).

En Solitaire

En Solitaire – (Solo) from Elise May on Vimeo.

The film I have created, En Solitaire (meaning ‘Solo’) has been influenced by the concepts of time and movement explored in relation to McLaren’s creative process. I have used the video editing program Adobe Final Cut Pro to organise my footage in a computer based non-destructive editing environment. McLaren used film stock, a much more labor-intensive task; however the processes employed to create the effect are essentially the same. Within the linear sequence I layered up to eleven layers of the duplicate moving images on top of one another (see screen shot below), each one slightly offset in relation to the next, to achieve the effect. At times I varied the intervals (as did McLaren), to achieve a variety of effects. I also varied the number of duplicate layers. I noticed that the spacing of the intervals did not necessarily dictate the clarity in the movement pathways. For example, the smaller the interval, the more obvious the ‘trail’ of bodies and limbs through the space, however larger intervals could also achieve an interesting effect when applied to the right movement. Careful selection of the choreography was important. Which sections to ‘animate’, according to their inherent qualities of speed, duration and spatial direction became significant decisions. After doing a couple of tests I also came to understand which movements were more successful than others. In creating the choreography I generally found that simple clean movements worked best, as did movements that focused on the full range of motion of the limbs and torso.

timeline

A screen shot from the En Solitaire Adobe Final Cut Pro project.

When reading about Pas de Deux I came across this review and it significantly influenced my approach:
“Using multiple exposures of backlit dancers moving in a void of blackness, it presents those dancers to us as reflections of themselves, as shadows of themselves, and finally as continuous pluralities. As dancers’ glistening white outlines pile atop one another the film abstracts away from our notions of a body’s physicality and self-identity; the dancers cease to be things and are dissolved into pure motion”. (Melvillan, 2010, p. 2)

Whilst informed by McLarens’ technical process to achieve the effects that he created in Pas de Deux, I also wanted to capture some of the inherent qualities of the film. Rather than aiming to replicate his ideas I wanted to use them as stimulus for my film. Using the idea that the body could move into and out of itself, appearing to move forward and backwards ‘through time’ I was able to shift and abstract the body, it’s physicality and it’s identity from being something purely physical into something more metaphysical or transcendent. This information also influenced my use of a black and white/ sepia tones and also the use of shadow. There were no shadows in McLaren’s film but here in my solo experiment I chose to accentuate the dark shadowy quality, suggesting an ambiguity between the body and it’s shadow – at times the shadow disappearing completely as I leant against the wall.
Music also plays a big role in enhancing the qualities of the work. McLaren was heavily influenced by music. When asked what stimulated and encouraged him, he said “I listened to music a lot of the time and forms suggested themselves in motion to me just naturally while listening to the music”. (McWilliams, 1969). I chose the accompanying piece of music by electronic composer ‘Murcof’ because I felt it matched the fractured, tonal and temporal qualities of the imagery, and suggested a sense of space and movement.

Conclusion

There is no doubt McLaren pushed the boundaries of animation. His personal definition of animation states: “Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn; What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame; Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between the frames.” (Furniss, 1998, p. 5). With this in mind I have created a short film that has used some of the key questions that emerged from my analysis of McLaren’s animation practice and in particular the driving concerns of his film Pas de Deux, and I have used them as stimulus for my exploration.

References

Bukatman, S. (2006). Comics and the Critique of Chronophotography, or ‘He Never Knew When It Was Coming!’ London, Sage Publications.

Collins, M. (1976). Norman McLaren. Ottawa, Ont: Canadian Film Institute.

Elliott, L. (1971). Norman McLaren: The Gentle Genius of The Screen. Reader’s Digest, (1971).

Furniss, M. (1998). Art in motion: Animation aesthetics. Sydney: John Libbey.

Holier, P. (2012). Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition. Zap! Bang! Magazine. Retrieved 28 August 2012 from http://www.zapbangmagazine.com/film/features/norman-mclaren

Jordan, W. (1953). Norman McLaren: His Career and Techniques. The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1953), pp. 1-14 Published by: University of California Press Retrieved on 1 October, 2012 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1209909

Laybourne, K. (1979). The animation book: A complete guide to animated filmmaking: From flip-books to sound cartoons. New York: Crown Publishers.

Melvillan. (2010). WordPress blog Existentialism is a Film; Pas de Deux (McLaren, 1968): Zeno’s Paradox and the Experience of Motion. Retrieved 25 August, 2012 from
http://melvillian.wordpress.com/2010/01/07/pas-de-deux/mclaren

Mc Williams, D. (1969). Talking to a great film artist – Norman McLaren. McGill Reporter, 1(35).

National Film Board of Canada (2003). Norman McLaren: On The Creative Process. [Video/DVD] Harrington Park, NJ: Milestone Film and Video.

National Film Board of Canada (2006). Norman McLaren: The Master’s Edition. [Video/DVD] Montréal: KOCH Vision

National Film Board of Canada, (1971-72). Film Catalogue.

Russett, R. and Starr, C. (1976). Experimental animation: An illustrated anthology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.

Dance & Theatre – It takes two to tango…

Elise May writes about the contemporary dance genre known as ‘Dance Theatre’, which she describes as a kind of liaison between dance movement and theatrical ideas. She also shares her insight about the challenges of playing the fiery, passionate character of Carmen in Expressions Dance Company’s Carmen Sweet.

‘Dance’ and ‘Theatre’. We can identify with these two terms separately, but what does it mean when we put the two words together? Historically, the first signs of the two words used together emerged with the German term “Tanztheater” translated as ‘Dance Theatre’ in the 1920s. As modern dance was breaking away from its ballet tradition and as drama too was departing from its naturalist history, it seemed unavoidable that these two forms might eventually crossover and begin to share some of the same territory. At the same time, dance seemed to be moving towards naturalism with the use of everyday movement and gesture, whilst drama was looking for ways to become more abstract and more physical. Inevitably a hybrid form emerged when both dance and drama adopted elements of the other, breaking down the barriers and allowing for a new form to emerge. (2)

The beginnings of dance theatre emerged in the work of a series of dance artists including Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss and later, Pina Bausch. Laban was the first to make a clear distinction between what he called ‘movement choir’ and dance theatre. Rather than a dance form in which anyone could participate, he insisted that ‘dance theatre’ was and art from presented by professionally trained dancers. His student Mary Wigman called her dance art “dance absolute” and choreographed many works revealing a central issue: man and his fate. Kurt Jooss, another of Laban’s students wrote an article called “The Language of the Dance Theatre.” In this article he wrote:

“A work of Art in order to have meaning needs a concrete subject… The choreographer conceives the theme of the dance work and he translates and structures it into harmoniously composed rhythmic movement, into dance.”

Pina Bausch, a choreographer well known for prolific dance theatre work in the twentieth century, was influenced by this lineage of artists as well as American Modern Dance and German Expressionist Dance (Ausdrunkstanz). She became the director of her company ‘Tanztheater Wuppertal’ in 1973. Her unique dance theatre was based on realism. (2)

“Pina Bausch’s dance theatre is largely autobiographical; its strength is in the intensity of the experience in its expression… Bausch intrudes uncompromisingly into the private sphere and observes the seemingly unimportant with clinical eyes. She brings out people’s motivations.” What emerged in Bausch’s work has been referred to as a ‘theatre of images’, This form of theatre is not so much concerned with telling stories, but rather with conveying feelings using visual, vocal and physically embodied images. (2)

We cannot discuss the development of dance theatre without in turn mentioning the work of Loyd Newson and his company ‘DV8 Physical Theatre Company’. ‘Physical Theatre’ is another term, which possibly only came to public attention around 1986 when DV8 was founded, but which has since been used by a younger breed of theatre and dance artists to capture a sense of the ‘exciting’, ‘risky’ and ‘cutting edge’ when promoting their work to possible new audiences. The term ‘physical theatre’ has recently been synonymously interchanged with ‘dance theatre’, which has blurred our understandings of the subtle differences. Loyd Newson was a practising psychologist before he became a dancer and his works essentially speak of human emotions and feelings.(1) He has spoken of his work as: ‘breaking down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics’ and of ‘taking risks, aesthetically and physically’. (3)

In Australia, the physical in theatre has been present since the 1980’s with a rich landscape of leading companies and choreographers employing elements of dance theatre in their work. Such artists as Meryl Tankard, Leigh Warren, Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek, Gary Stewart, Tanja Liedtke and Expressions Dance Company’s founding artistic director Maggie Sietsma, to name only a few, have shaped a uniquely Australian aesthetic and physical embodiment of theatrical ideas and concepts, each in their own unique ways.

Natalie Weir, current Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company and creator of Carmen Sweet was initially careful not to ‘label’ her work as dance theatre, however Natalie is known internationally for her highly physical partner work, her organic movement style and her touching insight into human nature. As Artistic Director of EDC, Natalie continues to create work that balances artistic risk with accessibility and that speaks of humanity.

Natalie Weir's Carmen Sweet. Pictured EDC's Elise May. Image by Dylan Evans

Although Natalie’s body of work displays diversity from strongly theatrical to quite abstract, her upcoming production of Carmen Sweet, is very much informed by the traditional notion of dance theatre. What is very unique about this production is that Weir’s femme fatale is brought to life by three dancers playing Carmen’s different states of mind and alter egos. “I thought it would be interesting to see how the story unravels when you have three women take on different aspects of the Carmen persona. The Carmen story has all the elements for great dance; passion, love, revenge, jealously, betrayal, and even a touch of murder”.

In Natalie’s work, I play one of the three aspects of Carmen. I find the role challenging because as a performer, you need to identify the desires and motivations of the ‘character’ in order to convey the ideas to the audience. I believe in the ability for dance to tell stories, and it is in the performing of Natalie’s work, in particular where there is a strong narrative driving the movement and performance, that I feel most challenged and fulfilled. For me, the body is a tool to communicate and it’s primary expression of being is what dance and theatre are all about.

 

References:

1 Martha Bresmer and Lorna Sanders Fifty Contemporary Choreographers Taylor and Francis, 2011, p. 298
2 Royd Climenhaga, Pina Bausch Sourcebook: The Making Of Tanztheater, Taylor and Francis, 2012, p. 1-­‐47,
3 Simon Murray and John Keefe Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction Taylor and Francis, London, 2007, p. 14

Images:
Natalie Weir’s Carmen Sweet. Pictured EDC’s Elise May, Samantha Mitchell and Riannon McLean. Image by Dylan Evans

The Emerging Choreographer – How to Kick-start your Chorographic Career

Australia’s dance industry boasts a number of very talented choreographers whose international reputation rate highly amongst the best dance makers in the world. The choreographer’s passion to communicate ideas and stories, coupled with the desire to use movement as a medium of expression drives many to create meaningful and relevant work for contemporary audiences. So what does it take to be a choreographer? And how can developing your interest in choreography help you to diversify your dance practice and contribute to an emerging culture of brave new dance work?

So how does a young dancer know if they have a hidden choreographic talent? Some of the following questions may help to identify whether or not you have an interest or inclination towards choreography:

  • Firstly, do you have something to say? In other words, do you have ideas that you would like to express or communicate in ways other than the written word, or other forms of traditional communication?
  • Do you visualise or imagine movement or theatrical concepts? For some choreographers, the inspiration to create choreographic work often originates from a single imagined idea or concept.
  • Do you enjoy creating original movement or experimenting with new ways of putting movement together?

If you have answered yes to at least two of these questions, chances are you probably have some of the creative attributes of a choreographer. Developing your interest in choreography is something that you may like to consider as an addition to your creative skills-set as a dance artist.

Just having an interest in choreography however may not be enough to kick-start a choreographic career. Finding opportunities to experiment with your ideas is really important. Like any art form, we are not immediately expected to be masters of our craft. Developing your choreographic skills may take many years of play and experimentation. So if you are interested in choreography, the best place to start is in the classroom or rehearsal studio with your friends and peers in a supportive environment. If you know of other dancers who are interested in experimentation you may find a way of working together as a group where each person has an opportunity to experiment with some choreographic ideas on the rest of the group of dancers.

In these early stages of experimentation as an emerging choreographer, it is best to start with small-scale tests or exercises just honing in on single elements or concepts. For example, going back to basics and creating just a simple movement phrase that includes movements with a range of levels, directions and shapes is a great place to start. Creating a phrase (like a movement ‘sentence’) that encapsulates a simple but clear intention is a really important skill in choreography, so spending time on this aspect is really beneficial.  Once you have become comfortable creating simple phrases, experiment with expanding these by introducing new movement concepts such as repetition, timing, spatial orientation and dynamics.

Also, experimenting with ways to work with your dancers in the choreographic process is important. Setting small tasks where the dancers generate their own movement to contribute to the phrase is a great way to approach the choreographic process in a collaborative way, this can also generate some very interesting results that enhance and enrich the movement language that you create together in the studio. There are many ways to establish a working practice with your dancers that can set up very specific dancer-choreographer relationships and rehearsal processes. It is worth experimenting with different approaches and being open to new possibilities.

Once you are at a stage where you are ready to share these small experiments with an informal audience you may need to find opportunities to test out your first creative works in front of small audiences. This is an important step in gaining the necessary experience and feedback that will be very useful in further developing your work as a choreographer.  Getting feedback on your work might be as simple as inviting your peers into the rehearsal studio or asking other choreographers or people from outside the dance field who’s opinion you respect to watch your work. Try to think about whom you will invite. Share your work with people who you think might give you some honest constructive criticism that could help you look at your work from an outside perspective and give you insight as to how others relate to your ideas. In a low-pressure environment such as a rehearsal or informal performance, your audience will perhaps feel more comfortable talking about what they have experienced. It may be a good idea to have some questions ready to ask your audience. For example – Did they understand a particular aspect or idea that you were trying to convey in the work? Or what was their immediate response to the piece? Questions like this might help them to be specific and articulate their response to your work. There are opportunities available to take part in this kind of program in most Australian states. There are also funded programs such as residencies or assisted creative development platforms that offer choreographic opportunities to emerging choreographers. Becoming a member of The Australian Dance Council (Ausdance) www.ausdance.org.au in your state will enable you to find out about and access such opportunities.

Having invested time, energy and commitment into your choreographic development, you may then take the plunge into applying for professional choreographic commissions or writing your own grant applications to further your professional development or create an independent dance work. Thinking ‘outside the box’ and considering alternative performance venues or site-specific spaces to present your work may expand your practice outside the traditional theatre setting. Collaborating with other artists and practitioners from other disciplines will also increase your networks and provide new audiences for your work. Finding a mentor (a choreographer whom you look up to or whose work you admire), can be an extremely useful and rewarding experience for emerging choreographers. The mentor figure will be able to offer all sorts of practical advice for you as you begin to generate your own work.

In an increasingly competitive industry, it is important to have a diverse set of skills in order to ensure that you can find, make and create opportunities to work in your field. Dance, like many of the performing arts is experiencing a shift of creative ideals, where traditional notions of theatre are being put to the test through intense experimentation and questioning. In this climate a new wave of young Australian choreographers are emerging to claim this new space for highly innovative and interesting new work. Whether you are already a choreographer-in-the-making or yet to experiment in the world of choreography, there is a calling for your unique choreographic voice in the future of Australian dance.

Elise’s article: ‘Dance Smarts’ How To Develop A Dance Intelligence

Elise May 'Dance Smarts' Article

Learning dance requires a very unique skill set, a very specific and unique talent. But have we stopped to think about the nature and source of this body intelligence? What cognitive functions and processes are we using to develop our knowledge base? How can we encourage ourselves to become more connected to our deep reservoirs of intuition and creativity? And is it possible to train our brain in order to become a better dancer?

The first thing to consider is that a person’s intelligence is complex. There are many psychologists who no longer subscribe to the idea that a person’s intelligence can be summed up by the results of an IQ test. Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ (1983, 1993) suggests that within any person there may exist different types of intelligence, he believes that: ‘Human beings are organisms who possess a basic set of intelligences’ and that each person possesses a unique combination of the following seven types: Linguistic intelligence, Logical-mathematical intelligence, Musical intelligence, Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence, Spatial intelligence, Interpersonal intelligence and Intrapersonal intelligence. (Smith, 2002, 2008)

According to this framework of multiple intelligences, it can safely be assumed that dancers (in particular) show high levels of Kinesthetic, Spatial and Musical intelligence. ‘Kinesthetic intelligence’ is the ability for using one’s body (as a whole or in part) to solve problems. It is also involves the application of one’s mental abilities to reproduce bodily movements with skill and coordination. ‘Spatial intelligence’ is one’s ability to recognize spatial patterns, visualise objects and solve spatial problems, whilst ‘Musical intelligence’ is the ability to recognize musical patterns and compose or reproduce musical elements such as pitch, tone, and rhythm. (Smith, 2002, 2008). On a daily basis, dancers manipulate their body movement with acute sensitivity to both spatial and musical elements and in effect these elements feel like ‘second nature’. Sometimes as dancers these perspectives become so integral to our mental processes that they become part of the way we think and perceive the world around us.

Aside from the obvious talents and skills that dancers possess, ‘Interpersonal’ and ‘Intrapersonal’ intelligences are likely to be at work within successful dancers. ‘Interpersonal intelligence’ is associated with the ability to work effectively with others and understand the motivations and desires of others. ‘Intrapersonal intelligence’ involves the ability to understand oneself, and to recognise one’s emotions and motivations. (Smith, 2002, 2008). In this sense intelligence can be thought of as a kind of awareness. In cognitive therapy, it is known that becoming aware of a problematic behaviour or pattern is the most important step in overcoming it. As dancers this can be applied to our daily practice. If we are not able to observe our own habits and gain an awareness of ourselves how can we expect to grow and improve?

The intelligent dancer for example, will not rely solely on corrections from the teacher as a source of motivation. As dancers we learn to develop an inner dialogue, a kind of self-analysis or conversation with our body that is informative and provides feedback for ourselves. This feedback expands our awareness of why and how we perform actions, make decisions and interact with other dancers. It is important that we become self-aware of our strengths, weaknesses, body’s limitations, movement preferences, attitudes and even our emotions. Becoming aware of these aspects of ourselves as dancers will not only give us the ability to be self-critical, (in the positive sense of the word), by helping us to make improvements, but it will also open us up to the larger questions like; Why do I dance? and Who am I as a dancer?

The good news is that recent research in brain science indicates that your brain is changing all the time. Whilst we once believed that you we were stuck with the genetic potential that you were given at birth, scientists now believe that your brain is also shaped by your experiences and behaviours throughout our lifetime and it is possible to ‘train’ your brain into a healthier and ‘smarter’ existence. (Arden, 2010 p. 1) For dancers this news is encouraging. This means that we can actively participate in becoming better dancers by allowing our brains to absorb dance knowledge in all its facets, essentially thinking ourselves into becoming better performers and dance makers.  Becoming great dancer and meeting your full potential may not a pre-determined equation. The sky is the limit and all you need to do is put ‘mind over matter’.

Written by Elise May

Refferences:
Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008) ‘Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences’, the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm.

Arden, John B. (2010) ‘Rewire Your Brain’, Think your way to a better life, John Wiley and Sons, New Yersey.

Grove, R. Stevens, C. and McKechnie S. (2005) Thinking in Four Dimentions’, Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance, Melbourne Univesity Press, Melbourne.

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Elise’s article: To Dance or Not to Dance, That is the Question – Choosing a Career In Dance

Elise May Dancehub Article

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When it comes to deciding whether or not to pursue a career in dance there are a lot of considerations. For many, the idea of not continuing dance beyond the immediately conceivable future is a daunting thought. The experience of learning dance as a child and through our teenage years results in dance becoming more than a fun past- time, it quickly becomes a passion and hugely rewarding activity – something that defines us. Naturally, to imagine a life without dance then becomes a very strange prospect. So after years of dance training and as graduation from high school looms closer, many are faced with the decision of choosing a career. For many this can signify a turning point into another profession. For others a path towards a life as a professional dancer may unfold.

So what is the next step? How does one make the jump from a dance enthusiast to dance professional? The first step is further training. It may be hard for some to contemplate the idea of more training, especially if they have already completed many years of dance tuition from a young age, usually from a private dance studio or dance centre. What a tertiary degree or nationally accredited course however can provide is a more focused, refined, full-time study program tailored towards the specific needs of your particular dance genre or area of interest. The intensity of these programs is equivalent to the hours of training and performance that one would experience as a professional dancer. A program of this kind can usually take anywhere from twelve months to three years to complete and can be seen as a kind of ‘finishing off’ that prepares the dancer for employment. Like many other professions, a degree or certificate is desirable for most employers within the dance industry. Queensland University of Technology, Victorian College of Arts and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts are among some of the most notable tertiary dance programs in Australia. There are also countless nationally accredited dance courses across the country, which offer specialised tuition. Researching courses thoroughly and finding the right course for you is really important, so get online early, and start collecting as much information as you can about each course in order to make an informed decision about where to study. Entry is usually by audition, so be sure to check out the audition dates and set aside plenty of time to prepare.

There is a lot of variation within the world of dance, and so it will be important to choose a specific genre to which you are well suited. Following your passion is important, as you will always feel most rewarded by a career that you are most interested, engaged and passionate about. It could also be wise to consider your strengths and weaknesses in order find a balance between finding something to which you are naturally inclined, but that you also feel challenged and stimulated. Other influencing factors that may play their part in choosing a specific career path within dance could be; personality, training or experience (with that style of dance), body height, size and shape, resilience (both mentally and physically) and your personal attitude. It is a very personal choice and these influences can change over time, so its good to be open to the shifts that occur as we engage with new styles and are exposed to new experiences over the course of our training.

There are certainly some sobering realities that one should be aware of when entering the dance industry. Firstly,despite conditions having improved vastly over the last decade, it is important to know that dancers and performers earn very little money in comparison to other industries. As with many of the entertainment industry professions, it is often hard to find full-time work as it is a highly competitive industry and not particularly well funded. If pursuing an independent or freelance career as a dancer, organising a consistent flow of employment can also be challenging. As we know, training is ongoing throughout a dancer’s career and it can be difficult and expensive to keep the body at an optimum level of training in between performance periods. Dancers need to be diligent in avoiding injuries by employing preventative measures and treatment for minor imbalances or injuries before they become problematic. The stress that is placed on the body can be quite extreme and as a result the dance career is usually a short-lived one, with most dancers retiring from performance in their mid-to late thirties, or transitioning into a less physical role such as teaching or choreography.

If you are not sure about pursuing a career in dance, there are many other professions in which dancers creativity, self-discipline and intuitive understanding of the body are an advantage. People with dance knowledge often make excellent therapists or human movement professionals because of their physical and functional understanding of the body and are also well suited to other creative fields such as design, graphic design, film and television and other performing arts because of their spatial, visual and kinaesthetic knowledge. Many dancers go on to find a second career after dance in an allied or similar area of interest, however some choose to re-train in something completely different. If a career in dance is not your cup of tea, then expanding your interests into other areas may help you to diversify and find your own niche career path.

The good thing is, even if you have studied dance since before you can remember, those skills that you have learned will never go to waste. They are valuable, life-long skills that can be applied to whatever career you choose. Even though one may not pursue dance as their ‘bread-and-butter’ source of income, it doesn’t mean that it cannot play a role in your life. There is a saying; “Once a dancer, forever a dancer” and this is certainly true as it is hard to escape completely whether it is a part-time pursuit, an after-hours past time or just a fun thing to do socially with friends. Whether dance is going to be your job, or whether it is something you will always enjoy as a physical outlet, it is a challenging and rewarding pursuit. If you are equipped with knowledge when it comes to making your decision about your career, then it should make the transition easier. As one who has chosen a career in dance I can say that despite it’s highs and lows it is a most rewarding, exciting and challenging career. I find myself forgetting that it is a job and that is the true mark of something that you enjoy. It is different for everyone. Half the challenge is finding that
special something that makes you happy day after day.

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Elise’s Article: Dancing the Character Finding and Developing Characters Through Movement in Natalie Weir’s ‘Where The Heart Is’

Dancehub Dancing the Charac

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Narrative dance works have the potential to communicate ideas, stories and emotions that can bring audiences to new understandings of the human condition and our relationships with others.  For many years, choreographers and dancers have worked to bring specific, stylised and believable characters to their audiences.  Although our modern storytelling on stage stems from the classical ballet tradition, where stories are often portrayed through an astonishing display of set, lighting and costume, the narrative form has its roots in the dances of our ancestors as they told stories through movement as a way of passing important information from one generation to the next. Despite a move away from the narrative in the postmodern dance movements of the late 60’s and 70’s, dance theatre has continued to evolve in unique and often niché ways. This notion is ever-present in the full-length signature works of Expressions Dance Company under the artistic directorship of Natalie Weir.

In my experience as a dancer with Expressions Dance Company, I have been asked to develop and portray characters for full-length works that sit firmly within the dance-as-theatre context. Natalie Weir’s “Where The Heart Is” and “R & J” (based on the story of Romeo and Juliet) are two such works that draw on the art of story telling and narrative to communicate strong themes. “Where The Heart Is” was loosely inspired by Brisbane born writer David Malouf’s 12 Edmonstone Street. It is a poetic and moving work about a young man who returns to his abandoned family home where he spent his childhood. As he enters the old house and pulls away the wooden boards covering the windows and doors of the old ‘Queenslander’, he is flooded with memories of his youth. As he moves from room to room, he is haunted by the memories of his first love and his family (brother, mother, father and grandmother).  In this work, I came to play the role of the grandmother, an interesting and challenging character that developed over time and continues to evolve on stage.

As we were developing Where The Heart Is in 2010, Natalie had a strong sense of the ideas and themes that she wanted to capture in the work. We spent time in the beginning, talking about the characters and how they would be perceived within the overall context of the work. So when it came to working on the movement it was quite experimental. It became important in the early stages to find gestures, specific ways of walking and moving and ways of interacting with the other characters that encapsulated the essence of each character. These ideas didn’t always manifest immediately in rehearsal and often developed over time throughout the rehearsal period. So much of the choreography was about about telling a story, so each action that you performed needed to relate back to your character. In a dramatic sense, each decision you made as a performer needed to be in alignment with how your character might react or behave in any situation.  Coupled with the dance movement, both character and movement quality find a marriage on stage to communicate the ideas and relationships within the work.

One of the challenges of playing the role of the grandmother in Where The Heart Is, was the fact that physically, I am a young woman. Natalie wanted the grandmother to be old, yet portray moments of reverting back into her youth. As an old woman she would remember her life when she was young, then return once again at the end of her solo, to the older woman.  In order to convince the audience of the ‘authenticity’ or ‘believability’ of the character we spent spent a lot of time addressing the finer details of the movement. I found it useful to develop images and a specific ‘back story’ to my character that would become a pool of thought-based inspirations that I could draw on whilst performing, in order to ‘feel’ my character from the ‘inside-out’ rather than to simply rely on a set of physical qualities to communicate the ideas.  When I was developing the character of the grandmother, I wrote the following character notes:

The grandmother is a woman who is looking back at her life, once young and beautiful, she remembers her youth with such clarity and is often lost in memories of her life. She learnt the piano when she was younger – she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. She is lonely and misses her late husband – they first met at a ball/dance before the war. She still remembers the wonderful new dress she was wearing. He asked her to dance and they waltzed late into the night.  When he returned from the war they were married and started a family.
Grandma has rounded shoulders and stiff old bones and joints, making her slow and unsteady on foot.  Her fingers are curled with arthritis, and her eyesight isn’t reliable. She often gets frustrated with her aged body and appearance and reverts back into her memories of her youth. Her favorite place is on the veranda in her special old chair.

I found that mapping out the grandmother’s past and personality was helpful because it gave me a foundation from which to draw upon in performance.

Although having a background to the character is useful, the physicalisations were equally as important in communicating the age of the grandmother. I spent time in front of a mirror experimenting with things such as a hunched or rounded upper back, an unsteady walk and shaky hands. We also experimented with finding sense of confusion and vulnerability in the rehearsal process in order to give the grandmother human qualities that we hoped people could relate to. We all have older family members in our lives, so in a way I hoped that she would remind the audience members of their own grandmothers.

It seems that every different character is driven by a unique set of motivations, desires, physical movements, gestures and personality traits. Today there are many genres of contemporary dance, each calling for unique stylistic qualities particular to their form – whether for pure movement, pedestrian, experimental, intellectual or narrative purposes. In dance theatre, choreography is as much about the movement as it is about the ideas, themes and emotions that we are trying to communicate. And so as a performer I believe that whatever the character, it is important to get to the very heart of the role, and in doing so, communicate our unique voice and share our very personal perspective of the human condition.

Written by Elise May


This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Elise’s article: From Rehearsal to Performance Making the Shift

Dancehub Article

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Shifting all your hard work in the studio into the realm of performance can be quite a daunting task. Just like switching on the ignition and shifting up a gear, performances require an extra level of focus, commitment and stamina. In fact, performing can
 be one of the most grueling parts of being a dancer, but also one of the most 
rewarding.

The Rehearsal Process


Learning dance work for performance can be very different to taking a technique
 class or learning a sequence of movement. There are many things to consider
 depending on the performance circumstances and stylistic or thematic ideas behind
the work. 
When learning repertoire or set choreography a dancer will inevitably feel the
 importance of remaining true to the original material, not only in the accuracy of
the movement, but also in the movement quality. If you are learning choreography
 that was created for another person or group it is also important to find ways
to make that movement ‘sit well’ or feel natural on your body. Finding ways to 
make that movement your own may allow you to deviate slightly from the original 
material whilst still maintaining the original quality and integrity of the piece.
 Being comfortable and feeling ownership of the movement you are performing is 
very important when dancing in front of an audience. The audience can be very 
perceptive and any feelings of uneasiness or awkwardness can be conveyed through
body language and become obvious to the audience, so rehearsal is the best time to
focus on finding your own unique pathway into the work. 
If you are lucky enough to work with a choreographer to create a performance
 piece, the rehearsal or creation process will be a first hand opportunity to embody
 the intention and ideas of the choreographer. It is also a great time to experiment
and try out different movement approaches and interpretations. The choreographer
 may respond to these variations by incorporating them into the piece or they may
 even spark new ideas and directions in the choreography. Finding out exactly what 
the choreographers’ ideas are for the piece may at first involve talking with them in-
depth about the look, feel, images, dynamics and themes that they envisage for the
 work. In some cases you may even need to conduct some of your own research to
 find out more about a particular theme or concept.

The Lead Up


Once a piece of choreography has been learned or shaped, a preparatory period will
 usually take place to ensure that the dancer becomes well rehearsed and equipped
 with all the necessary tools to reach their performance peak by the time they arrive 
on stage. Having a rehearsal plan or rough timeline will help you make the best
 use of your available rehearsal time so that you don’t feel rushed towards the end.
It is equally important however not to reach your ‘peak’ too early. Jotting down
some aspects of your performance that you would like to have accomplished by 
a particular date is great way of keeping track of your rehearsal process. Breaking
 your piece down into separate components can also prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by the overall complexity of a performance piece. 
At the beginning of each rehearsal it is good to remind yourself of any notes or
 requests from the choreographer, teacher or rehearsal director from the previous
 rehearsal. This will keep those important corrections fresh in your mind as you work
 through the piece.
As a general rule, the very first time you run your piece at the
 beginning of each rehearsal is an indication of how you would look in performance
 (if you were to enter the stage at that point in time). This is a good way of tracking
 your improvement. In other words, if you start with a ‘cold run’ each rehearsal
 and then spend the rest of the time ironing out the problem areas you will begin 
to notice improvements each time and the success of these runs will also indicate
your readiness for performance. Things like stamina, movement accuracy and
 strength will improve significantly during this time. If you spend time outside of
rehearsals, either visualising or thinking reflectively about your performance and
 the choreography you may also begin to notice greater shifts in your improvement
 throughout the preparation period. Some dancers find it helpful to keep a reflective 
diary or journal to help them focus on particular ideas or skills and analyse their own
strengths and weaknesses.

As the preparation period progresses it is a good idea to start to think about your performance quality.
 If you are being asked to convey a meaning, or a sense of character or narrative in 
your performance you need to build this into your rehearsal process. It will simply
 be too late if you leave it until the day of the performance. Now is the time to
be exploring how your character would perform a particular task or movement,
 expose a raw emotion or gesture meaningfully to the audience. You may also like
 to experiment with creating specific images or metal pictures to recall whilst you
 are performing in order to help you access the right emotion or dramatic intention.
 Inviting some peers, family or friends to your final rehearsals is also a great way to
get some feedback and help you transition into a performance mode prior to getting 
on stage. Once you know the movement inside out you can then free up your mind
 and start to concentrate on things like focus, eye-line, pace, pause, punctuation
 and projection. By dedicating time in rehearsal to these finer details, you may give
 yourself the performance edge that you are looking for.

The Performance


When the big day finally approaches, if you have taken active steps towards your
 own personal learning and growth as a performer throughout the rehearsal stages, 
you will arrive backstage feeling well prepared and confident. Nerves may still
 play their part, but you can be reassured that you have backed yourself up with a
thorough knowledge of all aspects of your performance. The only thing left to do
 now is to prepare your body, breath deeply, focus your mind and get ready to enjoy
the wonderful experience of performing for an audience.

Written by Elise May

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Elise’s article: Duets & Partnering In Contemporary Dance

Duets & Partnering In Contemporary Dance

It can be an interesting learning curve when dancers who are used to dancing in group situations or as soloists suddenly get thrown in the deep end with partner work. Working with a choreographer to create a duet can be quite daunting at first, but with an understanding of the foundations, partnering can be safe, exciting and rewarding, especially when performing for an audience. Known in classical ballet as a ‘Pas de Deux’ or “step of two” duets involve two dancers. They are most commonly danced by a male and female dancer, but are also frequently performed by two dancers of the same gender. Duets may contain supporting, weight baring, lifting or unison movements, and usually focus on the connections, spaces and relationships between two bodies in space. In the true sense of the word, a duet occurs when each dancer relies on the other to create a union of movement. If one dancer were to remove themself from the partnership, the duet would cease to exist.

Here are a few ideas to take with you into the studio when embarking on any new dance partnership:

Trust

It is important that each partnership begins with developing a relationship of trust. In order to feel comfortable and dance safely with a partner, first you need to be able to rely on one another. A simple exercise to encourage trust is for one person to stand with their eyes closed and gently fall away from their centre of gravity. The second dancer needs to be ready to catch their weight and bring them safely back to standing with their weight evenly on two feet.

Starting slow, and gradually trying more daring movements is always safer than lurching straight into difficult moves and lifts without first developing a foundation of trust. Make sure your trust is reciprocated. If one dancer has more experience either ‘lifting’ or ‘being lifted,’ make sure you swap, and give each person a chance to develop that trust. In contemporary dance, dancers work towards an even keel partnership. It takes time so remember to be patient.     

Personal Space

Duet work can sometimes get ‘up-close-and-personal!’ Be prepared to share your personal space with another dancer. Don’t be afraid to touch your partner, in fact the more tactile and deliberate you are when you are touching or making physical connections with your partner the better. Your partner will be better able to respond to your weight and grip accordingly. Dancing is non-verbal, so you will be communicating with your partner using your body. So touch, weight, direction, momentum and even breath are all part of the kinesthetic language that you will use to communicate to one another. Some duets are more intimate than others. It often depends on the choreographer’s intention.

Counter-balance V’s Lifting

When we think about duets or ‘pas de deux’ in classical ballet we often admire the strength of the male dancer, lifting the ballerina around the stage.  In a traditional sense, the male dancer was used as choreographic device to make it appear as though the female dancer was floating effortlessly through space. The focus was nearly always on the female, the male dancer only stepping in to lift, support or complement the line of the female dancer.  In more contemporary genres the focus is often shared evenly between the two dancers.  Often the illusion of ‘lifting’ can be created using principles of counter-balance without the use of any lifting requiring brute force strength. Contemporary dance partner work often utilises movement that is supportive and requires each partner to give equal weight to a particular movement, either leaning towards or away from an imaginary centre-line between the two bodies. This concept is known as counter-balance. Through play and experimentation two dancers can create many different movements that utilise the transference of each other’s weight to create interesting shapes and movement ideas.

Repetition & Commitment

Don’t be surprised if a duet takes a lot longer to create, rehearse and perfect for performance. Movement sequences can be made up of many small detailed movements, handgrips or subtle shifts of weight that require lots of repetition in order to perform with ease when the time arises. An under rehearsed duet is a recipe for an unpredictable and risky performance, or worse – injury. When performing difficult moves, you need to confidently attack and commit to them. There is nothing worse and more dangerous than pulling out of a movement half way through. The best way to prepare for these situations is to have adequate rehearsal. Once the duet is created, rehearse it many times without stopping so that you understand which areas of the duet need attention. Remember you are responsible for your own safety and the safety of your partner. Only perform movements with which you feel comfortable. And never be too shy or afraid to ask your partner to run through any problem areas, you need to work together to get things right.

Some things to remember:

  • Every duet is unique to the two dancers who perform it. It is the sum of two parts – one can’t exist without the other
  • Spend time establishing a connection, communication and trust with your partner and be prepared to receive another dancer into your personal space
  • Make sure your duet is well rehearsed so that you can be confident, calm and consistent in your performance

When two dancers find a connection, rhythm and dynamic energy in performance it can be exciting and magical to watch. The foundations of duet and partner work can be equally as exciting to learn and they can be very challenging and rewarding to perform.

Written by Elise May


 

Here is a video excerpt of EDC dancers Elise May and Jack Ziesing rehearsing for EDC’s Launch Pad 2012 season, a duet entitled “Crush” choreographed by Lisa Wilson www.lisawilson.com.au

“Crush explores the idea of panic and it’s contrasting manifestations of restraint and stillness. With a mix of powerful images in motion and intimate human connections, these conflicting emotional states will be repeatedly built and dismantled by the performers, reflecting our inner drives, needs and urges”.

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here