“Alright, I’m going to put on some music and I want you to respond to the words. Ignore the rhythm, ignore the beat. As you’re responding, try your best to match the tone, the emotion, the feeling behind the voice.”
She presses play. I stand there, baffled. The bass line fills the room and it’s unfamiliar. I patiently await the first notes from the crooner. My body is still, yet anxious. I hopelessly flail around the room, or so it seems. The music pauses. Many questions fill my head: Have I failed? Did I appropriately meet the challenge?
“We’re going to try that again,” she says calmly. “This time, I want you to pretend that there’s a ping-pong ball inside your body. The ball reacts to the singer’s voice and moves through your body. Don’t overthink it. Just respond.”
Just respond. Just respond. Just respond.
This phrase replays in my head as she browses her library for another song. Since leaving college, dance has become my primary art form. A language of its own, dance has a particular code and rehearsals generally follow a particular flow. Upon arrival, you warm up, stretch, and prepare to learn steps, movements, and counts usually dictated by the choreographer. There’s a method to the process — a successful formula repeated in several companies in several studios in several locations.
Just respond. Just respond. Just respond.
Improvisation is the catalyst of chaos in the rehearsal room. It disrupts the process and provides moments of discovery as well as surprise. Jacqui Malone implies that improvisation is “an art of individual assertion within and against the group.” In most dance forms, homogenous synchronization is a privilege — a great amount of rehearsal time is spent ‘cleaning’ the dance, making sure that each member can’t be told from the next. Although this method is visually palatable and impressively precise, the subversion that occurs through an improvisational flow lies particularly in the opportunity it affords dancers to embrace their nuanced rhythm and style.
Dancers are no longer dictated by steps, but propelled by emotion.
Source: New York Public Library/Flickr
Multiple dancers in a space sticking to a loosely-set structure — yet taking advantage of the freedom to play within the rhythms and music — is a spectacle that betrays the hierarchical aesthetic of dance. Jazz dancer James Berry (of the Berry Brothers) notes that “you feel free to do what you want and you can’t get lost, because you can always come in, you can dance with abandon but still you are encased within the beat.” In other words, improvisation is controlled chaos; there is a nuanced structure not readily identifiable, yet present enough to preserve the story being told and the athleticism of the artists on stage. It is this quality that my director was seeking to capture through the placement of a ping-pong ball within the confined vessel of the body, yet giving said body the freedom to bounce the ball around with abandon of care.
It is the inability to track the pattern of the dance that propels the journey forward.
“You’re thinking too much about it,” she exclaims, growing impatient with the process and, quite frankly, with me. I’ve hit a wall; capturing the essence of chaos in the rehearsal room is a practiced craft. Ironically enough, the first and arguably toughest hurdle is simply embracing the freedom to explore and release within a defined structure. My director argues that once a dancer starts choreographing and thinking about the steps, they have lost their connection to the dance itself. It is a laborious task to rewire an approach to a craft in the moment and trust that the haphazard movements strewn together on impulse and without forethought will amass to something not quite choreographic, yet not complete chaos.
Just respond. Just respond. Just respond.
We spend two hours exploring this ping-pong ball exercise. Songs change frequently and directives are layered on the structure intermittently. She checks in often:
“How does that feel?”
My initial response is, “I don’t know.” I realize now it is difficult to put words to a foreign process; it never feels complete. How is it supposed to feel? How do I know when I’ve ‘arrived’?
The rehearsal becomes less about finding the right step and more about returning to the ‘rightness’ initially discovered.
The second question is the beauty of this choreographic process — it is the challenge to embrace questions rather than seek answers, and to suspend judgment of the product before fully experiencing the journey. In chasing chaos in the rehearsal room, a dancer quickly draws parallels to the chaos and order of life.
Now, what if we add other dancers to the mix? Can chaos and synchronicity co-exist?
Strange Children, a 1955 ballet by Margaret Barr | Source: State Library of New South Wales/Flickr
There are two other dancers in this rehearsal room with me: Brittany and Kesha. They’ve also explored the belly of the chaotic beast and I briefly inquired about their thoughts on the process:
“There’s a magic in improvisation. I love the moments when a connection is made unintentionally, you know?”
Brittany continues, “I feel like when I’m given the choreography and asked to tell a story with my partner all at the beginning… It feels forced. Like I’m fighting to remember the steps and make a believable connection with my partner. Improvisation gives me the option to simply respond. And then I make discoveries that I didn’t know were even there.”
Brittany quite effortlessly captures the purpose of this process. In “choreographing chaos,” a director is allowing the dancer to write the story first, rather than simply play the part. Furthermore, there’s a heightened sense of vulnerability in this process; the inability to take a ‘wrong’ step makes any movement and any connection possible. Moving through this process with other dancers means multiple variations of a story are created before one is formally ‘choreographed’ into the performance.
“There’s always a moment when you’re like — ah, that felt nice… You know, that felt authentic. What’s funny is, it’s often hard to return to that moment.”
“But, you now know what you’re striving for in the dance. You are constantly attempting to return to that ‘aha’ moment,” Kesha continues. That’s the difference — the ‘aha’ discovery is the spark that drives the creation of the piece. The rehearsal becomes less about finding the right step and more about returning to the ‘rightness’ initially discovered. The entire creation process gets flipped on its head; dancers are no longer dictated by steps, but propelled by emotion. This emotion is then given steps and a sequence and, ultimately, the chaos of the rehearsal room leads to the stage.
Grupo Corpo | Source: © Grupo Corpo/Facebook
Grupo Corpo, a modern dance company based out of Brazil, blends athleticism with nuanced synchronicity to beautifully break rules and maintain a safe discomfort in each audience member of how all the pieces will neatly come together, even if only in the vision of the dance. I recently saw a production of their iconic company piece, Suíte Branca. Set against a white backdrop that collects crevices and peaks throughout the duration of the piece, I found myself on the edge of my seat during the whole performance. While it can be attributed to the physicality and seeming impossibility of some of the movement, what was most exciting was the shifting in dance patterns without any warning or consistency. Dancers file on stage performing a uniform movement sequence when, suddenly, a dancer switches directions or leaps above the rest or dives between lines. These moments come to define the aesthetic of Grupo Corpo and present a piece that refuses to subscribe to the homogenous uniformity of traditional ballet dance. The story is told in the moments of dissent or disarray; it is the inability to track the pattern of the dance that propels the journey forward. Above all, it is unapologetic in its approach, compelling the audience to trust that this process will sort itself out. While evidently well-rehearsed and precisely choreographed, the choreographer first made sense of the madness; how did the ping-pong ball finally find a passing within and across bodies that created this masterpiece?
2016 production of Suíte Branca at New York City Center’s Fall For Dance Festival | Source: © Grupo Corpo/Facebook
As does most chaos in life, the final product is as much an offspring of the disorder as it is its antithesis. I am drawn to this dissonance; it reminds us all that stories develop as they are written and that there is no set formula or equation to any given outcome. This process of story-telling becomes my therapy; the chaos of the rehearsal room is simply accouterments to my healing. Life presents many structures that contain chaos and force a prescribed order. It is in this unique choreographic process that I am reunited with freedom and the beauty of breaking rules and abandoning formulaic remedies. Whether it’s the Big Bang or darkness or an explosion, I find it only fitting that the creation of our world as we know it began with utter chaos.