It is the intensity of the vibration of the life force within any object, animal or human that makes each and every one of us, object, animal or human — extraordinary. This life force is not easily defined and impossible to buy or sell.
In my imagination in some ancient temple there were once dancers who only lived to dance and when they danced it was for one reason and that was to reduce the space between the dancer and what could be described as God.Their reason to be was to make manifest the unseeable energy that we associate with the divine. To make the invisible visible, to allow others witness that which, we might call holy.
Before you begin any choreographic or creative endeavour of any kind It is important to consider what your conscious agendas might be and even more important and considerably more difficult to consider what your unconscious agendas might be. Because if something is created with the wrong kind of energy at its genesis, it is already marked. It will come into existence driven by that agenda and agendas shape outcomes
The fewer possessions we have the lighter we are so in truth owning things may not be an entirely good thing.
Dancers are used to not owning things, as dancers rarely have any expendable income. But if something feels like it is unequivocally yours you are going to feel more obliged to take responsibility for it, like it is your leg, your head or your tongue.
Ownership and responsibility are like sister and brother.
In the world we live, founded on capitalism, ownership can imply entitlement and this can undermine any attempt to create a sense of the collective in ensemble work.
In my opinion, the idea of ownership does not negate the possibility of sharing? If it’s mine, it can also be yours at exactly the same time.
And when this idea is expanded within a group, it can happen, where something can be experienced as everyone’s and no one’s all at the same time and this can be a beautiful thing.
A group is made up of individuals all of whom have a unique ancestral imprint, potential and narrative.
I like the idea that when you are in a room with twelve dancers you are in truth dealing with the energies of many more invisible beings. Their parents, their teachers, their sisters, brothers, their great, great grandfathers and mothers.
Making a work of art is a process of endless, gorgeous contradictions that eventually you need to become friends with. Day and night can rarely happen at the same time, so when it is night we should allow it to be night and when it is bright we should work with that brightness.
If a dancer has lots of energy one day, work with them all day. When they are tired, work with someone else.
In a group, some individuals like working hard, others don’t. Some are musical other less so. Some will be confident, others cautious. Some will have been encouraged and loved since the day they were born, others will have been hindered and undermined.
But within the vast array of personalities and histories and stories in any group, there are certain underlying energies when unleashed have the potential to unite all of the individuals.
And being present when that happens can be a memorable experience.
I have spent a great deal of my time working to ignite unifying energies in a group while at the same time encouraging and reassuring each and every one of the dancers in any group that who they are at that particular time in their life is enough. And what they bring with them in this moment is more than sufficient to make a fine piece of work together.
If dancers feel like what they are is not enough, they can spend the whole creative process trying to be something that they can they can rarely ever be in the moment, instead being either slightly ahead of themselves or worrying about yesterday.
If there are twenty dancers in the studio then there is probably in excess of two thousand narratives to begin with. So, where do you begin?
I begin with music, deciding that one of the most important energies of all that any choreographer can work with, is a group’s shared and collective love of dancing to music.
The Power of Music
Very often I feel strongly that music should only be played live in any live dance performance. And music should take priority over any set or design concept, meaning that we should invest most of our production budget in the idea of working with live music.
Having little or no set allows for all the focus to go onto the dancers and their dancing. The absence of any set also ensures that the performance space will be big and empty and no technical time will be lost making a design concept work. Instead we can focus all the energy on dancing and its relationship to music and to space.
Often in our initial weeks of work, we make very little actual material or steps. We improvise all day to music and talk about what it is that makes something good or not good about the work and try again and again, applying what we had learned as we slowly edge forward.
There can be nervous time after three or four weeks of hard work as sometimes there can be nothing yet tangible to show for all of the work. This is the time when it’s important to learn how to stay cool or keep one’s nerve.
Being Your Self
There is an unfortunate prevalence of competition in the arts, especially in the dance world. But how can you compete with anyone when your primary and only objective should be to become the person that you were meant to become? Comparisons with others would then not only be pointless but distracting too.
I say, get busy being yourself and the rest will take care of itself.
But then what about unison dancing? How can I be myself and dance in the corps de ballet? Well you can’t be yourself and dance in the corps de ballet. You have to act, pretend to be something that perhaps you are not. My mother would call that lying. In the theatre we call it acting.
You have to submit your sense of yourself to something other. Which in itself is a fine and acceptable idea but not when it is achieved by imposition or by fear. Or if you are only doing it for the money.
True unison happens in nature all of the time. No two starlings look entirely alike but they can fly in miraculous patterns in flocks of thousands of birds and never collide their wings.
Animals are always completely immersed in their actions. They are not usually preoccupied with how they are being perceived by an external judgmental other. They are the way they are and look the way they look.
Self-Respect and Unnecessary Suffering
Sadly, as a choreographer, it is easy to be unwittingly motivated by different destructive forces that are fed by an attachment to specific outcomes, like the desire to be a success.
In this scenario, quickly the main concern becomes the maintenance of control. Control being necessary to achieve a desired outcome.
If you teach, or choreograph or lead in a dance studio you do need your collaborators to sometimes do what you ask otherwise the working process can be extremely complicated and messy.
But we are always at risk of reducing our collaborators in our attempts to control them. And therefore, we are at risk of excluding the input of dancers who don’t do as we wish in spite of the fact that they may also be extremely gifted.
We can easily fall into the trap of cultivating an atmosphere where we only reward the dancers we like and criticise or undermine the dancers we are intimidated by (or simply don’t like) or the ones that present any threat to the balance of power in a room.
It is better to be a room with artists you like and respect but if sometimes the cards don’t always fall this way and if this is the situation you find yourself in, you need to dig deep and bring your better self to the work space each morning or do the right thing and let the problematic person go free. This way you will minimise any potential for damage.
The Politics of Space in the Studio.
Looking at yourself in the mirror all day, every day for years can potentially create a distortion in the way a person interprets space and how they relate to space, which is perverse in an art form that is fundamentally based on the energetic dynamics of shapes in spaces and how one effects the other.
Dancers don’t see their true selves in a mirror. They see the outline of a two-dimensional shape reflected back at them. This cultivates an atmosphere of self-obsession, superficiality and tunnel vision.
Egotism is contrary to the idea of a collective.
Superficial appearance is contrary to the idea of integrity.
On the first day of working with a group of younger and more inexperienced dancers, I often ask the group to consider the amount of space they are taking; the amount of space they are giving to other group members and how much space they are giving me. Because they naively assume, I am important they usually give me much more space than anyone else.
Dance studios always have a front and the front is where the ‘best,’ dancers usually assume they should be. The front is also always where the mirror is and it is deemed to be the most important place in the room.
This system of belief can cause a significant reduction in spatial awareness as if the front is more important, then naturally the sides and the back become less so.
A martial artist that assumes an attack will always come from the front will be compromised and potentially vulnerable when attacked from the side or the back. The shape of a contemporary yoga mat also has been influenced by the same spatial politic, effecting the practitioner is the same way, moulding their perception of space as linear, frontal and one-directional.
In a well-designed theatre, the auditorium usually is designed to reflect the space and design of the stage. The two spaces exist in close relation to one another. If the front of the stage is the most important in the way the front of the studio is, then this creates a distortion in how a performer relates to the audience; deeming the audience closer to the stage as being the most important, resulting in a performative experience that lacks any really energetic resonance.
For something authentic to occur, it needs to be and feel whole and not one-dimensional, not frontal, not egotistical and not partial.
These spatial ideas have parallels with other mis-beliefs like the idea that the head is more important than the body or the brain is more important than the heart or that a man is more important than a woman or that big things are more important than small things.
To counter any preconceived ideas of the politics of the space, we must cover the mirrors or work with our backs turned to them. We need to work in a circle and not in lines. And we need to regularly change the orientation of the room, making the back the front and the front the back etc.
How successfully and efficiently a group can make a circle tells you everything you need to know about the energetic state of a group on any particular day. Pay close attention to this as it can be used to offset problems before they arise. Most problems relate to fatigue or have their genesis in fatigue. When a group is tired the circles that group makes or usually very poor.
Standing in a circle with a group of forty dancers is generally more successfully executed than when sitting in a circle because when people stand, they evaluate space better. As soon as people go to the floor, they become less alert as the floor is connected with the element earth, the most stationary of the elements. The ground is also associated with sleep and with death.
After any extended period of sitting in a circle, at least half of any group will end up lying on the floor in various positions and contortions making it difficult for them to concentrate.
I value work, concentration, focus, sensitivity, awareness, musicality, generosity, commitment, kindness and rarely if ever technical ability.
I work to cultivate an atmosphere of truth. When we partner up, I sometimes ask dancers to go with someone they don’t like and observe their responses and choices. I ask them to reflect on the people in the group they don’t like and ask themselves why they don’t like them? I ask them to reflect upon the potential hypocrisy of presenting a joyous ensemble to the world when in truth, cliques and individuals within the group rarely talk with members of another clique for reasons entirely of their own invention.
No Sauce Required
When a person comes under pressure, they will often resort to habitual behaviour in an attempt to survive the stress they experience. Nowhere can you see this more readily than in the workplace of dancers and actors.
When I worked for the NYDC in England, I started using the phrase, ‘no sauce required.’ The idea being that sauce was only every added to food that lacked inherent taste. It was a secondary thing, an additive. Not the thing it self but extra. When really, we were mostly only interested in the thing. Many of the dancers had been trained to sell every step they executed. At best or at worst to inanely smile regardless of what they were doing or feeling or the quality of the music they were doing it to.
There was one very interesting moment which I called, ‘The Dress Rehearsal Crisis.’
We had made a good piece. But when we had our dress rehearsal, the effect of being on the Sadler’s Wells stage with a full orchestra behind these young dancers, elicited some of the strangest transformations or regressions I have every witnessed. Beautiful dancers who had previously touched upon what it is to be real on stage suddenly started to smile meaninglessly to the front.
Pressure causes what is hidden to surface
Only a fool would assume that the dancer, who makes shapes with his or her body in a large empty space, illuminated by enormous electrical light sources, does not expose everything about themselves including all those qualities and narratives that they think they are successfully hiding.
Choreographers regularly talk about the body and its importance and how we can transcend language through dance but they rarely take time to consider what this really means. It means that you communicate almost everything about yourself as soon as you move.
Because we live in a time where many people are over using a tiny and very specific part of their consciousness, we can mistakenly assume that we are only communicating to the world that which the ego chooses to present to the world. We use cloths, hair-styles, perfumes, shoes, body sculpting, cosmetic surgery, speech therapists, fashion consultants and dietary restrictions and orthodontists in an attempt to achieve this but anyone who has any understanding of how the energetic world works, can see past all of these efforts and see the person for who they really are, especially when they dance.
Difficulties with Ballet
I noted that dancers with little to no training were often better at doing the work that I like than dancers who had studied ballet from an early age. Ballet training can result in all kinds of habits and distortions. It also creates a set of expectations within the individual which can make working with them difficult.
I don’t think it is a good idea to impose upon people. I always say, do those things that make you feel most alive. There should be little or no imposition needed when you follow this rule. There is no necessity to be told to do something if you love doing it, just like owning a thing makes you take care of it simply because it is yours.
Every man and woman have the right to become that which they are meant to become.
Bits and Pieces
Don’t propose a movement because you think it looks good or that it might impress.
Don’t plan, respond.
Don’t create actions, create causes.
Begin the day early.
Rest in the evenings.
Eat healthy food.
Find the language to express your ideas and formulate questions.
If you never talk, then talk.
If you talk a lot, talk less.
Michael Keegan Dolan, 2020