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Basic Guidelines of Choreography for Ballet

When you decide to choreograph your own ballet dances, you have complete freedom of expression for your choreography. And that's as it should be. But artists of all kinds have found that they flourish best when they voluntarily submit to certain limitations. The series of ballet gestures, for example, is a "limitation" that somehow sets the imaginations of the great ballet choreographers free.

The ideas in the following sections, culled from centuries of great choreography, give you a framework for your freedom, a vehicle for your own artistic vision. All forms of expression are valid — but these ideas can help you get started successfully.

Finding your inspiration — music or theme

What makes a choreographer want to create a particular dance in the first place? Most choreographers say that they are usually inspired by one of two things: the music or the theme.

When you hear a certain piece of music, are you swept away in an ecstatic whirlwind? Do colors and shapes and movements immediately suggest themselves to you? Are you lost in time and space? If so, we know a good doctor who can help. But failing that, the piece sounds like a good candidate for choreography.

If there's one basic rule of choreography, it's this: The gestures should somehow reflect the music. What sets the successful choreographers apart is that their gestures embody the music beautifully, as if each musical phrase had been written just for them.

An example most people can visualize is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. As the celesta begins to play its tinkly tones, the ballerina dances nimble, delicate little steps, seeming to flit across the stage. Although different choreographers may have set different steps to this music over the years, nearly all of them have tried to create something appropriately delicate.

You might like to know that in the professional world, every single minute of dance onstage is the result of approximately two hours of choreography and rehearsal. But hey, don't let that stop you.

Another form of inspiration is the need to tell a story. Storytelling is one of our oldest pastimes, and dance has always come in handy for that purpose. Does a certain story call out to you, just needing to be expressed somehow? Then why not make that the basis for a dance?

When telling a story in dance, first decide whether you want to create a simple narrative from beginning to end, or something more complex.

Say, for example, that your theme is the story of Hansel and Gretel. Just think of all the ways you could tell that story. You could opt for the linear approach, showing Hansel and Gretel wandering through the forest, dropping breadcrumbs, getting lost, happening upon a candy house, and getting fattened up. Or you could start at the end of the story, with the kids leaping breathlessly onstage to tell you what they just experienced.

Or, your dance could simply focus on character at one point in a story. How does the wicked witch feel when the kids bake her alive? Maybe she could do an interpretive dance to let us know. This expression of one instant in time, telescoped out to show the emotional weight it contains, is the basis for 99 percent of all poems, operatic arias, and popular songs — and it works for dance as well.

Knowing how you want the choreography to look

Great choreographers almost always talk about their "vision" of their work. Choreographers are proud of their visions and will tell you about them until you ask them to stop.

Quite literally, choreographers create an image of the dance in their minds before attacking the nitty-gritty of the choreography. Whether or not they envision the actual steps at first, they can imagine the overall "look" of the piece. From there, they can begin to choose the steps that best fit that vision.

The vision can include costumes, set, and lighting designs — although in the professional world, special designers are hired to flesh out the details of this portion of the vision.

Working from this internal vision, choreographers then write down their ideas using dance notation — or simply dance it themselves on videotape.

Developing a vocabulary for the dance

The same basic step can be danced in many different ways. So when you choreograph a piece, you have a nearly infinite number of steps to choose from. The vocabulary of the dance refers to the particular gestures and movements that you choose to use — the ones that seem to reflect your own character and make up your personal style.

The order in which you put the steps is important, too. The steps should seem to flow from one to the next. For example, an arabesque looks good when followed by a failli. But it looks bad followed by a backflip. You just feel these things.

After you begin to experiment with various sequences, you're likely to find some that feel just right for you. When that happens, you can repeat those sequences again and again — thereby creating a vocabulary that you can call your own. George Balanchine, for example, was famous for following a sauté in arabesque with a jeté. That was his trademark — just as Bob Fosse made a name for himself with bowler hats and turned-in legs (also known as pigeon toes — think Cabaret).

Using your full dance space

Here's another useful rule for choreographing your own work: Use the full amount of space that's available. By the end of the dance, every area of the stage should have been stepped on at least once.

You should even consider using non-traditional areas — where you'd never think of dancing. Staircases, hallways, railings, and other levels of flooring come to mind. (Or puddles — as Gene Kelly discovered in Singin' in the Rain.) The unexpected is often where the most inspiration lies.

When covering your space, we suggest varying the shape of your dance. If you begin with a move on a diagonal; then try adding a circular pattern later. Or vice versa. Stretch your imagination — and keep your audience on their toes.

Ending the dance as you began

One way to make a dance feel artistically whole is to "come full circle." And one way to accomplish this is by starting and ending the dance with the very same pose.

An even more advanced version of this technique is to end in a slightly "evolved" version of the starting position. For example, if the dance is a duet, consider switching the parts at the end, so that the woman ends up as the man began, and vice versa.

This technique gives the dance a feeling of completion, and it can sometimes be quite poignant and moving. Who knows — you may have your audience in tears. In a good way.

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