The First 10 Steps to Choreographing a Performance

Posted on January 15, 2014 by

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Fire Dancing Choreography

Photo: Sari Blum
Artists: GlitterGirl & Zihni

Though we touched on some of these ideas in our Fire Dancing Choreography 101 article, there have been some requests for a bit more detail on how to choreograph a performance. Here’s a few ideas for you to consider.

Please note:

  • Though this document is created with numbers, some of these items can happen in parallel and they are not always sequential in nature.
  • This information is coming from the perspective of a dance performance piece. A dance performance piece relies on the music as the central binding elements of the performance, at least from my perspective as a performance artist. One can choose to have a dance performance focus on other elements, and the advice given here is directed towards those looking to prioritize the musicality of the performance.

The First 10 Steps to Choreographing a Performance

  1. Pick a piece of music. There are many pieces of criteria appropriate to this because you want to pick your music based on the audience for whom you will be performing. For example, a glitch piece for an 80-year-old nursing home performance might not be as appropriate as it would be for 20-year-olds burners. Similarly, one should consider the sort of impact one wants to have on the audience after the performance. For example: do you want them to be upbeat? Do you want them to be left with questions? You wanting more mysterious piece? Should it be more ethereal? There are many different things to consider in the process of selecting the music as this will affect not just the auditory tone of the performance but the overall performance tone.
  2. Next you will want to consider the types of movements you want to showcase through your performance. This will be related to the tone of the piece as well as your level of technique and the messages you want to create with the technique you are displaying.
    When considering movements, you will definitely want to work on the types of moves you want to showcase at specific moments in your performance. One should consider having pause moments where the crowd knows to applaud because you have held a position for a length of time. One should also consider power performance moves… those moves that almost always get the audience to applaud and react. Weaving these into the complete journey will fundamentally impact the overall flow of the performance and expression of the tone of both the music and the piece.
  3. F*#! around. This phase is as important as it will help you feel into the performance. This is very much about trying out styles of movement during the song and exploring what feels right in different places. This is the place where you whiteboard ideas and allow yourself to just be free with it without any expectation of right or wrong, good or bad, effective or not. It is helpful to videotape these sessions so that you can go back and see what looked good that also felt good and what looked like it felt good even if it didn’t seem memorable in the moment. Audiences definitely respond to people looking like they are having fun so study yourself with that eye in mind. You may not choose to use anything from your “whiteboard” sessions and, being able to explore might give you an insight into some genius you might otherwise have missed. There is no wrong answer to choreography. And, we recommend you get in touch with deep expression of your soul, often found in the freedom of structureless sessions.
  4. Find your weakest link. When working in groups especially, it is important to also assess the move overlapping capabilities between each of the artists. On a technique level: Remember you can only perform at the highest level of skill that the least skilled artist can execute. As an individual artist as well as in groups, remember: Practice into your weakness and perform from your strength. Consider this in relation to moves, direction of the moves as well as performance expectations.
  5. Divide up the music. Depending on the degree of choreography you wish to incorporate in the performance, you will want to divide the music up into sections. It could be as small as musical measures and as large as verse chorus or bridge type references. What’s important is that you understand the differentiation and you know what you’re trying to create through each of the different segments you have defined. I like to do this in a spreadsheet where I break it down in several columns and include: count of the music, timecode, number of beats, and then additional information to describe what is actually happening, using separate columns for blocking and each individual artist.
  6. The next step is to go through each of the segments and describe what is happening musically with words. In coming to a linguistic understanding of your auditory experience you will more readily be able to fit the visual expression in the framework you were trying to create. This would include any accent points you want to note. For example, if the music says, “going up” you might want to know that so physically you choreograph an upward movement. If the music stops, you might want to note the break in the music so that you create a stillness in the performance or a pause point to match it. Similarly, if the music crescendos, decrescendo’s, gets more or fewer instruments in the auditory experience and any other number of variables that you wish to focus on, they should be noted in this column . These will become the motivation that you use to create visual journey that will match the auditory experience.
  7. Match things up. Go back and look at the items you wish to fit into your choreography (step 2) and match them up with the musical sections you just described (step 6) so that you can create the aesthetic and auditory synergy that build your performance in the way that articulates the tone of the overall piece most effectively.
  8. Build your character. As you are ascribing movements to the sound, build the storyline that the performance artist will be traveling through. This storyline is the emotion that motivates your movements, the philosophy that inspires your downs, and is, ideally, an expression of both the visual moves you are creating and the music that is playing. Character will be expressed through gestures, facial expressions, costuming, props, make up, and stance as well as style of movement throughout the piece. Developing a clear idea of your character will more fully help you understand how to address subtle things including, for example, the tilt of your head. If you are playing someone sad, you might wish to look down. If you’re playing someone happy you might wish to look up. Little things like this will help create a fullness of expression in the performance that brings the overall experience to another level.
  9. Fill in the gaps. Once you have the big movements down and an understanding the character you are creating you can begin to fill in the spaces in between the obvious points with more detailed choreography. It is this author’s opinion that the more detailed you are in your choreography the more likely you are to have a crisp clean polished performance particularly when working in pairs or more. This includes elements that contribute to the storyline of your character, refinement of pause points, expansion of power moves, and other ways in which you would generate more impact overall in your performance.
  10. Evaluate and refine. Before getting too attached to your vision, it is a good idea to watch yourself on video and use this tool, again and again, to see how you are doing in terms of conveying both your intention musically as well as visually. Through this technique you can refine the character and create a more compelling performance.  It is important to continue to evaluate yourself and continue to refine so that you can more deeply express the essence of your authentic self through the performance. This is an infinite process as we are ever evolving beings with increasing capabilities through time. This should not be looked at as the destination of the choreographic experience, rather, a point from which to pus hoff and create something even more powerful.

For more information on performing, practice and additional resources that may be useful, please check the Temple of Poi Article Archive, including the Articles for Performers section and subscribe to our newsletter for mailbox delivery of this and other articles written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek professional guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little at symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).

Posted in: Performance