How To Structure A Dance

Watch It! To watch a video of these choreographic tactics in action, click here.

It happens to even the most experienced choreographers: You’ve created great movement phrases, but can’t decide how to organize your ideas into a complete dance. In such cases, it’s important to have a variety of structural tactics in your choreographic toolbox. here are explanations of some of the most common structural devices, along with examples of masterpieces that incorporate them.

1. AB, ABA, Rondo:

AB form is the simplest method of obtaining contrast, so that a dance doesn’t get repetitive: Part A and Part B clearly differ in energy, speed, movement style, etc. The parts can be short, like a phrase, or long, like a 10-minute section. Example: Part A, a high-energy jumps section, is followed by Part B, a languid adagio.

ABA structure returns to Part A before the work completes, making it the dominant theme and giving the piece a sense of conclusion. Example: Jumps are followed by an adagio, but the piece concludes with jumps.

A rondo is built upon one principal theme that is interspersed among other themes: The result would look something like ABACADAE. Each new section differs from what preceded it and enhances the principal motif in a unique way, while continuing to be distinguishable from it. Example: Jumps, adagio, jumps, then a pirouette section, back to jumps, and so on.

Masterpiece: The Beloved, Lester Horton

2. Rhapsodic/Narrative:

Dances that express pure feeling are “rhapsodies”—emotion is the tie that holds the composition together. Example: Conveying a sense of sadness or loss through movement.

Narratives follow a storyline, and may convey specific meaning or concepts through that story. Example: Retelling a fairy tale, or following a story from your life.

Masterpieces: Rhapsodic—Lamentation, Martha Graham; Narrative—classical ballets such as Swan Lake

3. Theme and Variation:

Choreography is presented and then repeated with changes, while still retaining enough of the theme that the original movement is recognizable. The significance of the original theme increases as it’s examined in its variations. Any number of tactics may be applied to the main phrase to create a variation, including:
Altering the tempo, rhythm or direction in which the pattern is performed.
Applying another structural tactic to the movement, such as inversion.
Changing the style or mood.
Repeating or lengthening portions of the theme, while omitting others.
Modifying the number and placement of dancers.

Example: Taking a phrase composed of développés and port de bras, then trying it at twice the speed, or with only the arms, or completely in reverse, or as small as you can possibly move. With any theme, begin with simple steps, so there are plenty of variation options.

Masterpieces: Theme and Variations, George Balanchine; The Fugue, Twyla Tharp

A theme presented by two or more groups repeating beats or measures apart is called a canon. (Remember singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” at summer camp?) The canon can be “strict,” meaning that the rhythm, movement and number of dancers are the same with each repetition, or you can change elements, having dancers join in at different times or repeat only part of the phrase. Example: In a combination of “glissade, jeté, pas de bourrée, assemblé,” the second dancer begins while the first does the jeté, the third a step later, and so on.

Masterpiece: Water Study, Doris Humphrey

Call and response is a physical conversation: One person/group performs, then another dances in response. This form has its roots in the songs, drums and dance of African culture, and is often seen today in hip hop and tap. Example: Two groups face each other onstage and perform alternating 8-counts.

Masterpiece: Revelations, Alvin Ailey

Ground bass requires a single theme to be constantly reiterated throughout the composition, juxtaposed against other group movement. This theme may be the primary focus or serve as background movement. It may also be passed from one individual or group to another, or performed by the entire group in unison. Look for ground bass in Native American dances where the women provide a constant background theme and men execute difficult and varied dance steps as the principal center of interest. Example: At any given point during the dance, someone is repeating an 8-count arm phrase.

Masterpiece: Concerto Barocco, George Balanchine

In accumulation, movements and phrases accrue, with the choreography continuously returning to the beginning (AABABCABCD). Example: Jump. Jump then look. Jump, look, tendu. Jump, look, tendu, turn, etc.

With retrograde, a phrase is done forward, then backward (ABCDCBA). Example: Jump, look, tendu, turn, tendu, look, jump.

For inversion, turn the movement inside out, working from somewhere in the middle of the phrase, back to the beginning, or to the end. Example: Turn, tendu, look, turn, jump, look, tendu, etc.

Masterpieces: Accumulation and If You Couldn’t See Me (an inversion of Accumulation), Trisha Brown

In music visualization, the structure of the dance mimics the structure of the music, whether dancers are representing specific instruments or dance phrases correspond with musical phrases. Example: Creating a petit allegro phrase that matches a speedy flute solo in the music, or returning to the same steps during each chorus of a song.

Masterpiece: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Mark Morris

The choreographer tosses a coin or rolls dice to decide factors such as the number of dancers, what music will be used, and even the order and timing of the phrases. This postmodern device often reveals unimagined movement and choreographic possibilities. Example: Labeling phrases 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, then rolling the dice to determine what order they’ll be performed in.

Masterpiece: Suite by Chance, Merce Cunningham

Elisabeth Williams is a freelance dancer and choreographer in Denver. She is the founder and director of the Denver Independent Choreographers Project.

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