by Lucy Vurusic Riner
Being a high school dance teacher I typically choreograph anywhere between three to five full length dances each year for my student companies. Back in the day, when I was super young and wet behind the ears I made dances about just about anything. I might really enjoy a song and that would be my jumping off point. Or I might have just gotten out of a bad relationship or had a family quarrel and that would be enough to conjure up a combination or two. I was never at a loss for some idea and I was never afraid to try just about anything. I followed the basic rule that most high school dances (and I guess commercial dances as well) were typically three to five minutes in length and they may or may not have some sort of story line or underlying theme but they were always entertaining. And let’s be honest, choreographing on high school students can be somewhat forgiving because they can appreciate where all the above ideas might come from. Although they may have a limited movement vocabulary at such a young age they have plenty to dance about in their lives. My early dances were fun but simple. I know they were entertaining but they definitely weren’t masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination. And so why did I choreograph? Was it for me? The audience? Did I have a message or just some great moves I wanted people to see?
I know that’s a bit of a million dollar question and there is more than one right answer. But it is a question I ask myself at the beginning of each year? Do I want to choreograph some dances this year and if so, about what? Do I make a dance with lots of pretty lines and port de bras that essentially is about pretty lines and port de bras or do I decide to delve deeper into other ideas or issues that might be part of my present world. Do I choreograph a narrative, somewhat like a ballet and tell a story or do I work in the abstract and allow people to have to think about what they are seeing and what it might have meant for them?
I’m often jealous of college professors because they have such a fabulous educational opportunity to work on their craft. Unlimited bodies, resources, space and time all allow for so much more experimenting during a choreographic process. And college students are generally more open and understanding to the process that is involved in making dances. There is definitely a learning curve coming from their high school backgrounds but by the time they are in their junior and senior years of college many dancers have been exposed to a variety of compositional processes and they have also began to slowly figure out their own. When I look at the works of Bebe Miller, David Dorfman and Joe Goode, some of the most prolific and thoughtful choreographers I have ever seen, I know they have not only enriched the choreographic ideas of their college students but also strengthened their own skills through years of trial and error.
So as the years keep passing, choreographing has gotten a bit more challenging for me. You would think that after all of these years I could whip out a well-structured dance with the best of them. What has happened instead is that I’ve become much more deliberate about what I want to say and how I should do it and that can take some time. Some seasons, it’s tremendously difficult to find any sort of inspiration or concept to motivate even a basic structure to a dance and I spend weeks trying to find clarity. Other seasons all I need is to have a visceral reaction to a piece of music I’ve heard or develop a phrase that can manifest itself into a variety of different adaptations and a dance can unfold within two or three rehearsals. I can still whip up a three to five minute crowd pleaser (and on occasion I do) but my interests are focused on making dances that need to develop over time. I find that a lot of my current work with my high school dancers is anywhere between six and ten minutes long and while this is still not the even-length type of work that I am accustomed to doing with my own dance company it does challenge my dancers to not only fully embody who they are in the work they perform but also build the heck out of their stamina to keep moving!
And so this is where I find myself these days- I can cut to the chase and when appropriate make a dance that says what it needs to say in four minutes. At other times, I can dissect and investigate my ideas and find myself saying what I need to say in ten minutes. And yet with my dance company, I know I will never make a work that isn’t either a half or full evening length work. I think the beauty of choreography is that it CAN have so many layers, adaptations and nuances. So maybe I should stop asking myself whether or not I should be choreographing and just decide on how it’s going to unfold this time around. How’s that for an answer?
Contributor Lucy Vurusic Riner is a native Chicagoan who has been supporting and contributing to the dance community for over twenty years. She received her BS Degree in dance and dance education from Illinois State University. Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak Dance Company, RTG Dance Company and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.” She has also had the opportunity to be part of the community cast of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance.
Lucy has taught modern, hip hop, and jazz at numerous studios and high schools in the Chicagoland area. She has been the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1999. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award and was the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award. Lucy and artistic partner, Michael Estanich, formed RE|Dance in 2010. This dancer theater company investigates humanity in movement through long distance collaboration. Lucy has also begun work on a long-term project entitled, “The Moving Vessel” which explores the impact of motherhood on the professional dancer. When Lucy is not working with independent choreographers and producing her own shows, she is at home with her two great kids, Margie and Luka, and her very supportive husband, Jim.
Lucy writes about Modern Dance and other subjects for 4dancers.