by Janet Rothwell
As a high school dance educator I am responsible for choreographing four or five dances each year for various performances. Although choreography is my favorite aspect of dance, it can be challenging to come up with new ideas, movement, spatial designs, beginnings, endings, and themes each year. As someone who values originality and the creative process, I have realized there are certain things I do to help me stay organized and creative in my work.
Over the years I have adjusted my process to include some staple methods so as to not get burnt out with repeating the same movement or spatial pattern every time I choreograph a piece. I thought I would share these specific parts of my choreographic process that seem to aid me each year as I strive to maintain newness in my artistry.
1. Maintain a choreography journal
My choreography journal is my best friend in my creative process. Not only do I use it daily while choreographing works, but I use it year round to write down ideas that pop up at random times for future works too. I write down music I like or ideas I have for themes so that when I have to create a new dance and I feel uninspired or stuck trying to think of something, I can go to my journal and look at the running list of things I have written.
I find that my choreography journal is extremely helpful for me to remember what is happening in the dances I create with my students. When I’m juggling three or more pieces at once it’s difficult to remember what choreographic elements I have already used with other dances, and since I value being original and unique with my choreography I write everything down in my journal. I make drawings of spatial designs, describe movement ideas, brainstorm titles, take notes on my music, and write down costume ideas. I also make notes on what I want to do for the next day so that when I return to my students I can take a look at my journal and know where we are in the work and in the music.
A choreography journal does not have to be pen and paper either, although I find that’s what works for me. You could use a tablet, your phone, or whatever tool you like to work best in your process. However, I would say that staying consistent is best to keep organized. There is nothing worse than having written down great notes only to have misplaced loose papers or random receipts you wrote them on. I keep an actual journal so that all of my ideas are in one place and easy to find.
2. Pick clear themes and diverse music for each dance
by Risa Gary Kaplowitz
Maggie Black, one of the foremost ballet teachers of a generation of dancers, died on May 11, 2015. Her death initiated a flood of Facebook posts and even a Remembering Maggie Black Facebook page, where former students can write their memories about Maggie and her infamous quotes. I was happy to relive those years, as even now, three decades after having danced in Maggie’s class, it is often that I dream of dancing in her studio–or have nightmares of not being able to find it.
I first went to Maggie’s classes in 1981 at age 20 during what became the first of many summer lay-off periods. I was just starting to get principal roles at Dayton Ballet, and Christine O’Neal, formerly of American Ballet Theatre, Broadway’s A Chorus Line, and Dayton Ballet’s reigning principal dancer at the time, had recommended that I spend the summer taking Maggie’s classes. They were held in a loft in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, which was at that time a rather decrepit part of the city filled with warehouses and, from my vantage point at the barre peering into the neighboring building, sweatshops. I found a sublet nearby in the Chelsea Hotel and took Maggie’s 2.5-hour class every day for close to a month before she must have realized that I was committed to her and so finally descended on me with my first personal correction.
We all know the saying “if you can teach it then you know you know it.” I often have my students teach or help each other with movement they are learning in class to empower them and allow them time to know they know the material without constantly watching me demonstrate. One of my favorite assignments is when I have my students create and teach and full lesson plan to the whole class.
I put my students into pairs and they pick a theme for their lesson. Some theme examples are: movement initiated from certain body parts, extremes in timing or playing with rhythms, and moving into and out of the floor with smooth transitions. Once my students pick their theme they start to create a movement phrase that demonstrates their theme. They also have to create movement that travels across the floor and a warm up, all of which must be centered on their chosen theme.0
West End to Broadway Vol. 3
Jetés and all that jazz.
The energy and drama of musical theater songs makes them ideal for ballet class.
David Plumpton’s “West End to Broadway” Vol. 3 fills 36 tracks with piano arrangements from popular shows like Wicked, Jekyll and Hyde, and various Disney musicals. It also contains many pieces that you might not recognize unless you closely follow theater. But that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy these selections or find them wonderful for barre and center.
The spunky accents of “When I Grow Up” from Matilda are perfect for almost any tendu combination. The delicate (yet not-too-sugary) version of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin is dreamy for développés. “Welcome to the 60s” from Hairspray is a fun way to begin center tendus. “Popular” and “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked will add spark to petit and medium allegro combinations.
This CD is a great way to bring the magic of one performing art to another.0
Music for Ballet Lovers Vol. 7 “Precious Holiday Moments”
Holiday music is always an enjoyable addition to November/December ballet classes. Yoshi Gurwell’s “Precious Holiday Moments” offers 28 tracks of Nutcracker melodies and traditional carols for intermediate+ center practice, in addition to 20 tracks of original music for barre. Some of the compositions for barre more engaging than others, but, overall, they are effective.
The Nutcracker selections are the highlight of the CD. They stand out for their creative arrangements and often cleverly combine pieces from Act I and Act II. If you want to add a little Nutcracker magic to everyday class, this suite should do the trick. Or, if you feel your students have grown tired of Nutcracker tunes from rehearsals, these arrangements may revive their interest in the music by showcasing it in a different light.
The traditional carol tracks are delightful as well. Gurwell adapts their speed and rhythms to suit different exercises, but, for the most part, they retain their easily recognizable melodies.
Overall, this collection makes a fun supplement for the holiday season.0
As a choreographer and dance educator, process is very important to me. It is through my creative process that I problem solve and create various products. My process can vary depending on the task at hand or even on how I feel in the moment. Any changes in my process are usually reflected in the product outcome as well. One example of how changing my process can be helpful is when I am choreographing a work and I do not want it to look or feel like the last piece I created. Changing my process can help me to create new movement and fresh ideas.
In order to teach my students about the value of process I give them many assignments where they have built in time to explore and play. I also have them reflect on their process answering questions like: How did you go about learning a movement sequence? How did you work within your group on a project? How did you approach the creation of your movement?
I often have students work in small groups on various choreography assignments. The most recent project I gave them was to create a short choreographic study based on initiating movement from certain bones in their body. The main goals were for students to learn the names of the bones, where they were located, and how it feels to move from those bones in their body.
The assignment included a rubric which required students to use specific choreography tools and a required length of counts for the whole dance. Often time when I give an assignment like this with a clear rubric of expectations, students look at the list of what the dance must include and work towards this end goal first instead of taking the time to experiment and play with movement ideas. I have to remind them that I’m giving them many days to work on the project to include the process of discovering the movement they want to use and they have time to change their minds and let the dance evolve. I use many analogies like when you create movement and choreography with your group you are writing in pencil not pen so as you go on if you don’t like something simply erase it and make a change.
The majority of the classes that my high school students take are very product focused and students can either be right or wrong with their product. It can be very challenging for students to shift their perspective in my class and linger in the process focused perspective as a means to create and problem solve. In dance class with a creative assignment there is not one way to do anything right so there are many right answers and what I try to teach my students is that I want them to discover what they feel is the best and right answer for them. They discover this through their process.
Having an emphasis on the process rather than the product does not mean that I do not care about the end product. On the contrary, I think that when the process is more fulfilled the end product is also more likely to be fulfilled and realized in a deeper way. The way we go about getting to an end product is through various paths and that we honor the paths we try out and discover what each one has to offer. Students edit and revise more while focusing on process in order to create the product.
As students embrace this mind set I see a shift in the quality of their work and their work ethic. In a world of instant gratification and product focused thinking it is becoming more and more important that we teach young people to value the process, the how we get to an end goal. Teaching students to be process focused can have great implications in many areas of their lives and help them to problem solve in creative ways. I hope to help my students become creative problem solvers and leaders in the world they live in.
Contributor Janet Rothwell has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.
Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.
When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.0
Yoshi Gurwell’s Gorgeous Moments lives up to its name. The California-based pianist plays with heart and personality on all 40 tracks for barre and center floor. Rags, waltzes, tangos, marches, and polkas come in all speeds, lengths, and flavors to suit intermediate, advanced, or professional dancers. The music is a joy to move to—expressive without being overly busy. All the compositions on the disc are original works by Yoshi Gurwell’s husband Doug, arranged and performed by Yoshi.
I’ve come across other ballet class CDs with this much content (Gorgeous Moments offers 19 tracks for barre and 21 for center), and often the selections are so similar they seem unnecessary. Here each piece feels specific and important, making this album both useful and inspiring. I highly recommend it to teachers of higher-level dancers.0