Movement – an act of changing physical location or position or of having this changed.
Gesture – a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning
Judging dance competitions is one of the many ways that I supplement my income. I spend weekend after weekend trying to pass on a little knowledge and maybe some techniques and approaches to help teachers help their students continue to grow as artists. But in the past 10 years, I’ve noticed a trend. Nobody dances through space anymore. There is no movement vocabulary. It’s all gesture. Dancers walk on stage, create beautiful shapes with their arms, execute little ticks or flicks of the hand; and then kick, or turn, or run and leap. They then walk to a new place and do some combination of the same. In many cases we’ll even see the same turn sequence 3 or 4 times in the same routine. It has dumbfounded and frustrated me for years now that dancers don’t know how to carry their weight through space with any kind of suspension or musicality. They walk or run on the beat with little to no intention or purpose other than to execute gestures at another place on stage. In some routines, they don’t even bother to do that. I’ve seen some dancers spend their entire routine within a 12 foot by 6 foot area. I just couldn’t figure out what caused this change.
Today, it hit me like a sledge hammer. I was sitting in my barber’s chair and, as usual, they had this Russian music video channel playing on the TV. As I watched a group of music video dancers through the mirror, I noticed something. They didn’t move. They basically stood in one place and posed on each count, occasionally doubling a beat or dropping down for a different level but they never changed their location. And then I had an incredible realization. Easily 70% of the choreographers in dance studios today have been raised on MTV and YouTube. Many of them may have never had the opportunity to see a live performance on a stage beyond their high school musical or dance recitals. They’ve never been to the ballet to see how beautiful it is to watch a corps de ballet move across the stage executing a progression of movements that physically demonstrate the instrumentation in a piece of music. They’ve never seen a Broadway musical to see the grand images of dancers moving over, under and around set pieces executing character oriented movement infused with dynamics, back phrasing, syncopations, levels and all. Their exposure has been limited to music videos, YouTube and So You Think You Can Dance. They’ve been learning to choreograph for the stage by watching choreography intended for a screen; and they don’t realize that they are very different animals!
First and foremost, consider the most basic difference between the two venues: the field of vision available to your audience. When choreographing for film, the director wants close ups, pans, and fast cuts. They can have multiple cameras shooting at the same time to grab different angles. They choose what the viewer sees. So in order to really see the choreography, it needs to be fairly stationary. If it’s moving through space, it’s difficult to sync up two shots; not to mention that it’s nearly impossible for the dancer to hit the exact same mark for every shot when they are doing multiple takes creating all kinds of editing headaches.
When choreographing for the stage, each audience member gets their own angle from which they can observe whatever they choose! As a choreographer, you have to move the audiences’ eye to follow the story rather than the camera showing you what you need to see. You have to acknowledge all the angles and be aware of showing the greatest number of audience members what is important. You have to fill space and create movement that expresses beyond a small rectangular screen; your dancers have to communicate a football field away to the back of the top balcony!
I’m sure there are much more detailed treatises out there about the differences of which I haven’t had time to research yet myself. But this one major difference should be enough to inspire some research on your own! Movement is essential to storytelling on the stage. It is how we see a character journey from one physical and emotional place to another in search of the resolution of that journey. Gesture is merely an acute emotional expression within individual moments of the journey. So as an audience member and adjudicator, I pray you will start to consider these concepts and explore your art as you approach your work next season. Create movement and let the gesture enhance it with emotional context. Don’t let gesture be your only means of communicating.
Jason Marquette is the Owner and Co-Artistic Director of MPower Dance Workshops. Our primary mission to educate young dancers through in-studio workshops, intensives and conventions on how their training is preparing them for success in life. Our secondary mission is to promote positive change in the dance community, both educational and professional, through thoughtful discussion and debate. For more information about our events, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about our NYC Summer Dance Intensive taking place August 15th – 19th, check out www.mpowerdance.com/NYC_Summer_Intensive.html
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