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Values for Dance Making & Methods for Critique
BY LIZ LERMAN
Around 1978, two years after founding the company and school I called the Dance Exchange, I made a dance called Ms. Galaxy and Her Three Raps with God.. In three acts with a large cast, it was the most ambitious piece up to that point in my short professional career as a choreographer. At that stage, like many of my colleagues, I worked primarily by teaching the dancers material I had created as solo work for myself. By the time I handed the steps off, they had been completely analyzed and edited.
One scene in Ms. Galaxy represented a wedding in a shtetl. I had drawn on eastern European traditions to develop movement for this section that emphasized light, fast footwork. Not incidentally, this kind of dancing had always been one of my own strengths, and I just assumed that the movement would come as easily to my dancers as it did to me. But once in rehearsal, I was frustrated by the long, laborious process required to teach the steps to the ensemble. With extensive repetition, the dancers could execute the moves with confidence, but I had to ask myself whether all the drilling was worth the effort. The question nagged me because I was noticing again something that I had noticed before: once I viewed my choreography on other bodies, I’d find that it did not seem appropriate to them. Even when they mastered the steps, the dancers did not have the relationship to the movement that made them feel passionate about it. And without that passion, they could not perform it with conviction.
So I began to experiment with a different method for generating movement, posing questions that required the dancers to respond physically. I discovered that dancers who were thus engaged were much more invested as performers. Given my constraints as a young artist working with part-time dancers, it seemed a far better use of time to get dancers to develop material based on my ideas than to train them to move like I move. The new process forced me to evolve in my thinking. Soon I was driven not by the impulse to generate movement on my own body, but by a search to discover questions and structures that would help inventive people find physical answers and stories inside themselves.
These discoveries led me to start redefining for myself what it meant to be a choreographer. In part, I came to think of my role as environmentalist, working to create a setting in which people could make their best work. This meant maintaining an element of freshness and surprise both for the dancers and for me. I also started recognizing my roles as synthesist, structuralist and editor, and which required me to grasp the importance of what I did to cull, shape, and refine the material that emerged from the environment that I nurtured.
But with the exhilaration of these discoveries came a dilemma: If the dancers were generating the movement that they ultimately performed, what gave me the right to alter, fix, accept, or reject their movement? Yes, I was the choreographer, and yes, I was going to amend this material, but on what basis and why and how?
The shift I experienced while preparing Ms. Galaxy thus started us on a path that has led the Dance Exchange to develop scores of tools that we now apply to the process of making dances for ourselves and for others. Hand-in-hand with the techniques for generating and structuring movement, it was also necessary for us also to build a methodology for broaching the collaborations between dancer and choreographer, for maintaining the non-defensive listening required for a productive environment, and for simply having the conversations that allowed us to progress from generating movement to putting dances on stage.
Some of that method is about sharing responsibility for the quality of the artistic outcome. Some of it is about building each person’s capacity for giving, getting, and asking for feedback. Some of it is about managing the expectations that go along with being the original maker of work.
Aspects of the method were already in place when the my approach to choreography shifted. As a graduate student in the mid-1970s I was required to teach my share of modern dance technique classes, and I was challenged by several factors that they posed: With 25 students in a class, each with particular strengths and weaknesses, it sometimes seemed that I’d only be doing my job if I gave a private lesson to each. Moreover, like many students they tended to be passive in their own educations, and like many dancers they were conditioned by their training to look to the teacher to be the taskmaster. Giving individualized attention was impossible, and the taskmaster role didn’t suit me, so I devised a strategy by which the students could partner for mutual coaching.
In learning and refining repertory, this method for mutual coaching works like this: Dancers form pairs. One performs the material, while the other watches. The watching partner offers a few comments about what was strong or effective about the dancer’s execution. Now the performing partner says: “This is what I want to work on…” and names any aspect of technique or performance quality that is posing a particular challenge: focus, extension, rotation, transitions, ability to sustain emotion or interrupt flow. The performer repeats the material. The partner watches, then offers observations of the specific aspect that the dancer has named. The viewing partner then also names another area, separate from that cited by the performer, for the performer to work on, and the dancer repeats the phrase one more time with this in mind. Then watcher and performer switch roles.
In those early years of teaching technique, this approach afforded my students a chance to be the object of undivided focus while challenging them to assess their own abilities and set their own benchmarks. It counteracted some of the passivity and self-absorption that the conventions of dance training can instill. Mutual coaching continues to thrive in our work at the Dance Exchange, where the company now comprises three generations of dancers with a wide range of training. In this environment, the approach enables everyone to expand their range based on what the others bring. And in a practice where everyone has a hand in creating the movement, it becomes a vital tool when movement is shared, transferred from body to body, and prepared for performance.
As useful as a democratic process like mutual coaching is, it was also clear that some particular responsibility lay with me, as the choreographer, to find new ways to communicate about the material we were generating, because I quickly discovered that once the dancer is engaged in making the movement, the choreographer’s role in talking about it changes significantly. So as I experimented with giving dancers assignments for generating content, I also experimented with approaches for giving rehearsal notes: I took time before making corrections to give praise for successful aspects of the performance. I made sure the dancers saw the details in the context of a bigger scheme (which meant I was frequently exposing my questions and dilemmas about my own work). I sometimes asked questions rather than making corrections (effectively extending the assignments I gave). And I frequently used humor. Parallel to advancing the idea of mutual coaching and to refining my approach to giving notes, we were evolving another tool that has proven both central to our process and widely applicable beyond the choreography studio. This is a four-step system for dialogue about artistic works-in-progress called the Critical Response Process, which I began using in the early 1990s. It is designed to engage an artist, a facilitator, and a group in a conversation that will help the artist advance the work to its next stage of development. In the course of the four steps the artist hears statements from the group about what was meaningful, stimulating, exciting, or memorable about the work (step one), and has a chance to ask his or her own questions about the work in progress (step two). The group then may ask questions of the artist but must practice the discipline of phrasing these questions neutrally, so they do not betray an opinion (step three). Finally group members may express opinions, subject to permission from the artist (step four).
Clearly the Critical Response Process incorporated some of the elements of the mutual coaching strategy with a major difference in the final step. Because when we arrived at assessing work that an artist has generated we were on decidedly different terrain from technique or interpretation. In a sense I was finding an answer to the question I was posing as a collaborative choreographer about who has the right to fix the work of another. Consequently I introduced the crucial dimension of permissibility, which actually takes the form of the responder saying “I have an opinion about the costume [or the climax, the language, the movement vocabulary you’ve chosen]. Would you like to hear it?” The artist then has the option to say yes or no. As stilted or ritualistic as this may appear on paper, this exchange does have the effect of both artist and responder moving into the moment of opinion with true consciousness, a sense of deliberation, and responsibility.
A series of values converged when the Critical Response Process emerged: Turn discomfort into inquiry. When defensiveness starts, learning stops. If you respect people, they will do better work. Through sequence, preparation, and patience, anything that needs to be said, can be said. These principles were taking shape in multiple aspects of the work that the Dance Exchange and I were doing, including our practices for mutual coaching and rehearsal notes. I’ve been thrilled to see the Critical Response Process adopted by university dance departments, theater companies, and community arts networks throughout the United States and in other parts of the English-speaking world. I believe this enthusiasm is the direct result of how the process takes these values and puts them into an immanently accessible and practical form.
In a day-to-day practice of making and performing dances at the Dance Exchange, the principles, practices, and values that came together in the Critical Response Process are constantly in use. They set the general tone for how the artists of the Dance Exchange treat each other, and allow us not only to nurture leadership among emerging artists but to support follower-ship among established artists. Sustaining everyone’s capacity to excel at whatever role they assume in a project is essential to the versatility that has made us thrive. They have instilled in everyone the expectation that exposing their work to peer and audience review can be a safe, challenging, rigorous and ultimately welcome process. These values have, I believe, made us better listeners, a quality essential to the research, crafting, and editing that distinguish our approach to community-based dance. They’ve allowed us to make breakthroughs that have set new directions for projects, sometimes because I’ve set my own work and questions before the dancers for their reactions, using the formal structure of Critical Response.
Challenges persist: we still may occasionally grapple with issues of ownership and how to communicate about our roles in a collaborative process; I still have questions about how best to guide my Dance Exchange colleagues in crafting their work, and how to navigate the spectrum between direct suggestions and neutral questions. But these dilemmas just encourage me to think that we have some new directions in which to evolve.
It has now been almost 25 years since Ms. Galaxy spurred a decisive change in my approach to choreography. In the course of that quarter century, the Dance Exchange has matured into a dance-making and community-engaging enterprise with multiple artistic directors. It features a company of dancers who are able to function both with decisive autonomy and collaborative flexibility. The Dance Exchange has been particularly successful in nurturing dance artists with the multi-disciplinary capacity to be performers, choreographers, effective teachers, and deft community facilitators, all in ways that make these multiple functions mutually enriching for the artist and for the public. I believe that much of this success derives from how we’ve integrated the choreographic process with a set of values for human interaction.