Start with a brief text, as short as a single sentence. Assign a motion to each word. Speak the text with the corresponding movements. Each time a given word is repeated, perform its equivalent movement.
Be sure to think through and perform a beginning, middle, and end to each motion. For instance, if you assign a gesture of thumb and forefinger held an inch apart to equal “little,” you must also determine how the hand travels before and after the gesture, and where the hand and the rest of the body is positioned during the gesture. It may be helpful to return to a neutral position between each word to keep the movements distinct. The resulting clarity keeps the movement specific and prevents the word-equivalents from being overwhelmed by bridging material which is not related to the words (particularly a tendency among trained dancers accustomed maintaining lyric flow).
The key concept in Equivalents is that each word has a corresponding movement, which is not necessarily the closest movement parallel to the spoken word. In assigning movement to words, you can experiment with many possible relationships, including:
Literal: a thumb to the chest = “I”
Pun: fingers encircling the eye = “I”
Associative: inspired by a memory or personal impression of the word
Sound-based: inspired by the phonic or rhythmic quality of the word
Equivalents can be taken in many directions once you’ve accomplished the basic task:
The movement may be detached from the words, either performed without them or out of synch with them.
Not every word in a text need be given an equivalent movement.
Once you’ve achieved “beginning-middle-end” clarity, experiment with changing levels or travelling through space.
Experiment with various ways of speaking the words: conversational, declamatory, chanted, staccato, legato, clustered in groups.
You can introduce Equivalents early in the process of working with community groups or participants new to dance. In these contexts the activity helps to familiarize people with possible relationships between movement, meaning, and abstraction. It offers a key building block that can be applied later in choreographing a group project.
Start the process with a text likely to be familiar to all: A nursery rhyme, lyrics of a familiar song, or words from a sign posted in the environment. Develop the equivalents for the first two or three words collectively, then have participants build their own dances working alone or in small groups.
Alternatively, or as the next step, use a writing exercise to get each person in a group to generate words of their own. Ask each participant to select a sentence that excites him from the passage they’ve written. Each participant then generates a very personal dance.
The Equivalents tool has many useful applications with trained dancers. For those grounded in an abstract aesthetic, it can be a useful bridge toward thinking and experimentation with issues of meaning in dance. Assigning equivalents as an exercise within a short time limit can help dance and composition students generate and think through a fund of new movement quickly, allowing them to suspend judgement and avoid preciousness. The clarity and specificity required enables dancers strong on lyric line to expand their expressive range by breaking their accustomed flow and focussing on detail.
As a choreographic tool, a series of equivalents can constitute the entire focus of a dance, can be one of many text and movement approaches applied, or can be used as the foundation for a wider movement vocabulary in a dance work. In the latter case equivalents can present a kind of movement glossary that introduces the audience to a subject; the choreographer can then feel free to experiment with meaning and metaphor, having established the audience connection.