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A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows
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Listening to what the material is telling you to do requires as much concentration, control and sensitivity as any other way of working. What happens as a result of this may not immediately look like what you expected, but given time it will usually begin to feel like yours. It is yours. Sometimes the material knows more than you. Looking for a style can be a thankless task. Sometimes the most remarkable style emerges not from an idiosyncratic way of moving, but from how you put quite ordinary movements together.
Ordinary movements, when accumulated in unusual ways, can cause the body to let go its usual patterns. Continuity: I asked Henry to walk slowly placing his feet in a series of numbered boxes like a ballroom dancing manual. The footsteps disappeared, and revealed above was an overlapping and twisting dance of incidental movement thrown up by the effort.
It became also, in time, a style we could switch on and off at will. Make six things: Try making six movements and putting them in the right order. This was the instruction Merce Cunningham gave in a workshop. He is, of course, describing the ideal choreography: the right things in the right order. Merce Cunningham workshop, Edinburgh International Festival, What is that? Make six things: Write a score for six imagined sounds.
Find a symbol for each sound. Write or draw the score with the sounds shifting between the following possible relationships: separate, overlapping or unison.
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Make it the length of an Elvis Presley song. Try performing it. Flow: Flow is an accident of the attempt to get from one event to the next event. It is one possible thing that can happen when the right things are put in the right order. Continuity: Flow is not just about smooth movement. Relation: Continuity is the relation of one thing to the next thing in time.
There are many other kinds of fruitful relation to be had. Some relationships do make us care. Just putting two things side by side works. The people you work with are your most important material. What could be the possible impact and relationship of having fewer people, and what is the impact and relationship of more?
When does a group become a crowd, and what does that imply?
Teaching actors Choreography
How might smaller or larger forces relate differently to the audience? In what way could working with only one or two people shape and determine your subject, or what might more people allow to be communicated?
I asked the choreographer Deborah Hay to tell me how to make a solo. What can your context sustain? Ideas: There are not that many ideas. We invented delicate ways that the two things could connect, played games with the rhythm and held the whole performance together with a thread of looks and breaths. We watched it on video and thought it looked great. Six months later during a search for old things to steal for a new piece we found the video of the melodies duet and watched it.
There was nothing there; we could see no visible connection at all anymore; we had fantasised the whole thing. We had known so well what we were trying to do that we had fooled ourselves into seeing it. Nothing is ever wasted. Do these two dancers share the same time, or do they hold to their own time? What is the time of the audience? No relation at all is just another kind of relation. This is also a choice. Time: Contemporary dance has always been interested in the idea of weight falling in response to gravity. Is this pace holding your attention?
How could you help it to hold your attention? What other way could you think of pacing the unfolding action? Is this important to you or not? Time: The logic of ballet, glued together in tricky ways from a limited set of possibilities, sets up a particular kind of disjointed time. It comes, perhaps, from the clash between the stuck together impossibility of the movement, and the way that this is then shoehorned into the music.
The disjointed time of ballet is quite intriguing for an audience. Time: Squeezing a movement into the wrong time frame can be quite gripping. The dancer is engaged in the attempt to negotiate the conundrum, and because they are engaged, then the audience are also engaged. Time: The relationship of dance movements to time is notoriously slippy.
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Things get shorter. Adrenalin and our own changing sensory perceptions affect our ability to steady ourselves in the temporal world. Time: The time of a body dancing freely is a multiple time, cut loose from pulse, able to shift constantly between different speeds and pacing. This is one choice. The dance which goes all speeds is all unpredictable, which then becomes predictable and we lose interest. This can happen despite quite wonderful movement. Audiences like change.
Time: The desire of contemporary dance to assert itself as an art form in its own right, separate from music, has led it to let go of pulse as an organising principle of time. This is a strange perversion and a joyous one. Most of the world dances to a beat. Christine Chu, Tanzwerkstatt Europa workshop, Munich, This is particularly true of dancing to a pulse, where the body organises and coordinates itself around the rise and resolution of each beat.