Sunday, October 19, 2014

Zeina Step-by-Step Gift Pack 5: Symmetrical Composition and "Professional" Choreography

I began work on Zeina in early 2014, during a period of particular bafflement over many dancers' enthusiasm for choreographic sequencing that deliberately sets asymmetrical movement combinations to highly structured call-and-response traditional belly dance music. My original thoughts took the form of this Facebook post of February 13, 2014, reprinted below:

Dancers: there's a trend in Modern Egyptian that I think is bleeding out into the larger bellysphere to NOT interpret call-and-response as repetition with variation. I'm talking about totally nonsymmetrical composition—choreography like: 8 counts of this (on the call phrase) then 8 counts of something else (on the response phrase), then 8 counts of something completely new (on the repeat of the call phrase), then 8 counts of a fourth entirely different thing (on the repeat of the response phrase, which, yes, is often wrapping up differently than the first response phrase, but still references its first iteration), and then, regardless of where the music goes next, switching to a 5th then 6th then 7th etc. whole new thing continuing thus until the end. All the discrete combinations individually interpret their respective chunks of music very well, but then the combinations don't link into a map that matches the map of the music.

I've discussed this a little with a few a dancers I know, and it's been explained to me that current popular perception (particularly in competitions and so-called "master classes") is that any use of repetition is "boring" and "easy" that the "professional" is above that kind of "beginner" approach. I completely agree that it's boring (if not downright lazy, sloppy, uninspired, amateurish, banal, etc) to return to identical phrases of choreography. But I don't understand the critic who turns up her nose at, when it's musically inspired, 8 counts of something leading to the right, followed by six counts of the same thing except leading to the left and then ending with two counts of some sort of phrase-ending punctuation that transitions you into the next thing. Does your ability to hear the music only last for 8-count increments? If, after 16 counts, a new instrument plays 16 new counts of the exact same melody line we just heard, you DON'T want me to draw a new version of and/or expand on the shape and/or theme I introduced in the previous section? I should not link my phrases into a coherent whole, despite the fact that the music I'm dancing to DOES have a deliberate internally coherent structure?

Is this really just me? I get that this new-thing-every-8-counts approach is a way to cram more stuff in your dance, and that makes for greater dynamic range and more opportunities to showcase technique so it's more attention-grabbing and OOH SHINY. That part is great. I just don't get why anyone actively prefers ABCDEFGH choreography sitting on top of A1-B1-A2-B2; A1-B1-A2-B3 music.

With these ideas in my head, my work on Zeina, in many ways, became a love letter to symmetry: a defense and celebration of a very specific aesthetic. Working with the program, you will see that the composition is rigorously balanced—every step is just so, placed with great deliberateness, perfectly gridded to the map of the music.

But is music interpretation the best, finest, quantitatively superior approach to choreography, and is a one-to-one movement-music correspondence the pinnacle of music interpretation? Sometimes, maybe, but sometimes surely not, and asking dancers to confine their efforts to any single approach would not serve the interests of the art form. Zeina's aesthetic is simply one flavor of many, and if some other flavors are not so much to my taste, it is at least in part because they are under development. My thoughts in this vein, composed as a followup to the above Facebook post, are in this blog post: The Value of Professional Choreography.

I have not yet decided on my next project, but having put an enormous investment in Zeina, I am ready for a change of pace, and am likely to take on something totally different, perhaps even a dance that takes me in a totally free form direction, or to fluffier fare for a mainstream commercial audience. But I think I will always love choreographing to perfectly trace the shapes of sophisticated accompanying music; to me, this approach creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its components. Music and movement become more sensually affecting when they synesthetically translate one into the other. By balancing the Apollonian element of orderly structure against the Dionysian element of belly dance vocabulary's winding sinuosity, the dancer intensifies the most compelling characteristics of each. Drilling down into melody, musically-shaped choreography reveals nuances that might otherwise escape the appreciation of the less-engaged listener.

Whether or not dancers working with this program choose to emulate the approach I took with Zeina, I hope dancing the choreography will at least give dancers a deeper appreciation for the richness of traditional belly dance music and perhaps inspire some new interest in quiet complexity. I have heard, more than once, that Zeina is a “boring” song, and not a good choice for a serious treatment – perhaps my contribution will help the previously underwhelmed find greater enjoyment in listening and dancing to this classic tune.

→ Next: Working with the Zeina Step-by-Step Instructional Program

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