Creating a Dance

AGNES DE MILLEentered the world of ballet the hard way. Her parents were opposed to her dancing, so she came to her training later than most people. In London she studied under Marie Rambert, and after fifteen years of frustration she danced into fame at the first performance of her own ballet RODEO.Following that success, she did the ballets for OKLAHOMA!and was soon recognized as a most exciting and original American choreographer. This essay is drawn from her new book, TO A YOUNG DANCER,which will he published by Atlantic-Little, Brown next month.

Agnes de Mille

IT IS surprising how many institutions purport to teach choreography without realizing how subtle, how difficult, and how futile such lessons must usually be, lacking professional outlet or example. The fact is that most choreographers have learned their craft by working and watching in the ranks or by experimenting alone without help or supervision. Very few of the great have had formal instruction. In the past there were no classes, and today there are only five or six places in the world where choreography is taught as a technique by masters and, what is as important, with a company and theater for experimentation. There is no inherited code of rules, and there is only one firstclass text, The Art of Making Dances, by Doris Humphrey.

Great traditional theaters, like those in the Orient, hand down their special stagecraft by rote but do not encourage creativity or departure from tradition. The royal and national Western ballet companies have furnished tradition, example, rehearsal opportunities, and performance under the critical eye of established masters. But these advantages have been granted to only a very few and to no one outside of the particular organization. In spite of the fact, however, that choreography depends as much on collaboration as architecture does and necessitates always an outlay of funds, individuals have made their way unasked and often without help.

This is true of all the dissenting pioneers — Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Sybil Shearer, Pearl Lang, Anna Sokolow, and the author. In every case cited, the young choreographer left his teacher and developed his personal style and all his creative opportunities without sponsorship.

It is different with ballet choreographers. These have learned one from another, master to pupil, in an unbroken chain back to the seventeenth century and have been given their chances in the parent theater.

By all odds the best way of learning is apprenticeship in a professional group and daily participation in the progress of a ballet under the life-and-dcath conditions of the theater. But there can be others, and they have their own advantages. There is danger in working long under one master: the almost irresistible inclination to borrow style and to rely on solutions and approaches already found. In the case of the great innovators, the impact of personality has in this way had a negative, almost baleful influence. The followers of Graham and Balanchine, for instance, have with few exceptions been unable to shake off the thrall, and remain for the most part feeble imitators of their teachers. Jerome Robbins’ style was formed and his personality clarified before he joined Balanchine’s company, so the association has done him nothing but good.

The way of the self-taught choreographer therefore, although longer and harder, may in the end lead to greater originality and make it easier when he reaches that unavoidable point in the development of any creative artist when he must strike out for himself.

Whether you are your own boss or are working within the framework of an established troupe, there are no rules for just what style you choose, barring always the limitations of technique imposed by your company, if you are really creative, you go into this land alone, without compass except your instinct. There has been no one there before you, and it is not surveyed. You may get lost. You may, please God, not. However, when you get right down to it, everyone starts equal, naked and untried; the important thing is to start.

BY WAY of preparation, learn to perform some one technique well. A choreographer is speechless who cannot move. The greatest ideas come instinctively below the centers of thought and articulate speech. You are not aware whence they come. You do them, and the more techniques you know, the richer will be your equipment. Learn several styles, therefore, even if you perfect only one. It is a tremendous asset to be able to quote from the vocabulary of different techniques — although you will eventually translate everything you touch into your own language. The members of the great bailet troupes have the incomparable advantage of being compelled to learn nearly all the European folk styles as well as ballet and some Spanish dancing; the Russians add acrobatics to their technique, and the Americans demand modern work.

Fokine and his wife learned carefully the native dances of every country they visited. He did not always imitate exactly. The Tartar dances, for instance, which make up Prince Igor he claims he invented entirely, but he invented out of a deep knowledge of southwest Asia and eastern Russia.

See all the dancing and theater you can.

Study folk dancing. Folk patterns are the beginning of choreography. Ballet is only formalized and dramatized folk dancing. Grasp what makes a good folk dance, and you will have learned one half of your trade.

Study all the classics. Many are in the great repertories, and some of these travel.

Study music, its form and literature.

Learn to read music.

Learn to play the piano. This will be of inestimable help in the studying of scores.

Study the history of all arts, particularly painting and sculpture.

Study history, with emphasis on custom, costume, manners, and morals.

Study anthropology and comparative religion.

Read all you can about choreography and dance history, but chiefly Noverre’s Lettres sur la Danse and Doris Humphrey’s The Art of Making Dances.

Then: Get into an empty room, lock the door, and choreograph.

Begin with something short.

Start with solos, and do them yourself — but do not insist on continuing always to do them. Transfer the movement to other people’s bodies and see how it looks. Remember your goal is to become a choreographer, and not a soloist. You must not limit your choreographic gifts to serving your own performing ambition, or your choreographic technique to masking your own limitations. The constant danger for an individualist is the tendency to produce endless replicas of himself.

Do nothing because you think it is Art or Right or the Graham way or the Balanchine way. Your own way is what you are after.

Observe all kinds of motion. Experiment with it. Do not just imitate or translate it. Understand its roots, its dynamics and force, how it spreads itself, where it goes.

Accept nothing as canon law. There is no authority for anything except the way it feels and the way it looks. Be sure you learn to see what is really there, and not merely what you intended to have there. Perhaps you wanted wild rolling rhythm. Is it on the floor before you? Or did you just suppose it ought to be if you strung running steps together? You have got to be as sharp and as exacting as a chemist. He does not take it for granted that certain combinations will explode; he finds out. After a while, because he has gained technique and experience he can permit himself theories.

Analyze animal movement. This will give you a whole vocabulary for dramatic expression and suggest all kinds of devices. There is a closer relationship than one might suppose. The human physiology re-enacts the stages of movement evolution as the human fetus re-creates the stages of structural evolution — and therapies have now been devised to help cases of brain damage where the coordinations have been blocked at an animal level. All people instinctively recognize these deep physical responses, and while many animal postures are not habitual to the sophisticated human adult, they are nevertheless profoundly evocative of human emotion.

Transfer movement usually done by the feet to the hands — and vice versa — and see what happens in comedic and satiric effects.

Act out literally folk sayings, old saws, maxims, common verbal expressions. You will find that, especially in the use of verbs, which are the action words and therefore your link with language, but also in many images that reflect practical activities, there is a mine of suggestion.

Read poetry, particularly Shakespeare, and visualize carefully the images: “Take arms against a sea of troubles,” for instance, and “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” There are startling and provocative images on almost every page of the Bible. They were all drawn from living experiences; they are vivid reminders of ancient and basic customs and manners of conduct. Walter Prude calls these affiliations “the connective tissue of life.”

Sir Joshua Reynolds said that the opposite extremes of emotion expressed themselves in the same actions and that, for example, wild joy and frenzied grief were identical in expression. Is this true? Find out.

A joke is funny if people laugh, not otherwise. Awkwardness is not humor. Humor is truth. Although the reverse is not always the case. Humor is a point of view, an instantaneous perception of relationships, a revelation. It’s there or it isn’t. To spring the trick requires greater care than the making of a watch.

Stick to simple pattern problems, or exact situations, or characters, or dramatic episodes. Be as explicit as possible — a dance about circles unwinding, about sharp, bouncy movements, about people walking, or people standing still and swaying, a young girl weeping, an old girl weeping, an eighteenth-century girl weeping, a girl on Forty-second and Broadway weeping, about burying someone you love, about burying someone you hate, about skipping in a ring or stamping.

But beware of philosophy or abstraction or too many symbols — therein lies a morass. The best dances are abstract, certainly as to pattern, but not necessarily philosophical. Philosophy is thought, and dancing is emotion; all dancing starts from feeling, strong feeling about a particular experience. One cannot feel about a philosophical argument or analysis. One feels about a personal life experience. Let the critics do the philosophizing. Your analytical faculties should be kept for shaping up the form but should nowhere dilute the subject matter.

It is true that Graham and Tudor have managed to present philosophical and psychological problems. But they are geniuses, and they spent their lives learning how. You begin simply and emotionally, as they did.

EVERY dance must have a form; it can be formal and abstract, as in music, or it can be dramatic and storytelling. It can often be both.

Study music for its form — not the harmonic structure, which does not concern you, but the statements and developments, the block arrangements, the time and rhythm sequences. Study simple classical pieces first, the dances by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and later the Chopin mazurkas and waltzes. You will notice that there is always the statement of a central theme, a restatement, a possible development, a second theme, and a recapitulation of the first. Learn to construct this way with dance material.

When you have learned how to do this, try other ways. Do not approach any piece with a rigid set of instructions. Stravinsky says, “I do not see how one can be a choreographer unless, like Balanchine, one is a musician first.” This is, of course, a musician writing. It is imperative that you understand music, but equally or more important that you understand choreographic form.

Remember that your function is that of collaborator with the music, and not of servant. You are therefore not called upon to give a visual blueprint either of the notation or of the sound. In the first place, neither would be possible, since aural and visual images lie in different media and their only relation is arbitrary. Rather, you must endeavor to place before the spectator something in harmony with the music, which makes a comment upon it or an addition to it; and therefore you must know the music in order not to violate it, but you need not approach it as a musician would. You are a choreographer, and you may find values and suggestions he has overlooked. Musicians themselves, notably Stravinsky, decry this restriction of “the dance to rhythmic duplication of the music. . . . Choreography as I conceive it,” he writes, “must realize its own form, one independent of the musical form though measured to the musical unit. Its construction will be based on whatever correspondences the choreographer may invent, but it must not seek merely to duplicate the line and beat of the music.” Fokine used to inveigh against “ ‘rhythmonama’ — that is, the allocation of a movement to every musical note in the score.”

It would be wise to limit yourself to short, rhythmic, or melodic musical works at the beginning. Heavily romantic or heavily atmospheric pieces (like the suites of Ravel and Debussy) and great symphonies can be misleading. They are so effective of themselves, so rich and dramatic in complexity, that they confuse the dance. In a way, they do the choreographer’s work for him, and whatever he adds is redundant. It would be hard to think of anything Beethoven left unsaid in the Seventh Symphony, although Massine tried to, with none too happy results.

Dance to hymns. These are formal strong pieces, simply contrived, and architectural. And don’t be ashamed to try jazz. Try all kinds of dancing to jazz. Why not? Modern popular songs are well constructed, and orchestral jazz is often superb. Most of the ballets of Stravinsky, although complex in rhythm and orchestration, were composed for dancing and are direct and clear in form. His children’s duets are miracles of simple and witty construction. The same is true of many Bartok pieces. It is good to use contemporary music because it is not overlaid with connotations and because its emotional appeal is sparse and sharp. It forces the choreographer to feel and think in fresh ways. Brahms, Schumann, and Chopin often act like a drug, and much of Tchaikovsky, although written specifically for dancing, is so evocative of known ballet steps as to be handicapping. The same is true of the sugary scores of Meyerbeer and Adam.

Many teachers use only drum, which forces the pupil to see as well as listen, and this is good. But simple percussive accompaniment can be dangerous for young choreographers until they have developed a sense of form.

If you are working with a student composer, be sure he knows how to construct.

It is important to spot the climax early and work toward it. The climax is the strongest and most impressive statement. But it need not for this reason be large or violent or difficult. It can be a dazzling summing up of all the themes; it can be a bravura technical trick; it can be a quickening of tempo, or, contrarily, it can be a sudden drop in tempo, a simple unison statement; it can even be standing perfectly still, as in the final tremendous statement of Graham’s Heretic, where the body lies motionless in death while the complete melody is played through. In this instance the absence of action makes an overwhelming and heartbreaking point. As you watch each fine theater piece, discover its climax and the careful building and preparation for the climax. The climactic step or passage alone without proper preparation usually has no effect at all, or certainly not the one intended.

Folk dances have no climax. Because they were meant to be performed and not watched, they seldom produce any emotion in the beholder except nostalgia or pleasant excitement. From folk dances you can learn the beauty and shape of individual steps and the magic of sequence, but not dramatic sequence. They seldom teach us storytelling, suspense, tragedy, and only rarely comedy. Just a few quicken into a round or end with a good thumping stamp. Mostly they go on and on, continuity being their essence, as John Martin says, “like human nature or life.”

Beginners try to put everything they know into each piece. This is the wastebasket approach. But two or three good movements are enough for any dance. Find two good strong gestures and develop them, squeeze everything possible out of them, break them down into their components, reassemble them, do them in different rhythms, reverse them, turn them inside out, broaden them. The initial steps or movements will have to be dynamic and robust, and possess true rhythmic character, to stand this pulling around and to yield continuously fruitful results. But in every good gesture pattern there is a world, a cosmography. Try to stay within its confines. When you are cooking, you do not use every ingredient at hand. You use just what is needed, and you recognize that the combining, the beating, and the cooking process change your elements. An egg is not just an egg in a soufflé. It does not, however, even with the most delicate whipping, turn into a watermelon.

This technique of development is hard to learn, but it is basic. It is, in fact, the essence of the business. Observe what Petipa does with just four steps in any of his solo variations.

If the piece is dramatic:

Be precise. Be clear. A dance that needs program notes has failed.

Be economic. Find the gestures that tell the story, and use no others. Throw out all irrelevancies.

Be sure the dance says something.

Make your point and stop. Doris Humphrey says, “All dances are too long.”

Don’t let the music or pure dance pattern pull you away from your dramatic line.

There is a real physical pull in dance steps. They are hard to organize, they are hard to do, they engender their own excitements and a pure hypnotism of energy, and when they get going, they take on the impetus of any physical machinery. They come down the room like a train, and suddenly the dance has switched off the track into something quite different, although possibly interesting in itself. Stand back and watch and be ruthless about wandering directions. Say again and again, every three hours, “Is this what I mean? Does this further my point?”

Occasionally, rarely but sometimes, the dance goes home almost alone, with the happy choreographer hanging onto the tail like a caboose. But do not count on this eventuality. It is as rare as any revelation.

WORK habits are important; the techniques of starting to work, of continuing, and of apportioning time and energy must be devised by each individual. You must discover your warming-up exercises, your own emotional key. You must learn how to bring yourself into the mood for choreographic invention, as a dancer learns how to bring himself into balance; how to make your imagination flexible and yielding, as a dancer makes his heel and back flexible. You must find your means to initial impetus, your own narcotic, so to speak, and your own speed and rhythm of work. When you have learned these, trust and humor them. They will be different for each individual.

I can only suggest what has proved useful to many: keep a notebook. I believe in a compost heap. Throw in all your ideas and let them ferment. Who knows what fresh and surprising growths will make themselves known next spring?

Try to work on more than one piece at a time. The alternation will be refreshing.

If you get stuck, let go, and work on something else. One can have brain cramp as one has muscle cramp. Problems frequently solve themselves after relaxing attention and tension. Many problems are solved during sleep. If you learn you cannot work productively when you are tired, stop before real fatigue sets in. You are attempting choreography, not moral exercise. You cannot browbeat or force an idea.

Get to the rehearsal Hall at least an hour before your group. Make yourself at home in the room, at home in your thoughts. Move around. Start the rehearsal with a warm, functioning body. You’ll be relaxed, unselfconscious, and energetic.

Do not permit yourself to slack off and run away. Think only of the work in hand and take joy in it. Your passion will save you through depression, doubt, self-consciousness, or boredom. These are all dodges for fear.

In many ways the choreographer faces all the problems of the orchestra conductor, but he faces those of the composer as well, and he faces them simultaneously. While he is trying to solve the difficulties inherent in composition and satisfy his own doubts, he must hold the respect and trust of his dancers, bring to fruition their best qualities, hearten them in moments of fatigue and despondency, care for their physical needs, and dominate their minds. This requires enormous stamina, nerve, and sensitivity, and a noble discipline.

The beginner will possibly not be respected, but he will be forgiven and indulged. The veteran will be obeyed and trusted, but he will be held to account, and past a certain point he will be neither forgiven nor helped.

Before you begin rehearsals, therefore, make your plans as completely as possible. Study your music carefully. Test key steps on yourself or a couple of trusted dancers. It depresses a company to face a choreographer who has given the matter at hand scant thought and sits scratching his head while waiting for God to intervene.

Because your function is so complex, you have a right to the working conditions you prefer. If you work best in privacy with a few people, demand just this, and do not be put off or intimidated or cajoled into fraying your nerves to suit anyone else’s wishes. You are going to have to deliver. No one else. Indulge yourself. Of course, if you can only work well between three and six in the morning, you may have trouble finding collaborators and a company. But within reason, demand what you want.

It is wise in approaching a new group, or a known group doing a new work, to start with something physical, preferably difficult. If dancers can attack something hard, they feel committed; and when they begin to sweat, they begin to be pleased with themselves, they relax, and become physically generous. Muscular releases have a wonderfully tonic effect. If you can get one good step — say eight bars of something handsome to look at in a first rehearsal — you have made a valuable and concrete beginning. It will be a pledge between you and the group, something you can look at and during difficult hours take confidence from. Save the emotional bits for the end of the rehearsal time. The dancers will do them then with less self-consciousness and with a relaxed sense of having achieved the hardest part first. The hardest part may very well be mental or emotional, but dancers live in their muscles. You must never forget this.

It is a good idea somewhere along the way to let your group in on the general project, but beware of the choreographer who talks too much or talks before moving. Talk after, or better still, not at all. Do it. Talk only to help the dancer, not yourself.

Choreograph whenever you can and for all opportunities, all kinds of opportunities, even the crassest commercial job. You can resist vulgarity, and you will learn the terrible discipline of time and circumstances. It is valuable to learn to meet deadlines. Frederick Ashton says he owes much of his discipline to his years in a London music hall, when he was forced to deliver on a few hours’ notice and make changes on the spot. Dame Ninette de Valois, who founded and now administers the Royal Ballet, herself a dancer and choreographer of recognized achievement, puts the problem succinctly. It all boils down, she thinks, not to how much talent you have, but to how much talent and how much professionalism together. “If you’re a pro,” she explains, “your gifts will not fail you. You can weather everything. If you have learned every aspect of your trade and worked in all ranks and under all conditions, you will find you have the knowledge out of your varied experience to help all kinds of students.”

The real pro commands respect and trust, unquestioning respect. It is the dilettante trying to put something over through position or money or bribing of one kind or another, and there are many kinds, who fails to win loyalty. The real pro, sick or well, old or young, will approach a problem as a plumber approaches a leak, and he doesn’t have to wait for twilight or the presence of his best friend to get started. He surveys the situation and rolls up his sleeves. For him the witching hour is necessity.

Never close your mind to criticism, but beware of too many suggestions, A work of art is the expression of an individual personality, not a group product. Art cannot be evolved by democratic congress. And the majority may be right, but they are not creative. Even when several individuals collaborate there must be a dominating mind; there must be an agreement, one concept. If your dance reveals your own emotion and point of view, it will have validity for you. Say what you want, the best way you can, and take your chances.

As a young choreographer, you may not be accepted at first. It is likely you won’t. Your gifts, if truly original, will not develop quickly and may fail you frequently. But there will show a spark. Breathe on this. Choose advisers carefully and be prepared for prolonged soul-searching. If you have true gifts, there is that within you which will steer you away from imitation and easy applause.

This is a strange and uncertain life you are entering. If you win recognition, the world is yours. You can travel from country to country as an honored guest. Every branch of the theater opens to you, and there is no limit set by age, nationality, sex, or race. But if the opportunities for you are greater than for any mere performer, so are the hazards. Unless you are really good, unless you command qualities of vision, endurance, leadership, and enterprise, you will not be offered opportunities. Unless you possess true originality, which is rare, you must settle for hack work in TV and commercial shows. It is also possible that even genius will not save you from eight or ten years in the studio with no recognition from the paying powers. But you will always have certain recompenses.

You will be independent, and you will not have to wait for someone else to start thinking or planning. You will have joy in your achievement, seen or unseen; you will know fulfillment and vindication at the moment of discovery. You will taste the power of making something meaningful where nothing was before, of working transformations on human personality, of revealing relationships, of becoming acquainted with yourself, of exploring through the extraordinary landscape which is your own personality. The universe lies before you on the floor, in the air, in the mysterious bodies of your dancers, in your mind. From this voyage no one returns poor or weary.