Stages of Staging

There are five stages of grief, ten stages of death, three stages of labor, and (I will argue) six stages of choreography.

1. The Conceptual Stage: Most of this stage occurs in the shower or the car.  In this stage I’m full of exciting ideas about colors, themes, titles – big overarching concepts.  This stage has no concern for budgets, schedules, or even gravity.  Wonderfully impossible things happen here.

2. The Sweaty Stage: This is the stage wherein I start making steps with my dancers.  At this point I have most likely lost sight of my conceptual day-dreaming and am just making movements.  It is at this point that I get preoccupied with innovation (trying to make a ‘cool’ step).  It’s a sweaty time but not always an artistically-driven one.  In its best iteration, this stage creates the language through which the work will be communicated.

3. The Crafting Stage: I now take the ‘steps’ and set them to music and in relation to one another.  At this point I’m usually feeling pretty good about what has emerged.  The dancers are beginning to take on the movement as their own, meanings begin to bubble to the surface, and all of that shower thinking starts to pay off.  It seems that Borat might explain this one best. “King of the castle. I have a chair. Go do this. Go do this.”

4. The Cleaning/Editing/Panicking/Polishing Stage: In this stage all of those fuzzy feelings disappear, making way for some hefty self-doubt.  You are too far along to go back; after all, the show must go on. The dancers have mastered the tasks you have given them and any short comings are wholly your own, as choreographer.  You make small changes, add costumes, add set pieces.  In this stage, I usually long for the simplicity of sweaty rehearsal clothes and dance studio settings.  The theatrical elements (lights, stages, make-up) always surprise me, even after a decade of this.  They always start out feeling false, artificial, creating an unnaturally distancing between me and my dance.  They feel vain… There is usually more shower-thinking in this stage.  For me, this is the scariest stage – and when successful, the most rewarding one.

5. The Performance Stage: Like Adele Dazeem tells us, this stage is about letting go.  In this stage, the dance is no longer solely yours.  Be selfless and let the dancers and the audience have their gift.  Step back and hope that all your hard work has manifest something worth thinking about.  And if it hasn’t, be grateful that you tried and then try again.  To the best of your ability, be honest with yourself about what worked and what didn’t work.  This stage is about watching, appreciating, and flowers.  Bring your dancers flowers.  But also this: you can point and laugh at a flower, but it will still bloom and grow and be beautiful.

6. The Recovery Stage: Nap. Read books. Go see other shows (dance and otherwise). Be a part of the community at large.  Make coffee dates with interesting people. Goto yoga. More naps. And pretty soon, without much thought, your morning shower will again be fully of ideas.

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Re-Blog (so good I needed it again)

In late 2011 I asked my friend, lighting designer, technical director, and all around thoughtful guy Joshua Paul Weckesser to write a blog for our website.  In conjunction with a show we were working on, I asked him “what is dance?”  In a few short weeks we will present a new and improved version of Lips of Their Fingersa work that premiered on that 2011 show.  And with that in mind, I am revisiting Josh’s blog and the question at large – what is dance?  Enjoy his brilliant musing below, and then buy your tickets and help us answer the question in person (March 28-30, 2014!).

WHAT IS DANCE? by Joshua Paul Weckesser 

(originally published September 2011)

I’m going with a few big ideas and then, most likely, discard them immediately. This is the internet, it is my right. I work in dance, it is my habit. Years ago I worked on plays. It was a time, hard to believe now, before cell phones and always-on internet. Even then I was drawn to the real thing, where the simulacrum would not do, to these places where the public comes and sits, the lights dim, the hush and then. And then.

I read Ibsen, I saw Checkov. I quote Shakespeare while watching football (“I hate it, as I hate hell, all Patriots, and Brady”). But all these words, words, words were not enough. Our crown prince said it himself, “can this cockpit hold / the vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” No, we can’t. Not when the cineplex is down the street, not when the television is in our living rooms, the very internet in our pocket. There are always words coming at us, and so few of them can grab our attention and fill us with wonder, with disgust, with shock, confusion, elation. Most of the time they settle comfortably into the white noise that is the sound floor of our lives.

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That is the thing about dancing. You can’t be driving and watch a dance. You can’t be making dinner with dance on in the background. It demands your attention. The only way to consume it is wholly and completely. Which is why bad dancing is so painful to watch, the failure is so complete. There’s no reprieve. The theatre doors are closed, exiting is awkward, as is checking your phone. You have to sit and watch. The other edge of this sword is that amazing dance condenses all of your life into this moment, while your eyes land on that wrist and it flicks here and then rests there. “Of course,” you think, “There it is.” And it has always been there. And a moment later it’s gone.

Chances are though, if you’re reading this blog, you already know all this. But the choir is the easiest group to preach to.

I read once that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And my first thought was, “Oh, I’d love to see a dance about architecture.” Something so passing, so fragile, so dream-like reaching out for something so solid and seemingly-permanent. The analogies between an elbow and a grand staircase, an ankle and an elevator. The dissonance between what is meant and what is seen. Writing about dance seems about the same.

All of this comes out of Lizzie saying, “You can’t sit with dance the way you sit with a painting.” Comes out of Melissa resting on Nicole’s knee, desperately maintaining her composure while the ground literally shakes beneath her, frantic and then still, trying to do something while someone tries to stop her from doing that thing. Comes out of Laura at the head of a line holding her pants to her right, everyone revealed in the leotards and hidden in the dim floor lamps, the tension rising, the pants dropping, the music starting and the moment has passed. Delicious and sweet, like a remembered candy, like a remembered first kiss.

It comes out of turning a brickwall into a backdrop; transforming a wood floor with a patch of astroturf. Of writing lighting cues on a brand-new console. Turning half a plot and some units on the ground into a fully realized design, a cavernous room into a theater. Of the stress of sitting next to the choreographer throughout the whole run. I press a button and, hopefully, something beautiful happens. If not, there is little I can do. Powerless, I can only watch, perhaps weep, and on this show look to my right into the shock and loss on the face of the prime motivator of the event. It’s a feeling of almost sweating, of sitting up straight for an hour and a half. Standing by and then going. Surely, there are other ways to live, but I do not care to know them.

What is dancing? I don’t know. I never will. That’s why I keep coming back. My thanks to the Leopold Group for asking. For being comfortable in the question, in the doubt, in the incomplete answers. If someone was to ask me, “What is dancing?” I would like to take them by the wrist to this show, sit them on those bleachers and say, “We don’t know either, but watch. The journey is the important part.” Like all great mysteries one answer leads to new questions. Here’s what I can say for sure: You can watch it on the internet, but something that is amazing you turn to your friend and say, “Man, I’d love to see that.” Because the seeing isn’t complete until you’re there hearing the zipper work, the bare foot sound on the astroturf, the ever-present breath, images serve only to whet your appetite. After it’s over you’re left with wonder, like a vanishing dream. You can’t hold onto it, only moments remain, only a feeling. And it feels, oddly, like coming home because we are such stuff as dreams are made of. And we, like the dance, will vanish into air (into thin air).

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Rinse, Wash, Repeat

Yesterday in rehearsal we had a great conversation about pacing and output.  Actually, it was more of a debate.  To patiently wait for inspiration or to treat artistic output like any other job and do the work – daily, hourly?  If you have been keeping up with the Leopold Group over the past year, you clearly know where I stand.   Do the work.  Be willing to experience the productive failure. Learn the lessons. And then do better.  But don’t sit around and wait for divine intervention.  Rather, don’t sit around and wait for anything.  Go out and do.

Of course there is more gradient to the debate than just stillness or action.  Both modes of being are important, important complements to one another.  As a matter of fact, I may have overdone the ‘doing’ and underdone the stillness this winter.  But alas, that’s a lesson I could have only learned by doing.

The dance that we will present in three weeks is my very own choreographic deceleration.  It begins big, loud, and busy – like my last few months.  And as the piece goes on, it simplifies and reveals itself through stillness and subtlety.  It clears the stage, quite literally – removing costume pieces, sets, and finally dancers.

When the show closes I will  find a quiet place of stillness and do the work of waiting.  But that’s just it…the waiting itself is still the work.

 THERE IS ‘DOING’ EVEN IN THE UNDOING. 

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