Middles- When Less can be More

by Janaea Rose Lyn

1. Writers say that the middle section is where the plot thickens (with new characters, sub-storylines, conflicts, villains, etc.) How would you describe the function/s of the middle in choreography?

In thinking about the middles of my own work, there is often a moment of pause and reflection. I think this is a time when less can be more. Whether a work is narrative, abstract or conceptual, by this point the audience has had a lot of material to take in and consider. Punctuation with stillness or minimal movement provides a suspended moment of sharp focus, a brief but potent opportunity to absorb and process what is happening.

This is often followed by a renewal of some kind. If it is a large work it may be the group in unison which has a powerful and unifying effect. I mentioned in Beginnings the bar of complete stillness and silence that was the center of Circadian Chant, and that I built the rest of the piece from that intention. In Sacred Ground, a work with completely different quality, in the middle of the piece each person finished their phrase and just stood and rocked, looking down, one at a time until everyone was just standing and rocking. That was so powerful in its simplicity.

Another device I have been exploring in my solo modern dance work is to use a structured improvisation for the middle. In Close to the Bone, about the process of making dances, I decided to really improvise material in the middle, not pretend to show the process. This approach was scary and exhilarating and was inspired by my Flamenco studies, where improvisation within forms is integral.

2. What have you found challenging about constructing the middle section of a work?

As I work collaboratively with musicians, composers and theater artists a great deal, balancing the best use of each discipline to greatest effect can be the trickiest in the middle.

3. What strategies have you used to prevent the middle from meandering and/or going off on tangents? If you have experienced tangential and meandering middles, what was your process for getting the work back on track?

I don’t really go off on tangents but when there are several different aspects to the piece, or related but distinct story
lines, I like to use connecting devices which provide cohesion for the audience. A repeated movement or simple variations on that phrase (and/or a musical or spoken theme) throughout the work helps connect the different elements as part of one related arc.

4. As choreographers, much of our middle content is about variation and development. In this process, new directional possibilities arise for the work. When faced with these new possibilities, what considerations have helped you decide whether to continue the dance on its original path, or venture down a newly presented path?

I agree with some of my fellow contributors who have written that one must be willing to accept that their initial starting point, structure or movement motifs should be relinquished for a new and more substantial direction as the work develops. The creative well is not finite, so it is important not fear beginning again or accepting that your brilliantly crafted phrase may really be better suited to another work and archived for another time. This really relates to my earlier point about Intention (see Beginnings) in the sense that if you, and your collaborators, are motivated by actualizing the intention for the piece then ALL choices – what we keep, change or let go of, are made in service of furthering the work.

A strong idea/intention that lends itself to movement can stand up to many interpretations, revisions and ruthless editing. While participating in a Choreographers Workshop with Bessie Schoenberg at DTW, I had my first showing in progress with all the company members of Convergence Dancers & Musicians present. At the end she asked me some questions about my concept and intention and then promptly told me that while I explained myself very well in words, none of this was coming through in the movement or music as presented. While it was a blow to my emerging artistic ego, more importantly, I came to understand it was a gift. I knew it was a privilege to have been selected to work with her and I accepted her feedback with humility. The composer/music director and I went completely back to the drawing board and when we returned with a new approach and material for the same intention, it was well received and the feedback then became more specific and craft related. I think this is also why it is so important to not be in the center of your pieces so you can have compositional perspective, and to not work in a cocoon but to get feedback at every stage of your career.

5. Are there differences between constructing middles for shorter works (under 15 minutes) and larger works (i.e. evening length)?

No, in the sense that all pieces should have their own complete integrity of form and meaning so the middle must be rich regardless of length. Yes in the sense that some larger works may have an inherent structure musically that you are working with, particularly in classical works, or have a specific function in the larger work such as an opera. If there
are not any restrictions, I often work in shorter pieces which use a connecting device to provide the larger structure. I am thoughtful about the placement of these individual pieces and how they build to and leave from the middle, often re-arranging sections until it feels right.

6. What words of wisdom and warning would you give for creating a strong middle section?

Whether one is working with abstract, narrative or poetic movement themes, fewer and clearer movement motifs and phrases with more complex development allows the audience to better connect with your intention and to follow related
thematic diversions/explorations. Rather than continually making new movements, really explore the development of your material, both in terms of individual solos, duets, trios and in the use of compositional tools such as level, locomotion, dynamics, patterning, etc. Subdivisions of group work which are individually related to the larger movement material and which can weave in and out of each other, like a kaleidoscope, can provide an interesting and more nuanced effect.

Be mindful of when and how unison is used in group work, it is a very powerful tool which is often overused. If not executed well the group will lack cohesion and the audience will tend to pick out a particular dancer to watch instead of feeling the impact of many moving as one.