Dancer Collab – A Balance of Control

by Marjorie Malerk

1. How do you define your relationship with your dancers as it relates to the choreographic process?

I am open and receptive to new ideas and suggestions. Usually, I work with my advance/troupe dancers but I have been including my advance beginners and intermediates in the choreographic process to give them experience. Because my dancers are students, I usually do most of the choreographying and incorporate their ideas as much as possible.

2. As choreographer-to-dancer, what function/s have each of you held in contributing to and/or impacting the generation, selection, staging, etc. of material?

I usually have the technique or music or a specific need in mind but my more advance dancers and students help put the choreography together. I do the fine tuning between their classes and bring the updated material to class each day for them try out and make further changes, deletions, etc. The students make suggestion about technique and combinations and if the merges and transitions feel comfortable. Sometimes I will put the music on and they come up with movement ideas. We work together on staging. I do the costume designs because I do most of the sewing. I am comfortable collaborating with my dancers and don’t need to have total control over the project. However, if I am working with someone who is choreographing their own dance, I act as a sounding board and make suggestions to help them get the dance they want. But music, style, and technique is really left up to them.

3. In her article, “Collaborating with Dancers,” Hope Mohr talks about a spectrum of collaboration which spans from the “old-school genius” model, where “creativity falls almost exclusively to the choreographer,” to a more mutualistic model, where choreographers “rely heavily on the dancers with whom they work not only to generate vocabulary, but also to problem-solve at every point in the creative process.” As a choreographer, how have you traversed this spectrum?

Our latest choreographic endeavor falls into the mutualistic model. What began as an exercise in improvisational and solo dancing turned into a choreogaphy session that continued on in the regular classes on the participants and in the classes of the non-participants. Students have been excited to see their suggestion taking shape over the course of several weeks. Everyone feels like it is "their" dance. I have actually served as the liaison between the classes, bringing the ideas and adapted choreography to each class.

4. Along this spectrum, what factors have influenced how you utilize your dancers in the choreographic process?

I have been the technical advisor for this group choreography and know the abilities of all the people who will perform the number. My concern is to make sure the dance is compatible with abilities of all the dancers. Much of the movemenet and even gestures have been adapted from the students’ own solos. The music was selected by the troupe for a Turkish show and never used but it worked well for this project.

5. Is there a side of the spectrum you tend to lean towards? Why?

I tend to do most of the choreography on my own because I am the only one who has the time to do it. The performers are students so the choreographies tend to be educational as well as entertaining. When I am working with my troupe, I take our ideas and try to get them into some order and ready to present at the next choreographic session. Many times, the research for a project falls on me, so I am the source of movement material and expertise in the music, culture, rhythms, etc.

6. Has that propensity changed over time or as you have gained more experience? if so, what has led to that change?

I used to have total control over creating dances, but with age and experience, I am comfortable in getting others involved in the creative process. I think the change was brought about by a long time relationship with my troupe dancers. As they have become more knowledgeable, they are better able to assist and become an intricate part of the process. They also share the same aesthetic appreciation and understanding of good choreography.

7. As a choreographer, what do you glean from your dancers that informs, adjusts, clarifies, confirms, etc., the material and the work at-large?

If it is teaching material, I use my more advance dancers to help me created dances that are appropriate in difficulty for the lower class levels. If it is performing material, I rely on the troupe dancers to work through the material with me and see if there are uncomfortable or awkward transitions and merges, if the technique looks good on them and works for the piece. I keep the notes and write up the choreography so we know where we are in the creative process. I also breakdown the music with my dancers so they learn how to listen to it and they learn more about Middle Eastern rhythms and maqamats (scales) as well as traditional approaches to various elements in the music. I like to do creative departures but this means I have to know what is traditional to make a respectful cultural departure that feels and looks like it came right out of that culture even though it is original.

What are your thoughts about Marjorie’s reflection on making solos? Leave a comment below. Want to share your own reflection on making solos? You can share it here.

Read more reflections from Marjorie here.