Spatial Design- A Sacred Space for Creative Work

by Janae Rose Lyn

1. What are you assessing when you look at the spatial design of bodies and vocabulary in your work? Do these assessments change with the piece or are you guided by more overarching principles?

I am keenly aware of dangers of overuse of symmetry, unison and predictable canon with groups of dancers, as well as center stage, so I always look at those things when I do my initial edit. I am also mindful of the power
of placement and a desire to invite the audience into my work emotionally and kinesthetically, as that is what I appreciate when I view dance, to be drawn in and not to observe detached. So I am always thinking about the use of up and downstage to heighten a desired effect and when too much downs stage use feels “in your face” or being too far away inhibits that experience for the viewer. I move around in the theater to see from different audiences perspectives too.

Geometry plays an important role in relation to the content too. I consciously begin with and use the inherent connections we have to movement material and spatial patterns, e.g. associations of circular movements with ritual and community and linear patterns with division, containment and separation. Then I work to abstract and develop a more nuanced expression of these ideas.

Because my choreographic interests are with human experience and relationships, all staging, spacing and patterning is based on supporting the relationships communicated within the content and movement of the dance, whether with others or within one’s self.

2. How have you used staging to contribute to your work, (i.e. for visual design, to communicate meaning, to create mood, to evoke social conventions, etc)?

When staging “pure” dance works, I prefer to have unobstructed stage space for the dancers and create a world within that with the movements and patterns. I define an environment in the space through patterns and focus most specifically. In a piece called Other Than, I deliberately created a defined and enclosed space with angular movements and patterning of a group to contain the soloist within, and from which she had to break free.

When working with dance and music I integrate the musicians onstage as appropriate for the piece. For Circadian Chant, with original music by composer Helen Carnevale, thirteen percussionists were onstage in a semi-circle to enhance the ritual aspect of the piece. For The Way of All Things with the 1 East Guitar Quartet, each of the guitarists was placed in a corner of the stage facing in towards the center and each dancer had a choreographic relationship with a musician.

For full productions with all theatrical elements, staging has to be integral throughout the conception and revised continually during the execution of the choreographic vision. For a co-production of The Unicorn, The Gorgon and The Manticore by Gian Carlo Menotti with Convergence-Dancers & Musicians and the Philadelphia Singers, the set was designed for the musicians to be able to be on the bottom level but at a height that did not obstruct the audience view of floor work by the dancers, and the top was a simple tower where the dancer/creatures and The Poet could be visible or hidden at different times. The set was angled and when the singers were onstage with the dancers there was room for everything happening, to be seen and heard at the same time. This is not unlike staging an opera, but differs in that dance has a central rather than a supporting role in the conception and design.

3. In what ways do you play with a phrase to achieve the desired spacing and staging?

I am very thoughtful about the placement of movements, facings and focus. I think focus plays a key role in spacing and staging because it makes a clear statement about the intended relationships between the performers onstage, and with the audience. If a dancer is downstage and executing a movement phrase with a strong and direct focus, this communicates something completely different than the same movement upstage and with an inward focus. The same is true in terms of focus between and spacing among performers.

All of these choices are based on the choreographic intention but are always informed by the actual performance space and often need to adjusted in the venue (and/or with lighting) as opposed to the studio, so I look at this closely in spacing and technical rehearsals.

4. What challenges have you encountered when dealing with staging? What strategies, advice, or lines of thought have helped you overcome these challenges?

Since a piece is often performed in a variety of venues, if the intention behind specific key moments, including placement, facings and focus, has been made clear to the dancer(s) they can more easily adapt to performance spaces that are non-traditional, or of a strikingly different configuration than they have been working in, especially when there is limited rehearsal time. But it is the choreographer’s job to evaluate the dancers’ choices and to make any adjustments quickly and effectively so the work communicates well from the audience perspective in each new space, and should not be a “one size fits all stages” approach.

As I frequently work with musicians and/or actors, it is essential to me that they are integrated into the staging as each piece requires, and not relegated to the pit or out of sight. This creates particular issues which can affect the audience’s site lines of the dancers, lighting of the musicians, and sound for both performers and audience. However, the if they are being utilized, a thoughtful integration of musicians, dancers, and/or other performers into staging and use of space is critical for a cohesive choreographic and theatrical statement.

5. Have entrances and exits served any greater function in your work than getting dancers in and out of the performance space? If yes, what have been their functions?

Absolutely. These are powerful aspects of staging. In a piece called The Only Landmark, a series of solos were connected by the entrance of each new dance as the previous soloist was exiting, using the same pathway as a representative continuum. This pathway was from upstage right to downstage left, and this choice was intentional. Since western audiences read from left to right, this entrance to exit choice sets up an intuitive sense of continuation for the viewer. This upstage to downstage diagonal also brought the dancers towards to the audience who felt them leave as they were closest to them. This would have had a different experience for the audience if I had started downstage and moved diagonally upstage. When I want to have an unexpected entrance
I intentionally use stage left because the viewer is forced to look there instead of where the eye naturally wants to go.

6. What challenges have you encountered when dealing with entrances and exits? What helped you take on these challenges?

When a piece has entrances and exits as a key staging element and the performance space is completely exposed, like in an outdoor festival or site specific venue, the performance focus and quality of the dancer(s) becomes heightened by necessity. Creating a sense of invisibility when standing still on the side until it is time to “enter” the space is as important as an energized entrance. This ability to be truly still also keeps the focus on the dancers in the performance area until it is time for the next entrance. This can be a valuable lesson for emerging dancers as professionals have experience calibrating their energy in these situations.

7. How have your thoughts and approaches to space and spatial design evolved throughout your choreographic career?

I have always been thoughtful about levels and using a range of movements from floor work to air born, but they have to be appropriate for the piece. When I was an emerging choreographer there was a tendency to try to have a little of every level in each piece but as I matured I allowed myself to stay in one realm if it was what the piece needed. In Fall Out, to music by Peter Price, the soloist wakes up to the realization of a major loss, requiring the dance remain completely floor bound, and with a bed sheet. Rather than fearing it would be not interesting enough if she stayed only on the floor, this limitation allowed me to really explore what was possible on this spatial plane, with this prop and a specific movement vocabulary. Limitation is often liberating and generative.

In addition to creating an environment and accommodating all performers in an integrated visual way, I think of the use of dynamics in dance as sculpting time and space. The shapes and energy that the dancer transmits in each moment, is the key for me. The visual/visceral takeaway the audience has from sharing this time in space with the dancer is also spatial design to me as much as a large intricate group sequence.

8. If you had a philosophy about the role of space in your practice and in your work, what would it be?

That whether for class, rehearsal or performance, any place where creative work is happening, the space is a sacred place, a temenos, and is entered with reverence and respect.