Spatial Design – The Role of Space in Dance

by Sallamah Chimera

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?

For the soloist, I try to give the dancer as much exposure to the audience as possible, even some interaction and plenty of variety. A soloist needs to work the stage and not be glued to one spot. For duets and trios I try interesting floor and air patterns or sculpting, and even interaction between the dancers like a weaving pattern. For a larger group, I like having a back and front row that can change places, and even have different variations of a movement to perform or vary the direction they travel or face. Our stage areas are usually small, we are dealing with wind, sun, and poor surfaces so I am often limited in being able to do anything elaborate.

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 we have a theater stage we change the number of dancers on stage, use the wings to begin our dances off stage, use lighting for special effects or to set the mood, use the curtains to change the set and mood, and so much more. Having a real backdrop means more attention is given to our air designs because they are much more visible. The floor patterns are more prominent as well. When we dance without the aide of a stage, we are exposed from beginning to end of the show. It is much more difficult to do anything spectacular because the set-up is visible to the audience.

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

One of our dances begins in the wings and the first two dancers come together in the middle from opposite sides of the stage. As the next row of dancers comes into the dance, the first two go to the outer edges and the new ones go center. We are all doing the same movement and traveling but in different places on the stage. Another dance has a front and back row partner and they travel in a box formation to change places. Each dancer has her own version of various movements in the dance that place her in the next location and facing in the direction she needs to travel.

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

We seldom have a real theater stage so most of our performances are outside or in a restaurant or multi-purpose room on ground level with the audience. We are exposed so have to remain in character the entire time. We try not to show our backs to the audience when leaving the stage area to maintain an intimacy with them. We also perform within a few feet of the audience and can reach out and touch them. If possible, we try to stage outside of the room and make our entrances or turn the lights down to set the mood. Mostly, everyone has to pretend there is a stage and wings. A theatre allows us to maintain an air of mystery rather than exposing our business to the audience.

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?

Yes, one of our dances has a dream entrance to Splendor in Paradise with veils and soft lights (if possible). The dancers intertwine and end with their backs to the audience. The music completely changes the mood into a more aggressive dance as they release the veils and face forward. I haven’t really used exits for a greater purpose, I guess because we are outside and so completely exposed.

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

Since we are usually exposed to the audience, there is always the challenge of making a clean entrance and exit. We use an emcee to explain the dances and music during the exits and entrances to help cover the awkwardness and keep the show’s cohesion. If our stage area is removed from the audience, we will dance in front of it on the ground. We have our dancers play their finger cymbals during the show and stage closer to the stage.

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

Poles, steps, being outside, weather, stage area floor surfaces and distance from the audience are a challenge. Belly dance movements are small and internal and hard to see. If our stage area is more than 5 feet from the audience, we go down on the ground and dance in the space between and I may even leave a few dancers on stage. This brings the dance to the audience and creates an intimacy that is needed.

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

Ironically, our practice space is often times twice the size of our actual performance space. One of the most difficult tasks I have comes with getting my dancers to realize they have to adjust the dance to accommodate the dancers so no one falls off the stage. If you travel to one direction then you have to travel to the other direction and keep re-centering the dance on the stage. So I try to teach my dancers to be flexible and to be able to shrink or expand the dance as needed to fill the stage area.

What are your thoughts about Sallamah’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 Sallamah here.