May 16, 2007

What is choreography? Webster—who should have known a bit about definitions—graces his (rather old-fashioned) and  well-thumbed dictionary with three: ballet dancing; the arrangement, especially the written notation, of the movements of a ballet; the art of devising ballets. Not one of them is particularly illuminating, is it? I suppose arranging “the movements of a ballet” is closest to the mark, yet surely no cigar. So what really is choreography?  

I still recall—when I was very young—sitting behind two loud-mouthed matinée ladies fulsomely extolling the skill of the dancers who, they obviously imagined, were not only making up the steps as they went along, but were, very cleverly, avoiding all bumps and collisions in the process. Oh well, perhaps some ballets possibly do look as though the dancers were gallantly improvising. In a few instances it might have worked out better if they had been! Certainly until the century only recently past, choreographers (or “dance arrangers” as Broadway liked to call them) were the lowest artists on any cultural totem pole, regarded rather as stage directors (i.e. fundamentally interpretative artists realizing the imaginative flights of their betters) than fully-fledged creators. By such reasoning a choreographer was on a level with an opera director or a scenic designer rather than an opera composer.

It took the 20th century to find a climate where people were as apt—perhaps more apt—to talk of Balanchine’s Apollo as of Stravinsky’s Apollo, which in itself was an irony. For that ballet’s first choreographer was Adolph Bolm and not Balanchine at all. It was really only during the past 100 years the ordinary choreographer became recognized as an everyday artist, not as a journeyman hack whose work was as disposable as a tissue, or some rare, close-to-unique genius of the stature of Noverre. Even today not too many choreographers are regarded as having achieved the rank of major artists.  

Choreography is one of the most difficult of artistic disciplines—difficult to learn, more difficult to sustain, and most difficult to maintain. Unlike a writer, composer, or painter who can first learn their craft in schools and then polish it in the shabby security of their own attics, choreographers have to fight even for the raw materials—human bodies and studio space—with which to toddle their first childlike steps, and then battle for the public exposure of a dance repertoire. And most choreography—whether it is bad, indifferent, good, or even great—disappears simply from neglect and from that almost indecent public desire that always puts a premium on the new.

Most creative artists chug through their careers on the way to ultimate extinction, whether they are painters or novelists, composers or playwrights, sculptors or poets. But all of these leave something material behind, and the thin possibility of posthumous fame. Choreographers—despite Webster’s confident assertion of “written notation”—usually leave surprisingly little by way of artistic legacy except the muscle memories of dying dancers, the fading memories of former audiences, photographs, and press clips.     

And the gift for choreography—that ability to make dances that express aspects of the human spirit and weave them into a meaningful web of drama, design, or both—is inhumanly rare. And very often it is a gift that the audience—even those  who do not imagine, like my matinée ladies, that they are experiencing some kind of choreographic parthenogenesis—is all too ready to ascribe praise and glory to the dancer rather than the dance. Is it any wonder that so many modern dance choreographers—from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham onwards—regarded themselves as dancers first and choreographers second? And how many—not, I think, in classical ballet, where the whole performance aesthetic is differently balanced—genuinely did start to choreograph primarily to give themselves something to dance?

For all this what a wonderful thing true choreography is! Think of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Robbins’ Fancy Free, or Taylor’s Aureole—exquisite theatrical machines clicking joyously through time and space, giving music a different dimension and offering dancers the chance to be messengers of the heart. You can’t really teach it—and although you can recognize it, often a mile off, you cannot describe it any more than you can evoke that shudder down the neck it can, at least in the sensitively willing, mercilessly provoke. Finally how fragile it is—choreography that is here today usually is gone tomorrow, lost in either the whirligig of fashion or the roulette-wheel of luck. The other day I was thinking of Ashton’s magical wisp of a ballet Madame Chrysanthème, an exquisite piece of theatrical Japonaiserie, as delicate as a consummately crafted ivory fan, but now broken, totally lost in time. Choreography is not a game for the faint of heart.                                 ™