The Big Impact of Short-Form Choreography

June 17, 2024

Audiences love big, stage-filling choreography with dramatic music and luscious dancing. But every once in a while, a short, spare dance packs a punch. And that’s what people remember when they walk out of the theater.

In his book The Map of Making Dances, the late Stuart Hodes wrote, “When you make a dance, you explore a landscape.” Part of the challenge of choreographing a short dance is establishing the landscape quickly. Where are we? Who is the person or persons dancing? What mood or mode are they in? The choreographer needs to get all that across in the blink of an eye.

How to do that? There is no foolproof method, but one option is to start the way artists start making anything: Try stuff out. Explore. Improvise. Janis Brenner, who teaches at Marymount Manhattan College and Steps Conservatory, advises, “You’re following your intuitive thread. Stay with your intention.” A particular landscape can be envisioned beforehand, or it can emerge while improvising.

The next stage is to pare down. Brenner puts it this way: “You distill your improvisational exploration down into essentials.” This requires having the discipline to dump the moves that are just about display. A short work will not be memorable if it’s just crammed with all the things the choreographer’s good at.

a female dancer wearing a white tutu dancing as a swan
Anna Pavlova in Michel Fokine’s
The Dying Swan. Courtesy DM Archives.

Does a short piece take less time to make than a long one? Sometimes. Michel Fokine spent only half an hour to make The Dying Swan for Anna Pavlova in 1905. The fact that they had danced together for years helped. He had a keen sense of her expressive abilities, so her dancing was already part of the landscape. With his clear image of a swan gliding on a lake, the dance almost made itself.

Of course, a dance can be so short as to be inconsequential. Going back to Hodes: “A complete dance may be short…but a dance that doesn’t take time to develop its ideas is too short.” The best ones create a sense of discovery while also knitting all the elements together—the landscape, the distillation of the exploration, and, of course, the power of the performer.

A good short work never overstates its point. Every move counts. The late Trisha Brown once said to me, while working on Watermotor, “I would go to the guillotine for every move.”

Masters of Brevity

Looking at the 20th century alone, there have been many iconic solos that are under eight minutes. Here are some
of my favorites.

Pizzicati (1916, about two minutes), aka The Shadow Dance, by Michio Ito, to music by Léo Delibes. A solitary figure, moving in a way that’s reminiscent of a puppet—or a dictator—projects a huge shadow. Ito’s biographer, Helen Caldwell, described it as having a “mystifying power.”

The Dying Swan (1905, just over three minutes), by Michel Fokine, to music by Camille Saint-Saëns. Fokine said of his iconic solo for Anna Pavlova, “This dance aims, not so much at the eyes of the spectator, but at his soul, at his emotions.”

The Stair Dance (c. 1918, about three minutes), by Bill Robinson. The tap dance legend developed this gem during his years in vaudeville. Elegant, relaxed, and upbeat, he ascends and descends a set of stairs, generating sounds like a clear, rippling brook.

Revolutionary Etude (c. 1923, about two and a half minutes), by Isadora Duncan, to music by Alexander Scriabin. Influenced by the Russian revolution, Duncan portrayed a woman warrior who gathers energy from the heavens and earth. Many Duncan dances are depicted as light and skippy, but this one brings out the fists.

a female dancer wearing a tunic while kneeling with hands outstretched in fists
Annabelle Gamson in Isadora Duncan’s Revolutionary Etude. Photo by Stephan Driscoll, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

Lamentation (1930, three and a half minutes), by Martha Graham, to music by Zoltán Kodály. “I wear a long tube of material to indicate the tragedy that obsesses the body,” Graham wrote in her autobiography, Blood Memory, “the ability to stretch inside your own skin, to witness and test the perimeters and boundaries of grief.”

Mourner’s Bench (1947, six minutes), by Talley Beatty, to the traditional spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Inspired by Howard Fast’s historical novel Freedom Road, it features a dancer that cultural critic John Perpener describes as “an archetype of human suffering, perseverance, and ultimate nobility.”

a dancer performing on a bench outside surrounded by trees and clouds
Talley Beatty in Mourner’s Bench. Photo by John Lindquist/Houghton Library, Harvard University, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

Harmonica Breakdown (1938, three and a half minutes), by Jane Dudley, to music by Sonny Terry. Evoking the Dust Bowl calamity during the Depression, a woman strides with fierce determination in the face of grinding poverty and oppression.

a female dancer contacting in a parallel passe with one arm outstretched
Jane Dudley in Harmonica Breakdown. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Tom Hurwitz.

Strange Fruit (1943, three minutes and 40 seconds), by Pearl Primus, to the poem of the same name by Lewis Allan, aka Abel Meeropol. As the protagonist leaves a lynching ground, “the horror of what she has seen grips her,” Primus said, “and she has to do a smooth, fast roll away from that burning flesh.”

Watermotor (1978, two and a half minutes), by Trisha Brown, no music. Although it is carefully choreographed, this solo captures the heady ride of free-wheeling improvisation, challenging the eye to see the initiation and follow-through of Brown’s intricate, elusive movement chains.

a female dancer swinging her arms back and hair flying in a large open studio
Trisha Brown in Watermotor. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Little Ease (1985, under three minutes), by Elizabeth Streb, no music. The landscape is a small rectangular box that confines the dancer physically and psychologically. She stretches, pumps, knocks, and hurtles herself at its walls. Every move shows a fearless quest for freedom.

a female dancer in small box, supporting herself with one hand
Elizabeth Streb in Little Ease. Courtesy Streb.

Caught (1982, six minutes), by David Parsons, to music by Robert Fripp. As Deborah Jowitt wrote, this solo “shows us, via meticulously timed flashes of strobe light, a dancer who can appear to fly.”

a group of male dancers jumping in the air with arms lifted overhead
David Parsons in a composite image of Caught. Photo by William Struhs, Courtesy Richard Kornberg PR.

Slipstream (1985, three minutes), by Margie Gillis, to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Gillis breathes along with Bach’s cello suite, expanding her lungs until­ she hits the high mark of the music. The effect is an ecstatic swirl of circling torso, trailing hair, and rising cello notes.

a female dancer wearing blue flipping her hair up while smiling
Margie Gillis in Slipstream. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Gillis.