choreographing space

By Julia de Rosenwerth

When putting together the nuts and bolts of a choreographic work, the following items usually come to mind: movement, music, money (this should be first on the list because it’s so stressful). Maybe sometimes the question of where to present does cross one’s mind, but almost never prior to considering the economic concerns of capacity, availability and capital. I’ll be honest; these are extremely limiting factors which make choosing a space incredibly difficult, but I’m not going to get into a (nonetheless necessary) discussion about economic capital, power and art here (but just wait!).

As Nicola explains in an earlier article, dance has moved WAY beyond the proscenium arch. The process of choreography demands an interrogation into the concept of space. Not only is what is happening important, but where it is happening too.

Space is actually a complex consideration. Each physical location has a general space and atmosphere to it. As you stand in that space, there is physical space around your body too: your kinesphere, as it’s called. There are also the levels you occupy in space (low, medium, high), the pathways you travel through space and the directions you face in space (to the right corner, to the left). These are essentially the beginnings of Laban Movement analysis (Google it, very interesting stuff).

Basically, your body is already in space before you start dancing because it’s all around you: it’s absurdly omnipresent! And so, space is an extremely important factor to consider when making choreography and not just because it’s everywhere (always). Space also has the ability to be one of the main contributing factors to an artwork. This is because it contains the potential to create formal, aesthetic, emotional, social and political significance. I would argue that these are all the possible aspects you would need to make an artwork meaningful / impactful / challenging etc…

On the one side of the spectrum you have space in all its formal glory. You can make a work interesting by playing with the physical properties of space – that is, the lines, patterns, formations, levels and directions of the bodies in space. But how many times have you seen ensembles in three lines with all the dancers front-on and staggered (for best audience-viewing opportunities)? And just how many diagonals does it take to get your attention wandering? Not that many actually. Experimenting with unusual spatial relations and floor patterns can bring interest and visual delight to a choreographic work.

Picture five dancers clustered together in tight proximity at the back, left-hand side of the stage whilst one dancer stands flaton toward the audience at the front, right hand side of the stage.

Immediately this deviates from predictable spatial patterns (diagonals, lines, halfmoons) and introduces an unconventional element to a work. Now, I agree that this visual stimulation is awesome but what space can do goes far, far beyond this.

Immediately this deviates from predictable spatial patterns (diagonals, lines, halfmoons) and introduces an unconventional element to a work. Now, I agree that this visual stimulation is awesome but what space can do goes far, far beyond this.

Back to our stage visual: five dancers clustered together away from the audience brings a sense of togetherness between the cluster, but also possible notions of fear too, due to their close proximity to each other. This is in contrast to the solo dancer at the front of the stage, who may, for example, project an aura of confidence in their aloneness.

Beyond simple emotional associations, these spatial relations have the potential to generate somatic/felt experiences in the audience. One might feel a ‘pang’ as a dancer breaks from the cluster or a ‘pushing’ back as the dancer comes toward the audience, for example.

There is a host of possible emotional meanings and somatic experiences we could associate with this little scene, and in turn, spatial formations and relations in general. A lot of this depends on the subjectivity of the people watching the work.

Choreographic sensitivity to space can allow for an emotional and sensorial journey in the audience, which is very cool, but space has the potential to be even cooler.

Space can be used as a tool to deconstruct and interrogate social and conceptual conventions. I’m going to carry on with the little scene I have been discussing. In this work, the choreographer might have been interested in exploring the idea of spectating and the relationship between the audience and performers. Think about the performer standing face-on to the audience.

If put in the correct context, the performer’s eye contact and close proximity to the audience becomes a ‘social’ connection and an acknowledgement of the audience’s presence *breaking that fourth wall*. In this scene, spatial proximity is being used as a choreographic tool to generate social connections, which can become a relevant means of deconstructing performative concepts. This is made possible by the general space that the whole show is being performed in. I can explain this in terms of bodies.

Our physical bodies are the means through which we move through and connect with the world and since they hold certain historical, experiential, racial, social, cultural and economic information, they are inherently political. We can think of locations, buildings and general spaces like bodies too.

Each space has a historical context, which makes it what it is, and thus, if a performance is situated in that space, its historical information gets conferred onto the performance too (whether we like it or not and despite the choreographer’s choice to engage with this content or not).

This historical context is political and can be taken into account and interrogated as part, or all, of the actual choreography. In my example, this direct and sometimes affronting connection between performers and spectators gains power by virtue of being in a theatre.

Historically, theatrical works have been performed as if the audience were not there or not influencing the work in any way. Thus, when a performer makes that connection and acknowledges the audience and their effect on the performance in a theatre space, it is a direct challenge to historical modes of performance located and associated with these spaces! How awesome?

But let’s not get too bogged down here. It doesn’t need to be so technical. Choreographic works don’t even need to involve theatres at all. Site-specific dance, which often happens in public spaces, unusual places and non-performance environments is another great illustration of what it means to consider the space you’re performing in and how to create the work around/for/in that specific space.

For example, performing in a space that has huge metal installations may involve trying all possible means to reach the top of the structures. As you can imagine this task, and thus this performance, couldn’t happen at the beach or on a stage at all.

In this instance, the performance is made for that space; it is dependent on that space and cannot exist without that space – it is of utmost importance to the work.

In other scenarios, the space of a bustling thoroughfare might be your location of choice for a performance that explores the idea of public and private space, unpredictability, disruption, fun, games, crowd organization and so on. The possibilities are endless!

To end off my meanderings, I’ll leave you with the notion that space has many dimensions (pun intended) and considering the whole of it, in all of its complexities and contradictions, is relevant to both the creation and the watching of choreographic work.

Image: Nicola van Straaten