Choreography and the Element of Surprise

It was roughly forty years ago and I was developing my skills as a dancer and choreographer. I heard that Jennifer Muller and The Works was giving a summer choreography workshop and decided to attend.  (If you click on the link for Jennifer and her company you will get some inkling about why a young artist would seek her out. I came that summer to study composition). Our first class was held in an old church which had part of the roof missing. In addition to the dancers, the local pigeons were in attendance. They were perched on the beams above what had been a sacred space. As we looked around, I believe we were all thinking the same thing “Really? Pigeons? Pigeon droppings?”

Jennifer Muller looked around and I suspect tried to figure out how to adapt to this less-than-ideal space. She had graduated from Julliard and started a dance company that I much admired. She was tall with great presence and both a free moving and powerful style of dancing. Her approach to choreography was reminiscent of the Limon school of technique. That first day she talked to us about our goals for the workshop, ignoring the pigeons. One dancer said loudly, “I can already make dances, I want to learn how to make phrases”. I didn’t say anything, hoping no matter where we started I‘d come away with a clearer idea about how to create.

Jennifer found a part of the room that the pigeons had ignored and gave us her first assignment. I don’t remember the exact choreographic task, but I do remember quite vividly failing it dramatically. I felt desperate. How could I have done that? I forgot the steps. I felt humiliated. I didn’t recover. I needed a place to hide and there was none. Jennifer went on and gave us an assignment for the next day. “Create a phrase about continuity or surprise.”

I knew instantly I wanted to make a phrase exploring continuity. I had a lot to make up for. I’d make something that flowed logically from one step to the next that would show off the intent using interesting movement. I told myself I could and would do this. I found a space in which to work. I imagined a beautiful melody flowing logically through me, the sound of a musical scale moving up and down. I tried to match my movement to the music in my head. I asked myself, “what logically flows from this step?” My body would answer with a movement that felt connected and satisfying. This movement feedback loop went on for quite a while until I felt I had something interesting to show. Next, I memorized and rehearsed the phrase, adding a dynamic accent here and a flowing arm there. Whatever happened, I was not going to forget the movement.

The next day we all gathered in the church with half a roof to show our work. The floor had been cleared of the pigeon droppings, but the pigeons were again in attendance. I volunteered to go first. We were told not to explain our phrases. Jennifer wanted to see the movement first before we talked about it. We would perform our phrases twice through. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment to calm myself, then began, leg extension, shift of weight, pivot, step. The moves came easily this time. I repeated my phrase on continuity a second time.  I finished and stepped back a bit, waiting for the comments to come.

Jennifer’ eyes widened, and she shifted back in her chair. “Venetia” she proclaimed, “that is one of the best phrases on… SURPRISE, I’ve ever seen.”

My fellow dancers applauded, and Jennifer was clearly happy for me. I froze for a moment, then decided to accept the compliment, and not admit I’d actually been working on continuity.