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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
The implicit voice
Animated, Autumn 1997. Pamela Harling-Challis is one of a new breed of artists embarking on dance research at Laban Centre London. Here she offers a personal insight into the voice of the choreographer
Historically, dance research has involved theoretical exploration favouring the areas of dance history, education and anthropology. When the art of making choreography has been part of research the focus of analysis has tended to shift away from the aesthetic object towards other fields such as psychology. Thankfully things are changing - the inclusion of practical research is at the fore and the choreographers voice is being acknowledged as a source and site of knowledge.

Making by myself and others is at the core of my research and throughout I will be observing choreographers in action. From this dual perspective of making and observing, I will be using semiotics and phenomenology, "...complementary ways of seeing that disclose the object in two ways at once..."(1), to expose and describe the complex 'global web of activity' which constitutes the compositional process of choreography.

Why am I doing this? I believe that the more we can learn about how, why, and where choreographers are going in and with their work, the more we can tap into that knowledge and use it to our own advantage as dancers, choreographers, teachers, critics or appreciators. Through this application of dance knowledge we will be able to deepen understanding of ourselves as artists and as human beings.

The structuring of my observation is based around the work of musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez. He proposes that we acknowledge that music (I replace music with dance) is a symbolic form open to multiple readings and, that in order to fully understand this symbolic form, we must look at it from three different, but intricately related perspectives:

  • The poietic, from the Greek, to make - in this case the choreographic process

  • The trace - this refers to a performance of a dance

  • The esthesic - where an audience (critics are included here) sees and interprets the dance.

In line with my interest in the process of dance making I have narrowed the focus of my research to the poietic exploring the way in which symbolic form is embodied within the trace.

Within the poietic Nattiez proposes three dynamic 'conditions' which "...make possible, and... underpin the creation of an artist's... work."(2) they involve the artist's intentions, the choice and use of materials and the rehearsal process itself. It is my intention to make explicit how these three 'conditions' combine to form a complex web of meaning for the audience which is exposed during the performance. Thus, the poietic is not just a making process but describes the " among the composer's intentions, his creative procedures, his mental schemas and the result of his collection of strategies; that is, the components that go into the work's material embodiment."(3)

The work of three choreographers - Bill Cratty, Paula Hampson and Samantha Dawn, all at different stages of the choreographic ladder, and the devising of my own piece for video formed the basis of my pilot research. Some interesting detail has begun to emerge about the complexity and delicacy of the making process. At this stage I have identified three categories or concept montages' which highlight facets within each of the three 'conditions' - shedding light on what should be studied, questioned and considered when observing choreography in action:

Intention - this is not a pre-planned goal. It is a dynamic activity, a process which is driven by a desire to know more about life in some very personal and individual way. This requires a positive mental state, what Pierre Boulez terms "...a psychology of short-term infallibility."(4) Boulez goes on to say that: "Without this provisory compass - 'I am absolutely right' - he (the artist) would hesitate to venture into virgin territory... Nevertheless... I would not suggest that the final result should be identical with the initial intention - what begins as a portrait may end up as a still-life."(5) Within intention the choreographer is directed toward consideration of a number of interesting issues, for example: how much and what kind of risk is involved in the current act of choreographic composition? How do personal likes and dislikes relate to the current domain of aesthetic knowledge in dance and how might artistic decisions based on these preferences challenge the current canon? What is the role of communication within the intentional process? What is the nature of the reverie in which the choreographer engages to shape the work? How does intelligence direct the interest and skills needed to form a psychology of short term infallibility?

Materials - "Materials are like elementary particles: charged, but indifferent."(6) Through the treatment of the mediums of movement, sound, space and performer the context, progression and semantic life of a work are developed. Icons, symbols, transitions, and choreographic devices all have a role to play. Minor questions are answered when working with the materials of dance, How small? What kind? How much? When? Who? All of which relate to the "...echoes and small ripples from the deeper questions (which surface during the intentional process): what am I doing? what do I know? what do I want to learn?"(7)

Rehearsal - "In making, we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming..."(8) Rehearsal activity is an act of communication - an interactive event between human beings relating to one another. It involves looking, noticing, seeing comparing and changing a range of behaviours by the choreographer directs the dialogue with the dancers which results in the creation, structuring and forming of material. Within rehearsal the role of the dancer is crucial both as muse - whereby the dancer physically reflects the intention of the choreographer, and as an empowered human being - where ownership of material and personal style contribute to the meaning of the dance.

Choreography then, is definitely more than a problem solving activity and much more than the crafting of motif and development. It is a dynamic collection of activities, events, concepts, questions, considerations and relationships, each with its own spectral range, which must be addressed by the artist during the making of his or her work.

Hopefully my research will highlight how this dynamic montage link to support the emerging layers of meaning and suggest how these 'meanings' may or may not become embodied in the final dance. It may also offer potential solutions to situations where the dance hasn't 'worked' by suggesting subtle alterations in the relationships between intention, materials and rehearsal. In short, "a finished piece is, in effect, a test of correspondence between imagination and execution..."(9)

Pamela Harling-Challis, independent artist, research student at Laban Centre London, Lecturer at University College Suffolk. This research has been formally by Transitions Dance Company/Laban Centre London and Suffolk Dance. If anyone would like to discuss this research further please contact her on 01473 296571 or email

1 Garner, Stanton B. Bodied Spaces: phenomenology and performance in contemporary drama, Cornell University Press, London, 14, 1994.
2 & 3 Nattiez, Jean-Jacques, Trans. Carolyn Abbate. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, Princeton University Press Princeton, 13, 92, 1990.
4 & 5 Boulez, Pierre Boulez on Music Today, Trans. Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett, Faber and Faber, London, 19-20, 1971.
6 Bayles, David and Ted Orland. Art and Fear, observations on the perils (and rewards of artmaking), Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 18, 1993.
7 & 8 Richards, M.C. Centering, in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, 22,1962 /1989.
9 Kunitz in Bayles, 18.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001