“See the music, hear the dance,” says Balanchine. This is important.
I took a choreography course as an elective in grad school. It was not a wholly successful venture, as we performed our own works and I am not always entirely at home with being Under Scrutiny, but I do think I improved my skills.
We always talked through our pieces, about what was working and what wasn’t, and the professor gave some insight into her own struggles. One such issue was her sometimes frustration with finding a piece of music she desperately wanted to choreograph but being unable to see her way to any steps. A student had set her final dance to such a score – a piano piece by Debussy – and the professor expressed her admiration at the student’s ability to pick up on layers on the music to fuel her steps. “Those are layers I never would have noticed as right to highlight.”
The best dances are those that do not exist outside their music. The dull ones – you know the ones I mean, I’m sure – have choreography that may impress with tricks and spins but have little or no relation to the music being played in the background. It’s just a beat, or a collection of lyrics meant to do all the work of explaining the purpose of the dance so that the dancer and choreographer don’t have to bother with it (there are rare exceptions to this).
On the flip side, to go back to Balanchine, he didn’t want to choreograph to Beethoven because he felt Beethoven’s music needed no further augmentation. Similarly, there are dances that are created without music at all.
If they want to play, music and dance must do more than play nice with each other. They must complement each other, and find the new layers.
For more on this, you might be interested in my interview with Shannon Schwait of CityDance.