In my last post, I wrote about the beginning of the choreographic process -- the first moments of translating the choreographer’s ideas to the dancers. Once this initial transfer of ideas has occurred, the next phase of the process is what we call “cleaning” the work, which is the point at which I found Confluence, Steven McMahon’s River Project ballet, when I visited one of his rehearsals last week.
Steven began choreographing Confluence on the first day of the season, in mid-August, and by the end of the second week, he had essentially finished the work; a state of completion similar to a writer’s first draft. In the weeks since, he and his ensemble of dancers have worked together almost daily to edit and refine the piece—reviewing the basic movement phrases to make sure everyone has the same interpretation; clarifying specifics such as the height of arms and inclination of heads; and coming to a consensus on the desired musicality and timing. Even the smallest details must be scrutinized and redefined so that the dancers perform in unison and with great polish.
The company’s schedule doesn’t always allow for extensive “cleaning” time, as some ballets are completed just days before the first performance. But Steven has had a longer-than-usual rehearsal period, and I noticed that his feedback in rehearsal that day had evolved far beyond making sure everyone’s limbs made the same shapes and that everyone was dancing together. He asked the dancers to think beyond the external details of individual steps, and to explore how each phrase felt from the inside.
The shapes and movements that comprise a dancer’s vocabulary don’t have literal meanings as words do, of course. Dancers are usually encouraged by choreographers to invest the steps to varying degrees with their own personal interpretations; in fact, roles are often cast with a dancer’s particular artistry in mind. For Confluence, however, Steven has created an entire choreographic syntax for his theme that is imbued with the essence of what it feels like, kinesthetically, to search for a home, to find and build community, and to feel the ever-flowing currents of life within each of us. As they worked through the piece, Steven demonstrated the timing, momentum, energy, and emphasis he desired for each phrase—which creates a kind of visual inflection and timbre that adds the “meaning” to the movement.
I watched the ballet's next run-through with a new understanding and appreciation for this approach. In particular, I noticed Julie Niekrasz’ eloquence. She didn’t just execute the steps. She didn’t add additional personal interpretation or expression. She simply danced with total commitment and personal restraint as though she was channeling Steven’s intent with a trust that the purest interpretation of his choreography would express everything that needed to be said.
I hope you'll come see Confluence, along with Julia Adam's The Second Line, and Matthew Neenan's Party of the Year, this weekend and next at Playhouse on the Square. Get your tickets now!