Six tips for incorporating comedy into your choreography

Leanne Schmidt (shown here in her piece Wonderland) is serious about comedy.

I created the piece Melt about the art of seduction—gone wrong. During its staging at Triskelion Arts in Brooklyn, dancers in all-black pantomimed mundane household tasks, like drinking tea or ironing clothes, using each other’s bodies as props. As they moved, they stared lustily at the audience, as though they were doing something seriously sexy. Then, a dancer in a janitor’s uniform entered and began spritzing them with water from a spray bottle, the kind you use to train pets. “No, no! This is all wrong!” she scolded the dancers. She addressed the audience, “Is this turning you on?” They erupted in laughter. The mood shifted instantaneously. You could feel the room relax as the audience realized it was all a joke.

Though it may be outside your comfort zone, using comedy in dance can be a worthwhile exercise. It makes the art more accessible and less mysterious to viewers, and the process allows choreographers and performers to experiment with improvisation, timing and conveying an intention. And you’ll probably find you enjoy getting a laugh from your audience, too.

Successfully incorporating comedy into choreography is a challenge, though. It can be hard to know how to translate a funny idea from your mind into movement. Start by being as specific as possible. If you have a vision of an absurd character, like a martian, for example, give him a few more traits. Maybe he’s green, and maybe he has an inexplicable yen for eating…bananas, just for instance. It’s one thing to crack yourself up with a ridiculous idea, but how do you bring the audience in on the joke? To improve my own comedic skills, I learned from comedians in classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center in New York City. This education, plus 10 years of trial and error as I presented and refined my own work, has helped me narrow down some basic rules to help you get started.

Rule #1: Be smart about it.

Many beginners make the mistake of thinking you have to act foolish or dumb to seem funny. This can come across as begging for a laugh. Teachers at Upright Citizens Brigade emphasize repeatedly, “Play to the top of your intelligence.” If one of your dancers is going to be a green martian who loves bananas, she should be the smartest, most erudite green martian who loves bananas. Behaving like an intelligent creature is a simple trick that makes even the most absurd character more believable and real.

Rule #2: Consider your motivation.

Intention is a common topic in technique and composition classes. Movement looks more convincing and complete if there’s thought and meaning behind it. The same applies to comedic situations.

As an exercise, have a dancer turn her head to look at a classmate in the studio without thinking too much about it. Then, have her pretend to be a green martian who loves bananas and that classmate across the way is eating a banana. How does the dancer’s head turn change? Get specific with each scenario, and the results will be noticeable.

Rule #3: Keep it simple.

Don’t over-dramatize. To show the audience a dancer is embarrassed because she ate too many bananas, she should just be embarrassed. Likewise, if you’re working on a phrase where you want dancers to look confused, don’t have them act confused. See if they can actually be confused. Try giving them directions in “martianese.” Now do they look confused? If the intention is there, you don’t need to overdo it; the message will come across to the viewer.

Rule #4: Timing is everything.

Play with your timing until you find what gets your point across. Some nights it might work best for your dancers to quickly snap their heads in a deadpan look to the audience; other nights it might be better to let it linger for a few seconds. If dancers are being true to their characters and not angling for a laugh, whatever decision they make will be the right one. Be open to improvisation during a live performance.

Rule #5: The audience is always right. 

If you are diving into comedy in dance, don’t keep your work a secret. You and your dancers will naturally think the piece is funny because you’ve been in rehearsal together joking around, pretending to be martians. Invite other people to see a rehearsal before the show, but don’t give away the secret ahead of time. See if they laugh. If you have to explain the humor, it’s not clear.

Rule #6: Not everyone is going to laugh.

I once presented an absurd work set to a well-known piece of classical music. In two different NYC venues—Triskelion Arts and Chen Dance Center—the piece was well-received. But when I presented it to classically trained musicians at New York City Center Studios, we bombed. If this happens to you, it is not the end of the world. Learn from it. Make adjustments and try again.

Comedy isn’t for everyone. Some people take dance so seriously that there isn’t any room for humor. Many have expectations when it comes to art that get in the way of experiencing a piece for what it is. All you can do is commit to your character and stay true to your intention. This will help your students (and your audience) be in the moment.

In Melt, I made the choice to have a dancer speak directly to the audience because I wanted them to know that we knew we looked weird, that the dancers’ attempts at sexiness were entirely tongue-in-cheek. That’s how I broke the tension and let them in on the joke. You will find what works for you. Keep playing, keep being real and don’t slip on any banana peels. DT

Leanne Schmidt directs NYC-based Leanne Schmidt and Company and has performed in the Triskelion Arts Comedy in Dance Festival. She has presented her Comedy Improvisation for Composition workshop and received commissions for funny work at universities and dance venues across the country.

 

Performers in the Hubbard Street/Second City collaboration

Hubbard Street and Second City in a Comedic Collaboration

When the company that produced names like Steve Carell and Tina Fey asks you to dance, you say yes. That’s how Hubbard Street Dance Chicago artistic director Glenn Edgerton felt when representatives from The Second City comedy and improv theater approached the company about a collaboration. “It’s a cultural institution,” he says. “One that we’re really excited to be teaming with.”

To get ideas flowing for the project (a follow-up to the successful Second City Guide to the Opera with the Lyric Opera of Chicago), the writers and actors from The Second City guided dancers through task-based improvisations in the studio. “It’s really breaking down the walls and the sense of being inhibited,” says Edgerton. He hopes the open-ended approach to the creative process will be useful to dancers for future projects. “That’s a mindset and a skill that can be practiced.”

Hubbard Street 2 director Terence Marling (left) and Second City’s Billy Bungeroth

When the show premieres in October, audiences can expect a multidisciplinary production: Actors will move and dancers will speak. “It’s going to be totally mixed between the two companies,” says Edgerton. “It won’t be like, ‘Here’s Hubbard Street doing their dance number and then here come the actors.’ It’s going to be completely meshed.”

With a series of story lines created by Second City’s writers, the show will certainly be funny. But Edgerton says it’s not all about the big laugh. “There’s truth in humor, and there are human qualities that we can see in ourselves and make fun of,” he says. “I think there’s something very healthy about that for a dance company.” —Alyssa Marks

The project will run October 16–19 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago.

Photos (from top) by Ryan Jensen, courtesy of Leanne Schmidt; by Jennifer Girard, by Todd Rosenberg; both courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago