Five tips for when inspiration runs short

Sonya Tayeh at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A.

You’re sure to experience the frustration every competition or recital season: feeling stuck because you must choreograph several dances at the same time and you’ve run out of ideas. But you’re not alone. Even Atlanta Ballet resident choreographer Helen Pickett experiences what she calls “choreographer’s cramp.” Carry on with these tips from her and other seasoned pros.

Dance Now, Judge Later

Before Pickett works with dancers, she may record herself improvising alone. It gives her a chance to create movement without the pressure of putting together a phrase. And she can refer to the tape to pick out steps she’d like to include in the new dance.

Once she starts setting phrases on the dancers, she reminds herself that it’s important to put self-criticism aside and maintain a forward momentum. Try to make as much material as possible without nitpicking. “Don’t clean when you’re creating,” says Pickett. “Wanting to perfect the choreography at that time absolutely gets you stuck.”

After you finish the first draft of the dance, walk away for a day or two. “Give it a second to seep in,” says Emmy-nominated “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Sonya Tayeh. “I have made a piece and said, ‘I hate it, I hate it,’ and the next day I’d fall in love with it.” You might still want to edit or cut sections from the dance. Before you do, tape them. They might work well in another piece.

Use the Space Around You

One principle of Forsythe improvisation, the modalities method Pickett teaches, is called room writing, in which you “describe” the room around you with your body. You could take a specific part, like the back of your knee or your nose, and trace an object in the room—a window or light fixture, for instance. The exercise helps create movement that you probably wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Play With What You Have

Not every phrase in a dance has to be new—repeating choreography with small changes can make a huge impact. Tayeh likes to experiment with existing phrases by changing their tone or structure. “If something is dynamic, I’ll slow it down or sustain it. Or if it jumps, I’ll make it into something on the ground,” she says. “People tend to think they have to keep creating, but you can generate so much material through these tools.” Other methods include reversing the sequence and facing different directions on the stage.

Doug Varone and Dancers in Carrugi

Ask Your Dancers for Help

Doug Varone of New York City modern dance company Doug Varone and Dancers relies heavily on his dancers to create movement. In his game “What Happens Next?” he calls out a vague instruction to one dancer, like “turn to the back and do a small jump.” After they make up a string of steps that relate, the game continues with him calling out more instructions to individuals, duets or groups.

In another exercise, Varone asks dancers to make variations on his own movement. “I’ll have them each build a phrase that reflects the original,” he says. “It can spark your imagination to make new creative choices.” The dancer might translate a développé into an arm movement swiping up the diagonal or turn a pirouette into a spin on the floor.

Turn Off the Music

Most of the time, Tayeh prefers to choreograph in silence. “Music restricts me—I would rather dance without the pressure of that element at first,” she says. It’s also a good way to make sure you truly convey a message through the dancing, since there aren’t lyrics or dynamics to guide you. “I want the movement to resonate no matter what,” she says. “I want audiences’ hearts to break, or I want them to smile, even in silence.” DT

Ashley Rivers is a dancer and writer in Boston.

Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann, courtesy of Doug Varone and Dancers

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