The Elements of Dance are the foundational concepts and vocabulary that help performing arts students and observers develop movement skills and understand dance choreography as an artistic practice. Using Walker commissioned and presented artists, this Art Collector Set discusses each of the five elements:
Body Energy Action Space Time
Teachers and teaching artists may use this set as part of their classes, students may also use it as an independent study, and performing arts patrons and observers may use this to further develop their own vocabulary when discussing dance performance. Furthermore, any registered user of ArtsConnectEd may duplicate this Set to make a customizable copy, conveniently repurposing the icons and text to focus on different dance works, dancers or choreographers, or dance styles or histories.
The Elements of Dance Sets have been created through a partnership of Walker Art Center and Perpich Center for Arts Education using frameworks and tools developed by Diane Aldis for Perpich professional development and outreach programs.
The elements of dance are part of the foundational concepts that dancers understand and practice, and they provide a way of framing and talking about movement in any type of dance. While different dance styles call for specialized skills and stylization choices, the underlying elements of dance—body, energy, action, space, and time—are visible in all dance experiences.
When talking about dance and dance performance, identifying and dividing the basic elements into separate sections can help observers feel more confident about discussing performance and encourages audiences to continue to dig deeper into the philosophical meaning behind the works. This Art Collector Set builds on the preexisting set, "The Elements of Dance," to highlight artists who have presented work at and/or been commissioned by the Walker Art Center.
Left: Stephanie Shirek, Choreographers' Evening 2011. Photo by Cameron Wittig.
The body is the instrument of dance. We—as audiences—watch how the body moves or doesn't move. We observe shape, movement, and technique; body size, gender, race, age, and more. We make these observations and others through visual cues whose cultural histories predate the present performance. What is communicated through dance performance depends on both the dancers' bodies and the audiences' cultures of perception. That is, our bodies, as viewers, are part of the meaning.
Some fundamental ways to describe the performing body:
Parts of the body: head, face, shoulders, torso, fingers, legs, etc.
Shape: symmetrical/asymmetrical, rounded, angular
Systems: muscles, bones, organs, breath, reflexes
Cultural: gender, race, ethnicity, age, size
Left: Eiko & Koma perform Canal, part of the Forward Motion Series, May 3, 1989, at the Southern Theater.
In this clip from Bill T Jones' Story/Time, which premiered at the Walker in January 2012, Jones retells the same story three times. Each retelling is accompanied by different choreography—first by a black woman dancing abstractly, then pantomimed by the cast, and finally repeated by the cast with their backs to the audience. The story itself is an example of using the body as a weapon for control, reinforcing dynamics of sexism and classism.
After watching the video, some questions to consider are:
What is conveyed when it is performed by a black woman?
How did the impact of the story change when the dancers pantomimed the events?
How did the bodies of the people portraying each character influence your feelings about it? What do you think that means?
How do Jones's presence on stage and his live narration impact the overall presentation?
Does the impact change when the dancers have their backs to the audience?
Energy is about how movement happens—it refers to the dynamics of an action and can mean both the physical and psychic energy that drives and characterizes movement.
Energy is used to describe the force behind—or absence of—an action. Energy can be soft or strong, fast or slow, sudden or expected. The energy of a movement can tell us as audiences a great deal about the ambience of a dance. If a touch is tender or violent, friendly or romantic, it can impact the way we interpret the rest of the elements within a piece.
Variations in energy are sometimes easy to identify. At other times, the dynamics can be quite subtle and ambiguous, changing from moment to moment. Perhaps more so than the other elements, energy taps into the nonverbal yet deeply communicative realm of dance.
Left: And lose the name of action, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People. Photo by Chris Cameron.
Choreographer, poet, and composer Miguel Gutierrez researched the many layers of energy in his recent work, And lose the name of action. Gutierrez explored physical energy dynamics through improvisational exercises conducted with his dancers, but also examined energies created by the "immaterial body." In doing so, he went on ghost hunts, but also simply reflected on how the energy of a work stayed with him even after the performance was over.
In this interview, Gutierrez further discusses his research and its findings.
These are just some of the ways to describe energy:
Attack: sharp/smooth, sudden/sustained
Weight: heavy, light, grounded, suspended
Flow: free, bound, balanced, neutral
Quality: flowing, tight, loose, sharp, swinging, collapsed
Left: And lose the name of action, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Walker Commission 2012. Photo by Chris Cameron.
Action is a movement of any kind, including pauses.
An action can include dance steps, lifts, catches, walking, stillness, and everything in between. Understanding and discussing action does not require extensive dance terminology since movement can be categorized and described according to its qualities.
In an interview with performing arts curator Philip Bither, choreographer Elizabeth Streb explained, "Movement does itself best. I believe that if you do a real move in as pure a way as you can do it, it will [reflect musicality, have its own emotionalism] much more powerfully... It's all about trying to bring a real move into a stage, which is an artifical situation, without debilitating it... So, a real move would be me encompassing action as it exists in the universe. And my question is: Can a body survive that kind of intensity? I'm not sure it can. My effort is to attempt to do that, and that's one of the reasons we try and deal with the invisible forces of action."
Left: Brave by Elizabeth Streb. Photo courtesy Cela Libeskind via Flickr.
In this video, choreographer Jennifer Arave and the BodyCartography Project work with installations by artist Dan Graham in these site specific performances. Here, Arave moves while describing her own movements, without judgement or commentary, and similarly describes the actions of her audience.
These are just some of the ways to describe action:
Non-locomotor (axial): stretch, bend, twist, turn, rise, fall, swing, rock, tip, shake
Locomotor (traveling): slide, walk, run, skip, jump, leap, roll, crawl, etc.
Dancers interact with space in a myriad of ways. They may stay in one place and move parts of their body or their whole body, or they may travel from one place to another. They may alter the direction, level, size, and pathways of their movements.
Dancers may focus their movement and attention outwardly to the space or inwardly, into themselves. The line of travel may be quite direct toward one or more points in space or indefinite and meandering. The dance may take place in one corner of a stage or in a big open circle outdoors with the entire community surrounding the dancers.
Dancers may also orient their movement toward objects or in relation to natural settings. Sometimes dances are created for specific locations such as an elevator or a barge for site-based performances (for example, on water).
In 2008, the Walker celebrated the work of artist Trisha Brown with several site-specific performances. Performances took place in galleries, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and Loring Park with dancers walking down buildings, circling trees, climbing gallery walls, and, as seen here, floating on rafts. The performances and the movements were directly impacted by the spaces in which they occurred.
Left: Trisha Brown Dance Company performing Group Primary Accumulation on Rafts on Loring Pond in Loring Park, July 5, 2008. Photo by Gene Pittman.
These are just some of the ways to describe space:
Size: large, small, narrow, wide
Level: high, medium, low
Place: personal space, through the space, upstage/downstage, site-specific/location
Direction: forward/backward, sideways, diagonal, right/left
Pathway: curved/straight, zig-zag, random
Relationships: in front, behind, over, under, near/far - individual & group proximity to object
Left: Trisha Brown Dance Company performance of Spanish Dance in Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, quadrant sidewalk, July 5, 2008. Dancers: Leah Morrison, Melinda Myers, Tamara Riewe, Judith Sanchez Ruiz, Laurel Tentindo. Photo by Gene Pittman.
Time, as an object, can be measured or immeasurable; represented by a metered rhythm, the duration of an event, or the sequential order of movements. It can be concrete or abstract, real or perceived. Human movement has natural rhythms both in broad and narrow measurements. In a broad sense, we alternate activity and rest; in narrow terms, there is a rhythm to our breath and heartbeat. In dance, time can be measured by the length of music, the duration of a phrase (movements), or the amount of time it takes an artist to convey a particular message.
These are just some of the ways to describe time:
Metered: pulse, tempo, accent, rhythmic, pattern
Free Rhythm: breath, open score, sensed time, improvisation
Clock Time: seconds, minutes, hours
Timing relationships: before, after, unison, sooner than, faster than
Left: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform Story/Time, McGuire Theater, February 16, 2012.
Artists Eiko & Koma deliberately make works that address and challenge our perception of time. In Naked, their use of slow and calculated movements combined with engulfing set design created an environment free from the conventional markers of time.
Central to the experience of an Eiko & Koma work is an almost visceral sense of time's elasticity. Their intensely focused performances—simultaneously ancient and modern, shamanistic and deeply organic, intimate and existential, gorgeous and grueling—unfold at a pace that seems to challenge linear perceptions of time itself.
- Philip Bither from Eiko & Koma: Time Is Not Even, Space is Not Empty
Left: Eiko & Koma perform Naked, 2010. Photo by Gene Pittman.
To the left is a video of the installation, Naked, by Eiko & Koma. How can the elements of dance be used to discuss this performance?
How do the performers' bodies influence the work? Is their nudity distracting? Or does it enhance the work?
What is the overall energy of the work? The energy of their movements?
How would you describe the movements?
How does their location and set design impact the work? What does their spacing signify about their relationship?
How does the pace of their movements impact the sense of time? What can be said about the stillness?