By: Vilde Sparre
Translated to English by: Lillian Bikset
To an increasing degree performing artists work across different artistic professions, and the role of the choreographer seems to be particularly open. Will this development weaken the distinctness of the choreographer‘s role and choreography as a profession of its own?
The discipline, the profession and the role
Several countries have long traditions for education within choreography. In Norway education in choreography became a separate study in 1979, and from 1982 Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) has awarded degrees within the discipline. These degrees represent KHiO’s attests that the candidates within choreography have reached specific levels of skill and accomplishment. Thus the government has given choreography its status as a study at university and university college level, and certified those educated within choreography at this level as members of a profession – the choreographer’s profession.
The expectation is that a choreographer’s main work is to compose dance and movement, develop and process ideas, concepts and aesthetics within dance art projects. A dance art project may be a choreographic work, a performance, a work of performance art, a dance film, an interdisciplinary project etc. The core of the choreographer’s role is made up of expectations connected to being a creative artist, artistic director, and to carry the overall responsibility for one’s own projects within the art of dance. Choreography is an artistic discipline within which craft and theory are both central. It is expected that the choreographer proves good insight in and confirmed knowledge of dance, composition, methods, stage effects and related expressions, and that he or she is proficient in project management.
The central role relation within the process of creating a dance performance/choreographic work is the collaboration between the choreographer and the dancer – between the creative and the performing artist. Within what is understood as contemporary dance it is natural that this relation has changed. Contemporary dance is connected to creative and exploring processes, among other things because improvisation is used as a method for choreographing, and as such the basal structure of the movement material to a large degree springs out from the dancers. A contemporary dancer of today is a co-creator in the process and in this way takes part in shaping the work. In education as well as the profession it is emphasised that the contemporary dancer should be able to create, process and analyse his or her own movements – to work independently. This is part of the contemporary dancer’s assignment. The result is a flatter structure between dancer and choreographer in contemporary dance. The dancer is no longer an instrument copying movements from the choreographer’s instructions. The choreographer coaches the dancer into the wanted expression and together they twist and turn the movements. The choreographer cuts and pastes the movements into a composition in the process towards the finished performance.
The choreographer and the choreographic discipline in practice
However, the practice within the field of independent dance art is that dance artists no longer have an apparent main activity and a clear role. As for the choreographers, many have backgrounds as professional dancers, and they keep working as such. An increasing number of dancers keep taking on the role of the choreographer. People with backgrounds from other artistic disciplines than dance do the same. Some stay in the role due to a passion for the discipline, whereas others accept the role of the choreographer to gain experience or expand their CVs. It is common that dancers, one or several together, create their own dance productions. Nor is it unusual that dancers work as creative as well as performing artists in theatre productions where the director takes on the choreographer’s role, at times together with the dancers. Such trends may be beneficial for the art of dance if the people in question have the clear intention of developing and specialising within the choreographic discipline, but the impression that the development goes in the direction of “multi-tasking”, followed by an unstable, unclear choreographer’s role, grows stronger.
For a young generation within arts and culture it is typical to operate across professions. It is not unusual to identify as a multi-artist. One borrows and exchanges ideas and follows trends. Artists explore new ways to convey their art, new arenas, new interdisciplinary collaboration areas and new intentions for their works. Within performing arts there is an increasing emphasis on new, more democratic collaborative forms, within which the aim is that all the contributing artists are to realise their ideas and expressions. Innovation is the word of praise. Dialogue and mobility between practitioners within different artistic professions have contributed to art not stagnating, and, within contemporary dance, has had significance for development and innovation. However, dialogue is different from lowering the threshold for taking on roles within a profession one has limited insight in and knowledge of. The demand that “all should join” is strong within the art world, but is this the same as “I can if I want to”? Maintaining range and innovation should not necessarily be at odds with the recognition that one needs time to learn a profession. Theoretical insight and experience-based knowledge within a profession provides growth within the practice. Artists need continuity and regular production to develop. Innovation does not happen only through breaking the limits for who may create dance art. Innovation also takes place through development within one’s own profession. Choreographers with a strong, distinctive choreographic character – breaking barriers, challenging and surprising – often have many years of experience within their profession, during which they have had the time to develop and explore their own expressions.
How the master’s students in choreography at Oslo National Academy of the Art 2010-2012 consider the role of the choreographer may be read at Danseinformasjonen‘s webpage:
“Rather than three future choreographers with each their artistic project, they seem like a collective with a characteristic openness and pragmatic attitude to the choreographer’s role.”
Here some of their statements follow. One says: “To me choreographing has become more and more a natural and very exciting part of being a dance artist.” The second says: “To me it is also important to keep being a performer and to have the opportunity to work varied with different processes and people.” The third adds: “That I think we all want.” The first says: “I no longer perceive the roles within the dance field as so very split, or the work as separate. Isn’t the divide between choreographer and dancer a bit old-fashioned?”
In other words, it is clear that the three future choreographers see the role of the choreographer as part of something else; that is, being a “dance artist”. The divide between choreographer and dancer is also regarded as a bit old-fashioned.
As a contrast to the three’s ideas stands Ingun Bjørnsgaard, the internationally renowned choreographer, with her response to the following question from the same interviewer: “How do you regard your role as a choreographer today?” Ingun Bjørnsgaard replies: “I have been a choreographer for so long I don’t think about it as a role, it is what and who I am.”
The increasing impermanence and mobility within the choreographic profession and the trends I have pointed out above weaken the distinctness of the choreographer’s role. The dominating term has become “dance artist” and this term includes dancers, choreographers and pedagogues. The use of terms and labels has consequences: Our thinking is led, and unwanted side effects come along. The encompassing “dance artist” leads the mind towards something holistic, and we lose sight of significant distinctions between different kinds of dance artists, each with their professional core competence. The distinct characteristics of the different professions within dance art are levelled down and fade out. The same effect has the fact that dance artists commonly are organised within the same interest organisation. As opposed to artists such as directors or composers, choreographers have no federation of their own. It can be a strength that the field of dance art speaks in one voice, but this becomes extra demanding when one profession – the dancers – is in such majority within the interest organisation. One risks covering up existing interest conflicts.
The question is whether the development described above is an asset or a disadvantage to dance art. To a large degree it is about the future reality for choreographers, but most important are the consequences for dance art. Because of this we need a public professional debate.
Lack of professional discourse
Most university and university college disciplines have organisational characteristics and tools used to promote the discipline – for instance through clarifying the discipline’s fundamental values and to argue the contribution the discipline and the graduated candidates make to society. Typical tools are professional journals and professional organisations functioning as arenas for public discourse about the discipline. In this the choreographic profession differs. In Norway there is no professional journal for choreography. The professional discourse on the distinct character and identity of the discipline is at best modest.
The lack of professional discourse contributes to professional obscurity and mixing roles.
The aim ought to be that dance art and dance artists gain quality. Dancers spend years perfecting their techniques and skills to become professionals. The same ought to be true for choreographers?
The number of dance performances increases, but dance is barely reviewed in the media. The professional discourse here called for may also contribute to growth in dance criticism. More insight in and a language for dance criticism will be created. Dance criticism may function as quality control and quality encouragement. To promote the art of dance.
Through thorough professional discourse the fundament of the choreographic profession – its core values – will become clearer and further developed. It will present itself with greater independence. In this there is a great challenge to the representatives of the profession, included those placed within the leading educational positions, to clarify their views in a public professional discourse. The discipline is the fundament for any profession and unless the professional identity is clear, and the professionals identify with it, the discipline will erode. The profession as well.