Fa-La-La Faux Pas

(Bad Christmas Musical Choreography)

I am not a dancer, but I’m going to talk about choreography. Bad choreography.

Bad choreography in church. I find it curious (not to mention agonizing) that churches who are passionate about high quality musical productions at Christmas, will insist on great music, beautiful costumes, exquisite, detailed sets and a wonderful story, but will think that grade-school- level choreography fits right into the mix! Bless their hearts. I know they’re not dancers, but choreography is more than just dancing and not every song needs it.  Nothing is more painful than to see a soloist singing a nice pop-oriented theater song while a group of people behind him are “do-si-do-ing”(like a barn dance from “Oklahoma”). I’m sorry, but that makes my skin crawl just to watch. What does that choreography have to do with the song? And it doesn’t even match the music!

What I’ve just described (or some variation of it)  takes place in churches throughout the country every Christmas. You’ve seen it. So how do we raise the level of choreography in our musical productions when most – if not all – of the cast doesn’t dance? It’s important to realize that when you ask someone who is not a dancer to dance, you might a well hand them a violin and say “play”. A very select few can, but the majority can’t. Both are learned skills that require aptitude, training, practice and experience in order to be done in a way that is believable and pleasing to an audience. Unless you have an exceptionally talented group of actors/singers/dancers in your church, you’re much better off choreographing musical numberswithout dancing.  Even simple movement needs to be carefully conceived so that it doesn’t come off trite or corny.

Here are a few things to consider that will improve the choreographic elements of your musical:

1)    What is the nature and context of the song in the story?  Does the song even need choreography? If you have to force it, it’s probably going to be awkward and even embarrassing. You’re not just making up dance steps to the music.  It should feel like a natural part of the scene. If you have a soloist singing, let them sing. Don’t bring out a troop to do some sort of interpretive dance behind him onstage. I’ve seen this far too often and I always ask – “Where did they come from and why are they even there?” It’s always very distracting. Keep the choreography in context.

2)    Don’t let the choreography give anything away.  If a soloist is revealing information about how he feels or revealing elements of the plot, don’t have the cast visually reinforcing what he’s saying at the very moment it comes out of his mouth! How do they know what he’s saying the moment he’s saying it? Don’t telegraph the lyrics either by visually anticipating what the singer is saying.

3)    Use props. A good example of this is the Tavern scene during the song “Gaston” in Beauty and the Beast where the cast all had beer mugs (OK, this is just an EXAMPLE of using props. You’re not going to have beer mugs in church – hopefully). The clever rhythmic use of clinking the mugs together was fun. It punctuated the rhythmic elements of the song and felt perfectly appropriate because they were in a Tavern(see #1). This section of the song was “choreographed”, but there was no real dancing. This is creative choreography. I found a link to this scene on YouTube.http://bit.ly/I77rcy Check it out at around 3:35.

In One Bethlehem Night, the ladies sing “That’s The Way It Is in Israel” while they set the table. No dancing needed here – only a rhythmic assembly line to get the dishes on the table. http://bit.ly/HT2W6f  (see video at 3:20)

4)    Don’t let your choreography steal the scene – unless it IS the scene. It should compliment

Richard Powers of Stanford University’s Dance Division, Department of Drama, offers some very practical suggestions for making choreography meaningful:

Don’t bore your audience.   Re-think your decisions, in order to spot clichés, old habits and standard conventions to avoid.

Think of your choreographic process as your participation in a conversation:

Imagine you’re at a quiet party… just you and your friends sitting around talking.
A thought occurs to you. You consider speaking, but then you think better of it when you realize that this particular thought probably wouldn’t very interesting to your friends, especially if it’s just a “me too” story about yourself.
So you hold off saying anything for now, until you have something sufficiently interesting to contribute. Right? Intelligent people self-edit their conversation.
But you probably know people who can’t self-edit. They blurt out every thought which pops into their mind. They’re boring and annoying.

Choreography is the same. If you have something which your friends in the audience will benefit from, then contribute it. But if it’s no more interesting than “look at me!” then hold off on wasting their time.

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