July 21st, 2011

Choreography in a Scadian Context (Class handout; theory)

Choreography in a Scadian Context
M. Sion Andreas o Wynedd

Choreography? Uncle Sion, what the Eleanor of Aquitaine are you talking about?

Choreography is the creation of dances, in our case, dances either after a period style or in what you suppose a period’s style might be. Unlike other arts that we practice in the SCA, choreography has a pretty challenge. There is no period source that tells us how to do it.

So can you make a period dance? Yes, yes you can. It’s not easy (to do well) but it is possible. How? Well that what we’re here to tell you. Before we take another step, this is the first law: Know thy enemy; know thyself. Learn it, love it, live it.


Know thy enemy

In order to build a dance that would not be out of place in period, you have to know what makes a period dance. In the case of periods from which we have descriptions of dances (15th century and later) you can reverse-engineer the descriptions looking for step patterns and choreographic structures.

Look at the dances you’re examining with an abstract eye. Catch large patterns first, then go in for details. And whatever you do, don’t fixate on the obvious. Examples of this can be found in Basic Brawling Techniques (Sion), Reconstruction of the Brussels MS (Daniel of the Falling Rocks), Dell’Arte Cascardare (Sion),  O Spagnoletta, O Cascarda (Sion). What? Oh, yes, you noticed.

But go beyond the written descriptions and choreographic analyses. Check what the rest of the literature has to say about dance and examine the iconography. You’ll get hints about what the rest of the society expected in a dance this way.

When you make your dance. Remember Justin du Coeur’s Rule of Two Weirdnesses, which you will find in the appendix. Don’t blow all your tricks on one dance. Pace yourself and make the right dance to the right music.

Dances in hypothetical period style

This why you need to know the history of dance, especially the evolution of styles. Trying to backtrack style has to be taken very conservatively.

For example, suppose we want to go to 1350, Florence, where would we look? How about the Decameron? W. Thomas Marrocco wrote Music and Dance in Boccaccio’s Time, and going through the text, he found three words used for dancing: Danza, Carola, Ballo. Hmm. We know the 15th century differentiated between Danza and Ballo, and if we go backwards a bit further we find the other division. Johannes de Grocheio (ca. 1300) in his Ars Musicae speaks of Carola, Ductia, Stantipes (which may be the Estampie.)

So we can postulate the existence in Boccaccio’s days of line social dances, couple dances following a pattern of some sort, and a specially choreographed form, possibly with narrative content..

The place of folk traditions

What? Do I hear the gasp of disbelief? Get real. Folk dance has lessons to teach. For example, Katherine and Ludwig von Regensburg reconstructed Arena’s bransles and bassedanse, and wouldn’t you know the the Bransles looked astoundingly similar to many line dances in various folk traditions.

But always, always always use a critical eye. Use your brain. Older dances often have things grafted on or thrown over top of them. The German longways Nickeltanz is an ECD for 6 in everything but  address. Lots of the Russian couple dances (that bear more than a passing resemblance to Breugel peasant dances) use polka steps, but the polka dates to 1840s Bohemia. (You get points for recognizing that the polka is a double step done in place “springen” as certain medieval German text say of dance.) Some large figures like cotillion squares are also give aways.

So be careful out there.

Know Thyself

No, really. When you approach period dance, you come with baggage, and you need to recognize this and take that into consideration. What baggage could someone be carrying?

Uh, did you dance before this? What? Did you do ballet, modern English country dance, Royal Scottish? Modern folk? These all have very identifiable aesthetics and these aesthetics will stamp themselves on you dance unless you are very very careful.

Have you thought way too much about this (like some author I can think of)? Pet theories can be just as dangerous. They’re not bad places to start, but you need to be open to alternative interpretations.

Why do it?

Why choreograph? 1) You have something to say and dance is your language. 2) Prove your mastery of dance. Oh sure, loads of people do other people’s dances, but does that prove that I have mastered dancing, not dance. That’s a subtle but significant difference.

Why record? Well, let’s consider the matter of Guglielmo’s smarter brother, Giacomo. He was widely held to be the better dancer, but we know little more than his name. Guglielmo wrote things down, so him we remember.

Choreographer beware

A final caveat. Once you set your dance loose on the world, it will be interpreted, altered, changed—even if you send it out with scrupulous and exact instructions. Those scrupulous and exact instructions may make it as many as three steps in the chain of transmission, but after that all hope abandon. Your dance, when you see it again, may remind you of the dance you sent out.

Yes, oh gentle readers, I have been corrected for the way I’ve done dances that I wrote. I kid you not. And of course since this was in a class, I had to smile and stumble along. Damn you, professional courtesy!

Of course, afterwards, don’t feel about introducing yourself—as the choreographer. And of course if anyone asks, try not to cringe visibly about what other people do to your dance, but don’t be afraid to own your vision.


Rule of Two Weirdnesses
M. Justin du Coeur

The Rule of Two Weirdnesses is something I picked up from hanging around the heralds. Basically, as it was explained to me (many, many years ago, and this probably isn't true today), they would sometimes allow one weirdness on a device -- an element or concept that couldn't be straightforwardly documented. But two weirdnesses was pretty much always beyond the pale: at that point, it just plain stops *feeling* period.

(In an odd analogy, it's the line between a good sequel and bad fanfic. A typical characteristic of much fanfic is the desperate desire to cram in too much novelty, in a way that comes across as self-indulgent and undisciplined.)

I've found this a good guideline for period-style dance choreography. Even in the period sources, you often find a dance that is in some way unusual: typically there's some clever concept embodied in the dance that makes it a bit Different. The dance often makes most sense when you think of it in terms of that concept. (Eg, my reconstruction of Chestnut is driven by the supposition that the dance's high concept is, "fall back, cross over, do something halfway; fall back, cross over, finish it".) But if you start gilding the lily beyond that, the dance starts to quickly look like a Typical SCA Monstrosity.

The one time I've really put this into action was Heralds in Love. When the dance was proposed to me (back when I was running the Letter), the verses were kind of weird. I strongly suggested that, since the idea behind the chorus was sheer genius, he focus on that, and strip the verses back to basis. He did so, and I still feel that the result is one of the better inventions I know. (My apprentice Gundormr and I get into arguments over it, but that's mostly over subtleties of whether it fits period concepts of symmetry.)

(I haven't done much choreography myself, but I do intend to eventually put this rule into practice for Fickle Ladies. This is an SCA invention with a good premise -- the *ladies*, specifically, change partners about as often as is possible -- but the original choreography is overly messy and undisciplined. I really need to take the music and concept in hand, and mix it down a bit to come out more like a good Playford dance.)

                                                -- Justin