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After the Living Arts New Genre Festival in February 2011, at which Rachel Bruce Johnson and I both performed original solos, I got a wild idea (well, wild for me). I wrote to Rachel with a “fantasy”: that we might collaborate on a duet. I’d been playing around with a solo inspired by the word “fence,” with all its denotations and connotations and folk sayings and such, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe it needed two people? Anyway, she responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” and in the spring we started meeting once or twice a week, for a couple of hours at a time, and began the process of making a dance together.

Rachel Bruce Johnson and Alicia Chesser, “Fences.” Photos by Jacob Riesenweber.

Now that — more than a year later, oy — the duet is finally finished, I thought it might be fun to revisit the process and ask some questions about choreographic process in general along the way. Questions like: how on earth do you begin? How do you handle it when you get stuck on an idea that never really goes anywhere? How important is music in movement creation? How do you follow an initial idea through all its possibilities and not end up with a ridiculously long piece? (We almost got there and think we generated enough material over a year to fuel about four other dances.) The answers we came up with will, of course, not apply to everyone (or perhaps anyone but us!).

Rachel has done quite a bit of choreography, and quite a bit of collaboration, in the course of her undergraduate and graduate degrees in dance and as a professional working in and for various companies. I’d created exactly one dance at that point, a four-minute solo I made up in my kitchen. So we weren’t exactly equal partners in creative experience, but we found that were able to play and think well together right away.

Here’s a bit of our experience, first from her, then from me. You can see the result of our process at the No Frills Studio Concert at the Exchange Dance Festival, Saturday August 11 at 2 pm at Tulsa Ballet’s headquarters on 45th and Peoria.


Rachel: First off, let me defend that fact that we took a year to make this duet: we were slow because we just like moving together, so we were in no hurry (not to mention the other 8 jobs we both hold, i.e. performer, artistic director, graphic designer, writer, wife, mother, chauffer, homemaker, pet caregiver, boo-boo healer, etc.). I think we can make dances faster now that we had a nice long honeymoon period.

The question of where to begin is interesting. I don’t know that there is ever a moment where a creative person doesn’t have an idea, but the conception moment for a dance is when an idea inspires you to move. When is that? At any moment. But how to begin is a strategic one. I think lots of choreographers start lots of different ways but the best way to start is by what you are most inspired by. For us, it was a concept fueled by a piece of music by Ryan Lott that led us to move. Music isn’t always an immediate factor for me but music does provide a huge palette of inspiration, from physical rhythms to emotional connections to conceptual efforts.

The places we got stuck I feel were because we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Making strategies helps: ask for feedback, make a new phrase, perform your material to new music, watch a movie, look for visual art, or read a book that resonates with your idea, etc. The possibilities are endless but most of all, a creative can’t be intimidated by a block. They happen to everyone. EVERYONE.

And I don’t know if following through with an idea to ALL its possibilities is wise. ALL is overwhelming. There’s no point in writing a story ALL the ways it could be written. A writer would never publish. Maybe the key is to edit more than you create. So if you create a ton, edit even more. Distill to a concisely beautiful statement but you do that traveling through all your thoughts and development of thoughts and ideas and development of ideas. Perhaps though, the key to not getting overwhelmed is to not be afraid to edit as you go.

We did create a ton of movement. But that may just be the nature of first relationships, even dance ones. You’re just excited about moving together.

Let’s make another dance, Alicia.

Alicia: We started with an idea I had about exploring the images and phrases surrounding the word “fence.” I’d been working on a solo based on this idea, but quickly discovered that you can’t understand a fence unless you include the two territories it stands between.

So the solo became a duet, as Rachel and I took a few movement ideas — opening and closing, being “on the edge,” hiding and revealing, boundary-defining and boundary-testing, and so on — and a driving piece of music and invented a phrase that turned into another phrase, and another.

We kept finding ourselves stuck on the floor, and discovered a lot of options for exploring our private space in that stuckness. We spent several weeks exploring the idea of the indeterminate space one finds oneself in when one emerges out of a tightly-held boundary. (That idea turned out not to have the legs we thought it would, and got whittled down to a single moment.) We played with being “housed,” focusing on the joints and angles in our bodies.

At some point in the process we thought about incorporating something tangible to really help us define our turf. Our props, conceived of as fences, got explored as corners, doors, benches, and bunkers. What is a fence? Is it an obstacle, or a necessary reminder of our self-definition?

We had lots of ideas. Can we comfortably entertain openness and boundedness at the same time? Can we maintain a sense of private space without rejecting what’s outside us? Do we need to close the gate sometimes in order to co-exist? Can we find support in each other instead of our self-constructed barriers? What does it feel like to find ourselves on the other person’s side? What do we risk when we go there?

We took our time exploring these thoughts together, finding many offshoots and tangents along the way, but always returning to the original image of togetherness-in-separateness (and its reverse). We have loved meditating on this question mark in the human condition together. It makes me smile to think that this dance, created by two people who were just getting to know each other, turned out, without our realizing it at first, to be about two people getting to know each other. Can’t wait to do it again.