Dance in theatre: the stage’s emotional expressionism


“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body,” said Martha Graham and as I watch a recording of Swan Lake from the Bolshoi Ballet I agree with her opinion completely.

Each movement of the head, port de bras, fouetté and jeté conveys mul- tiple emotions, painting a story across the stage. And that is what theatre is all about is it not? Telling a story that cannot be told simply through con- versation. Dance goes one step further than this and conveys a story that cannot even be told through words. Emotion is released through move- ment and audiences are left transfixed as the slightest loss of concentration may result in the loss of the story.

Dance in theatre is absolutely nothing new with references to dance be- ing found in Romeo and Juliet, dances being performed as part of masques at the medieval royal courts and ballets found on stage from the 17th century with stars such as Hester Booth (1680- 1773). Ballet is my own personal love, having being bundled off to a class at eh age of five by my mother who was tired of me twirling around the kitchen. After a few cases I was obsessed and loved the bi-yearly shows in our local theatre. Fond memories of my first time on stage as a Hungarian character dancer to my final performance in Cinderella which involved retrieving a crying toddler from the stage part-way through a dance will always stay with me. There is something so wonderful about the lights of the theatre, the community spirit, and the desire to convey the story in the best way possible.

The role of the choreographer is one of the utmost importance, their vision being transformed into the dance we either dance or see before us. It is far from being an easy role, one must be versatile and able to adapt at a moment’s notice. Several years ago I choreographed a waltz routine for five people who had never danced before. The routine was challenging includ- ing lifts and covering a large stage.

The morning of the performance, one of my dancer’s sustained a shoulder injury leading to inability to perform one of the lifts. My partner and I then had to quickly compensate for him. But then, the chopping and changing is part of the fun, showing just how flexible dance can be to suit any and every situation.

Like any production team mem- ber, the choreographer is there the whole way through to opening night and beyond, adapting routines to suit the circumstances of the stage, the abilities of the performers and dealing with any last minute problems which require choreography changes.

I asked Grace Reid, choreographer for The Drowsy Chaperone and Blue Stockings about the process she follows when choreographing for the stage. A talented piano player, Grace is no stranger to music and has a rich background in dance of many styles including tap and ballet.

“Choreographing for the stage is always interesting and challenging but I think there are two main things that I always need to think about. The first is that when I’m choreographing a dance, it is normally in my small room by myself, without being able to fully dance the steps. This means I have to be constantly aware when teaching the dances to actors that they are using the whole space, and steps may have to be changed to accommodate the stage. When choreographing large numbers for The Drowsy Chaperone I had to imagine how formations would look and it was only the day before we opened when we worked on the stage that I definitely knew what worked or did not. We also had the challenge of having to change things very last minute to accommodate an injury of one of our cast members. The other thing it is important to re- member when choreographing for the stage is that not all actors will be dancers, or they may not have done a certain style of dance before. In Drowsy I had to teach some of the actors to tap dance, which meant I had to make my choreography a little easier than if I was teaching more accomplished dancers. I was very impressed by the speed at which the actors picked it up. In Blue Stockings I taught a little can- can which none of the girls had done before so it was important to make it look good on the stage and yet allow the girls to add their own character to it.”

The Drowsy Chaperone, Credit: Jamie Jones
The Drowsy Chaperone, Credit: Jamie Jones

There is never a lack of dance onstage in St Andrews, with musicals, The Blue Angels’ galas, and separate dance shows. This year’s On the Rocks Festival includes two dance shows, one of which, The Phrase, has been coordinated and partially choreographed by Audrey Covert who is also show coordinator for The Dance Society’s show at the end of the month. Audrey tells me about her background in dance and the way she choreographs:

“I was involved in community and school theatre when I was in Elementary and Middle School. I loved it, but ultimately had to give it up, as I didn’t have time for both that and dance. At the end of the day, I’m still on stage performing either way, but have found that for me, dance is my preferred form of expression!

“The biggest difference between ordinary theatre and dance is obviously that dance (usually) lacks spoken words. I think that this means that the audience has much more room for interpretation. What one person takes away from a piece of dance choreog- raphy – the emotions, memories or ideas that it evokes for them will be very different than for any other member of the audience. I also think this is what makes dance so special – it can mean something completely different to everyone and therefore can act as a link between lots of different people!

“Choreographing for ‘The Phrase’ is a special experience as a choreographer because it’s such a different show from most of the other things you do. The space is small (The Barron Theatre), which both restricts what you can do onstage, and also forces you to be creative with the space. We also have a lot of freedom to do what we’d like with each piece, and I think that means that some really good choreographing ends up emerging. It’s also a very intimate show – the audience is right there, almost onstage with you!”


The Phrase is being performed tonight, Thursday 7th at 18:00 an 21:00. Audrey also emphasises the technical side of the theatre and how lighting can add an extra layer to the performance:

“Lighting is just one of the many layers we play with. Dance is a visual art form, so as choreographers we have to think carefully about anything that changes the visual that we pres- ent to the audience. The same chore- ography can look different in different forms of lighting – dark/bright/color- ed etc. light all change the way the movement is perceived. “

The Dance Society’s show this year will be performed in The Byre Theatre on April 28th and 29th. It is not to be missed as over 100 of the university’s most talented dancers take to the stage performing eleven different styles. Audrey explains this year’s theme:

“DanceSoc’s end of year show this year is called ‘Inside Out’. Each teacher has interpreted this theme their own way, which means there will be a lot of variety in the different pieces performed! As always, the show will be a celebration of the dance and choreography talent the university has to offer, from those who have just started dancing this year to those who have done it their whole lives!”

Dance is for everyone, whether it is on or off the stage. Allowing an escape from the real world, we are carried away to a different place, a place where the movements are the only things that matter. From war dances to court dances, to reels, ceilidhs and ballet to the new forms that spring up every year, the role of the choreographer is as important as ever, the pro- fessional dancer ever more lauded, and the amateur dancer as appreciated for keeping the tradition alive.




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