Making the Worst Dance Possible: Finding the Good in “Bad” Dances

By Jochelle Pereña

68. The Thick Rich Ones_Photo by Weidong Yang
Jochelle Pereña & Ashley Trottier / Photo by Weidong Yang

How long can a choreographer call herself emerging? I’m currently in the process of making a new work for a show in May. My company will be performing in our biggest venue yet, our dream theatre, and the pressure is on to present a piece deserving of the space. I find myself clinging to the self-given title of emerging choreographer like a comforting blanket, hoping that audiences and critics might be more forgiving, more lax with their judgment in case it looks like I don’t have it all figured out, polished and shiny on stage. I use it to soothe my usual fears,perhaps the fears of all choreographers: What if this piece isn’t done in time? What if my vision isn’t realized? What if no one likes it or gets it? What if it is bad?

Well, what if it is bad? Even writing this word, taboo for an artist and educator, makes me cringe; I shirk from touching it or being associated with it at all. But because this article is an attempt to free myself of my artistic anxieties, I’ll say it again: what if my dance is bad? I’ve seen my fair share of dance that doesn’t knock my socks off. I’ve bitten the insides of my cheeks to stay awake, or prayed for sleep to come, or pulled my hair in exasperation as an audience member, all the while feeling so grateful to choreographers (bless you all!) for doing what I am sometimes afraid to do—for getting your work out there, for trying something new, for taking a chance; for keeping the dance conversation going and for persevering.

When leaving a show that has made me sigh or grumble, I never write the choreographers off as terrible artists, stamping them with disapproval for all eternity (which is really my deepest fear in presenting a “bad” dance). I know that they will bravely continue to create, to develop and sculpt their ideas into another dance—it’s their job, as it is my job, to try it another way, another way and another way, until we land on the best ways. Our less than-perfect dances serve that purpose; they are our sketches and studies, our experiments. It just so happens that our experiments can’t just live in our sketchbooks, our laboratories, our studios. Our art form is interactive and meant to be seen, felt and experienced. Dances change in front of observers—how they respond is part of the experience. What bursts into vibrancy in the studio may fall flat onstage, or vice versa. A dance performed for a Friday audience may be a very different dance when performed on Saturday. We present our pieces, see what happens and learn something for the next time. I remember feeling very bruised after reading a harsh review by a well-known dance critic of one of my dance works. I spent a few evenings sniffling under the covers until I realized that she was right. This piece, constructed for the intimacy of a small venue, lost its clarity on a large stage. This particular critic called me out on it, and while it hurt initially, I am indebted to her generous feedback because my piece can now evolve and improve.

When I’m not choreographing my own work, I have the pleasure of seeing dances made every day in my work at Luna Dance Institute. Our creative dance approach pushes our students to develop their own artistic voices as they explore all the different ways their bodies can move through space, time and energy. We teach them that there is more to choreographing than stringing their favorite moves together and performing to their favorite music. Instead these young artists cultivate a sense of personal aesthetics—What’s their shtick? How do they move when they’re really in their bodies? What do they like to see and why? This is balanced with the challenge of not getting stuck in their movement habits. They learn to articulate and commit to their intentions and movement choices and are held accountable to them by their peers. This last month my first grade students have been exploring different ways to rise and fall. They stretch, build and burst into balances and aerials, then melt, crumble and drop into rolls and slithers. They spiral up and down, reaching high and low, inverting and folding with so much variety. Each week these young dancers have uncovered another layer of their moving selves as they embody each option. Now when they create their final dances, they do so with confidence and commitment to their choices because they’ve tried out most of the possibilities.

Patricia Reedy founded Luna 22 years ago with the mission of bringing dance to all children, and she chose to focus on creative dance and composition because she had a vision of raising the bar for choreography as a field. Initially, I interpreted this as an intention to tuck all sub-par dances away where they could never be seen. But then I realized that in asking our students, the next generation of artists, to exercise creativity, to take risks and investigate, we have to free them from the paralysis of preciousness. We need to give them permission—and give ourselves permission as dance artists—to flail, stumble, noodle, crash, and permission to embrace those supposed bad dances. My most thrilling moments in contact improv are the falls, and the suspense before impact, when all my senses are alert, deciding how to divert the momentum into a spin, a roll, an inversion. The fall of a bad dance can offer the same kind of exciting discovery in the recovery—who knows what can happen? Pushing ourselves to create something bad, or even to the extreme of making the worst dance possible (mine would draw from the highly emotive dances I made as a 12 year old, set to Enya), allows us a certain kind of freedom in which all options are on the table, nothing is too sacred and nothing is off limits. It helps us clarify what is really important to us, the essence of our intentions. If we examine them critically, distill, edit and revise them, failed dances are the necessary steps to creating something incredible.

While I sometimes long for the assurance and confidence associated with being an established choreographer, may I always consider myself an emerging artist—one who continues to experiment and reinvent herself, one who has the freedom to fall flat on her face, one who can peel back layer upon layer to reveal new discoveries, one who is not afraid of a bad dance.

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of In Dance.

Jochelle is a teaching artist and manager for Luna's Professional Learning program. She hails from Vashon Island, Washington where she grew up watching the choreography of birds in flight and forests in windstorms. She has trained in the studios of Seattle, the farmlands of the Lost Coast, the nightclubs of West Africa, and more formally at Laban, London (Professional Diploma in Dance Studies, 2005), and at Mills College, Oakland (MFA in Choreography and Performance, 2011). A choreographer, dancer and educator, she has performed and presented works internationally and has taught dance, drama and performing arts education to children and adults at Cornish College of the Arts, Mills College, Laban, Artis, and West County Community High School. In 2015 Jochelle was named Dance Teacher of the Year in the K-12 sector by Dance Teacher Magazine. She co-directs the dance theatre collective, The Thick Rich Ones. Currently, she is a student in early childhood development, led in daily discoveries by her toddler daughter and infant son.