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Making Dance

The Choreographer's Toolbox

Form & Structure

Once the choreographer has conceived key movement phrases, he or she can combine, manipulate and organize them into longer sequences, paying attention to:

1. Form

The form of a dance determines the way it is organized. This is similar to the way musical forms like the suite, symphony or concerto shape their overall contour or identity.

Three basic dance forms are:

a) ABA

ABA form begins with an opening theme, leads into a contrasting theme that complements the first, and concludes with a return to the opening theme. This conclusion is recognizable but somehow changed in order to bring the piece to its resolution. There is a cyclic feel, a sense of continuity, order and inevitability.

Video credit:
Artemis Madrigals
Choreographed by Christopher House
Music: Igor Stravinsky, "Duo Concertant"; Lighting: Ron Snippe; Costumes: Lori Trez Endes; Premiere: October 28th, 1988, Humanities Theatre, University of Waterloo; Danced by Karen Duplisea, Ron Ladd, Laurence Lemieux, Michael Sean Marye and Coralee McLaren; Remount: February 26th, 2004, Premiere Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre,as part of Retro Vista, commemorating Christopher House's twenty-fifth anniversary season with Toronto Dance Theatre; Dancers: Johanna Bergfelt, Robin McPhail and William Yong.

b) Rondo

The rondo (ABACADA) is an expansion of ABA form. It uses a recurring theme (like a musical chorus or refrain) to which the choreographer returns, interspersed with contrasting themes, all building to a conclusion.



Video Credit:
Vena Cava

Toronto Dance Theatre, Choreographer: Christopher House
Choreographed in 1999, filmed in 2004
Dancers: Johanna Bergfelt, Valerie Calam, Brenda Little and Robin McPhail; Director/Producer: Christopher House/Toronto Dance Theatre; Music: "Open Veins" by Robert Moran; Costumes: Lori Trez Endes; Lighting: Roelof (Ron) Snippe; Camera: Don MacMillan

c) Theme and Variation

Theme and variation (A, A 1, A 2, etc.) is a form in which a basic movement theme is stated and then altered in various ways. To inject visual and dramatic variety, choreographers use devices similar to those in music composition (for example, inversion, retrograde and transposition).


A ballet solo is referred to as a variation when the choreographer selects and varies a movement theme to reflect the qualities of a particular character.

2. Structure

The structure of a dance is how the total work is put together. All elements combine to produce a whole work of art, with three main sections:

To convey the overall mood, atmosphere and message, the choreographer sequences movement sections in a variety of ways.

A) Beginning

Traditional 19th-century story ballets proceed in chronological order, following the classical dramatic structure used in plays. The opening introduces the main characters and sets the scene for the action to follow.

Some 20th-century works, like those by Martha Graham, do not follow a strict chronology, but use cinematic devices like the flashback to open the action. In plotless works, the opening may introduce the movement theme.

To open a work or a section of a work, the dancer or dancers may begin onstage, or they may enter from the wings, flies, traps or back of the stage.

b) Middle

This is where the choreographer develops his or her material, bridging the opening and closing sections. Characters, plot, mood and movement themes are explored and embellished.

c) End

In works with a storyline, the plot builds to a high point or climax and culminates in a satisfying conclusion where dramatic tensions are resolved. Or they may intentionally be left open.

To end, the dancer or dancers may remain onstage or they may exit through the wings, flies, traps or back of the stage.

To pace these sections, the choreographer may put the climax nearer the beginning, middle or end for dramatic effect. Pacing determines how long each section is and affects the rhythm of the whole piece.

Even abstract works with no storyline have a carefully crafted beginning, middle and end. To build to the movement climax of a plotless dance work, George Balanchine sometimes started by setting the end of the ballet. He then worked on earlier sections, logically introducing elements to culminate in a spectacular finish.

In contrast, choreographer Merce Cunningham uses chance methods to determine the order of parts in a work: the opening section becomes the one performed first rather than the one whose content introduces the work.