A few weeks back, Melody Herrera spent three days in Seattle, learning the 3Seasons choreography for the ReSet performances June 24 and 25 (8 pm) at Intiman Theatre. After she left town, I emailed her:
Observing you rehearse all you’d learned during the first two days of the week, I was thinking, as I often do, what amazing powers of recall dancers have. Especially astounding when it’s done without music! So I’ve decided dancer memory would be a good blog subject. I’ve always kind of assumed a facility for recollection is just one of those things a person is born with, like good feet or being musical. It’s obviously more complicated than that, though. Regardless of inborn talent, a big part has to be practicing enough so muscles memorize movements and timing, and with experience bodies get trained to do so fast, even on short notice. But are there mental tricks of the trade too? things you in particular think or feel or imagine? ways you help your body acquire and retain the knowledge it needs of what to do when?
Melody was back in Houston only briefly then on to Boston, with her son Isaac, so it was a while before I heard back. In the meantime, I poked around and found advice of various dancers online. Close attention, lots of mental rehearsal, going over the movements in one’s head with even minimal marking, connecting the steps to the music, as well as practice, practice, practice, were the usual suggestions for memorizing dance sequences.
When we finally caught up with each other on the phone a couple of days ago, I was intrigued by Melody’s slightly different take on the subject. Before I came in to watch rehearsal, she said Lucien and Olivier had been asking her how she would like to learn this rather large body of material in such a short time. Should they slow it down to demonstrate? break the movements into little segments?
“No,” she answers, “for me, you should do the moves fast, with the music, then let me try to do it and up to tempo. I need a mental picture, and then I can start mimicking.”
She likens the process to riding a bike. “You can’t say, ‘Now your right knee is going to go up, while at the same time the other foot is pressing down.’ You’d fall off. You just have to get on and pedal!”
“The music is so helpful too. It creates pathways in the brain. You’re hearing and watching, two senses at once.”
“There are times when we have to learn quickly and it’s more intense, especially when there is a different vocabulary,” not just a sequence of known and named steps, but things “we’ve never done or linked together in that way.”
She laughs and adds, “It does get a little crazy—I know I sometime get that Bambi look…
“…but the fun is when it’s in my body, when my muscle memory knows what that step is, an Olivier step, and what it is to dance an Olivier ballet. That enables more freedom in performance.”
And of course she had already done one Olivier piece, Monster/Relationship (which will also be danced in June, along with a new work by Olivier). “It’s not,” she hastens to add, “that all a choreographer’s pieces are the same, but they move organically from the same place. It’s hard to put your finger on.”
I suggest that it was like flavor—or looking at a painting and just knowing it’s by Picasso or Rembrandt.
“Yes,” she agrees, “you take in a whole impression. Comparing it to painting is good—whatever gives any art its signature.”
P.S. I’m currently in Zimbabwe and won’t return until Olivier Wevers has essentially finished the new piece he’s now choreographing (to premiere as part of ReSet, June 24-5 at Intiman Theatre). As I’ll only get to see it for the first time at an open studio on May 4, the next post will be based largely on his notes about the process.
Photos by Kim and Adam Bamberg