Dances are choreographed to exhibit technique, entertain, express an idea, provoke shock value, display shapes or a motif – among many other reasons depending on the artistic intention. Most often, choreographers aim to combine multiple objectives together. Some pieces are created with the purpose of telling a story: a true event that took place in history or a representation of a common, or not-so-common, human experience. If you were to attend an emme dance collective show, or view any of the company’s work, you will see and feel how movement can be an impactful way of telling a story.

Emily Kline and Melissa Turka (Faller) met at Encore Dance Center when they were six years old, but it was at their college, DeSales University, where they truly learned their love for working together. Melissa had a passion for performing, while Emily focused on choreography. By 2018, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they launched their company: emme dance collective.

If you are looking to incorporate narrative pieces into your own choreographic repertoire, Emily and Melissa share tips to help present your story more clearly, whether you are just getting started or expanding on processes that you’ve already developed.

Gathering Creative Inspiration

Emily gathers inspiration from subjects such as podcasts, True Crime, local news and happenings, to name a few! From emme’s inception and still to this day, her choreography is also heavily inspired by Melissa’s way of moving. Inspiration can come from anywhere: books, television, history, art, landscapes and infrastructure, as well as previous dance pieces you have seen, the movement of your own dancers, or maybe even from the space where you’ll be performing.

Doing Research

If you really want to get inside a story so that you can effectively direct the movement and emotion of the dancers, it is vital to do as much research as you can on the event. Emily is always reading articles and listening to interviews. For “10.02.06”, a piece about the Amish school shooting on October 2nd, 2006, Emily did a lot of research on the man who committed the crime and what events brought him to that point. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be his wife under those circumstances. The piece was not about the man in any way, but rather, focused on the wife in the aftermath and her journey of acceptance to not blame herself. The woman lives locally, and a few days before the piece first premiered, Emily saw that she was going to speak at a church. The talk was about a thirty-minute drive away, and those in the cast who were available went to hear her speak. Listening to her share her experience, discuss where she is now, and how she overcame her trauma, helped the cast connect even more to the movement that they would soon be doing on stage. Of course, chances such as this don’t usually arise – but any research you can do is valuable.

The success of telling a story through dance lies just as much in their expressions, their presentation of the movement, and how they relate with the other dancers in the piece as it does in the movement itself.

Empathizing with Your Subject

Emily admits she is very much an overthinker whose mind is constantly running, and this trait can be both a blessing and a curse. Before creating, she tries to empathize with the people that inspire her pieces, and imagines what it may feel like being in their position. News outlets move on to cover new topics, but for those who endure the aftermath of certain events, the memories or trauma are carried with them for a lifetime.

Selecting Music

Most ideas can be strengthened with music that evokes the emotion you want to depict. emme is very specific with the music they select. Finding tones and melodies that make you feel how you want the audience to feel is crucial. “If I don’t see it in the music, it won’t work. I need to feel it. If it makes me emotional, I can make movement to go with it,” Emily says. She is not opposed to using music with lyrics, but personally does not like to use lyrics that are directly about the piece. Audio clips can also come in handy. In “Let’s Roll”, a piece about Flight 93, titled after the phrase spoken by Todd Beamer, a sound bite from a news recording was played at the end of the piece. The goal is for the music and movement to work together to produce a theme. Emily and Melissa most often use Spotify when searching for new music because the customized “Discover Weekly” playlists help them find new artists within similar genres of music they like. For interviews or newscast sound bites and voice-overs, Youtube is great as well.

Mapping It Out

It is key to set an intention for your piece and a goal for how you want your piece to come across to the audience. Maybe your story is linear and you want the audience to understand it as such. Maybe it is more abstract. When choreographing, make sure that what you create is not random. “Does this moment support the intention?” Keep asking yourself this question as you move through the creative process to ensure that the final product is cohesive and powerful.

The construction of a work can be approached in many different ways. At emme, pieces are most often choreographed from beginning to end, unless a specific section of the music sparks inspiration before others. Sometimes small holes are left and returned to later. With pieces that are not heavy on the story telling, this format is not as necessary, and of course there is no hard-and-fast rule. This is what emme finds to be the most efficient way to work on these specific types of pieces. Emily finds it very helpful to write out the music, meaning: what she wants to happen in each section, as well as the number of 8-counts in each section. This way she knows how much time is available to make a certain point or complete a phrase or idea. Keep in mind that this map should remain flexible when you get into the studio and work with your dancers. For the overall success of the piece, it’s important to be open to change and follow the instincts of your dancers when necessary.

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Using Choreographic Devices

Emily often brings phrases into rehearsal, and then likes to work through them, seeing which direction the dancers’ bodies naturally want to go after certain movements. You will often see gestural movements in emme pieces, with standing and jarring motions of the arms and upper body. Other favorite devices used by emme are:

  • Accumulation – movements performed by the dancers in a successive manner, with one starting a phrase and others joining in unison
  • Canon – similar to accumulation, but starting from the beginning of the phrase and repeating it exactly (think like when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”)
  • Transposition – transferring a movement to a different part of the body
  • Unison – It is very powerful when everyone is moving the same way.
  • Repetition – Movements are repeated for emphasis. The use of repetition can unify and tie a piece together.

Of course, there are so many other devices that you can use to generate movement when creating your piece! Here are two more examples:

  • Retrograde – movements are performed backwards like a video on rewind (not to be confused with Reversal which is performing the movements in reverse order)
  • Improvisation – Improvisation can be utilized in a multitude of ways. You can place a section in the piece where dancers improvise for a short amount of time, or as a transition from one formation to another, or to connect two phrases. You can provide a structure or specific intention to these improv sections, such as telling your dancers they can move however they wish but it must all be floorwork, or they must lead with their elbow, or they must move very slowly and in cyclical motions. You can also have your dancers improv in rehearsals, pick the moments that you love, and adjust them to fit what you need (making sure you give the dancers credit in the playbill if you use this method).

It’s important to note that some themes may require the element of contrast. For example, emme has a piece titled “s p l i n t e r” that is about the high-pressure work mentality in our society, and the idea that things will eventually break apart and splinter if your mental health is being pushed to overwhelming limits. The costumes for the piece are bright colored pant suits, while the music is more somber – reflecting on the concept of the expectation to “put on a happy face”.

Adjusting and Removing Too-Literal Movements

When trying to tell a story through dance, it’s important to avoid the trap of being too literal. Sometimes what you create in your mind may look different once taught to your dancers. Last year, emme dance collective made a piece about Birds-of-Paradise and how they entice their mates. It was challenging not to be too literal, so Emily kept adjusting movements until they weren’t. When this problem arises, stand in front of a mirror, do the movement, and ask yourself “What is making this look too literal?” If it is too gestural, try adjusting the body part you are using to form a different shape, or the entire position of your body.

emme dance collective dancers in colorful suits jumping on a white background
 photo courtesy of emme dance collective

Directing Your Dancers

Be as specific as you can with your dancers. The success of telling a story through dance lies just as much in their expressions, their presentation of the movement, and how they relate with the other dancers in the piece as it does in the movement itself. Melissa understands Emily and her choreographic brain really well and helps her verbalize these directions to the dancers.

Share with your dancers the intention of the piece and what emotion they should tap into when dancing it. You can use a guided improvisation session (potentially with eyes closed) to help set the scene: what would they be hearing at this moment? Seeing in it? Touching in it? Smelling in it? Have them imagine themselves in this scene using all of the senses.

Selecting Costumes

“Melissa and I both tend to favor pedestrian-looking costuming versus traditional costuming that dance studios use,” says Emily. They also rely heavily on the use of specific colors to separate the different characters within a piece. You don’t have to put your dancers in pedestrian attire, but it can be beneficial to make the scene feel more relatable to a real-world scenario. If you’re looking for financially feasible costumes that are more basic in style, emme suggests websites like Boohoo, Shein, Romwe, Amazon, and Old Navy. Weissmans and Dancewear Solutions also have a selection of simpler garments.

For the overall success of the piece, it’s important to be open to change and follow the instincts of your dancers when necessary.

Hinting Through Titles

Titles should not be overlooked when it comes to telling a specific story through dance, as it is the first impression that your audience will have with your piece. More often than not, the title of an emme company piece will provide a subtle clue about the performance. In the past, Emily considered adding notes in the playbill. However, they decided against spoon feeding the audience, and now stick to providing a nudge with just the title.

In addition to the examples provided earlier, here are a few more examples of title hints from Emily’s repertoire:

  • 417” – a work about the number of mass shootings that took place in 2019 and the fear that they ensued
  • alibi” – this piece explores the reaction of family members when their own loved one commits a harmful crime (do they protect them or turn them in?)
  • from there to here” – this dance was choreographed during a time when Lancaster was taking in refugees and was inspired by the green, blue, and orange yard signs that said, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

Summing It Up

Despite all of these carefully chosen elements involved in effectively telling a story through dance, emme suggests playing with being unpredictable to keep the audience intrigued. Take a segment of choreography that feels natural and try doing the opposite. Make it more complex. Switch up your habitual movement patterns and tendencies!

At the end of the day, you must be open to your work being interpreted differently than what you intended. emme dance collective’s goal is not for the audience to know exactly the story behind what they are doing, but to leave feeling something.