What is Choreography?

“Clouds” by William Forsythe
“Clouds” by William Forsythe | Photo (detail): © Dominik Mentzos

Our understanding of choreography has changed, and that change coincided with the advent of “conceptual dance“.

Dancers no longer merely had to follow instructions. Instead, many contemporary choreographers have been moving towards an “open concept of choreography“ that sets every part of the theatre in motion, releasing previously unimagined potential from the body.

Choreography as a script

In order to preserve his dances for posterity, he should simply write them down. That recommendation by Capriol, a young lawyer, to his old teacher and dance master, Thoinot Arbeau, in the late sixteenth century paved the way for modern choreography, which, since Arbeau’s book Orchésographie, has been understood as dance notation. It differed from the physical practice on which it was based – dance - in that it was an abstract, symbolic distillate. Choreography seen as the notation of movement sequences remained the common understanding until well into the eighteenth century. Even Rudolf von Laban, the expressive dance theorist, maintained this traditional view of choreography in his efforts to notate dance in the early twentieth century. For a long time, giving dance durability through notation was tantamount to giving it cultural value. Removed from its transience, the fleeting art of dance was now able to develop a history, thus attaining permanence and social relevance.

Choreography as a composition

In his Lettres sur la danse written back in the mid-eighteenth century, Jean Georges Noverre had distanced himself from the notion of choreography as a kind of notation created independently from dance as an activity. In his thirteenth letter, Noverre developed a quite modern concept of choreography, calling for ballets to be developed jointly in dance halls or even on stage with all involved. Because dance was to be alive, he opposed the use of stereotypical figures of any kind, including notation. As a result, choreography became the compositional process of imagining steps and putting them to music. This is still how it is understood and practised by many classical and contemporary dance companies today. While certain dance techniques serve to train and shape the body according to certain principles, ultimately making it into a dancer’s body, choreography gives dancing bodies order in space and time. In learning step sequences, dancers embody choreography in so far as the dance becomes indistinguishable from the dancer.

Choreography as a conflict argument between rules and bodies

This understanding of choreographies has been rejected by many contemporary choreographers. On the one hand, its use of the concept of embodiment naturalises and conceals certain ideological notions of the body. On the other hand, it appears to lead many choreographers to the same artistic results again and again. The pieces are all of a kind because they are choreographed on the basis of a technical body that is always the same. The view of choreography as a principal for creating compositional structure is often replaced by the view of choreography as a conflict between structuring principles on the one hand and physical impulses to move on the other. This concept is based on the insight that a body can never be identical with choreographic instructions. There is always distance and a gap between the body, its material nature, its energy and its infinite possibilities for movement on the one hand and abstract sets of rules deriving from linguistic conventions or symbolic instructions that produce dance on the other. It is precisely from this unformulated zone that this understanding of choreography draws its strength.

The scope of choreography

What comprises these regulating instructions is something that remains relatively open. Certain specifically designed tasks can be used to set dancers, and sometimes even audiences, in motion without defining how they are supposed to look. In many pieces by French choreographer Boris Charmatz, stage elements, costumes and even machines restrict the dancers’ room for manoeuvre with the aim of tapping unforeseeable and previously unimagined movement potential from their bodies. In many of William Forsythe’s pieces, the dancers use a variety of texts, images and other cultural material to develop dense scores too complex to be simply translated into dance. Instead, these scores enable dancers to make decisions. The lifeblood of Laurent Chétouane’s pieces is often the friction between physical impulses and their visible form. Physically innovative movements initially attempt to take a certain form, which is turn becomes culturally legible because it inevitably reminds us of already familiar physical images.

In all these different cases, choreography serves as a partner with which dancers have to grapple rather than being the hard-and-fast embodiment of a concept. This gives dancers scope to respond to the rules and structures that support and develop them. Freedom results here in grappling with and distancing oneself from the rules that are necessary to avoid slipping into complete arbitrariness. Understanding choreography as a conflict makes it possible to negotiate and bargain on rules, to playfully test them and discover possible associations and, in the process, to develop bodies that contradict common notions and images of the body.


Gerald Siegmund: “Das Andere des Tanzes: Choreographische Verfahren als Verfahren des Schreibens”, in: Isa Wortelkamp (editor): Bewegung lesen, Bewegung schreiben, Berlin: Revolver Verlag, 2012, pp. 114–128;

Gerald Siegmund: “Negotiating Choreography, Letter, and Law in William Forsythe”, in: Susan Manning, Lucia Ruprecht (editors): New German Dance Studies, Urbana et. al: University of Illinois Press, 2012, pp. 200–216.