How Long is Too Long?

Hi Internet.

It’s been a while, I know. The life highlight is this: so long Syracuse, bye bye Boston, felicitations Florida. More to follow.

Let’s move on to something I’ve been tossing around in my brain for the past couple weeks. Before I left Syracuse, I had a conversation with a couple dancer friends about the ideal length of a dance piece. One friend announced that three minutes was the way to go. I scoffed, and when pressed for what length I thought best, I gave the fairly unsatisfactory “as long as I’m still interested” for an answer, and so I’m going to try to clarify and expound here.

First off, yes, the lengths of the pieces I set on the SU Ballroom were largely all between 3-4 minutes. This was dictated by two things: the length of the music and, more importantly, the amount I determined I could teach in the time allotted. I had a limited number of rehearsals per semester, and dancers inexperienced in learning choreography, which meant I needed to devote a sizeable chunk of time to cleaning and refreshing frayed memories. Also, shock of shocks, most pop or wanna-be pop music is in the 3-4 minute range. I hear it has something to do with 78 rpm records and their storage space….

But just because most of what we hear on the radio is three minutes doesn’t mean that it is automatically the ideal length for dance pieces. Let’s go a little deeper into the weeds.

Thanks to the magic of PBS I watched an Alvin Ailey performance a few weeks ago, including “Chroma” by Brit Wayne McGregor, “Grace” by Ronald K. Brown, “Takademe” by Ailey director Robert Battle, and of course “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey himself. I was struck by “Revelations” in particular, being a multi-movement piece that totaled 36 minutes. It is not a revelatory (heh) statement to say that “Revelations” is famous in the dance world, and I am happy to report that I enjoyed it very much.

It could be tempting to say that the multi-movement format allows for the ‘re-set’ of the audience, refreshing their attention each time the music begins anew. But for me personally, as an audience member, that refresh has diminishing returns. Both “Chroma” and “Grace”, in the same program, were multi-movement pieces, and neither of them held my attention to the degree “Revelations” did. “Chroma” is 25 minutes, “Grace” is 30 minutes–both shorter than “Revelations”, but they felt longer.

Why is this? I have two answers. One–“Revelations” has shorter, clearer choreographic ideas. I often tell students that the audience is a beat or two behind what is happening on stage, and clarity of choreographic phrase helps in allowing the audience to pick up on theme and variation. “Grace”, in particular, had long, frenetic phrases that left me wondering where it was all headed and worse, when it was going to get there. “Revelations” knew where it was going, and took us along at just the right pace.

(I know this is a little abstract, and I’m frustrating myself that I don’t have better words to describe this phenomenon.)

Two–“Revelations” was just more musical than the other two long pieces in the program. The pieces of music had aural arcs, if you will. They went from point A to B, and the dancing went along with it. This ‘arc’ probably loops back to point one–the clarity of choreographic ideas was coupled with special attention to musicality. Never say never, but I’m not the greatest candidate to positively review dance set to wonky, abstract music–or worse, no music at all. I’m Balanchine’s grandchild through and through–dance is music made visual, whether there is a plot or not. I need dance to be musically as well as visually compelling to be interested.

So, in reality, I guess I wrote this whole piece to verify my answer to “how long should a dance be” is indeed “as long as I’m still interested”. Tell the story you want to tell in the time you need to tell it. And this rule holds true for concert music, movies, books, TV–really any art. Capturing the attention of an audience is a sort of magic, no matter the medium.

Obviously this is subjective. Others may feel differently. Let me know!

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