One of the most used compositional structures in dance is that of the canon. Originally a musical term, but commonly used by dancers to describe a single theme executed at different times, the canon is used by beginner and experienced choreographers alike.
A canon in dance supports unity and variety in a dance composition and is an important structuring device for the choreographer.
In its simplest form, a Reverting Canon, is like a round in singing, for example Row, Row, Row Your Boat, where one dancer dances a movement phrase from beginning to end and subsequent dancers begin the exact same movement phrase at periodic intervals.
This is a bit like a Mexican Wave and, like all canons, can be used to create a range of effects. If the dance is about the ocean the canon can depict the waves rolling in by using a movement phrase that involves curving shapes that move from a high level to a low level.
In a Simultaneous Canon the dancers still all do the same movement phrase but they start at the same time, from a different count in the phrase. This provides a dense and interesting effect in the choreography and can be used to represent complexity without the choreography appearing chaotic.
The logic of the pattern of movement is apparent to the viewer and so there is still a sense of unity to the composition. This type of canon is often used structurally in a piece of choreography to depict a building to a climax.
Using the wave stimulus from above the effect could be of a stormy ocean with the waves coming at various intervals (Time) and in different directions (Space). Have the dancers talk about the effect of the changes, to Time and Space, on the choreographic intent.
A Cumulative Canon joins in at various stages of the movement phrase and the dancers all finish at the same time. Only the first person does the entire phrase. The effect of this canon is often one of force or power as each dancer adds to the emphasis of the movement.
It is often used to add power to the intent of a movement phrase and can highly effective when using large numbers of dancers. Taking our wave example again, the addition of the dancers could represent the building of a massive wave.
A Loose Canon is the most flexible of all the canons as it can use a variety levels, directions or position in space. In this type of canon, you can add improvised material, freeze parts of the movement phrase or even change the dynamic of the movements within the phrase. This is particularly useful when showing an intent that depicts changes over time.
Our original ‘wave’ canon may be varied to show how the wave changes with the change of tide; each dancer depicts a different stage in the changing tide.
By exploring the change of size, time and levels of the movement, the dancers can change the intent of the choreography yet again!
The Echo Canon Activity
A fun activity that uses a reverting canon is to have the dancers in pairs move as ‘The Voice’ and ‘The Echo’, moving one after the other; ‘The Voice’ must stay still until ‘The Echo’ has finished duplicating the movement. This can also be done in small groups but is most effective when the movement phrases are relatively short and done in sight of the others in the group.
For an extension of this activity using a loose canon try doing it close together at first so the echo is quite ‘loud’ and move further away so the echo becomes ‘fainter’. The dancers then need to decide which elements of dance they will choose to portray this change in ‘volume’. This provides a way of the dancers solving a ‘movement problem’ by using the elements of dance to create a change in meaning.
Canons are an important part of forming dance and used well can be highly effective in conveying emotion and intent. The first 1:54 of The Limon Dance Company doing Jiri Kilian’s “The Engulfed Cathedral” is a lovely example of the power of the canon in a professional choreographic context and would be worthwhile showing your young dancers.