Creating a Performance Piece

By Nola Millet

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As a regular performer, I find myself having to create pieces pretty regularly, sometimes without any advance notice at all. Because I enjoy performing, I don’t so much mind this, but I find that having a process can really help with both getting a piece written quickly and having the piece’s movement make sense. I’m an aerialist, so some of these steps may not apply to all acts, but hopefully, in general, I can give a beneficial overview to building an interesting, performance-ready piece.

I always like to start with music. Music provides a basis for your sequence of movement as well as sets the tone and atmosphere for your performance. It can also dictate the story-line and costuming that you may want to use. Choosing a song can be frustrating, especially because it can’t be too short or long and has to be interesting enough that the audience stays engaged. I often choose an instrumental piece of music because it leaves more room for me to explore movement on my apparatus, but songs with words, if well-chosen, can be great too, because they can speak to the audience on a more emotional level, and take some of the pressures of acting off of the performer. They also demonstrate a clearer story-line so that you don’t have figure out as much for yourself.

Once I have my song, I choose a few main movements, or tricks, that I want to incorporate into my piece. Depending on the length of the music, this can be anywhere from three to six or seven central tricks, but be careful not to start with too many if you’re not okay with the idea of letting go of some of them, because then you might end up with an eleven minute solo, which at some point becomes tedious for the audience. If you have more people in the act, it can sometimes stand to be slightly longer (to an extent), but if it gets to the point where it’s no longer engaging that’s a sign that it’s too long.

The next thing I work on is transitions. Transitions are so so so important, especially for aerial pieces. They need to smoothly connect your main ideas in a way that looks pleasing, but also give you a chance to catch your breath and prepare for the next trick. Your transitions also don’t always have to be complicated and impressive either, they can be simple! So long as they make it so that your piece is closer to one sequence of continual movement. When constructing something to perform, I also think about changes in my piece. It can’t be all static and still be interesting, but it shouldn’t be all drops either. I believe that at least some element of dynamism is required for the piece to be entertaining. This is where really working on those transitions can be helpful. If I find that my sequence contains too many drops, I try to make my transitions more of a combination of static poses, but if most of my sequence is made up of balances or tricks of a more still nature, I try to include beats or releases into my pathways between tricks.

The next step for me, after I’ve practiced enough to feel semi-confident with my sequence, is to develop character. I personally struggle a lot with facial expression, so I always try to work on that in rehearsals. Having a character vs not having one makes all the difference to the audience. A piece can be completely amazing but it just won’t be as impressive if you’re not connecting with a character. Having a character can also be helpful if your sequence is starting to bore you, or if you find it easy. Character adds another dimension to the piece, and can really turn it around. Part of character is costuming. Elaborate costumes are super fun but can be difficult to work with, especially if you’re an aerialist. Fringe and glitter and wings look amazing but can get stuck and end up tearing. Always make sure to practice with your costume beforehand, because you never know how a certain fabric may interact with your apparatus. I’ve definitely been in a position where I had to scrap a costume at the last minute because I didn’t have enough time to practice with it. It’s disappointing when you have an amazing costume idea and have to let it go, but I think that it’s better to be on the more cautious side because it can be really stressful worrying about your costume while you’re performing. It’s also best to wear something that you don’t need to adjust constantly, because that disrupts the flow of your performance greatly.

After that, it’s all about practice! It’s always ideal to practice as much as possible but sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and that’s okay. Know your setting! I’ve had pieces that I practiced for more than six months, and ones that I’ve written and memorized in the car on the way to the venue. There’s no telling how much you should practice because that’s personal, but in my opinion, it really depends on how formal the event is and how much time you’re given before it takes place. That said, sometimes you run your piece over and over, and something still goes wrong when you perform it. Just remember the most of the time the audience has no idea what you’re doing, so as long as you make it look purposeful they shouldn’t know the difference. If you get stuck in a wrap just try to turn it into a pose and make it look pretty. The audience will only know you got something wrong if you tell them.

Thank you for reading my article! I know that everyone has their own way of constructing a performance piece, but I just wanted to share my creative process in hopes that it might be beneficial to anyone who’s lost or bored of what they’ve been developing.

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