Anatomy of a Choreography: “Chimes at the Meeting”
Over the last year, I’ve been performing a solo jazz cane routine at various camps and shows. Following its performance, I often get asked questions about how I came up with the idea, or how I worked on it, my inspirations, etc. Since I had such a fun time working on that piece, I thought it’d also be fun to write about making it.
There are hundreds of ways a person can approach putting together a choreography. In fact, part of the enjoyment I get from working on choreography is trying new approaches to making it.
For a long time, I had wanted to do a choreography to Willie Bryant’s “Chimes at the Meeting“, one of my favorite songs.
The song begins with Willie Bryant calling a meeting to order, and making sure everyone’s willing to “contribute heartily.” The meeting begins (the music starts playing) and soon gets rambunctious, as the people in the meeting are, Willie suspects, getting tossed. As the song progresses, he calls out members of the meeting, who take over and give spirited solos.
Originally I had simply wanted to do a Lindy Hop routine to the song, but then I realized it was great for a group Charleston routine. Willie Bryant announcing different soloists would be the perfect way to introduce members of the group to do their own individual solos. However, at some point, I realized that the song, ironically, was a great opportunity for a solo dancer’s jazz choreography.
One of the tricks with doing a single person’s solo jazz and Charleston choreography piece is keeping it dynamic and interesting. So, I began to think, what if I did a solo jazz act as if it were a group choreography? What if I just became a different dancer every time a solo was announced?
The Awkward Adolescence of a Choreography
The first idea was to add a hat. When each solo was introduced, I’d put the hat on in a different way to signify it was someone new dancing. The idea reminded me a little bit of some moments Donald O’Connor performed in Make ‘Em Laugh.
Then the next task was to “create” the different dancers who would be taking over the choreography. Almost immediately I realized that this was an opportunity to combine my favorite influences and inspirations into one piece. I began by thinking, what if Al Minns, Leon James, Fred Astaire, and Charlie Chaplin were all at the meeting?
In college, one of my passions was acting. One of the best parts I ever got to play was the Emcee in Cabaret, and I still have the bamboo cane I used in that show. While working on the Chimes choreography, the more I thought about Chaplin, the more I realized that bamboo cane could be another tool I could use to create different characters. So I decided to add a cane.
There are two different ways to use cane and hats in choreography. One is where the cane or the hat is the focus of the choreography—For instance, the cane work is the focus of the piece in this Berry Brothers act.
The other is where the cane or hat is a support piece—where it is not the focus, but simply plays another role in the overall dance’s story. Fred Astaire’s cane work in Top Hat is a great example of that. (I can’t tell you how many times I watched this clip in creating the choreography.)
Since “Chimes at the Meeting was going to be a character piece, I wanted the cane to only play a supporting role. (It also was a rather easy decision to make, considering I didn’t know many cane tricks.)
While working out the choreography, the idea of putting the hat on a different way to create characters fell to the wayside. (In hindsight, I wish I had explored it a little bit more, but while working on the choreography, trying to change the hat kept messing up the flow of the transitions. It’s nothing that a little practice probably wouldn’t have fixed, but there it is. If I do the routine again, I’ll probably try to add that back in.)
The idea of specifically having Fred Astaire dancing one moment and Charlie Chaplin the next fell away as well. Instead, they all came together into one character, who I began to kind of see as one of those gypsy fortune tellers who holds seances and becomes possessed by the spirits of others. Except he’s a slightly off-kilter dandy in the 1930s. You know, that old cliche.
Part of the reason the individual dancers fell away was because the solos spoke to me much more in terms of specific movements. For instance, the first trombone solo introduces “Brother Mack,” and that to me became a rubber-legs and wobbly-knees eccentric dancer. The following trumpet solo introducing “Brother Clark” seemed perfect for a bemused and prissy-footed character. “Brother Shorty” is introduced by another trombone, and this character became my take on Fred Astaire when he gets caught up in doing a rhythm he really, really likes doing and just does it repeatedly with more and more vigor (when Fred does it, it’s a beautiful example of the subtle ways he added joy and realistic character to his dancing.)
After these introductions, “Brother Goldberg” takes over with the “Oye-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yo-yoy-yoooooy” part of the song, which is the part that gets stuck in your head for a week after hearing it. (And you don’t mind. Well, at least, I didn’t. My roommates may have a different story.)
After this, introductions cease and the song climaxes with a final chorus and a half. Because it does so, there had to be something more to the choreography than “introducing people at a meeting.” The literal story is that all the people at this meeting get drunk. When translated into dance terms, it could mean “a guy gets drunk on swing music and dancing.”
So this became the “story” of the choreography: a slightly uptight man calls on jazz music to start playing. He begins dancing, and, while getting intoxicated on the music, begins to impersonate all the solos he hears. Finally, as he gets looser and looser, he really goes wild and ends the song spent, tired, and thankful for the opportunity to exorcise his demons. Now, before we go further, here’s the choreography as it was performed at Lindy Focus IX on New Year’s weekend in 2010/11:
(For a version that stays in place, camera-wise, just watch this one.)
Now, if you didn’t get this story from the choreography, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve been pretty rusty in the acting department for a few years now, and am new to telling stories through a jazz dance piece. But anyway, that’s what I was going for.
A final note on the ending of the song: The song winds down slowly, with Willie thanking everyone for coming out. It’s 40 seconds of standing around and trying to be interesting. It’s a whimper ending, not a bang ending, and as you can imagine, whimper endings are not as powerful as bang endings.
Originally I had planned on shortening the ending of the song, but reconsidered, since it reinforced the story quality to the piece. I have changed up the ending choreography slightly almost every time I’ve performed it, but am still trying to nail the perfect sweet spot, where acting and dancing combine to make that last 40 seconds seem like the perfect ending.
Practicing and Rehearsal
The choreography was created over roughly six months, but that’s not a rigorous, workaholic six months. That’s a few hours here and there, purposefully taking it slowly and attempting to develop it without any rush at all. I don’t think taking more time was necessarily better; it was just different than how I worked on choreographies previously.
It was also a necessity for this one. Once I decided to add the cane, I needed to learn some cane tricks. So “working on the routine” became looking at old dance clips and modern Black fraternity cane performances, trying to break down tricks I wanted to use. Aside from a few simple ones I came up with, most of the tricks I did were adaptations of ones Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, the Berry Brothers, and some hotshot modern frat guys did.
The rest was just running it over and over and over looking for the most interesting angles and lines.
Once I had the bamboo cane, I started putting together an outfit that had a vaguely old-timey feel, based on Chaplin (and Christian Bale in Swing Kids). As most actors will tell you, acting becomes a little bit easier when you’re in the right costume. It has since become one of my favorite outfits to dance in.
Performance: Cane Dropping 101
It’s not if you’re going to drop the cane, it’s when you’re going to drop the cane. And it doesn’t really matter that you drop it, but how you pick it up, and how it affects the rest of your performance.
My big fear was dropping the cane, and of course it happened on a few occasions during the dozen or so performances. The worst was at The Jump Session Show at Camp Jitterbug in 2011, where I dropped it twice, for instance—and, in accordance with theatre law, I’d had one of the best run throughs I’d ever had just that afternoon. (Mental note 1: The lights aren’t necessarily going to be the same during the performance as they were in the dress rehearsal. Especially if the light people go on a union break midway through practice. 2: Try to find some way to practice in blinding spotlights.)
At the time, the instinct was simply to pick it up and keep going with the routine, which was fine. Better than panicking. However, as a few friends recommended to me afterwards, I wish I had attempted to pick it up in character—a little performance twist that would have kept up the momentum, and maybe even turned an accident into a thrillingly successful moment rather than a simple mistake. It seems all so obvious now.
Evolution of a Choreography
The routine more or less premiered at ILHC 2010.
By July, 2011, I had performed the routine around a dozen times or so, and had run through it dozens of times in practice. Over that time, the character slowly evolved into a little more off-kilter kind of guy, which I enjoyed, as a performer—however I’m not sure which one served the story better. In my first performances, I had wanted the piece to start off with a very socially conservative character who makes a stark contrast to the wild-haired heavily-breathing creature he becomes throughout the course of the choreography.
However, getting used to the choreography, as well as knowing that several of those in the audience had seen it already, led me to play around with it a bit, to keep it chancing slightly, and before long the conservative meeting chairman became the slightly-off drill sargeant dandy. You know how it goes.
A final note on performing the routine: Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performed many of their routines night after night at clubs and what not. They sometimes switched a few things up, but otherwise just got comfortable with the routines by repetition. In practicing and performing “Chimes” over and over, it was wonderful to often come to the audience in a mental state where I didn’t have to think about what steps to do or how to do them, I could really just live in the moment and enjoy it. I hadn’t been able to do that with a routine before as much as with this one, and I can’t wait to get there again.