Role of the Choreographer
As idol groups become more popular, the importance of choreographers, who compose dance moves to match the music, is also on the rise. Different groups have different approaches – AKB48 employs different choreographers for each single, Momoiro Clover Z uses the same choreographer even for concerts, and so on. Here we will talk about how choreographers define the groups they work with, and some recent trends.
2012 was a booming year for idols – AKB48 reached their first dream by holding a concert in Tokyo Dome, and Momoiro Clover Z made their first appearance in NHK Kouhaku Utagassen. This upward trend for idol groups is continuing into 2013.
While these idol groups are characterized by their music, the choreography, which can been see in music videos and during live shows, is equally important.
Takenaka Natsumi, a choreographer for groups like PASSPO☆, said that “idol dances are characterized by two things. One is that the moves are linked to the lyrics; and the other is that the moves are composed with the audience in mind, so they can learn these moves easily and also recognize the songs from the moves.” By creating choreography around the lyrics, songs have a much easier time reaching the audience. It also brings the stage and the seats together when the audience does the same moves during a live show.
The job of choreographers is to come up with these moves. There have been dancers that doubled as choreographers, but recently there is an increase of people that specialize in choreography.
When employing a choreographer, one approach is to use a different one for each song, and the other is to use the same one for a long period of time to facilitate growth.
For example, AKB48 used different ones for all of their singles in 2012. Gingham Check, which was released in August, was choreographed by Nakasone Rino, who was responsible for groups like Girls’ Generation and Tohoushinki; UZA was choreographed by akihic☆彡, who belongs to a street dance team and mainly choreographs complex dances that go along well with faster songs.
On the other hand, Ishikawa Yumi has been working with Momoiro Clover Z since 2008, when the group was first formed. She was also in charge of producing the entire Momokuro Onna Matsuri in Budokan, which took place in October 2012.
Takenaka says, “it is easier to improve personal techniques when the choreographer is different all the time, due to exposure to different styles. On the other hand, working with the same choreographer is better in a group, because the style of the choreographer will become the signature of the group.” Many groups that have only been around for only 2-3 years don’t change choreographers, because they want to develop an unique style. Groups like SUPER☆GiRLS, Tokyo Girls’ Style and PASSPO☆ are still using the same choreographers as when they first debuted. AKB48 employed Natsu Mayumi when they first started in the theater, then later switched to Makino Anna during their breakthrough years.
However, the choreography can be changed to accommodate where the group stands, or when the line-up changes, even if the choreographer remains the same
For example, SUPER☆GiRLS, a group that focuses on formations, changed the direction of their choreography in the October 2012 single “Akai Jounetsu”, where members didn’t change formations during chorus, and instead showcased personal dance moves. AKIKO, who is the choreographer, said “This is our 3rd year since debut, and the new theme is ‘challenge’, where we show our bravery through complex dance moves.”
On the other hand, Morning Musume took the different approach, described by Takenaka as “Going from an emphasis in personal dances to formations”. The line-up changed significantly in the past 2 years, so it is for building up dance skills of the newer members that they switched to an emphasis on group.
Takenaka also saw changes in Momoiro Clover Z.
“They are very athletic to begin with, and they started with some difficult moves like Ebizori-Jump (Nanako’s back-bending jump) or Cartwheels to get people’s attention. But now that we know who they are, I think they will eventually go back to the style before the debut, where they focused more on individual dances.”
Choreography also suffers from trends, which can change quickly. She said that many groups are “influenced by K-pop one way or another”.
“There used to be a lot of idol-like moves, where elbows are bent near the waist, so the arms can fling at an angle while the feet perform steps. But now there are more cutesy-but-cool-looking moves like ones from ‘Gee’ by Girls’ Generation.
Behind this is a conscious move to reach out to female fans. Female fans are not into idol-like moves, but they are into cute ones. This aspect of choreography is aimed at expanding the audience to female fans.
With regards to choreography, “it’s not just about the song or the melody, but it’s also about the group itself, each individual in the group, their costumes, a combination of everything”, said AKIKO. The scene is made more enjoyable by the combination of visuals, the song itself and attention-grabbing dance moves.
Takenaka has been the choreographer for PASSPO☆, a group of nine girls that sings about taking journeys. Recently she is broadening her activity by helping out Up Up Girls (UUG for short), the “secret weapon” from Hello! Project. Here we discuss some fine points of choreography with her.
I started ballet when I was 5 years old, but in middle school, I found choreographing or producing to be more enjoyable than dancing myself. Then I went to college and studied dance because I wanted to be a choreographer. I got into idols when I saw Berryz Koubou perform during Kouhaku Utagassen in 2007. I thought “this is it!” when I saw the audience enjoying the choreography and becoming one with the stage.
PASSPO☆ is the first group I worked with as a choreographer. Only two people had prior dance experience, so it took about a month for all of them to remember the moves to two songs.
To create dance moves, I have to listen to the song and wait for an image to be conjured in my head. Formation is the first thing, and I write down members’ positions during A-melody, B-melody, chorus, and so on. Then based on the image in my head, I figure out more detailed dance moves. This kind of creation is usually done at home, where I can improvise as I go. I’d rather not be seen doing this (laughs).
Choreography is not just based on the song – personal skills and characteristics of the group are also taken into consideration. For example, PASSPO☆ avoids the heart-making gesture, which is very idol-like. As a matter of fact, idol-esque moves require a certain skill level, otherwise they look very superficial. In the beginning we were a group of amateurs, so we focused on detailed moves that minimized “idle” time.
As for UUG, their skill levels were higher because they were trained by Hello! Project. They did a lot of covers of songs from other groups, and are able to fill in holes in the choreography by just watching video clips online. But the drawback is that while they have good skills, they have this “back-dancer” mentality where they can’t dance freely and don’t have a lot of creativity. This is where I come in to teach them moves that will rally the audience and show their true colors.