At one performance of David Parker’s Nut/Cracked in 2005, three-quarters of his audience walked out prematurely. But the same moment
that caused the offense—a duet between two men with their thumbs in
each other’s mouths—earned Parker hearty laughs from the remaining
crowd, and eventually an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Humor is subjective, and it can be tough to get right. Though there
are many moments of brilliant comedy in dance, there are also so many
failed attempts that, well, it’s not even funny. There’s no exact formula
for grabbing a laugh. But experimenting with these ingredients can help
you tap into your funny.
Trying to manufacture funny moments is a classic pitfall for choreographers, says Parker, whose troupe is called The Bang Group. Instead,
discover ways to connect with the human emotions of the audience. “I
started giving my dancers tasks that are nearly impossible, and therefore inevitably clumsy.” Think: trying to tap clearly while falling down.
“It awakens empathy, surprise or exasperation in an audience,” he says.
These genuine reactions tend to elicit laughter more than forced humor.
In 2014, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago joined forces with The Second City comedy troupe to create a collaborative showcase of theater
and dance. “We learned that improv comedy isn’t so different from
what we do—both forms have to come from a really honest place, from
the heart,” says Robyn Mineko Williams, one of the creators of The Art
of Falling, the resulting evening-length production. Taking cues from
Second City’s method, Williams says they just played a lot. “I learned
the importance of patience and experimenting from Second City, and
that their funniest work is actually inspired from honest, mundane and
even dark real-life situations.”
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Holds, stops or stillness can punctuate humorous moments, accord-
ing to Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, the choreographic duo known as
Nappytabs. They recall “So You Think You Can Dance” winner Fik-
Shun doing this: “He took this funny approach to a hip isolation that
reminded you of a girl, and then he just froze and opened his mouth
for a beat, like ‘Ha,’ ” says Napoleon. “The audience had time to be
like ‘Oh, did he just do that?’ ” Extend a funny moment by creating
a definitive break in the action, then play with how long you remain
still—does it get funnier the longer you hold it?
Parker sometimes works without music, which he feels can allow
for a more intimate connection with the people in the theater. “There’s
a more flexible exchange of energy between the dancers and the audience,” he says. “The audience reacts and the dancers can actually adjust
their timing to play off that reaction.”
Nappytabs like to find funny ways of contrasting the vibe or lyrics
of a song with a completely opposite tone in the dancer’s movement.
Maybe it’s a typical dad dancing down the street to a hardcore song,
and he really thinks he’s getting down. Parker likes to mash up things
that don’t seem to go together at all—like a man in a suit jacket, bare
legs and pointe shoes, trying to master the use of the lower half of his
body. “It just takes a subtle shift in perception, or a sudden recognition
Get a serious lesson in
creating humorous work.
BY KRISTYN BRADY