There’s a good chance I might be the most jaded sometimes-musical-theater- choreographer in the world. While most of my time is spent exploring the depths of experimental concert dance forms, I regularly take on conventional theater jobs where I spend a few months at a time eschewing ‘jazz hands’ —outside of Fosse, god of brilliant physical weirdness— and kicklines.
(Let's pause here for a moment to say that I love all types of theater and the gigs that I get, this is mostly me not understanding the mass appeal and cultural adoption of things like "sparkle fingers"...)
Earlier this fall I was offered a ticket to a Sondheim musical and somewhere in the midst of the second act the actors geared up for, yes, a kickline, and the gentleman sitting behind me responded with a loud gasp and an immediate burst of applause in advance; not a leg had extended before he was so moved. Instead of my usual dose of snark I tried to watch with an open mind. Nine adults stood shoulder to shoulder, put their arms around each other’s backs, and kicked their legs to ninety degrees. Sure, it was fairly in sync, but honestly it wasn’t a feat that required loads of athleticism or skill, and yet by the time they had finished sixteen kicks the majority of the audience was vigorously applauding the event. Perhaps they didn’t realize that they could all be taught to do the same in less than ten minutes. (Disclaimer: Maybe not with beautifully pointed feet and straight legs, but the mechanics would be be there...)
What on earth is it about a kickline that can cause such a Pavlovian response in audience members? Is it just an extreme form of unison dancing? And then going one step further, what is about unison dancing that audiences can’t get enough of? It seems the average human is quite excited by multiple performers doing the exact same thing at the same time. I'm thinking back to one of the contemporary dance concerts I saw this fall, in addition to the musical, and as I eavesdropped on my fellow audience members I heard many compliments and comments about ‘how together’ the group was. The dancers demonstrated impressive, almost atypical physicality, and yet the audience primarily noticed that they performed in sync with one another.
Simultaneously the least and most important research to embark on, I felt the need to find the impetus behind movement performed in unison on the contemporary stage. In the military and in marching bands, two examples of groups that utilize perfect synchronization, movement is for function and display, the body a carrier for moving across space in proximity to other bodies. In many global and social forms dances are performed in sync as a cultural tradition, everyone dances to experience the sensation of movement and for the sake of community ritual, but here there is also room for personal expression through movement. Moving to performative venues, the Rockettes and professional dance teams utilize precision unison, and I feel that the point in these forms is an amount of shock value that intrigues audiences through excess. Where my search has turned cold is why audiences that purposefully attend concert dance and theater still find some excitement with unison movement when it is likely that there is so much more meaning and infinite individual movement possibility. Why do we stop at the hypothetical kickline among transformations, relationships, physicality, and deep thought? Despite a couple hours on the internet searching for answers I’ve run dry of proven information and am left with a handful of my own guesses.