Making Highland Dance Modern
A guest post by Shot of Shot NYC Choreographer: Emily Ritter
Traditional Scottish Highland dance evokes images of men in kilts dancing over swords as they prepare for battle, bagpipes blaring in the distance. It’s an art form that has been around for centuries and is steeped in tradition. But rarely do people think of Highland dance as a modern art form.
This was my challenge for Shot of Scotch’s August performance at Dixon Place in New York City. The performance, “8 in Show,” was established to showcase emerging and established choreographers of all dance forms. As Shot of Scotch NYC’s Choreographer, I wanted to engage a modern audience in new ways for this performance, mixing traditional Highland dance with a modern look.
To do this, I spent nearly a year putting this piece, titled “Dance Upon My Tomb” together. First came the music, the inspiration for the title and feel of the dance. This tune was paired with a traditional Scottish chant to create the feel of the mystic Scottish Highlands. Once this haunting feel was established, the dance began to take shape as I molded traditional Scottish dance moves in new and different ways. Highcuts were done from the floor while entrechats were done with our hands. To symbolize breaking out of the traditional rigidity of Highland dance, our arm movements started out stilted and grew more fluid throughout the piece. The ending is a burst of traditional movements across the stage, as we ultimately embrace the long and glorious history of Highland dance.
Once the choreography was established, our final challenge in creating a compelling feel was choosing the right costumes and set. A mysterious stone henge formation was chosen as the backdrop to bring the Scottish Highlands to the stage. Struggling to find existing costumes that fit the feel of the dance, I sewed the skirts myself, combining a traditional tartan with a more modern look.
Creating “Dance Upon My Tomb” was a challenging and rewarding experience. It inspired me and the other performers to look beyond the traditional vision of Highland dance. I hope to use this experience in the future with more choreographies for Shot of Scotch NYC.