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Critic on Stage: Umbrellas and Other Props

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This week everyone turns up at my contemporary dance class cheerfully carrying a selection of random objects: keys, a straw hat, knitting needles with reams of colourful purple wool, a giant bamboo stick. Our task is to choreograph a trio using a prop.

We start off by lining up and then rapidly forming into different groups of three to make little poses - the Whose Line is it Anyway of dance - hats used as summery fans, keys unlocking imaginary doors, bamboo snooker cues. We then use the inspiration from these quick-fire images to make a longer piece of choreography; my team are using a set of car keys and a black trilby as their props.

I've brought along my bright green umbrella with curved wooden handle: what I'm imagining is something wonderfully graceful, yet sassy and witty - Charlie Chaplin meets Rihanna. A quick sideways glance in the mirror reveals something more like a clumsy Dr Strangelove wielding a demented Nazi umbrella with a mind of its own. Still, I bravely forge ahead (with the minimum possible amount of rhythm) and we settle on our final creation, which is a sort of triangle, seeing the three of us cross paths several times and end up together in the centre.

The whole class gathers together to watch each other's work, while our teacher, choreographer Ruth Tyson-Jones, edits the trios for the final performance next month. There's a lot of really funny, clever movement - knitting wool walked as a circus tight rope, a bamboo maypole - some of which is very narrative-led, almost theatre. The way Ruth shrewdly modifies the pieces and moulds them all together is interesting to watch; she's taking the strong images, the eye-catching parts, and fusing them to create a whole piece that has a visual arc.

Working in a small team is a lot of fun, and our ideas seem to be fairly similar. The three of us more or less agree that the piece should be elegant and nimble, but with a strong undercurrent of comedy (you kind of have to have a sense of humour when working with runaway keys and uncontrollable umbrellas). But it's almost impossible to have a wider notion of what the trio looks like while you're busy dancing it - it's a very difficult task to choreograph yourself.

So in terms of choreography, what I've learnt so far at my dance class at the Lowry is how to create an entire piece of movement, using a small technique or idea. The way we created a duet was by performing a really simple routine, while our partner either gave or took weight to influence the dance. So I'd be leaning backwards from the waist while my partner took my weight on her back, or she'd give weight my leaning on my knees as I sit. By using balance, weight and pressure to change movement, I'm beginning to see how much more complex choreography is created. Through my work as an arts writer, I've done a lot of interviews with dancemakers who talk about their 'movement systems' or 'physicality techniques' and it's easy to dismiss that as convoluted language that doesn't actually mean anything. But through this class I'm getting to see firsthand what they really mean - using these simple building blocks of choreography to make full-length pieces.

In terms of actual dancing, what I've learnt is that my style hasn't progressed much beyond the ungainly strutting I did to N'Sync when I was 13.