What is choreography? Webster—who should have known a bit about definitions—graces his (rather old-fashioned) and well-thumbed dictionary with three: ballet dancing; the arrangement, especially the written notation, of the movements of a ballet; the art of devising ballets. Not one of them is particularly illuminating, is it? I suppose arranging “the movements of a ballet” is closest to the mark, yet surely no cigar. So what really is choreography?
I still recall—when I was very young—sitting behind two loud-mouthed matinée ladies fulsomely extolling the skill of the dancers who, they obviously imagined, were not only making up the steps as they went along, but were, very cleverly, avoiding all bumps and collisions in the process. Oh well, perhaps some ballets possibly do look as though the dancers were gallantly improvising. In a few instances it might have worked out better if they had been! Certainly until the century only recently past, choreographers (or “dance arrangers” as Broadway liked to call them) were the lowest artists on any cultural totem pole, regarded rather as stage directors (i.e. fundamentally interpretative artists realizing the imaginative flights of their betters) than fully-fledged creators. By such reasoning a choreographer was on a level with an opera director or a scenic designer rather than an opera composer.
It took the 20th century to find a climate where people were as apt—perhaps more apt—to talk of Balanchine’s Apollo as of Stravinsky’s Apollo, which in itself was an irony. For that ballet’s first choreographer was Adolph Bolm and not Balanchine at all. It was really only during the past 100 years the ordinary choreographer became recognized as an everyday artist, not as a journeyman hack whose work was as disposable as a tissue, or some rare, close-to-unique genius of the stature of Noverre. Even today not too many choreographers are regarded as having achieved the rank of major artists.
Choreography is one of the most difficult of artistic disciplines—difficult to learn, more difficult to sustain, and most difficult to maintain. Unlike a writer, composer, or painter who can first learn their craft in schools and then polish it in the shabby security of their own attics, choreographers have to fight even for the raw materials—human bodies and studio space—with which to toddle their first childlike steps, and then battle for the public exposure of a dance repertoire. And most choreography—whether it is bad, indifferent, good, or even great—disappears simply from neglect and from that almost indecent public desire that always puts a premium on the new.
Most creative artists chug through their careers on the way to ultimate extinction, whether they are painters or novelists, composers or playwrights, sculptors or poets. But all of these leave something material behind, and the thin possibility of posthumous fame. Choreographers—despite Webster’s confident assertion of “written notation”—usually leave surprisingly little by way of artistic legacy except the muscle memories of dying dancers, the fading memories of former audiences, photographs, and press clips.
And the gift for choreography—that ability to make dances that express aspects of the human spirit and weave them into a meaningful web of drama, design, or both—is inhumanly rare. And very often it is a gift that the audience—even those who do not imagine, like my matinée ladies, that they are experiencing some kind of choreographic parthenogenesis—is all too ready to ascribe praise and glory to the dancer rather than the dance. Is it any wonder that so many modern dance choreographers—from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham onwards—regarded themselves as dancers first and choreographers second? And how many—not, I think, in classical ballet, where the whole performance aesthetic is differently balanced—genuinely did start to choreograph primarily to give themselves something to dance?
For all this what a wonderful thing true choreography is! Think of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Robbins’ Fancy Free, or Taylor’s Aureole—exquisite theatrical machines clicking joyously through time and space, giving music a different dimension and offering dancers the chance to be messengers of the heart. You can’t really teach it—and although you can recognize it, often a mile off, you cannot describe it any more than you can evoke that shudder down the neck it can, at least in the sensitively willing, mercilessly provoke. Finally how fragile it is—choreography that is here today usually is gone tomorrow, lost in either the whirligig of fashion or the roulette-wheel of luck. The other day I was thinking of Ashton’s magical wisp of a ballet Madame Chrysanthème, an exquisite piece of theatrical Japonaiserie, as delicate as a consummately crafted ivory fan, but now broken, totally lost in time. Choreography is not a game for the faint of heart. ™
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.