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. ™
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."