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We tend to think of choreographers as particularly creative people. That may be true, but it does not mean that the ideas and movement flow every minute of the day. Just as writers have writer’s block, dancemakers sometimes get choreographer’s block. Here five choreographers talk openly about those scary moments in the studio when you get stuck and can’t immediately find your way out.
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
When I get stuck, I try to disrupt the space, to find a different way of looking. I’ll change the music; I’ll put Billie Holiday on for choreography made to romantic music. I’ll ask the dancers to improvise, to turn a different way. I’ll ask myself what is going on, even put the problem down on paper, and walk away. I’ll remove myself from the situation and trust that some time away will give me a solution.
It’s like anything in life: Right when you want something to work, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s knowing the block is there for a reason. You want to let information come to the surface—to remain open and be surprised by things.
Upcoming project: A duet for firstthingsfirst productions (Kate Holden and Kate Franklin) in Toronto next fall and commissions for the Alberta Ballet and Augsburg Ballet in 2010. This spring I’m also touring a duet that Kevin O’Day choreographed for me and Robert Glumbeck for Pro Arte Danza.
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
What do I do when I get stuck? Cry. If I can’t find a way to make something work, I just keep hitting it, like driving the nail deeper and deeper. If after days I can’t find it I often abandon it. And then it may show up in another piece—resolved!
You look forward to some wrestling, but when you watch your company looking at you with lowered eyelids and their arms crossed impatiently, I begin to feel slightly freaked out. I say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Forgive me. Anybody have anything they would like to contribute?” If it gets too bloody, moving on is better.
Sometimes it doesn’t work because it’s not meant to work. It’s a little bit like boyfriends: If it’s not working it’s just better to give up and move on.
During Vienna: Lusthaus I had a six-week freeze. It was the first piece I did with text and it really terrified me and I was going through a hard time in my life. It feels like it was six weeks, it may have been only three weeks. It felt interminable. The dancers and actors would get irritated and feel that we were on a sinking ship. I was cutting my style of making things then, and so I had no blueprint. Now that I’m older I know that if I’ve fallen into a ditch I’ll pull myself out.
Each work I do I try to challenge myself with a new vocabulary, and that’s hard, and scary, and occasionally exhilarating. A lot of the time I would say 50 percent of the process is wreckage. When I was younger I threw away 80 percent. That’s the only thing I’ve learned with age—just try not to suffer quite as long with it.
Current project: I’m making a piece for Jeanne Ruddy Dance for April in Philadelphia. A lot of my work comes from improvisation and her dancers are quite open to that. The piece is inspired by Diane Arbus. Her photographs are dark and funny and have terrific melancholy. I find them displacing and uncomfortable—which is the place you are as a choreographer.
Artistic director/choreographer, Keely Garfield Dance
Interviewed by Siobhan Burke
There’s always a moment when I look at what I’m making and think, “This is utter rubbish. It’s over, it’s not gonna happen.” For my recent trilogy, I was working with the idea of found objects. I found this crazy trash can, some fluorescent lightbulbs, and a great piece of blue carpet. I got into the studio, and as this environment took shape, I set myself the task of staying on the carpet. I spent a bunch of rehearsals on it—a couple weeks. I was really attached to it. I’d been to this side of it and the other side; I’d rolled and jumped around on it. And then everything just stopped. I’d forgotten what on earth was interesting about found objects. I said to my dancers, “This is not working. Let’s just scrap it now.” I sat down in the corner—I think I had a bit of a cry—and then I heard it, like a little voice in my ear: “Get rid of the carpet.”
Getting rid of the carpet—it’s kind of a metaphor for what happens in the creative process, where you get rid of the whole impetus for the piece. You just throw it out the window, or at least move it to the side for a little while. When I rolled up the carpet and moved it away, I saw the space in a different shape. When I reentered, things began to flow again.
I don’t really believe in calling that moment a “block.” Ultimately, I think, it’s the opposite. Even though it can be frightening and paralyzing, it’s a gift, because it’s so full of possibility.
Upcoming project: We’ll be performing my most recent trilogy—Limerence, First Attempt, and Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9—at Danspace Project, March 26–28, and at Danceworks Studio Theatre in Milwaukee on July 17–18. Limerence is about the desire to get out of yourself and commune with something other, about longing to touch the face of God, whatever that means to you. In First Attempt, I sing a lot of David Bowie songs. And Eva Potranspiration features my daughter, Vivian, as kind of an action hero, a new Christ incarnate who’s out to save the planet.
Artistic director/choreographer, RIOULT
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
First days in the studio are always terrifying. You’re standing in front of an empty canvas. Everything is possible, but you know there is only one thing that’s right. My tactic is to go to work. Like a craftsman, I refine, discard, and go back. I keep pushing. You have to let it come. As the sculptor Michelangelo said, the sculpture is there, you just have to take away the matter that’s around it.
I believe creativity comes from a mix of chance and necessity. Sometimes nothing is coming, but if you follow your instinct, even if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, it’s going to make sense at some point. By chance you’re going to see something that will bring out what you weren’t even thinking of. And, as Balanchine said, the best inspiration is a deadline.
Current project: A full-length piece to Mozart’s Mass in C Minor for the Joyce season, April 14–19. The music is glorious. I will take the choreography that way myself: a joyful glorification of human nature.
Artistic director, Gesel Mason Performance Projects, Washington, DC
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
Being stuck is when the dance stops speaking to me, when I’ve lost the thread of what I’m trying to say. In order to find out why this is happening, I write, draw, or talk to people. I also like to take a break. Then you can come back with a fresh mind.
I use a lot of flowcharts. You know how the detectives on TV have a corkboard with pictures of the perps? I do something similar to that. I’ll write out note cards and shuffle them around. The dancers sometimes help me figure it out. When I know I’m on the right track, there’s an excitement that I have. If something is not right, it tends to be an emotional thing. When you’re in it, you can lose your objectivity. For me the writing, drawing, and talking to people opens my perspective.
Sometimes I’ll ask my technical director, Cheles Rhynes, What are you seeing? Sometimes I’ll ask random people about the project. Hearing myself talk helps me figure out if I’ve gotten off track.
With choreographer’s block, there’s an emptiness and disappointment. But I almost welcome it because while it’s really frustrating, I know that on the other side of that it gets interesting.
Upcoming project: For my new piece, Women, Sex, and Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t, I’m working on itty-bitty sections at a time. One of the improvisation sections was based on feeling free and open and secure—asking the question, What is sexy? It premieres in spring of 2010 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in Maryland, but I am including one section of it in my concert at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia April 3–4.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.