Can We Stop Calling Choreographers "Emerging" Already?
"Do away with it."
"How about just plain old 'artist' or 'choreographer'?"
These are a few of the comments that popped up when, on a recent morning, I posted a query on Facebook fielding thoughts about the term "emerging"—as in "emerging choreographer." I can't remember when I first sensed disgruntlement toward the E-word. But in speaking with dancers and choreographers over the years, I've noticed that more often than not it elicits an eye roll, head shake, groan, sigh or shrug of "whatever that means."
On its surface, "emerging" may seem like an unobjectionable adjective describing someone new to making work, a word connoting promise, potential, discovery. Like many writers, presenters and others in the dance field, I've been known to use it as shorthand for "young" or "just starting out" or—
Well, that's part of the problem. What exactly does "emerging" mean? And how about its similarly contested cousins, "mid-career" and "established"? What determines whether a choreographer is emerging or has emerged: age, experience, number of dances created, institutional criteria? Does an artist ever stop emerging? In what cases, if any, is "emerging" useful or beneficial? Should we do as the choreographer Alexandra Beller suggested and do away with it altogether?
One irksome aspect of "emerging" is that it tends to be foisted upon artists—for programming or fundraising or journalistic purposes—rather than chosen. As Beller notes, it "takes away autonomy from artists defining themselves and their process and their intentions for their own future." The notion of a professional ladder ascending from "emerging" to "mid-career" to "established" assumes a linear path that few dancemakers actually follow, maintaining, as the choreographer Jeanine Durning puts it, "a myth of upward mobility in a field that has none."
Moriah Evans' Social Dance 9-12: Encounter"at Danspace Project. Photo by Ian Douglas
"Emerging" as a modifier for "choreographer" is a relatively modern phenomenon. Judy Hussie-Taylor, the executive director of Danspace Project, estimates that it came into use in the 1980s. "I believe that at that time funders were supporting only well-known or established dance companies," she says, explaining that presenters began to advocate on behalf of lesser-known work. "I think the case was made, and certain funders now adhere to it as a value—a way to say, 'We're not just going to fund Paul Taylor or Martha Graham.' "
Supporting artists early in their careers is essential and should, of course, continue. But according to Lucy Sexton, the executive director of the Bessie Awards, some artists feel that opportunities have skewed too heavily in that direction.
"It's a completely laudable impulse," she says, "but what's happened more recently is people saying, 'Well, how about the person who's been doing good work for 20 years and still doesn't have major support?' " Championing so-called mid-career artists "might not be as sexy as supporting a young artist who's gonna turn into Mark Morris," she says, "but it's worthwhile, and we need it for a healthy dance ecosystem."
If institutions and granting organizations decide who's "emerging," how do they define the term? The Minnesota-based Jerome Foundation, one of the country's chief funders of "early career/emerging" artists (its own phrasing), includes the following criteria in its eligibility requirements: "Artists who are in the early stages of their creative development" and "artists, collectives or ensembles who have yet to be substantially celebrated within their field, the media, funding circles or the public at large." (It's hard not to wonder: What constitutes "substantially celebrated"?)
A more flexible approach can be found at the Bessies, which have granted awards for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer since 2011. Here the task of defining "emerging" falls to subcommittees focused on specific sectors of the field.
"It's a malleable term," says Sexton. "It can mean different things when you're looking at different parts of the field and different types of work happening in different circumstances." The award has honored artists as disparate as the ballet choreographer Jessica Lang, deemed "emerging" in 2014 for her newly founded troupe—though she had been making dances since 1999 for companies including the Joffrey Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet—and the younger, more elusive flex dancer Storyboard P.
Cultural factors can also shape how "emerging" is defined. Phil Chan, an advisor to the Asian American Arts Alliance, was a member of the review panel for the alliance's Jadin Wong Award for Emerging Asian American Choreographer. He said that the award's funder initially placed an age limit on "emerging" (30 and under) but that this proved to be "an arbitrary definition" given the applicant pool.
"We've found that it's harder for Asian Americans, especially among recent immigrant families, to pursue a creative career," Chan says. As a result, "it's not unusual for dancers of immigrant families to discover dance later"—and thus to "emerge" at a more advanced age. Through discussions with the funder, Chan and his colleagues were able to expand the award's parameters.
Never Not Emerging
No matter how broadly or specifically defined, "emerging," like most labels, still has a way of both hemming in and excluding. This past July at a Bessies press conference, the performer, writer, curator and dancemaker Will Rawls accepted the 2017 award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. I was delighted to see him earning recognition but also puzzled by his nomination in the first place. Having followed his work at least since 2009, at multiple well-known theaters and museums around New York City, I sort of thought he had already "emerged."
Did he think so too? "I'm super-honored to be recognized for the work that I'm doing," he told me, adding that the citation for the award "was very sensitive about acknowledging both my choreography and my curatorial and writing work." But he also notes the complexities and limitations of being anointed "emerging."
"I think often the term makes people see the work through the lens of something that's not fully cooked," he says. "It can be a little bit juvenilizing. And I think artists who are really established also want to feel the freedom to present ideas that are newer"—the freedom to not arrive at a fixed style.
For the choreographer Elena Rose Light, "emerging" is vexing for similar reasons, perpetuating what she calls "ageism in both directions."
"The stagnation that's implied by 'established' and the generative, lively movement implied by 'emerging' creates a binary that I'm uninterested in," she says.
Choreographer Elena Rose Light. Photo by Em Watson, courtesy Light
As the choreographer Jodi Melnick puts it, citing her work with endlessly curious legends like Sara Rudner and the late Trisha Brown, "When are an artist's ideas not emerging? When is an artist not discovering the newness even in the sameness of their work?"
Hussie-Taylor says that while she understands the resistance to "emerging"—who wants to be labeled?—the term remains useful in garnering support for "early work or new work or innovative work or work that doesn't neatly fit into an established dance company model."
" 'Emerging' for me isn't a way of writing someone off," she says. "It's a way of continuing to advocate for them and saying, 'Yes, this person has had a 13-year career, but she's still working on becoming known.' "
As for the future of "emerging," I think it might be here to stay, entrenched as it is in systems of funding and presenting dance. But that doesn't mean we can't keep searching for ways around it—and not just through easy alternatives like "rising" or "early-career," but through language that describes rather than quantifies, that doesn't fall back on the convenience of a category.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
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.
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.
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
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: