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.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.
Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.