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Interviews conducted by Clare Croft, Khara Hanlon, Sonja Kostich, Emily Macel, Wendy Perron, Abigail Rasminksy, Hanna Rubin, and Jennifer Stahl.
Artistic director, Donna Uchizono Dance Company, NYC
On dancers: A lot of time I will “throw” material at the dancers and they will “catch” whatever essence they got from the initial “throw.” I’ll look at the caught material and make a phrase from there. I consider the dancers collaborators. They are absolutely integral to the work, and contribute to it as much as I do.
On music: Sometimes I let the composer have carte blanche. Sometimes I am very specific about the sounds and the instruments—I say I want a violin, or I want it to be romantic. Sometimes I will take a piece of music they’ve written and play with it or rearrange it. Other times I have no idea what the music should be.
Latest project: I am creating a new full-length piece—working title: As eye see it—to premiere at Dance Theater Workshop in October. It’s based on the Buddhist concept of emptiness and theories of Quantum physics. The opening is two performers sitting on a ladder dressed in white, doing arm gestures. Life-size projections of themselves doing the movement are projected onto them. It looks like a hologram. It’s playing with what is real and what is our perception.
Artistic director, Keigwin + Company, NYC
On dancers: My dancers contribute vocabulary, costumes, and an ongoing conversation about the work. Sometimes they refer to me as coach, which is pretty appropriate in that I’m coaching, guiding, and making the ultimate last decisions. Nicole Wolcott, the associate artistic director, is hugely influential. We have a lot of dialog. It’s always good to have a partner in crime—it makes it fun.
On music: I have such a great time selecting music. I call it my security blanket because it’s something I can always go back to. I try to use music that I have a love and respect for. Recently we did a series of six duets titled Love Songs that uses Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond and Nina Simone. When choreographing new work, we all bring our iPods in and we’ll try out the choreography to 10 different pieces of music. We may generate movement vocabulary to techno music and realize it works best to a French love song. What gets us moving is one thing and what helps the choreography is another thing.
Current (or next) project: Keigwin + Company has a split program (with Chris Elam and Misnomer Dance Theater) at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University on April 12 and 14. We’ll perform Bolero NYC, which includes 50 pedestrians. Caffeinated, another piece, is a new commission by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, that involves nine Tisch student dancers. It’s a highly kinetic caffeinated buzz trip. And Keigwin Kaberet at Symphony Space April 5–7 is a combination of downtown burlesque and really great variety acts.
Artistic director, Eifman Ballet, St. Petersburg, Russia
On dancers: I would be happy if I could go to sleep and in my dreams see some scenes, and then when I’m ready for work, just bring ideas from dreams. But it’s not like that. When I see my dancers and start to work with them, they wake up the choreography in me. My dancers are the biggest impulse and inspiration in my creative process.
On music: There are two instruments: music and dancers. In the ballet, one cannot be without the other. When the music combines with the movement of the dancer, only that makes the art of dance.
Current project: This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the company and the 10th anniversary of touring the U.S. I try not to repeat myself and be absolutely different each time. The new piece is our version of Chekhov’s play The Seagull. We’re not using big props or costumes. It takes place in a ballet studio with a lot of fantasies and metamorphoses going on. We focus on Chekhov’s character Treplyov, who is searching for new forms. (See ardani.com for tour dates.)
Artistic director, Susan Marshall & Company, NYC
On dancers: They generate a tremendous variety and depth of material, based on improvisational starting points I give them. For instance, I might ask them to oscillate between two points while progressing toward a third. There might be eight instructions before we get to where you can see the seed of a dance or a concept. As the work begins to emerge, the dancers discuss it with me.
On music: I do some of my best choreography driving the car and listening to music. Even in the studio, I almost never work in silence. We still use working music in the studio, even though that might get discarded, it will be used as a reference point for the composer.
Current project: The company is working on an evening that’s going to be performed in the round in a Spiegeltent. It’s a turn-of-the-century cabaret theater space, circular, part tent, part carousel. Bars, velvet, teak wood floor—gorgeous spaces. The dance room is quite small and it’s used by circus performers and has rigging capacity—an intimate, exciting space. It gives permission and pushes you to break all the rules. It premieres at Bard on the grounds of the Fisher Center the first two weekends of July.
Choreographer of videos and films, Los Angeles
On dancers: The best dancers make your choreography look good. They may come up with something that you weren’t thinking—a head, a hand, a snap. They’ll do something and I’m like, What’s that? Let’s do that! I don’t feel like everything has to come from me.
On music: Choreography can bring out certain parts in the music that people weren’t paying attention to before. Sometimes it’s about the attitude and the delivery of the recording artist that you just love. You’ll jump up and start moving, and the next person jumps up and we just play around. I like spontaneity. My stuff is sexy and smooth, not too jerky. I don’t hit a lot of counts within an 8-count. I dance more on the downbeat. And then I might hit a lyric in the song or I’ll hit the beat just every now and then.
Latest projects: I’m currently choreographing Jamie Foxx’s tour. The last thing I directed was Fergie’s video Fergalicious and I may be directing another video for her.
Choreographer, teacher, Cleveland
On dancers: I love to work with dancers who can improvise in performance, who can go back and forth between structured and improvisation. I usually discuss my vision with them, and sometimes I’m swayed by their experiences when I’m shaping the piece. I like go-for-it people, whatever it is: “You want me to sing, swing from the chandelier, or grovel thru the mud—I’ll do it”—that’s the kind of dancer I like.
Music: The composer and I start with an idea, a theme, and from that theme these little seeds of ideas are developing in dance and musical, then it starts merging, and we start setting things. It’s very magical and powerful. The legacy of jazz music has influenced me through its daringness and its use of improvisation. It’s a great learning process for the dancers to hear the different layers of the music.
Current project: I’m working on a new piece with longtime music collaborator Olu Dara, Front Porch Lies and Other Conversations, told in the vein of Zora Neale Hurston of swapping lies and telling gigantic stories. It’ll be a mixture of dance, theater, and music. The dancers are from NYC and Cleveland, and their stories could be funny, poignant, or actually true. I’ll be building the piece up through residencies at Howard and Oberlin.
Choreographer, teacher, NYC
On dancers: I like to get to know dancers physically and personally as quickly as possible when I begin working with them. I get specific ideas for specific dancers. I used to pre-plan my choreography before we got into the rehearsal studio, but now I like to make it up on the spot so the movement I create is based on the dancers in the room.
On music: Music is 50 percent of any dance performance—you see it and you hear it. If you don’t like listening to something, you’re not going to want to watch it. I started playing the violin when I was 5 and studied music for 12 years. I’ll never create more than a minute of choreography without going back to the music to see where it fits.
Current project: I was commissioned to set a piece for an exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art called Matisse: Painter as Sculptor in February. It’s a half-hour long suite based on ideas influenced by his sculptures and paintings. It will be performed in their sculpture garden. I’m really excited because I’ve never done anything like this before.
Artistic director, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, San Francisco
On dancers: I always start with a concept—an idea, a place from which I launch a new work—and once I feel some clarity, the dancers are informed about the field, the landscape that I want to embrace. They generate probably 90 percent of the movement material that we then finely hone and edit.
On music: My most recent work, A Slipping Glimpse, had music by Paul Dresher. He and I will always talk before I even get into rehearsal. He comes to see what kind of movement is being generated and what I’m beginning to feel is the music environment. Then he’ll go away and compose little snippets—everything from acoustic to electronic. Then we’ll do a back and forth and see how that goes. Towards the end of the process, he’ll come in with his ensemble and really make things congeal.
Current Project: This month we’ll be going to a poetry-and-dance festival in Tokyo to perform a segment of A Slipping Glimpse.
Artistic director, Doug Varone and Dancers, NYC
On dancers: My dancers are great problem solvers. I rely on their artistic instincts to tell me more about what is possible and demand they take ownership as soon as we begin. There is a great deal of trust in the studio and an openness to make mistakes.
On music: Often I create with a score in mind. On occasion I will throw that score out. When I have a score commissioned, I work in silence until I can't stand it any longer. Then my brain needs to hear something—anything—to move the project along.
Current project: I’m currently working on a new evening-length work called Dense Terrain. The new score is by indie art rock composer Nathan Larson. We are now adding the visual elements to tie the work together dramatically. It comes to BAM, May 16, 18–20.
Artistic director, Rubberbandance Group, Montreal
On dancers: We spend a lot of time improvising. It comes from when I freestyled in Los Angeles, and it feeds how I see the dancers.
On music: Usually I have an idea, we start building material for it, and then music enters to inform what’s going to happen, or offer a juxtaposition that solidifies the piece or goes completely against what I’ve been thinking. I’ve done a lot of work to music that I used to listen to with my parents—norteñas, music from Northern Mexico, rancheras that have a European, polka feel from the time that immigrants were ranching in Mexico, and bachatas, which are an off-shoot of merengue. It’s music that keeps me grounded and fills me with joy. Bachatas in particular allow the experiences I’ve lived to bleed over into my creative life. I like taking the music we’d been dancing to at the club last weekend and saying, “Why don’t we try that here?” You can’t keep everything in its own drawer. Sometimes you have to allow all the drawers to be emptied out on the floor.
Current project: We’re touring our rep program, Elastic Perspective, to the Spoleto Festival in May and Chicago in June. I’m working on two ideas to add to it, a trio and a duet. Next summer, I’m hoping to take these ideas and create a larger through-line for a full-length work, with music by Mitchell Akiyama, who’s scored four of my pieces; Yan Lee Chan, an amazing lighting designer; and Anne Plamondon, a Rubberband member of the company who’s absolutely the pillar of everything I’ve done creatively.