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They Are Women, Hear Them Roar

Too often choreography is thought of as a man’s job. While that assumption may be more true of ballet than modern dance, more and more women in both categories are choreographing these days—and their ranks are overflowing. To set the record straight, Dance Magazine is focusing this year’s Choreography Issue exclusively on women. We talked to 10 top female choreographers and asked them these questions: How do you choose dancers? What does it mean to you to be a woman choreographer? And, What is your latest project?


Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
Artistic director, Rosas, Belgium
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

On dancers I look for intelligence and generosity—in their presence, their will to communicate, to risk.


As a woman choreographer I have a lot of endurance. I can work very slowly, step by step. I think that’s a female capacity, the consistency to keep on searching over a long period of time.


The combination of raising children with an intense career—with a company, a school and dancing—and with life as a mother and a woman, that has been the most challenging for me. You’re splitting your attention in moments when work asks for all, and your children have the same need. But I never felt that I couldn’t do anything in my work because of being a woman.


Current project Zeitung premiered in Paris in January. It started from simple technical questions: how movement is generated in different parts of the body, in time and space, about verticality and horizontality, about oneness, division. Zeitung tours to Holland, Spain, Belgium, and France, April to June.



Kathleen Marshall
Broadway choreographer/director
Interviewed by Lynn Shapiro

On dancers What I’m looking for on top of technique is vivid dancers, people who are interesting, fascinating, who dance with a lot of energy and attack. I want it to feel like a bunch of individuals all doing the same steps, as opposed to Rockette precision dancing.


As a woman choreographer I just think of myself as a choreographer, not as a woman choreographer. What you connect to has more to do with your own individual taste and sensibilities than with your gender. There are some female choreographers who are tough and strong, and there are some who are gentle and nurturing. I think Bob Fosse is one of the best choreographers for women, and Graciela Daniele is one of the best for men. Certainly in the long history of Broadway there have been many more male choreographers than females, but we’re catching up. When we were rehearsing Grease, and Little Mermaid, directed by Francesca Zambello, and Young Frankenstein, directed by Susan Stroman, were rehearsing in the same building, I thought: Wow, there are three Broadway musicals being directed by women! I was proud of that—women are kind of running the show here.


Latest project In February I choreographed Applause, which is a musical version of All About Eve, for City Center Encores!, and I was excited because it’s such a meaty story.



Melissa Barak
Choreographer, Los Angeles Ballet
Interviewed by Jennifer Stahl

On dancers I love making steps on dancers who have a great emotional capacity. When they understand the emotional side of what I’m trying to do, there’s this flow in the studio and I get ideas quicker.


For partnering we fool around a lot. I tell them what I want, then let them play until it falls into place. It’s a give and take.


As a woman choreographer A lot of people say, “Wow, you’re a female choreographer!” But it never really felt strange to me. Even though in ballet it’s predominantly men, I’ve never been given more or less respect because I’m female. I got a lot of press when I first started, not so much for being a woman, but for being 21. I have yet to work with big companies or break into Broadway and film. Once those opportunities present themselves, we’ll see if I have trouble because I’m a woman.


Current project I’m doing a new piece on Los Angeles Ballet (where I dance) this season, which premiered in February at UCLA. It’s an abstract yet structured piece to Edgar Meyer music. Now that we’re in our second season, it’s the first world premiere that LAB is presenting.

KT Nelson
Co-artistic director, ODC/Dance, San Francisco
Interviewed by Rita Felciano

On dancers I need dancers to be deeply physical. Through the particulars of their bodies we the audience, and I as the creator, see something about them. Since I often work with the same dancers, part of the process involves breaking away assumptions we have about them. There are always surprises.


As a woman choreographer I think that we associate certain values with the feminine world, and they are particularly revealed in dance. At its highest level, dance is a form of ensemble where everything comes together. All elements—the dancer dancing, the music, and the choreography—are in communion with each other. It’s a spiritual, an experiential thing. What we associate with female values is related to that. I work inside a female-led organization so all these values get continually reenforced.


Next project As our environments become more urban and techno, we have a deep need to reconnect with the natural world. That’s what I am looking at in A Walk in the Woods, which premiered last month in San Francisco.


Marie Chouinard
Artistic director, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Montreal
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

On dancers I am looking for interpreters for whom just walking onstage is an event. They are not only interested in line, or in being beautiful, but in manifesting a vision.


As a woman choreographer I’m offering in my shows a place for the bodies of men and women, where the women are very powerful. Very powerful. For me it’s about the human being and its relationship with the cosmos. This can include spirituality and eroticism. For some, this is a surprise, but that’s an accident of our society, which is not very advanced. My interest is to explore all of human life in an open, free way.


Last project Most recently I completed Orpheus and Eurydice, a ballet in two acts, my first exploration into the telling of a story. Upcoming performances are April through June in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and Ottawa, Canada.


Liz Lerman
Founding artistic director, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Takoma Park, MD
Interviewed by Lynn Shapiro

On dancers Our dancers are expected to perform, choreograph, teach, and even manage something. One of the hallmarks of Dance Exchange is that everybody gets to grow, not just the person in charge.


As a woman choreographer A critic once said to me, “Your problem, Liz, is that you’re not Bill T. Jones: You’re just not confrontational.” I feel like I’m incredibly confrontational. Old people dropping their dresses and showing their breasts—which we did way back—that’s shocking. But I make sure that everybody’s in the room when it happens, so it doesn’t feel shocking, because I want people to live with it. If that’s feminine, well . . . that’s it.


Next project We’ve been asked to be part of the opening ceremonies at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research, Fall ’08), where they’re going to smash particles and figure out the Big Bang. It’s going to be wild. They’ll be pounding these particles with massive amounts of energy. The particles don’t want to separate, and I’m wondering if they’re in some kind of embrace. I don’t think [the piece] is going to be about particle physics. I do think it’s ultimately about the beginning of things.


Jennifer Muller
Artistic director, Jennifer Muller/The Works, NYC
Interviewed by Lynn Shapiro

On dancers They have to work hard and have a certain level of technical proficiency. They need to have a generosity of spirit and not have any kind of pretence or arrogance. We are a very openhearted and generous company. I look for strong personalities. What I love about the company is that it’s all shapes and sizes, all individuals.


As a woman choreographer Someone once told me that my work combines lushness, but also a barbed wire fence, and I think that lush feel comes from a woman’s sensibility. I also believe in the strength of women, that women are perceptive and smart. And there’s that other side of it, which is the craft, organization, and the toughness that hopefully combine in the work I do.


Next project Bench will premiere during our 2008-2009 season at the Joyce. Bench is about a need for galvanization in terms of taking care of ourselves, our earth, and each other better, and the apathy that precedes it. The bench is a place where people do not move, do not contribute to society. Because of various occurrences, people are either woken up, or not, to have a better sense of community.

Siobhan Davies
Artistic director and choreographer, Siobhan Davies Dance, London
Interviewed by Lizzy Le Quesne

On dancers I look for dancers who are aware and curious enough to find out why they chose to do a particular movement one way rather than another. I am aiming for a clarity which is understandable and reachable by an audience. Some dancers are too young for my work and might not enjoy doing it. Athleticism, or image of a certain kind, isn’t as potent for us as it might have been. Something else—a physical intelligence that leads to a fine specificity of quality, subtlety, and depth of quality—is even more potent than that ever was.


As a woman choreographer I love looking at the differing sensual qualities that women and men bring to the work, but I am not sure that they followed the traditional gender paths as they made it. Maybe the work encourages them to use other parts of their gender.


Next project A partnership with the Victoria Miro Gallery, with the dancers in the gallery, and a visual artist in my studio. It will be an ongoing event throughout the afternoon. To some extent it will address the idea of continually moving, rather than a beginning or end. I am trying to look at the imagery within which dance is contained. It will premiere at both venues in London in the spring of 2009.


Lula Washington
Co-founder/artistic director, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, L.A.

Interviewed by Rita Felciano

On dancers I first like to find out if they are really interested in what we do. Then I want to see what their work ethic is and how they handle a critique. Do they show up on time? Do they show some humility in order to grow to the kind of performance level that we need?


As a woman choreographer Being a choreographer allows you to speak through movement on topics that go unnoticed or unexposed. As a woman choreographer, my career has not gone in the direction of those of my male counterparts. Some of the male choreographers seem to get more of the recognition and support that is key to survival than female choreographers do.


Next project I have been inspired by the people involved in the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Based on what took place then and what is going on now, The Nine, (premiered at the University of Arkansas in February) will be performed at the Sammy Davis Jr. Festival Plaza, Las Vegas, April 12.



KT Niehoff
Artistic director, Lingo Dancetheater, Seattle
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

On dancers I look for dancers that I’ll be able to live in the studio with—a friend, a peer, yet somebody who can morph into what I need. I feel quite vulnerable in the studio, and I require someone who will not freak out when I go off-kilter. Somebody who understands my aesthetic and can cultivate their point of view side-by-side.


As a woman choreographer Part of my process is being able to say, “I don’t know.” Generally what comes back is a conversation that leads to an investigation that leads to the answer. Is that female? I don’t know. I think artists are used to challenging themselves like that regardless of gender. But I am frustrated when I see the disproportionate amount of visible male to female choreographers. I wonder about those 25 incredible female choreographers I’ve known and why the rest of the world doesn’t know them. That frustrates me in such a grand paralyzing way that I turn away and head back to the work.


Latest work Inhabit, which originally stemmed from a desire for intimacy—in the studio, even with the audience. Collaboratively we looked at how we inhabit our bodies, our art, our lives. The outcropping is part party, part dance, part ritual. For me, what I want is connection. Inhabit can be seen on tour this month at Kenyon College in Ohio, April 11 and 12.



Photo by Annie Price, Courtesy Jennifer Muller/The Works.

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