How Choreographers Avoid The One-Hit Wonder Trap
While directing and choreographing the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the musical Bandstand, Andy Blankenbuehler found himself tied into knots. After the wild success of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton, for which he would win the 2016 Tony Award for Best Choreography, he began comparing his unsatisfactory rehearsal rut to what he called "the best work of my career."
"I was really struggling," he says. "I knew I wasn't reaching the same bar as I had with Hamilton." Seeing his frustration, his wife reminded him that there would never be another Hamilton—but that didn't mean his other work couldn't be great, too. "She saw how I was beating myself up trying to accomplish a similar thing." Happy ending detour: Blankenbuehler regained his footing and won his third Tony Award for choreography for the Broadway production of Bandstand.
For choreographers, the postpartum pangs that follow a big triumph can summon doubts about their ability to duplicate a career's artistic zenith. Critics sneer, ballet masters and directors stifle skeptical looks, audiences question, producers pressure and choreographers agonize about the label of "one-hit wonder." Has he backed himself into a corner? Has she burned out on ideas? How do you bring something original to the stage without copying yourself or experimenting with disaster?
New visibility can come with increased expectations, warns Ronald K. Brown. In 1999, his masterwork Grace seemed to have found a new spiritual compass for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a way to usher the troupe forward in a choreographic manner that only Alvin Ailey had previously accomplished.
"There was a kind of curiosity about the work," says Brown. Even ballet companies started calling about potential commissions. After Grace, he says, "they might have an expectation that I may use house music or that my style may have a signature look."
He kept in mind words that the late Bessie Schönberg, Brown's former composition teacher and legendary mentor, had told him: "Don't always give in to the pressure to do something new." When he veered off course, Schönberg let him know: "You said you wanted to do X, Y and Z. I didn't see that. Speak up for yourself. I want you to do what you intend." Schönberg died before Grace was choreographed, but the idea of resisting the pressure to create something revolutionary with each work stuck with him.
Expectations can lead to opportunities, however. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's first full-length narrative ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire, was hailed as a triumph of dance/drama and won the best classical choreography award at the UK's 2012 National Dance Awards, as well as an Olivier Award nomination. "Streetcar didn't make me an international choreographer," she says. "But it opened doors and placed me on the market as a choreographer who can tell stories." It was an affirmation of her talent for weaving dance into plot-driven theater.
Ochoa jokes that "I'm past the age to be the next great thing because I'm 44, not 27." Yet her ongoing, hard-won successes have earned her the respect of directors who trust her to create quality work. Today, Ochoa knows that she's booked with eight commissions for the next two years, even if a current piece registers a "meh"; that's a luxury that she feels fledgling choreographers—particularly female choreographers—can't count on.
"When you're a young choreographer, you have a lot of fear, thinking if your work is cool or hip enough, or whether it's repeating someone else's choreography," she says. "When you're older, you don't have that many questions in your head."
For her part, Ochoa feels that her Broken Wings, a ballet about Frida Kahlo, created for the English National Ballet in 2016, was actually more creatively adventurous than Streetcar. A similar feeling holds true for Robert Binet. His first major commission outside of Canada, The Blue of Distance, was praised by The New York Times as the "most remarkably poetic among the premieres" of New York City Ballet's fall season in 2015. But Binet, now 26, considers his 2016 site-specific commission at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the National Ballet of Canada, The Dreamers Ever Leave You, "creatively, a game changer."
The fact that both Binet and Ochoa champion ballets other than the ones that were promoted as critical hits says something about the subjectivity of what constitutes a success. Many choreographers are wary of obsessing over critical opinions. Ochoa uses them for practical purposes: "Every two years, I make a huge pile of all the reviews saying I'm amazing, in order to apply for a U.S. visa." Brown has his associate director Arcell Cabuag filter reviews and alert him "if it's something I need to hear."
On the other hand, Binet reads a bunch of reviews, but only once they've all come in. "Then you see the full spectrum, rather sitting with one for a day and a half and sitting with another for two days," he says. But generally, choreographers say that critics' words are rarely a driving factor in how the next work unfolds.
Binet admits that since The Blue of Distance, some of his subsequent ballets have worked, others not so much. "It's not like you've cracked the code and now you know how to make a great ballet and can make it forever," he says. "Naively, I didn't realize if you figure it out for one ballet, that doesn't mean you have it figured out for the next one. You can only take forward what you've learned."
Blankenbuehler learned to honor his post-Hamilton projects as their own events, and, equally importantly, to analyze the successful ingredients of Hamilton's staging and choreography. "I'm not going to duplicate the choreography, but I'm trying to test myself against that," he says. "Hamilton is very honest. Things don't look like dance steps, things look like emotional ideas and literal words. I'm very proud of Bandstand because it is consistent with Hamilton in that it is honest. Even though there's a big shadow from Hamilton, it has simply made me a better artist."
To avoid being pegged as a one-trick pony, many choreographers aim for versatility. Brown keeps expanding his vocabulary through other dance genres: West African, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian dance forms, for example. Ochoa continues to choreograph both abstract and narrative works in classical and contemporary idioms. And Blankenbuehler moves seamlessly from Hamilton's hip hop to Bandstand's swing, bebop and jitterbug.
Pacing yourself can prove challenging once the phone keeps ringing. Binet tries to manage his time sensibly and not say "yes" to everything. "When you're starting, you need practice to build your reputation and get your work in front of people," he says. "Now I'm in the process of making the transition to larger-scale works and just trying to understand what kind of time I need to set aside for that."
Many choreographers find that proving their artistic currency gives them a stronger negotiating stance. For example, to allow for "the work to get in the dancers' bodies and marinate and simmer a bit," Brown now requests a healthy amount of time in between the rehearsal period and the premiere. Because Blankenbuehler prepares extensively in advance, he requires extra studio space and time before the rehearsal process even begins. He also needs demo tracks with arrangements featuring at least horns and drums, as opposed to a solo piano recording. "That's an odd thing to ask for, but I have to have that," says Blankenbuehler.
Rather than being crushed by the weight of their successes, choreographers are seemingly served best by understanding what works for them. Very little in the act of creating new dances is predictable. "I think it's so easy to get caught up in how your career is building and what each piece is going to lead to," says Binet. "You have to be ambitious, but you can't plan for everything because it never happens that way. Wherever you are and whoever you're working with, you just try to make it your best work and trust in that."
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.