Career Advice

4 Choreographers on Their Biggest Career Regrets

Zoe Scofield regrets not owning her history. Photo by Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy zoe | juniper

Overnight success doesn't happen often in the dance world. Mistakes, regrets and on-the-job realizations are simply part of the process. Four accomplished choreographers share what they had to figure out along the way.

Pam Tanowitz: It's all about the editing.

Photo by Brad Paris, Courtesy Tanowitz


For Pam Tanowitz, time to fail is key. "My path was very slow. I just kept making things," she says. "Most of my work from the first 15 years is cringeworthy to me now." Tanowitz says she's still experimenting with a variety of approaches to choreographing and that, even now, she's still learning how to edit. "I had to learn to throw out stuff. Just because I made it doesn't mean it belongs in the piece," she says. "I am not precious about material. Economy is key; everything needs to have a reason. It's all meat and no bun."

Rennie Harris: Dig deep to create an arc.

Photo Courtesy Harris

When Dance Magazine Awardee Rennie Harris started out in the concert dance world, there were no tracks to follow. He was the first choreographer to bring serious subjects to the stage using street-dance vocabulary. "I didn't even know there was a dance concert world," says Harris. "When I was commissioned to do a 45-minute piece, I had never made anything longer than 10 minutes. I had no clue." Harris' learning moment came when he figured out that he could take the audience on a journey by presenting a range of emotions in his work. "I was more about serious content than entertaining people," he says. "But it became clear that I could do what I wanted to do and then give them a treat at the end."

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards: Be clear about your needs.

Photo by Eduardo Patino, Courtesy Sumbry-Edwards

Bessie-winning tap dancer and choreographer Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has found the business side of the creative process to be a challenge. She experienced a number of less-than-ideal situations over the years, such as not getting proper credit and billing. She's learned to be direct in writing up-front, and to follow up in person. "As a tap dancer, we consider everyone family, but we still need to deal with the business of the art form," says Sumbry-Edwards. "Know what you want and be as clear as possible. Don't assume anything."

Zoe Scofield: Own your history.

Photo by Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy zoe | juniper

When Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield started making work, she tried to hide the fact that she didn't have a BFA. "I regret that I didn't own my history," she says. "I tried to cover it up because I thought I needed a degree." Eventually, Scofield let go of the feeling of being an impostor and realized the power of her outsider status, owning it as an asset rather than an obstacle. "I had to forge my own path, follow my own curiosity, curate my own experience and learn how to think," says Scofield. "I also did not have to unlearn anything."

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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Dance & Activism
Allegra Bautista in Nevertheless, by ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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