Centerwork: No Right Answers

May 31, 2012

What does it mean to have—and be—a choreographic mentor?



Mentee Gregory Dawson (in green) and mentor Elizabeth Streb at a CHIME workshop last winter. Photo courtesy Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.


“It’s really about finding the right questions to ask,” says Elizabeth Streb in an aside, as she watches a clutch of choreographers working on a problem during an open rehearsal at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab in San Francisco.

Streb is the mentor for this year’s CHIME Across Borders, part of a mentorship program launched in 2004 by Jenkins that pairs established artists with younger choreographers. Dressed in severe black from head to toe, she consults a notebook as she guides the mentees—Jo Kreiter, Gregory Dawson, and Charles Slender—through simple exercises designed to dissect the essence of movement. She is no-nonsense, even abrupt, but her methodical approach elicits questions from the choreographers and dancers that seem to please her.

“When I’m giving a problem,” she tells them, “it’s really strict. I want to see direction—a focusing on physical ideas. I know you can all choreograph—that’s why you’re here.”

Choreographic mentorship programs serve several purposes: encouraging artistic growth, fostering communication from one generation to the next, and bolstering the confidence of young artists with guidance and financial support. But the common theme for many mentors is that a productive mentorship doesn’t start with the right answers, but rather the right questions.

“A choreographer can hardly be expected to be objective about their own work; they’re too close to it,” observes Gus Solomons jr. Each year, he mentors a handful of emerging artists through RAW Material, a six-month program at Dance New Amsterdam in New York. “I try to find out what their ideas are and suggest what they could do. I ask: What do you intend? Where are you going? That’s the challenge for a mentor, to figure out how to help them focus their ideas and their point of view. That’s not easy. It takes a lot of experience and suspension of ego.”

For Lauren Hale Biniaris, a RAW Material participant who premiered her work Umbilicus at DNA last October, one of the most refreshing aspects of Solomons’ approach was his bluntness and analytical approach to feedback. “In the first meeting, he asked everybody what kind of piece they were working on and someone said that they just wanted to make something cool,” she says. “He said, ‘Cool doesn’t matter. What matters is if it is true. Your only goal is to channel the truth of the piece.’ ”

“I thought about that later when I was about three-quarters of the way through my piece and not clear on how I wanted it to end,” Biniaris recalls. “His advice let me peel away a lot of layers. It made me let go of some movement that I liked, because it wasn’t the truth of the piece.” Biniaris also appreciated that, like CHIME Across Borders (whose past mentors were Ralph Lemon and David Gordon), RAW Material not only offers the benefit of an experienced eye but also funding, studio space, and assistance with marketing.

Solomons says that a key for successful mentoring is to set aside your own preconceptions and “leave your prejudices at the door. Think about what you would want to see as an audience member, not how you would re-choreograph the dance. Not that you have to relinquish your point of view, but you do have to understand your role as a teacher and guide.”

Jenni Hong was seeking guidance for an in-progress work when she applied to Harlem Stage’s E-Moves program last year. Despite not being entirely polished, Hong’s piece struck a chord with mentor Francesca Harper during the selection process. “Jenni’s work is very theatrical, and it’s a bit of a departure for me to work with someone who’s more dance-theater,” Harper says. “Our aesthetics are very different, but we really connect in that emotional life—there are dark overtones with a sense of empowerment under it.”

After pairing mentor and mentee (the 2012 mentors also include Patricia Hoffbauer, Reggie Wilson, and Ronald K. Brown) the yearlong E-Moves program, now in its 13th year, largely lets the artists decide how to structure their interactions, although there are several showings of dances by the young choreographers, who are categorized as either “e-merging” (in the early stages of their careers as dancemakers) or “e-volving” (at a more advanced stage).

“I’ve never had a mentor like this, but now I feel like I have someone I can trust to talk to,” Hong notes. “There was a section in the duet I was making that I thought was very dance-y. I was always afraid it would be too clichéd, so I was timid about it. Francesca really pushed me to go in that same direction. She thought I should release more when I was afraid I was being too ‘release-y.’ She offered feedback that was never constricting, but rather liberating.”

Both mentors and mentees say that they derive satisfaction from the back-and-forth dialogue, even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye. Of working with Streb, CHIME choreographer Jo Kreiter says, “I don’t necessarily agree with her conclusions, but looking at her questions and her insights has been really useful. Elizabeth takes her ideas to the furthest end, and I’m getting so much out of the way she’s framing the material.”

Streb, who consciously avoided the kind of mentorship experience in which she would critique others’ work (“I’m not skilled at looking at other people’s choreography and telling them how to make it better, and even worse than that, I’m not interested in doing that at all,” she says with typical candor), is pushing the dancers to investigate large-scale formal issues.

“I want to jar them out of their normal way of working and let them go back to it, no harm done,” she says after the first week of the CHIME workshops. “I want to see if there’s a way I can provoke all of our habits of thinking—including mine. I want to bring into the room questions I have about motion, movement, action, leave out my conclusions and let them swirl in the confusion of it—to have a beautiful dialectic among these people—but not teach how I do things.”

In that sense, mentorship programs are as rewarding for the experienced artists as for their younger counterparts.

“I’m inspired by working with these choreographers,” says Harper enthusiastically. “What they’re doing is very much risk-taking, and that reinvigorates my own courage to take risks. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, to talk about the nuance, the details that are involved in crafting a piece. Those things are tenuous and fragile, but they are the life of our work.”


Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the
San Francisco Chronicle.