We tend to think of choreographers as particularly creative people. That may be true, but it does not mean that the ideas and movement flow every minute of the day. Just as writers have writer’s block, dancemakers sometimes get choreographer’s block. Here five choreographers talk openly about those scary moments in the studio when you get stuck and can’t immediately find your way out.
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
When I get stuck, I try to disrupt the space, to find a different way of looking. I’ll change the music; I’ll put Billie Holiday on for choreography made to romantic music. I’ll ask the dancers to improvise, to turn a different way. I’ll ask myself what is going on, even put the problem down on paper, and walk away. I’ll remove myself from the situation and trust that some time away will give me a solution.
It’s like anything in life: Right when you want something to work, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s knowing the block is there for a reason. You want to let information come to the surface—to remain open and be surprised by things.
Upcoming project: A duet for firstthingsfirst productions (Kate Holden and Kate Franklin) in Toronto next fall and commissions for the Alberta Ballet and Augsburg Ballet in 2010. This spring I’m also touring a duet that Kevin O’Day choreographed for me and Robert Glumbeck for Pro Arte Danza.
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
What do I do when I get stuck? Cry. If I can’t find a way to make something work, I just keep hitting it, like driving the nail deeper and deeper. If after days I can’t find it I often abandon it. And then it may show up in another piece—resolved!
You look forward to some wrestling, but when you watch your company looking at you with lowered eyelids and their arms crossed impatiently, I begin to feel slightly freaked out. I say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Forgive me. Anybody have anything they would like to contribute?” If it gets too bloody, moving on is better.
Sometimes it doesn’t work because it’s not meant to work. It’s a little bit like boyfriends: If it’s not working it’s just better to give up and move on.
During Vienna: Lusthaus I had a six-week freeze. It was the first piece I did with text and it really terrified me and I was going through a hard time in my life. It feels like it was six weeks, it may have been only three weeks. It felt interminable. The dancers and actors would get irritated and feel that we were on a sinking ship. I was cutting my style of making things then, and so I had no blueprint. Now that I’m older I know that if I’ve fallen into a ditch I’ll pull myself out.
Each work I do I try to challenge myself with a new vocabulary, and that’s hard, and scary, and occasionally exhilarating. A lot of the time I would say 50 percent of the process is wreckage. When I was younger I threw away 80 percent. That’s the only thing I’ve learned with age—just try not to suffer quite as long with it.
Current project: I’m making a piece for Jeanne Ruddy Dance for April in Philadelphia. A lot of my work comes from improvisation and her dancers are quite open to that. The piece is inspired by Diane Arbus. Her photographs are dark and funny and have terrific melancholy. I find them displacing and uncomfortable—which is the place you are as a choreographer.
Artistic director/choreographer, Keely Garfield Dance
Interviewed by Siobhan Burke
There’s always a moment when I look at what I’m making and think, “This is utter rubbish. It’s over, it’s not gonna happen.” For my recent trilogy, I was working with the idea of found objects. I found this crazy trash can, some fluorescent lightbulbs, and a great piece of blue carpet. I got into the studio, and as this environment took shape, I set myself the task of staying on the carpet. I spent a bunch of rehearsals on it—a couple weeks. I was really attached to it. I’d been to this side of it and the other side; I’d rolled and jumped around on it. And then everything just stopped. I’d forgotten what on earth was interesting about found objects. I said to my dancers, “This is not working. Let’s just scrap it now.” I sat down in the corner—I think I had a bit of a cry—and then I heard it, like a little voice in my ear: “Get rid of the carpet.”
Getting rid of the carpet—it’s kind of a metaphor for what happens in the creative process, where you get rid of the whole impetus for the piece. You just throw it out the window, or at least move it to the side for a little while. When I rolled up the carpet and moved it away, I saw the space in a different shape. When I reentered, things began to flow again.
I don’t really believe in calling that moment a “block.” Ultimately, I think, it’s the opposite. Even though it can be frightening and paralyzing, it’s a gift, because it’s so full of possibility.
Upcoming project: We’ll be performing my most recent trilogy—Limerence, First Attempt, and Eva Potranspiration/Cloud 9—at Danspace Project, March 26–28, and at Danceworks Studio Theatre in Milwaukee on July 17–18. Limerence is about the desire to get out of yourself and commune with something other, about longing to touch the face of God, whatever that means to you. In First Attempt, I sing a lot of David Bowie songs. And Eva Potranspiration features my daughter, Vivian, as kind of an action hero, a new Christ incarnate who’s out to save the planet.
Artistic director/choreographer, RIOULT
Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom
First days in the studio are always terrifying. You’re standing in front of an empty canvas. Everything is possible, but you know there is only one thing that’s right. My tactic is to go to work. Like a craftsman, I refine, discard, and go back. I keep pushing. You have to let it come. As the sculptor Michelangelo said, the sculpture is there, you just have to take away the matter that’s around it.
I believe creativity comes from a mix of chance and necessity. Sometimes nothing is coming, but if you follow your instinct, even if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, it’s going to make sense at some point. By chance you’re going to see something that will bring out what you weren’t even thinking of. And, as Balanchine said, the best inspiration is a deadline.
Current project: A full-length piece to Mozart’s Mass in C Minor for the Joyce season, April 14–19. The music is glorious. I will take the choreography that way myself: a joyful glorification of human nature.
Artistic director, Gesel Mason Performance Projects, Washington, DC
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
Being stuck is when the dance stops speaking to me, when I’ve lost the thread of what I’m trying to say. In order to find out why this is happening, I write, draw, or talk to people. I also like to take a break. Then you can come back with a fresh mind.
I use a lot of flowcharts. You know how the detectives on TV have a corkboard with pictures of the perps? I do something similar to that. I’ll write out note cards and shuffle them around. The dancers sometimes help me figure it out. When I know I’m on the right track, there’s an excitement that I have. If something is not right, it tends to be an emotional thing. When you’re in it, you can lose your objectivity. For me the writing, drawing, and talking to people opens my perspective.
Sometimes I’ll ask my technical director, Cheles Rhynes, What are you seeing? Sometimes I’ll ask random people about the project. Hearing myself talk helps me figure out if I’ve gotten off track.
With choreographer’s block, there’s an emptiness and disappointment. But I almost welcome it because while it’s really frustrating, I know that on the other side of that it gets interesting.
Upcoming project: For my new piece, Women, Sex, and Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t, I’m working on itty-bitty sections at a time. One of the improvisation sections was based on feeling free and open and secure—asking the question, What is sexy? It premieres in spring of 2010 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in Maryland, but I am including one section of it in my concert at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia April 3–4.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.