Dance-making With the Pros
2015 Bridge Project choreographer Coleman Pester's The Architecture of Being. Photo by Tim Summers, Courtesy Velocity.
When Alice Gosti graduated from the University of Washington, she knew she wanted to be a choreographer. So, fresh out of college, she started a company with three of her peers. But Gosti had trouble breaking into Seattle’s dance scene. Though she successfully self-produced shows and took her company on tour to Italy, she found that each step—from finding performance venues to structuring rehearsals—was much more complicated than she’d imagined it would be.
It wasn’t until she participated in Velocity Dance Center’s Bridge Project, a month-long mentorship that culminates in a fully produced performance, that she found the structure and feedback she’d been missing. “In college, you take for granted that you have beautiful studios and are part of a system,” she says. Velocity gave her the stability and time she needed to find her artistic voice.
College and other advanced training programs teach aspiring choreographers invaluable composition skills. But many artists feel lost when it’s time to shape their talents into a career. Participating in a choreographic mentorship program gives them a chance to have professionals look at their work, while learning about marketing, grant writing and the other foundational skills they need to successfully navigate the industry.
Who They're For
Mentorship programs run through major dance studios are usually reserved for green choreographers. Participants might be recent college graduates or established professional dancers who are considering a second career. Choreographers’ needs usually fall into one of two categories, says Lizz Roman, a mentor in ODC’s Pilot Program: those who want help learning how to self-produce and those who could use a refresher course in composition.
Most mentorships require an application consisting of a project proposal, resume and application fee. Once accepted, programs typically last one to three months, closing with a concert or informal showing. Tuition tends to be minimal because the schools subsidize the cost. At the Dance Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aMaSSiT participants pay $90 for the three-months, which includes eight hours of studio time for personal rehearsals; ODC’s 11-week Pilot Program costs $100 and artists can book studio space at a 50 percent discount. The groups are usually small, with around 5–12 artists, and choreographers are expected to devote 10–15 hours per week to meetings and rehearsals. Participants may have access to dancers from the affiliated school, but sometimes must find their own.
More Than Comp 101
One of the greatest draws of these programs is the abundance of feedback from mentors and fellow participants. At the Dance Complex, choreographers meet with the program’s four mentors—last year’s included Brian Feigenbaum, Dance Complex executive director Peter DiMuro, and Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance—every other Sunday night to explore a choreographic concept through lectures and exercises. Then they show their works-in-progress, giving and receiving feedback from their leaders and peers. “Having multiple mentors allowed me to hear about the many different ways to look at my own work,” says choreographer Colleen Walsh, who participated in the program last year. “Outside of those meetings, there’s kind of an open door policy. You can e-mail the mentors and invite them into your rehearsals as needed.”
These programs are designed to challenge choreographers mentally and creatively. “The question that my mentors Tonya Lockyer and Amy O’Neal had for me was whether I was going far enough, pushing the boundaries I was interested in, or if I was being a little safe,” says Gosti. “It’s hard to hear. But it’s something that I still think of: Am I too comfortable in what I’m creating?”
Mentorship programs also teach artists how to manage the business side of dance. During ODC’s Pilot Program, participants attend meetings with ODC School director Kimi Okada to learn how to produce a show by putting together their end-of-program performance, from marketing to organization. In fact, the whole experience is as much about learning the ins and outs of being a choreographer as it is about choreography itself. Roman remembers one artist who called her late one night wanting to fire one of his dancers. After a conversation about how to respectfully handle the situation, he ended up working things out.
For Gosti, the Bridge Project was a chance to test out her choreography and her directorial skill set before launching into bigger projects. “I had established a strong language with the three dancers in my company, but I had no idea if I was able to translate it to an audience. The Bridge Project was the perfect format to see if my ideas could relate.” By the end, she had gained knowledge, plus a renewed confidence in her work. “It became so much more clear what my intent as an artist is.”
Build A Network
In addition to the immediate benefits—knowledge of the business, good dancemaking skills and a polished piece—mentorship programs help choreographers make valuable connections. Not only do participants build relationships with established artists, but they meet peers who are working toward similar goals. And sometimes their work is seen by an affiliated dance presenter. For instance, after Alice Gosti completed Velocity Dance Center’s Bridge Project, she was invited to join its Made in Seattle program, which commissions works by choreographers. Her success in that led to current role as Velocity’s Artist in Residence.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.