Zachary Whittenburg spent ten years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He has presented choreography in Chicago and Canada and taught ballet and improvisation. Formerly manager of communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, he now serves as communications and engagement director at Arts Alliance Illinois and serves on the board of Chicago Dance History Project and as an advisor at High Concept Labs.
She may not be the first choreographer to claim that movement is her first language, but when Crystal Pite says it, it's no caveat: She's as effective and nuanced a communicator as the writers who often inspire her dances.
Her globally popular Emergence, for instance, was provoked in part by science writer Steven Johnson's hypotheses; The Tempest Replica refracts and reimagines Shakespeare. Recently, her reading list includes essays by fellow Canadian Robert Bringhurst, likewise driven by a ravenous, wide-ranging curiosity.
In late March, The Joyce Theater's annual gala performance included a last-minute substitution: Blueprint, by choreographer Pam Tanowitz. The trio took the place of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, after two Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were unable to secure visas to appear onstage in the U.S.
"It was a shock," says Linda Shelton, executive director at The Joyce Theater. "In all 25 of my years here, I think we'd only been turned down once before. That was ages ago and we already had a feeling that dancer wouldn't be approved anyway, because of an issue with their passport. This was just a big, big surprise."
Crystal Pite is a busy woman.
While her company, Kidd Pivot, toured the globe recently performing Betroffenheit—its acclaimed collaboration with Jonathon Young and fellow Canadians Electric Company Theatre—Pite herself launched three productions at three of the world's foremost dance companies: Nederlands Dans Theater (The Statement, February 2016), the Paris Opéra Ballet (The Seasons' Canon, fall 2016), and London's Royal Ballet (Flight Pattern, spring 2017).
The inaugural choreographer in residence at Chicago's Harris Theater for Music and Dance has a lot of stretching to do. In the first year of his three-year tenure, Brian Brooks has worked with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's main company and pre-professional dancers; advanced students from the Chicago Academy for the Arts; with street percussionists The Chicago Bucket Boys; his own New York City–based ensemble; and teachers from Chicago Public Schools. Next up is Miami City Ballet, which premieres the Harris Theater–commissioned One Line Drawn February 9–11, March 2–4 and March 17–18.
You've gone back and forth to Miami a few times now. How much time have you had on this project?
We did most of the work over the summer, plus two other short periods: one in January and one the week of the premiere. We're mostly finished, but I'm still editing, clarifying, shaping.
Brooks leads rehearsal at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB
Having spent most of the past 15 years in Chicago, I can confidently say that Elevate Chicago Dance was the most comprehensive celebration of the city's dance scene this century. A dozen events packed 10 venues for three full days, featuring the work of more than 150 performers, representing nearly 40 locally-based dance artists and organizations. Nearly all were recipients of Lab Artist Awards from Chicago Dancemakers Forum, or had been selected to participate in a Regional Dance Development Initiative that CDF and the New England Foundation for the Arts launched in partnership in 2015.
It was an occasion to recognize how vibrant and diverse Chicago's contemporary dance community is today, spurred in large part by CDF's Lab Artist Program, which awards to up to six dancemakers $15,000 each and will mark its 15th anniversary later this year. (Choreographers can apply now through February 6.)
At a hip-hop event in Dakar, Senegal, Onye Ozuzu, dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College Chicago, noticed a move that looked familiar.
"I had just come from seeing Don Campbell at a festival in Colorado, where he was talking about locking and the way people used to point at each other," she says. "At this b-boy battle in Dakar, I remember watching the points happen, but they were all loose in the wrists. The dancers weren't pointing at anything specific. I remember thinking, Oh, that's what happens when you learn something off of YouTube."
As early as 2001, hard-core dance fanatics with digital-media skills—not exactly a huge group of people—could swap rare dance videos using peer-to-peer sites like Kazaa. But it was four years later on Valentine's Day that www.youtube.com went live, and a vast repository of hidden dance history began circulating worldwide.
Densely dimensional, unpredictable, strangely graceful and wild, Alice Klock's dances are like elegant ribbons caught in hopelessly tangled knots. In 2018, she'll choreograph more works than she did the year before, extending a trajectory that's continued throughout her still-brief career.
Patron saint of queer quirk and founder of Los Angeles studio The Sweat Spot, Ryan Heffington first made headlines three years ago as the choreographer of "Chandelier," a music video for Sia starring Maddie Ziegler with a combined view count of more than 1.5 billion. Last year, Heffington both broadened his range and reinforced his brand, contributing to the frankly sexual short film for "Worship" by U.K. pop trio Years & Years, collaborating with director Spike Jonze and dancer-actress Margaret Qualley on a cinematic short to launch KENZO's World perfume, and reuniting with Sia and Ziegler for "The Greatest" featuring Kendrick Lamar.
But the most effective vehicle for his idiosyncratic creative voice so far might be the polarizing Netflix series The OA. Heffington's compulsive tendencies to choreograph facial expressions and give discrete actions priority over cohesive phrasing are well-suited to screen actors without much dance experience. Whether the show's second season includes as much dance as its first remains to be seen; either way, chances are good that Heffington himself will remain busy.
It isn't every day—or year, or even decade—that a dedicated choreography incubator opens its doors. As founding executive/artistic director at the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, Christy Bolingbroke says, "I have an opportunity to locate dance in a research and development environment, and reinforce the fact that what a choreographer does is not all that different from a scientist in a laboratory."
The first executive director in New York City Ballet's history is also the executive director of its home, the David H. Koch Theater. Which means Katherine E. Brown oversees a 141-person staff and an annual budget of about $90 million.
Under her leadership, NYCB has never been more accessible. It consistently puts out shareable videos and snapshots of the company's work to an online audience of more than a million, while partnerships with mainstream brands like Puma bring its otherworldly artists down to Earth.
"It's important we communicate how the company is forward-thinking, doing interesting things out there in the world, not just cloistered away at the theater," says Brown. "I'd like to think we're removing some of the obstacles people feel in accessing this art form, without affecting in any negative way the artistic vision of the company."
Chief of program and pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Q: How has your role evolved since joining YBCA five years ago?
"I bring a social practice ethic to performance. You could call me the architect of a program that connects communities to the work that we present."
From dancers to presenters to directors, no one in dance is exempt from the task of building an audience. But keeping up with email, social media and other marketing efforts can chip away at precious time spent honing your craft. Add in the fear of coming across as vain or self-absorbed, and it can be hard to know how to begin.
Ever dream of having one of your dance videos go viral online? The experience may not be all that you expect. Four dance artists reflect on their sudden fame after their videos became online sensations:
Kirk Henning is a company member at Richmond Ballet. You've seen Henning and his groomsmen dancing for fellow company member Valerie Tellmann-Henning as a surprise at their wedding reception.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Built to last, Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Hard Nut returns December 10–18 for its 25th anniversary engagement, in the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As gleefully irreverent as it is visually poetic and musically sensitive, Morris’ interpretation of The Nutcracker features, among its many memorable moments, gender-queer snowflakes and a Christmas party with no food, only alcohol.
Mark Morris and Amber Star in a performance of The Hard Nut. PC Stephanie Berger, Courtesy MMDG.
The Hard Nut premiered toward the end of your time in Brussels, as director of dance at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. Did you always intend to keep it going somehow, to bring it back with you to the United States?
First of all, it’s lasted for 25 years because it’s very, very good. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t dances which have lasted forever, which are terrible. But no. When I left Brussels I didn’t know I would receive all of the physical properties for The Hard Nut, but we got an incredible deal to keep all those sets and costumes.
The Hard Nut conjures many distinctly American pop-cultural images, like soft-serve ice cream cones, Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes. Did those visual ideas come primarily from Charles Burns, the cartoonist, or from you, or…
It came from everyone. I sent everything—the music, the wonderful E.T.A. Hoffmann book upon which it’s based—to the whole team: costume designer Marty Pakledinaz, set designer Adrianne Lobel, lighting designer James F. Ingalls, and Charles. All of us together created this world. I can’t really say which ideas belonged to whom.
You’ve said the desire to choreograph The Nutcracker goes back to when you were a teenager. Is there a production which for you was particularly inspiring?
Balanchine’s is very good, even though the first act is kind of boring. People will kill me for saying that. My favorite is probably The Nutcracker Suite—it’s not the full Nutcracker—from Disney’s Fantasia. It’s such incredible choreography, the animation is unbelievable, I love the musicality and just the imagination of it all. It’s miraculously good.
Many of the dramatic roles are closely tied to specific artists, perhaps most of all Kraig Patterson as the Housekeeper. Has it been difficult to recast any roles, or to watch certain artists retire them?
I’m not overly sentimental in that way. I don’t “see the ghosts of Christmas past” when I watch the piece. There’s a difference between history and nostalgia.
Children sing in the chorus for The Hard Nut, but you don’t use them onstage. Did you get any pushback on that decision?
No. I do what I want, and I did not want to work with children.
You’ve performed so often in The Hard Nut yourself. What’s that like?
Because I work with such extraordinary dancers, and because the music is so wonderful and so alive, it’s always very surprising and fun. I’m all about living audiences paying attention and watching living performers. That’s what I love. It’s also exhausting, of course, especially since I’m so old now. [Laughs]
It takes an extraordinary amount of cooperation between a lot of people, and a lot of alignment of politics and forces, for a production like The Hard Nut to become a reality. Did you—
Right. It couldn’t be done today.
—did you have that sense in Brussels, of a limited window of opportunity?
I always think that. I did a big production this fall that opened at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Layla and Majnun, and that requires an enormous amount of trust in me, and responsibility on my part. Once something’s opened and it’s been successful, everybody wants it, but the danger, the gamble—and the interesting part—is supporting something new. Speaking of which: I have to go now, and I’m stopping my timer to let you know that we spoke for 39 minutes and 16 seconds, not just 10 minutes. Put that in.
When Rashaun Mitchell danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he yearned for an alternative to the isolation he felt onstage. “Many times, the experience as a performer in a theater was lonely," says Mitchell. “The lights are blinding. You look out into the blackness and don't see anyone's face. The show ends, and you go back to your hotel." The works Mitchell now creates and performs in collaboration with Silas Riener are frequently site-specific, offering an entirely different experience. Audiences are often integrated into the performance, and dancers rely on their instincts to navigate constantly changing environments.
Although site-specific works can be invigorating in their intimacy, dancers need to be prepared for the unique challenges they present. From performing in the elements to interacting with audiences who don't behave the way you'd expect, site-specific work requires a fresh mind-set and a different kind of flexibility than performing onstage.
Imagine that each body part that comes in contact with the floor is a foot, says teacher Ami Shulman. Jubal Battisti, Courtesy Shulman
Four tips to help you master floorwork.
As humans, we take pride in walking upright, on two legs. But as dancers, we need to feel equally comfortable off our feet, in that slippery space between standing up and lying down. Today, dancers of all kinds are expected to be fluent in the language of floorwork, however disorienting, intimidating or painful it may be. Often, success lies in figuring out what not to do; the dancer’s instinct to try harder or apply more effort may only hinder you. When you’re on the floor, less is more.
Forget About What It Looks Like
“In so many techniques, we think of dance as being shape-based, as opposed to being about moving your body through space,” says Sarah Chien, founder of Floor Friends, a network of dancers and teachers who gather in New York City to take workshops and classes. “In floorwork, you’re not going to find the answers by copying the shapes. What you need to be asking yourself is, ‘How can my body be accomplishing the task at hand?’ and not, ‘How can I make my body look like the teacher’s?’ ” If you are working in a studio with mirrors, try to ignore them.
Work on Flexibility in the In-Between Places
“It’s not what we think of in terms of balletic flexibility, or flexibility as high extension,” says David Dorfman, artistic director of David Dorfman Dance and chair of the dance department at Connecticut College. To roll smoothly and comfortably between positions on the floor requires many small, specific joints to be flexible, not just in extending away from the body’s core, but in folding toward it. “Folding is essential to floorwork,” echoes Ami Shulman, a contemporary dance instructor who has taught throughout Europe and North America. “You have to know where the joints are, and how they work. It’s important to learn how to make yourself small without holding tension. To sit on your knees and shins, for example, the calf muscles and quadriceps need to relax and spread.”
To gain flexibility in the joints, find a stretching position, like a lunge, and make circular movements around the joint being stretched, starting as small as possible, then gradually spiraling outward. This will help make more pathways along the floor available to you.
David Dorfman Dance. Adam Campos, Courtesy Dorfman
Use Imagery to Inform the Quality of Your Dancing
We spend so much time standing and dancing upright that those habits of coordination are hard to break. Try using your imagination to get through the challenge of making peace with the floor. “Sometimes I’ll use the image of a beach,” says Dorfman, “to encourage the idea that you’re able to fall, as if onto sand. Or the image of falling backward into a pool of water. You have to grow able to transfer those sorts of feelings into the studio environment.” Another trick is to temporarily think of whichever part of your body is in contact with the floor—even if it’s actually your hand, shoulder or hip—as a foot. “This has the power to rewire your intuition,” says Shulman. “I like to think of the floor as a partner,” adds Dorfman.
Learn Other Forms of Movement
Chien and Dorfman both suggest experimenting with dancerly martial arts, such as aikido, capoeira and qigong. If you’re attracted to the daring, athletic movement seen in parkour videos, for example, or in performances by South Korea’s Bereishit Dance Company, look for classes in the Flying Low and Passing Through techniques of Venezuelan dancer David Zambrano, which are becoming popular at festivals like ImPulsTanz. Shulman also recommends researching Bartenieff Fundamentals and the Feldenkrais Method, which can help you understand your preferred movement patterns. From there, you can expand your possibilities and find more choices. “Habits aren’t necessarily bad,” she clarifies, “but they are preferences, which you can override if they’re holding you back.” Break dancing, circus arts and gymnastics could also help you unlock gravity. “It sounds corny to say that floorwork is ‘a way of life,’ ” says Chien, “but it is definitely a paradigm for relating to the world, to other people and to the space around you.”
Ignore the mirrors and explore how it feels, says Sarah Chien. Tess Deselle, Courtesy Chien
Don’t Muscle Your Way Through It
There are no shortcuts in floorwork. Unlike most steps on your feet, not everything can be slowed down when you’re working against gravity. At the same time, pushing yourself to complete the sequence faster won’t always work, either. It takes concentration and a lot of patience to tap into the kinesthetic feedback offered by the floor, and you need to organize your body and mind to make sure you don’t skip any steps.
When practicing a floor phrase, try assigning each action a number. Say that number out loud only once you’ve completed the action, and then move on to the next movement in the phrase. This will help you avoid combining or overlapping pieces that should happen on their own. David Dorfman suggests thinking of the energy and execution of floorwork as a chain reaction, or like dominoes falling one by one.
“Sequential movement patterning will distribute your weight properly,” says Ami Shulman. “Taking shortcuts is not efficient—you’re engaging unnecessary muscular effort. That will make your movement on the floor extremely labored, and you will not be able to use the floor to rest.”
Tip: Wear long sleeves and pants so you can slide and support weight with other body parts, like your shoulders, elbows, shins and back.
The mechanics of arts administration have historically stayed outside the studio, with dancers responsible for doing the dancing, and little else. “There was a massive separation between 'church and state,' so to speak," says Uri Sands, choreographer and co-artistic director at TU Dance in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
But today, small dance companies seem less likely to lean on traditional nonprofit staffers and instead offer dancers secondary administrative roles. This creates opportunities for professional development, while giving dancers a greater sense of ownership in the company and full-time salaries as an incentive to stick around. Plus, companies get to keep the payroll small, and spend less time scheduling rehearsals around the dancers' third-party employers.
But are there hidden costs in turning dancers—some with little or no experience behind a desk—into staff members? “To some degree," says Sands. “With this generation, I think to straddle those worlds is much easier. Keyboard skills, for example: In 1980, that was something that needed to be taught, but, today, even 6-year-olds have them. Certain things we just don't have to supplement, training-wise."
Dance studios and world-renowned theaters are sometimes characterized as “ivory towers,” where serious artists do serious work, far away from the hoi polloi. Even within the field, certain dance figures and pieces can suddenly fall out of fashion. Nevertheless, we found 11 professionals willing to defend their guilty pleasures and pop-cultural obsessions—on the record.
The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy The Book of Mormon.
“Turn It Off,” from The Book of Mormon, is one of the more brilliant tap numbers I’ve ever seen—so fun, so well constructed, so filled with irony and wit, and there’s a costume change built in!
If you’ve studied concert dance, there’s often the belief that to work in popular entertainment is to negate that education. Earlier in my career, I might’ve taken being called “accessible” as a criticism, but now I find it’s flattering to think that I might be able to help people become dance fans. I recently went to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World, and there was a 20-minute revue based on the Bette Midler movie Hocus Pocus. It was cheesy, certainly, but honestly? It was really well done! The dancing was spectacular.
I also have a real weakness for watching Justin Bieber dance. He’s such a natural. It looks effortless. —Larry Keigwin, choreographer
Richard Simmons inspires me.
—Kelly Anderson, artistic director, Kelly Anderson Dance Theatre
Photo by Adam Taylor, Courtesy ABC.
I’m a “Dancing with the Stars” superfan. I even follow my favorites on Instagram.
—Jessica Deahr, artistic director, Chicago Dance Crash
I love a good syllabus meeting. All 20-plus faculty members sit in a circle, on chairs, and it only takes two minutes for the shoes to come off, and I’m demonstrating the “perfect” sur-le-cou-de-pied, three times with my foot, and several more times with my hands. We’re all big on port de bras, épaulement and pas de cheval. And do not get me started on proper placement of the thumb. What I love is that we are all “right,” which can prompt some pointed discussions—which continue for weeks.
—Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and director, Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Spice Girls. Photo by Eric Mutrie.
It’s hard to have “guilty pleasures” when I’m very proud of mine: the boy bands and girl groups of the late ’90s and early 2000s. *NSYNC and the Spice Girls were major sources of dance inspiration. I taped their performances, and taught myself their choreography. Their impact on me as a dancer, even today, is undeniable, and I’ve found myself less and less embarrassed by my teenage fascination with pop icons. When dance is prevalent in pop culture, that’s worth celebrating, so I say: “Thank you, *NSYNC, and thank you, Spice Girls.”
—James Whiteside, principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Houston performing "Saving All My Love for You." Photo courtesy HBO.
Years ago, I told my students at Northwestern University that it was foolish, or passé, or not “serious art,” if they choreographed to music with lyrics. Then I became so entranced with pop from the ’80s and ’90s, those incredibly catchy songs, that I used it for my own work, which of course made me a hypocrite. I consider my piece Sharks Before Drowning, which included music by Whitney Houston, a kind of breakthrough for me, because I let myself love what I loved.
I’ve also fantasized about being a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
—Molly Shanahan, artistic director, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say I think Ludwig Minkus is a highly effective dance composer. Is his music great? No. Is it profound? Not at all. But a lot of choreographers will tell you that “great” music is not always the best music to choreograph to. Minkus is great second-rate music. It’s catchy, often washed with local color—I especially love the fandango from Don Quixote—and it practically begs to be danced to.
—Marina Harss, dance critic
I’ve cried watching videos of flash mobs. Music starts, one person starts doing something, all alone, and the other people are thinking, What is that weirdo doing? Then another person joins, and then a third, and a fourth, and everyone gradually becomes aware of what’s happening. It’s often a combination of older and younger people, people of color, business types and people in sweatshirts, and look: They’re all dancing together! It expands into an almost utopian moment, a fleeting glimpse at something shared and serendipitous which, inevitably, ends just as soon as it began.
London's "Dance the Dream" flash mob. Photo by Jenna Lee, courtesy Dance the Dream.
Flash mobs were of course quickly co-opted, and used to spread the most commercial choreographic dreck. But even the worst flash mobs carry within them some connection to that idealism. When I’m in a horrible place like Penn Station, I often find myself wishing—hoping—Please, let a flash mob start happening right now.
—Sydney Skybetter, choreographer and arts management consultant
My kids first tried to get me to watch “Dance Moms“ three years ago. Of course I refused at first. Then I lost a bet, agreed to watch an episode and, right away, I was hooked. Abby Lee Miller says things to parents and students that dance teachers can only dream of saying.
—Winifred Haun, artistic director, Winifred Haun & Dancers
Jeremy McQueen found an unexpected path to the Met stage.
McQueen (right, with partner) in Ratmansky's choreography for Aida. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy McQueen.
For some dancers, the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily performing with a particular company, but on a certain stage. “I always wanted to dance at Lincoln Center,” says Jeremy McQueen. “As a kid, I would record ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ and ‘Great Performances’ on PBS and watch the tapes over and over again. But it’s not easy to get to Lincoln Center if you’re not with a company like New York City Ballet, or Ailey, or ABT.”
So, while in college, McQueen, now 29, researched alternate routes to the famous venue. One that grabbed his attention was the Metropolitan Opera. “I looked at the roster of who the Met brings in to choreograph. Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky—all these people whose work I admire and I thought, How awesome would it be to get to dance that?”
For the next five years, McQueen went to open auditions at the Met, which draw hundreds of hopefuls, and he would often make it to the final round. He was successfully booking other work, like the national tours of Wicked and The Color Purple, but his Met Opera dream eluded him until 2013, when he became a cover for Die Fledermaus’ 14 performances. He loved performing its Broadway jazz-inspired dance scenes by Stephen Mear, packed with pirouettes and tricky combinations of jumps.
That first job led to others: In the fall, he was hired as a dancer in Ratmansky’s five-minute, Egyptian-flavored contemporary ballet in Aida; for roles including a dancing clown in the vaudeville-like Les Contes d’Hoffmann; and as a cover for Ben Wright’s earthy peasant and elegant court dances in Don Giovanni. He says of working for the Met, “We danced, but we weren’t the primary focus, for sure.”
Just like its performance calendar, the Met’s rehearsal schedule changes each day, with multiple productions being practiced in different rooms throughout the building from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Staging an existing production only calls for a few dozen hours of dance rehearsals, sprinkled over a couple weeks. Long breaks can land in the middle of the afternoon, which gave McQueen, who also choreographs, time to update his website, work on his press kit and prepare for teaching jobs. He teaches ballet to high-school students in New York through American Ballet Theatre’s education and outreach initiatives, as well as at studios in the tri-state area. “Where I am in my career right now,” he explains, “I want to establish myself as a young choreographer and an educator, and the Met allowed me that flexibility.”
It also boosted his finances. Rehearsals pay a flat hourly rate for single-role performers and covers, who understudy multiple roles. Covers only make less than single-role performers if they don’t go on during a given show. Since Met dancers are part-time, they do not receive health and dental benefits, but a daily morning ballet class is open to all artists with contracts, regardless of whether their operas are being rehearsed that day or not—a big perk for a freelance dancer. Another advantage is membership in AGMA, the performers’ union.
Although McQueen was not cast in any operas this season, he hopes to use his experience at the Met to his advantage as he tries to get other opera gigs at Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera. For now, he is continuing to freelance as he choreographs a ballet about Nelson Mandela called MADIBA. “Perhaps one day I could even choreograph for opera companies,” he says. “That’s the ultimate dream.”
But his Met experience gave him an opportunity to check something off his bucket list. One of his performances of Les Contes d’Hoffmann was broadcast live from the Met. Among the thousands watching in movie theaters around the world was McQueen’s mother in his hometown of San Diego. “I was one of the first people you saw on screen at the top of the broadcast,” he says. “She told me she screamed.”
The concept-oriented choreographer meets her architectural match.
Takao Komaru, courtesy Lang.
Architects, studios and artists from more than 30 countries will attend the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. One of its highest-profile commissions, however, involves two artists who work just a short subway ride away from each other in New York City. Tesseracts of Time, by choreographer Jessica Lang and architect Steven Holl, will premiere on November 6, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as part of the Biennial, which runs through January 3.
Were you familiar with Steven’s work before this commission?
Steven is building the new Queens Library at Hunters Point, right next to my company’s offices. I was attracted to the building before knowing he designed it, and that led me to learn more about him. So his name coming up for this commission felt like a wink—like it was supposed to happen.
His sense of light is consistently inventive and poetic, like yours.
Light is one of the subjects that came to the forefront right away, along with this founding thought of Steven’s, that architecture exists under, in, on, and over the ground. That led to this piece being in four sections, based on those concepts, while reflecting his musical ideas and composers he enjoys: John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and David Lang. Steven is my subject, so to speak—I’ve been diving into his world to bring it into mine.
Jessica Lang Dance in Lines Cubed. Photo by Sharen Bradford, courtesy Lang.
What about dance interests him?
One of our first conversations was about the time and length of our careers. We discussed how, if a dancer is lucky, they work until they’re 40. He explained that his first commission came when he was 50. I make a dance in three weeks. His start-to-finish can take eight years. That continues into size, shape, budget, everything else. To make a building and to make a dance are very different things.
And one is permanent, one is not.
Now, tesseracts are “impossible” shapes—they exist only in theoretical geometry.
That’s right. Square is to cube as cube is to tesseract—they’re incredible forms.
How are you and Steven referencing them?
He created models of them, which he recorded on video, moving the camera to guide us through them. We’re putting dancers in front of projections of that video to make the “in” section; the models will look huge because he shot them up close. For the “on” section, those same tesseracts we were just “in”—three of them, 12 to 16 feet tall—are on the stage as set elements, which get raised up for the “over” section, so the dancers are “under” them. It comes around, full circle.
Will Tesseracts of Time go on tour?
Yes. I put that limitation on Steven right away. It had to be tourable, and so now, in addition to Chicago Architecture Biennial and Harris Theater, it’s co-commissioned by the Joyce Theater Foundation as well as the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, where he’s building an expansion to the Museum of Fine Arts. Everywhere that Steven is, or will be, can be an opportunity for us to perform.
Does that mean China?
It’s been discussed. Steven has an office in Beijing. That would be a first for my company.
Arts-management guru Michael M. Kaiser talks about today's online competition for audiences, dance's lack of diversity and why risk-taking is the only way for companies to thrive.
Kaiser recently consulted for Pennsylvania Ballet, which led to a new business plan and new leadership. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy PAB.
Michael M. Kaiser has rightly earned the nickname “The Turnaround King" for his repeated success bringing stability to arts companies on the verge of disaster. Overseeing everything from contract negotiations, to PR and marketing, to how money gets raised (and spent), he has led a laundry list of esteemed organizations, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre and the Kennedy Center.
Now, as founder and chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Kaiser is raising serious questions for the industry. In his latest book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, Kaiser explains why major changes in consumer habits, education, funding and technology mean that what used to be considered “a safe bet" for performing arts companies is now suicidal.
How deeply in denial would you say people in the arts are?
It's a broad range. There are people who actively disagree with me for good, sound reasons—artists who see the internet as a way of reaching more people, who find that new models are working for them. But there are others who simply aren't paying attention. The notion that our budgets can grow 3, 4, 5 percent a year, that the money will be there—I think people are starting to realize that's not a safe assumption anymore. My fear is not so much that organizations aren't recognizing the issues, but in how they're dealing with them. In particular, too many boards feel the way you deal with financial problems is to do less, go safer, cut back, be less visible—and that's a recipe for disaster. Some organizations have “circled the wagons" and survived, however, my concern is with their longterm futures. Can they thrive as competition from online suppliers grows?
One might say that industries in denial are more depressing than hard truths.
That's how I feel. People think I'm a pessimist, but I'm actually an optimist. I believe arts organizations can thrive in difficult economic and social climates. But it requires thinking carefully about the nature of their work, and about who their competitors are, which have changed because of technology.
If one is a regional opera company and thinks that just by doing safe productions of La Bohème, you're going to be okay, the truth is that a lot of your potential audience is going to be buying astonishing performances of that work from the greatest companies, with the greatest singers, online for a fraction of what you're charging for tickets.
Although, what many people enjoy about dance—whether they realize it or not—is the kinesthetic response effect. Does that protect dance from these disruptions?
Maybe to some degree. All the performing arts are better enjoyed live than through recordings. The question is about the amount of demand, and the willingness of people to pay what are becoming extremely high prices. One of the protections dance has is that ticket prices are, on average, much less expensive.
Part of that equation is the fact that dance artists are typically underpaid.
Way underpaid. But in a funny sense—and I'm not saying it's a good thing—it does protect the industry a bit. The differential in price is not so great, whereas in opera, let's say, a center orchestra seat at the Met now is 300 dollars, versus 25 dollars to watch the same opera in a movie theater or 5 dollars on your computer. [Editor's note: Premium orchestra seats at the Met for ABT performances cost about half as much as they do for Met operas.]
Will we continue to see a shift toward shorter-term, project-based contracts for professional dancers?
It is a new trend, and a lot of younger artists are choosing not to participate in institutions. I think that's fantastic from a creativity and flexibility standpoint. My concern is that you have to re-create a group of funders every time. Whereas the institutional model, handled well, creates a family of funders who stay with that institution.
Had major organizations been more proactive in embracing artists and audiences of color, would they be better-positioned for survival today?
Absolutely. But it takes an organization-wide commitment. I see a lot of companies pay lip service to diversity without really embracing the concept. Addressing those issues means more than hiring one dancer of color, having one board member of color, or doing one work by an artist of color—that's not a commitment to diversity.
I threw out a line on Twitter asking for questions for you. Tim Cynova, deputy director at Fractured Atlas, said that we hear a lot about your turnaround successes, but he's curious what you consider to be your “most epic failure."
[Laughs] It's a long story, from October 1985, about my first performances with the Kansas City Ballet, where I completely messed up the marketing, and we had the lowest ticket sales in the history of the company.
What did you learn?
I learned that a marketing program needs to have substantial weight in order to attract ticket buyers. Even if it's clever, you can't do a little campaign and think that it'll convince people.
Risk emerged for me in your book as a kind of fulcrum on which so many things hinge—not just financially, but also in terms of the creative process. Can you tell us what you've learned about risk throughout your career?
It's tricky because, on the one hand, art-making is risk-taking, and the best art is the riskiest art. Putting an idea out there that's something new, something fresh, something exciting—that implies risk, because that can fail. One really wants to encourage risk-taking by artists. On the other hand, you want to minimize risk as much as possible about everything else. For me, it's always been a balancing act. And also: How do you budget for failure? Many arts organizations make the mistake, especially regarding ticket sales, of assuming that everything's going to be a success. In the arts, not everything is going to be a success, nor should it be—nor, frankly, do you want it to be. That means you're playing it too safe.