Why Don't Concert Dance Productions Have Preview Periods?
Compare the gestation of new works across the performing arts and you'll find an ingredient mostly missing in concert dance that's occasionally used in opera and relatively common with plays and musical theater: the preview period. Ranging from a few days to, in the case of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a record-breaking 182 performances, previews provide extra time for fine-tuning shows after tech and dress rehearsals but before critics can review. (Previews are open to the general public, often at discounted prices.)
"Previews let you see things you might not catch during tech," says choreographer Camille A. Brown. It may not be clear without an audience that a transition needs to happen more gradually, or that a sight gag needs a specific lighting cue to land. "It's nice to have the opportunity before you've finalized the show to find out whether people will actually laugh at your jokes," she says.
Brown experienced previews when she choreographed the Broadway production of Once On This Island.
Joan Marcus, Courtesy Brown
Why Doesn't Dance Have Previews?
Money is a factor. But even a few extra zeroes wouldn't necessarily change the creative process for concert work, where priorities tend to revolve around giving an idea its fullest expression, not how it will be received by an audience.
Considering the regularity with which choreographers direct their own work, there isn't the separation of powers that defines the development of new musicals, whose creative teams meet after previews. "In theater, you have so many more cooks in the kitchen," says Paul Vasterling, artistic director of Nashville Ballet. "In dance, there are far fewer opinions in the mix."
A Different Kind of Preview
"Because we don't really have preview periods in dance, we have to make them up ourselves," says Vasterling, who solicits advice from colleagues outside the dance world. He asked filmmaker Cari Ann Shim Sham for help with the plot of Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux. "Cari Ann could say, 'That really doesn't work. Why would that character do that?' I needed someone who could ask the hard questions."
He has also learned to start full-costume runs in the studio, so tech and dress rehearsals can focus on staging decisions requiring a crew. "It's frustrating when you see a piece in the studio and can really connect with the movement, then you see how it's going to be presented onstage and you think, Oh, god, it's like someone's thrown a blanket over it."
Preview periods barely apply to those who subsist through touring—whose works must be reimagined anew for each venue—or those whose development periods are spread out in time and space. At Bates Dance Festival, director Shoshona Currier says a piece may arrive having been workshopped over the course of four residencies at different incubators. "It all adds up to a preview period of sorts, but it's happening over a year and change," Currier says. Then there are the requirements of each residency, like working with a dramaturg or academic, or teaching classes in the community. "That can be supportive, but also hindering for an artist."
Nora chipaumire has developed work at Bates Dance Festival.
Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Bates
A Blessing in Disguise
Given the significant financial investment in musicals, there may be forces demanding the chances of failure be minimized. Is it possible, then, that choreographers are protected from the deadening effects of "creativity by committee" and test marketing? "You run the risk of overworking, to the point that all the rawness is gone," says Brown. "My goal is to make the story clear, but that doesn't mean the rawness has to go away."
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.