Is the Line Between Concert and Commercial Dance Finally Fading?

June 22, 2020

Dancer Stephanie Crousillat has had the kind of career that would make most artists swoon: She’s worked with choreographers like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Andrea Miller; performed in Sleep No More and on “Saturday Night Live”; been featured in a CoverGirl ad with Janelle Monáe; and danced in music videos for Paul McCartney, Alicia Keys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Most recently, she’s in the cast of the new West Side Story revival on Broadway.

But if you asked her to tell you what genre she works in, or what kind of dancer she is, she’d have trouble answering. “I don’t like the idea of limiting myself,” she says.

These days, it’s not uncommon to see artists like Crousillat dabbling in both concert and commercial projects, and working in a variety of mediums rather than confining themselves to one part of the dance world. With more crossover than ever, the line between the two once-distinct career paths feels increasingly blurred. Broadway shows now feature every style from hip hop to ballet to the work of contemporary choreographers like Sonya Tayeh and Camille A. Brown. In Los Angeles, still considered the hub of the commercial world, concert dancers seem in higher demand. Take, for instance, the wave of music artists hiring modern and contemporary dancers for their videos, whether it’s Justin Peck creating a video for The National; Florence Welch collaborating with Akram Khan; or Damien Jalet’s choreography for Thom Yorke’s short film, ANIMA.

But why is this happening now, and what does it mean for the dance world as a whole?

A couple decades ago, there might have been stigmas around a concert dancer taking a commercial job, or vice versa. “I feel like the dance world thinks that concert is uptight and they’re elitist, and the commercial world is like the cool, underground, hip-hop, ‘We know the street’ thing,” says Denna Thomsen, who co-founded with Zak Ryan Schlegel the cross-genre dance collective CONGRESS in Los Angeles, which brings together dancers from different backgrounds.

In the past, the two career paths felt clearly separated by inherent differences. A concert dancer would most likely train in a conservatory from an early age with the goal of joining a full-time company, their work mostly encompassing traditional ballet and modern styles. A commercial dancer’s movement might be largely dominated by hip-hop and street styles, and their goal would be to find an agent and work gig to gig.

The increasing overlap between concert and commercial today might partly have to do with dance having a cultural “moment” in general. “Dance is just exploding. Everybody’s doing musical projects,” says Julie McDonald, co-owner of McDonald/Selznick Associates talent agency in Los Angeles. She credits the success of Disney’s High School Musical franchise, starting in 2006, with kicking off a new generation of musical lovers.

Today, the rise of live TV musicals, shows like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and films like La La Land all provide jobs for dancers, and could entice concert dancers who are struggling to make a living. “Dancers all need to work, and they all want more exposure,” McDonald says. “Where are you going to get more exposure: in film or television, or onstage in a small company?”

A woman in a white tunic and white body paint grabs her face, with heavy eyes.
Denna Thomsen in Fergie’s “Love Is Pain” music video

Courtesy Thomsen

Crousillat also traces the trend back to the popularity of “So You Think You Can Dance,” which brought the art form to a huge audience that might never have seen a live performance. “It kind of started this exposure to what dance culture is like, or at least competition-dance culture,” she says. The show exposed viewers to the emotional impact movement can have, and placed a wide variety of styles on the same stage, whether it was the abstract physicality of a contemporary piece, the precision of an animation dancer or a classic musical theater tap number.

McDonald adds that with dance’s popularity growing so too might directors’ likelihood of considering it an important element of their projects. “I think there is more knowledge about dance than there ever has been before, and directors and producers are becoming more discerning,” she says. “My favorite thing that happened all last year was getting a call from Quentin Tarantino’s office specifically asking for Toni Basil to choreograph Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.”

With increasing dance literacy, directors and music artists have become more likely to actively seek out choreographers like Monica Bill Barnes or Wayne McGregor, who can give their project a particular look, and also to request dancers who are the best fit rather than resorting only to names they already know.

As more crossover collaborations take place, there’s increased recognition for what each side of the industry can offer. “I didn’t appreciate the commercial industry like I do now,” says Jodie Gates, vice dean and artistic director of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

Originally from a ballet background, Gates sees the commercial industry with fresh eyes since founding the school five years ago. “We have a lot to learn from American social-dance practices. We have a lot to learn about pop culture,” she says.

She cites skills, like improvisation, that can help concert dancers stand out in a wider variety of projects, and says the commercial industry can also help dancers think outside the box about the kinds of projects they could potentially lend their skills to. (Ryan Heffington, for example, was integral to the film Baby Driver, and his work included choreographing automobile and action sequences.)

These days, both concert and commercial projects are looking for a broader skill set, and schools are training dancers to be more versatile than ever. “The students graduating from USC Kaufman are able to audition for almost anything—if they’re asked to dance on pointe, if they’re asked to dance in sneakers. Are they working with house music, are they working with a classical quartet? I think that’s what makes you marketable,” Gates says.

Black and white photo of two dancers moving close together but not touching in an empty warehouse-like room.
Stephanie Crousillat and Yeman Brown in a music video for Mumford & Sons

David Knight, Courtesy Sacks & Co

Crousillat says the skills she’s learned from theatrical productions have helped her stand out at commercial auditions. After her stint in Sleep No More, she found herself landing more commercial jobs. “Being able to bring that cinematic, live performance experience to those kinds of auditions gave me a new confidence,” she says, “and it was attractive to people who were casting.”

It’s not only a one-way stream of concert dancers seeking commercial work. Several years ago, after landing a dream job dancing with a major pop artist for the Super Bowl, Thomsen found herself feeling less fulfilled than she’d expected to.

“I didn’t feel that I was the artist—I was put in the background to be this showy diamond that made someone else look good,” she says. She found herself growing more interested in concert dance, where the dancer could be seen as a primary artist.

These days, as the mainstream interest in dance grows, more commercial projects are celebrating dance in its own right. Where music videos might once have mainly featured backup dancers, now dance is often the main narrative device. Keone and Mari Madrid have starred alone in multiple Justin Bieber videos. Last year, Crousillat performed in the video for Mumford & Sons’ song “Woman,” with Yeman Brown, who dances with Reggie Wilson and in Broadway’s Jagged Little Pill. “None of the musicians are in the music video. It’s just me and my partner dancing and expressing ourselves,” she says.

The real question might be how necessary it is to draw distinctions between concert and commercial at all. “I never think that anyone should put themselves in a box,” says Thomsen. “You can have your passion, where your heart lies, but it’s always good to reach out into different worlds and pull something that you love, to bring it back into your little box. That’s how you create your own artistry.”