Career Advice

Master The Tricky Art of Collaborating With Designers & Composers

David Neumann's I Understand Everything Better. Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy Neumann

Collaboration is a curious thing. For choreographers, it can open their practice to another set of eyes. It can allow their work to exist in a larger way. It can add serious heft to the final artistic product, with a signature all of its own.

But: There's an art to working in close communion with another artist, whether they're a designer or a composer. At the heart of the process is developing a rapport where each collaborator feels a sense of freedom within a set of given limits, where each understands what the other needs. Getting to that point takes some back and forth, trial and error, and several stabs in the dark.


Working With a Set Designer

Mimi Lien designed a cloud of trash bags for David Neumann's I Understand Everything Better. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Neumann

Should I have a specific idea? Mimi Lien says that sometimes, choreographers come to her with a strong visual design idea, such as Jessica Lang, who had a vision of string trees for The Wanderer before she had an ounce of movement. Lang needed Lien's expertise in figuring out everything from the composition and materials to cost and flammability. "In that case, my job is to deal with materials. I have to flesh it out," she says. Other times, the process is much more elusive. For David Neumann's I Understand Everything Better, Lien had to pay attention to any impulses she had about physical objects that might share the space with the performers. The result? A whimsical cloud of translucent trash bags

What does a set designer need to know? What Lien wants to know first is the genesis of the dance. "Where is it coming from?" she asks. "Whether it's abstract or personal, I need to know why are you making this piece."

How early should I hire a set designer? If something needs to be built, the work needs to start several months before the performance. Lien gets her idea generator going by watching rehearsals. Then she'll make a physical model. "I find digital models can be misleading," she says. The ideal situation is to have a residency that involves the set. "Residencies are when the dancers physically integrate the set into the piece, and it can be fully realized."

What if my budget is tiny? Of course, the budget needs to be discussed, but Lien doesn't want money concerns to enter the discussion right away. "I want my mind to be free, and let myself feel what the piece needs and then scale it to the budget."

Working With a Costume Designer

Liz Prince dressed the dancers of Bill T. Jones' Analogy/Lance: Pretty aka The Escape artists. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy Prince

What does a costume designer need from me? Abstract dance can be the most intimidating to dress, says Bessie Award–winning designer Liz Prince, whose costumes have dressed Liz Gerring's analytical Horizon, the fragile universe of Jane Comfort's Underground River, and the street style of Bill T. Jones' A Letter to My Nephew. "With such a clean, open slate, a designer can feel overwhelmed," she says. "I need a jumping-off point, something to riff off of to get us started." That could be a scrap of text or images that convey a mood.

How do we figure out what will work best? Prince finds that bringing garments into rehearsals is a great way to spark ideas. "We need to figure out if pants or a dress will work. I bring a lot of stuff to try," she says. She finds that can work better than a sketch for choreographers with limited time and budget. "The dancers need to feel comfortable, and we need to see how it looks on their bodies," says Prince. "We have to consider what the garment is saying on multiple layers." Function also matters: the costume needs to be danceable, washable and durable, especially if it needs to last on a long tour.

What if my budget is tiny? If money is a concern, Prince uses a limited color palette and texture to make up for pricier options, she says. Yet she warns against a too-beautiful costume, which can suck up all the attention onstage. "Color can also get in the way. It can't be about the costume."

Working With a Lighting Designer

Christina Giannelli designed the lighting for Christopher Bruce's Hush. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

What does a lighting designer need from me? Choreographers should give lighting designers as much info as possible about a piece, says former Houston Ballet lighting director Christina Giannelli, who's working with companies like Acosta Danza and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre this season. She wants access to all the clues, whether it's a movement idea, an image that a choreographer has shared with their dancers or a particular feeling. "Let the designer in on the process," she says. "Don't keep it a secret." Giannelli even finds the idiosyncratic names that contemporary choreographers give their phrases revealing.

Should I have a specific idea? Giannelli doesn't mind when a choreographer requests a particular lighting effect, but she'll ask about the motivation behind it. Part of her job is to find out how to work best within each choreographer's communication style. With Ben Stevenson, she rarely heard from him, unless something wasn't right, and then he would be very specific. For Trey McIntyre, his poetic, descriptive language helped immensely in forming her plan. She doesn't discount anything a choreographer says: "When Jorma Elo talked about revealing and hiding, I created an isolated, floating-in-space stage."

Working With a Composer

The So Percussion Group performing David Lang's So-Called Laws of Nature. Photo courtesy Lang

Why should I hire a composer? Music can both support a choreographer's vision and add its own statement. "My job is to react to something, to figure it out through music, to heighten the emotional narrative, to deepen it, push or provide a counterpoint to the dance," says Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang, who has created work for Benjamin Millepied, Susan Marshall and Pam Tanowitz, to name a few.

What does a composer need from me? To be useful, a composer needs space. State what you need, describe the emotional feeling over the arc of the piece, then let them be artists. But every relationship with a choreographer is different, says Lang: "Some want you to react to them, some want to react to you, some want the music and dance to coexist but not explicitly notice each other."

Should I choreograph the dance first? Lang generally doesn't want to see the dance before he writes the music. "Then it's like the dance is telling the music what to do, and that makes it harder for me to make the music have its own logic," he says. He finds that it works better to write a lot of music, perhaps more than needed, then go back and forth with the choreographer. "If I write an hour of music and the choreographer chooses the 20 minutes he or she likes best, then we both can be happy," Lang says.

What if I want changes to the score? Lang will try to make revisions if necessary, but hopes he doesn't have to. "Choreographers are used to working with music that already exists, and somehow they manage to figure out what to love. What makes that old, found music so powerful is that it is complete—it goes from start to finish musically, with a logic and commitment that makes us listen. I want my music for dance to have that same kind of logic. I hope that choreographers will treat me just like every other dead composer."

The Conversation
Spotlight
James Alsop has choreographed for stars from Beyoncé to Janelle Monae. Photo via Facebook

Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.

Enough! www.youtube.com

We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
A very important name got skipped in the introductions.

I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!

We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Albert Watson, courtesy of Pirelli Calendar

We were beyond excited to see the annual Pirelli Calendar when it was announced last summer that Misty Copeland was to be one of four women featured in the 2019 edition. And now, the wait is finally over.

Albert Watson, courtesy of Pirelli Calendar.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Julia Roberts is one of 12 celebs Justin Peck choreographed on. Photo by Philip Montgomery, Courtesy NYT Mag.

Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.

Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Clockwise from top left: Crystal Pite, photo by Michael Slobodian; Lourdes Lopez, photo by Alexander Iziliaev; Michael Trusnovec, photo via Instagram; Ronald K. Brown, photo by Julieta Cervantes

Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Even a 10-minute nap can give you a performance boost. Photo by Getty Images

On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."

With her earbuds tuned to a guided medi­tation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."

Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.

As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choos­ing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam

On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)

The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Precious Adams is not cast as Odette/Odile, but is the face of ENB's marketing campaign. Screenshot via English National Ballet's website

Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.

But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Amy Seiwert rehearses Sacramento Ballet. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.

Keep reading... Show less
News
RUBBERBANDance Group in Victor Quijada's Vraiment doucement. Photo by Mathieu Doyon, Courtesy Danse Danse

We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Yuri Possokhov at work on his new Nutcracker for Atlanta Ballet. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Shelby Colona and Chris Bloom in CARMEN.maquia. PC Christopher Duggan

Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.

Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Sending a video audition gives you more control over the process. Photo by ShareGrid via Unsplash

Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Dance classes will be a part of a movement towards "social prescribing." Photo by Leon Liu via Unsplash

It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.

But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
LINES dancer Courtney Henry. Photo by Quinn Wharton

We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.

But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.

A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I'm really upset with myself for bingeing. I'm good with my diet for a few days, but then I give in and stuff myself with pizza and ice cream and am filled with self-hate.

—Binge Eater, White Plains, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Magazine Awards
Misty Copeland opened the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.

Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."

That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Snow Scene in Val Caniparoli's The Nutcracker for Louisville Ballet. Photography by Wade Bell

Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.

It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.

"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Juliet Doherty looking out from the Radio City Music Hall stage

A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.

The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Jessica Lang Dance in Lang's Thousand Yard Stare. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:

Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."

Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.

Keep reading... Show less

You Might Also Like

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Giveaways