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
Health & Body

When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.

Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.

He shared six of his top tips for getting into top shape.

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No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.

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When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.

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Last summer's off-Broadway run of Be More Chill. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Keith Sherman & Associates

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Courtesy Siberian Swan

As ballet's gender roles grow increasingly blurred, more men than ever are reaching new heights: the tips of their toes.

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The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.

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Via Facebook

Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."

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Health & Body
Unsplash

You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.

What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.

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Rachel Papo

Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.

Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.

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Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.

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Samantha Sturm shared an outtake from a photo shoot. Photo by Ronnie Nelson via Sturm

If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.

Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)

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Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.

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Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.

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Dance Training
Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Dancers Trending
Photos via Polunin's Instagram

If you follow Sergei Polunin on Instagram, you've probably noticed that lately something has been...off.

Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:

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Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
Pat Boguslawski

If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.

Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA

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Dance History
Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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