Dancer Voices

What This DM Editor Learned From Choreographing on ABT Dancers

Kelsey Grills in rehearsal for ABT Incubator. Photo by JJ Geiger, courtesy ABT Incubator.

"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.

ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.



Auditioning for a panel of pros

I don't think I've ever been at an audition where the panel seemed genuinely happy to be there. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

At the audition, David came into the room where I waited anxiously with the seven other selected choreographers and gave us the warmest welcome. One by one we performed a short excerpt of our work and spoke to the panel, including Jessica Lang, Lar Lubovich, Judy Hussie-Taylor and Kevin McKenzie, about our inspiration and goals for the workshop. I don't think I've ever seen a panel so genuinely happy to be there—a testament, I quickly learned, to ABT's welcoming company culture.

I couldn't have asked for a more relaxed, inviting and open environment. Even though I was invited to the second round based on video footage sent in, I wasn't sure how they would react in person to my movement. But I made a promise to myself to be authentic to the work I intended to create—which wasn't exactly ballet.

I applied to ABT Incubator because I had a choreographic itch I hadn't been able to scratch. A friend introduced me to Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, and it resonated with me on a level so profound I knew the only way I would be able to grapple with it fully would be to explore it through movement. I was specifically interested in the theme of re-education presented in the play: how people are constantly remembering and reconstructing important moments in their lives.

Entering the unknown

It was important for me to let my dancers know their thoughts and opinions were valued in the creative process. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

I've spent the past five years alone in the dance studios of New York City choreographing on myself. In that time I've had a lot of internal conversations, exploring my own body and the ways that feel the most natural for me to move. So when given a group of ABT dancers—Erica Lall, Kiely Groenewegen, Luis Ribagorda and Virginia Lensi—to choreograph on, it felt like a bit of a culture shock.

My process is collaborative, a culmination of task-based exercises I've collected from working with other dancemakers that I feel most authentically generate movement. I wrote quotes from Eurydice on note cards and asked the dancers to interpret them; some chose to develop abstract phrases while other took a more literal approach. Later on, I asked them to write a letter to someone they love and someone they can't love (something Orpheus does for Eurydice throughout Ruhl's play), then asked them to interpret one through movement. At first, these tasks seemed foreign to them. But throughout the entire process we kept a dialogue going and went into each rehearsal with an open mind. They all expressed early on in the workshop that they weren't used to working collaboratively. But they were excited about the opportunity to bring their own ideas to rehearsal.

Every day, I brought Eurydice, The Sentient Archive (a wonderful collection of essays on bodies, performance and memory) and Florence Welch's Useless Magic (just for fun) and encouraged the dancers to refer back to those books if they ever felt removed from the work we were doing. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked to take the books home.

Pushing through self-doubt

I went into this process with the intention of bringing out the humanity in dance. Photo of Erica Lall by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

Gabrielle Lamb (the other freelance choreographer invited to the program) and I were at a bit of a disadvantage from the beginning because we had to spend half of the two week workshop getting to know our dancers and their movement styles. The other three choreographers were ABT dancers (Duncan Lyle, Sung Woo Han and James Whiteside) creating on people they knew well.

Halfway through the process, I started doubting myself. Was I using the dancers to their fullest potential? Were they being challenged? After a panicked call to fellow dancer/choreographer Rena Butler, I was reminded of what David had said from the very beginning: The purpose of this program is to explore and question. The exchange is between myself and my dancers, and how we can learn from one another. The viewers at the end of this would only be there to witness that exchange.

Finding a groove

Photo of Kiely Groenewegen in rehearsal by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

After I let go of that doubt, things seemed to really click for us in rehearsal, and I started to feel like it truly was a collaboration of ideas. The dancers were excited more and more each day, and eager to reconstruct the movement in different ways based on the task at hand. When I finally gave them choreography, they approached it with humanity, which was my goal from the beginning.

I was also being wildly inspired by the resources that David and the ABT Incubator team provided. I took class with the company each morning and attended events that they arranged for us, like a rehearsal of Sasha Waltz & Guests at BAM, a performance from Lucinda Childs and a tour of Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done at MoMA.

Reaching a vision

David Hallberg and Kelsey Grills at the ABT Incubator showing. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

At the end of the workshop we had a showing where each choreographer presented their work to an intimate audience that included donors, ABT staff and noted choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky and Okwui Okpokwasili. Though it felt like the other choreographers' work was presented with a sense of completion, I went into this process with no intention of creating a fully-realized piece.

After each piece David invited the choreographer onto the floor to speak about their experience. He opened our conversation by asking, "How vulnerable do you feel right now?" To which I replied, "Well, this is a very accomplished group of people I'm looking at."

The biggest takeaway for me from this entire experience was my dancers. They invested themselves fearlessly in the whole process—as a choreographer, what more could you ask for? You want to be able to ask the artists you are working with to push themselves and go beyond what they think they can give, but that can only happen when it's a safe and open environment. Ultimately, that synergy is the only way I can be completely open as well.

The Conversation
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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."

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
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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
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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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