Dance Training

Your Guide to Dancing Experimental Work for the First Time

Bill Hebert, Courtesy Francesca Harper

If you were asked to create a dance with a vacuum cleaner, what would you do? That's the task University of Michigan professor Amy Chavasse gave her college students during the creative process for her work, Swimming the English Channel. "One student did a raunchy, hilarious solo with the vacuum, and ended singing The Beatles' 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' " recalls Chavasse.

Though some dancers take to it immediately, for many, their first encounter with experimental work is awkward or even terrifying. An open mind can help dancers embrace the unfamiliar.

Three women are in brightly colored costumes that look like streetwear. One holds a vaccum with a long extension, and seems to be sucking another dancer's hair with the vaccum. That dancer is walking away from the woman with the vaccum, with the third dancer walking beside and upstage of her

Chavasse's Swimming the English Channel

Tom Smith, Courtesy Chavasse

When You're Preparing

Students heading to college or a contemporary summer program who have yet to experience an experimental process should get used to improvisation beforehand, as many choreographers develop work this way. "Spend even just half an hour to feel something new, talk to your­self, make sounds, get to an unfiltered place," Chavasse says. She also encourages students to have real life adventures outside of dance. Go social dancing, travel to new places or allow yourself to get lost. "Dancers need something that nudges them that is not in the dance world," says Chavasse. "This helps them navigate unusual situations in the studio."

If you know you will be working with a specific choreographer, view their work live or online to prepare. Look into the history of experimental dance to gain perspective on the boundary-pushing lineage. If the work calls for vocal exploration, choreog­rapher Francesca Harper—also a trained singer and actress—says that taking voice and acting lessons can be profoundly beneficial. "Just try, so you can develop an awareness of what your voice means within your body," she says.

Four dancers wearing futuristic white costumes on a darkly lit stage. Some have lights strapped across their foreheads. A woman is most brightly lit and furthest downstage; she reaches forward as if touching something invisible in front of her face.

Harper's The Freedom Series

Bill Hebert, Courtesy Harper

When You're in the Room

As ironic as it sounds, even experimental dance contains common tropes, including dancers vocalizing and using props, and extended moments of stillness or repetition. When investigating these new elements, choreographer Netta Yerushalmy says dancers should give themselves permission. "Permission to be ugly, permission to not know, permission to be wrong," she says. "Experimental choreographers want to have conversations, so be okay with feeling silly and asking questions!"

Yerushalmy suggests approaching stillness as an active task, becoming aware of breath, thoughts, light and other people. Finding stillness is also integral to the improvisational process. "I pause when I'm not feeling connected, and I give myself time to process," says Harper.

Three women wearing brightly colored costumes that look like streetwear; one holds a vaccuum with a long extension and seems to be sucking the hair of one of the other dancers. It's a similar moment to the above photo, but seen from a different angle so we can see the front of the other two dancers.

Chavasse's Swimming the English Channel

Tom Smith, Courtesy Chavasse

When using unusual props—like a vacuum cleaner—Chavasse recommends keeping an open mind. "Try not to know what these things are for or what the outcome should be," she says. "Let your willingness to stumble around be part of the process."

Harper recalls a turning point in her career as a dancer with Ballett Frankfurt. "William Forsythe once asked me to wear a microphone and improvise to the sound of my own breath onstage," she says. After embracing the chance to experiment with an unfamiliar task, Harper was quickly promoted to principal dancer. "Accept the unknown as the starting point," she says.

Dance on Broadway
Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.

Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Lindsay Thomas

Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.

So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?

Keep reading... Show less
Simon Soong, Courtesy DDT

When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.

Keep reading... Show less
Alice Pennefather, Courtesy ROH

You ever just wish that Kenneth MacMillan's iconic production of Romeo and Juliet could have a beautiful love child with the 1968 film starring Olivia Hussey? (No, not Baz Luhrmann's version. We are purists here.)

Wish granted: Today, the trailer for a new film called Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words was released, featuring MacMillan's choreography and with what looks like all the cinematic glamour we could ever dream of:

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox