Make 'Em Laugh: How Top Choreographers Find Their Funny
At one performance of David Parker's Nut/Cracked in 2005, three-quarters of his audience walked out prematurely. But the same moment that caused the offense—a duet between two men with their thumbs in each other's mouths—earned Parker hearty laughs from the remaining crowd, and eventually an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Humor is subjective, and it can be tough to get right. Though there are many moments of brilliant comedy in dance, there are also so many failed attempts that, well, it's not even funny. There's no exact formula for grabbing a laugh. But experimenting with these ingredients can help you tap into your funny.
Trying to manufacture funny moments is a classic pitfall for choreographers, says Parker, whose troupe is called The Bang Group. Instead, discover ways to connect with the human emotions of the audience. "I started giving my dancers tasks that are nearly impossible, and therefore inevitably clumsy." Think: trying to tap clearly while falling down. "It awakens empathy, surprise or exasperation in an audience," he says. These genuine reactions tend to elicit laughter more than forced humor.
In 2014, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago joined forces with The Second City comedy troupe to create a collaborative showcase of theater and dance. "We learned that improv comedy isn't so different from what we do—both forms have to come from a really honest place, from the heart," says Robyn Mineko Williams, one of the creators of The Art of Falling, the resulting evening-length production. Taking cues from Second City's method, Williams says they just played a lot. "I learned the importance of patience and experimenting from Second City, and that their funniest work is actually inspired from honest, mundane and even dark real-life situations."
Timing Is Everything
Holds, stops or stillness can punctuate humorous moments, according to Napoleon and Tabitha D'umo, the choreographic duo known as Nappytabs. They recall "So You Think You Can Dance" winner Fik-Shun doing this: "He took this funny approach to a hip isolation that reminded you of a girl, and then he just froze and opened his mouth for a beat, like 'Ha,' " says Napoleon. "The audience had time to be like 'Oh, did he just do that?' " Extend a funny moment by creating a definitive break in the action, then play with how long you remain still—does it get funnier the longer you hold it?
Parker sometimes works without music, which he feels can allow for a more intimate connection with the people in the theater. "There's a more flexible exchange of energy between the dancers and the audience," he says. "The audience reacts and the dancers can actually adjust their timing to play off that reaction."
Kill Your Darlings
"As a choreographer, you're responsible for making the material funny before the dancer gets into it," says Tabitha. But every choreographer makes missteps. "We've realized our work is funnier if it's super-subtle," says Napoleon. "We tried to do big humor in a performance where someone's pants got pulled down. It was just awkward!" Williams thinks the dance world could take inspiration from improv comedy on this score. "In Second City's process, they're very used to trying out a scene in a show, and if it doesn't work, they just take it out. It's no big deal." She contrasts that with choreographers, who try to think everything through before a piece goes onstage—a setup that could lead to overworking humor. Workshop your piece with friends, colleagues or informal showing groups. Attempt more and keep less.
Nappytabs like to find funny ways of contrasting the vibe or lyrics of a song with a completely opposite tone in the dancer's movement. Maybe it's a typical dad dancing down the street to a hardcore song, and he really thinks he's getting down. Parker likes to mash up things that don't seem to go together at all—like a man in a suit jacket, bare legs and pointe shoes, trying to master the use of the lower half of his body. "It just takes a subtle shift in perception, or a sudden recognition of incongruity," he says. "When you take two disparate things and juxtapose them in one phrase, it makes people giddy."
Stick the Role, Without the Shtick
Not trying to be funny is the first rule of performing humorous work. This is probably where the mystery starts for many dancers. Williams explains: "We built a scene where one dancer was a coat hanger, another was a computer screen and a third was a mirror, and we had to be honest to the task." It would usually land someplace funnier than the dancer intended.
Though the audience probably knows when to expect a humorous performance, that doesn't mean you should ham it up. "The trick is actually to play it straight. Remember that the material is funny, and if you do what's required of you with great material, you'll get laughs without being campy," says Clinton Luckett, assistant artistic director and longtime ballet master at American Ballet Theatre.
There's no substitute for natural comedy instincts, but talented dancers can be coached. "A hammy performance can be scaled back, and a reserved performer can be coaxed to exaggerate and broaden their range," says Luckett. "Sometimes it's a matter of pushing past their autoresponse of wanting to be pretty and getting them to be okay with looking silly, slouchy and turned-in. Dancers have a fine awareness of timing and musicality, too, so you can identify places where doing the step quicker or holding something for longer creates a comedic moment."
In rehearsal, you won't have a laugh track, but this is the place to experiment. "At times, we deliberately lampoon what we're doing—daring each other to go too far—as a kind of research," says Parker. "But if the moment is funny, it can almost certainly be played honestly in rehearsal without an audience. Believe in the essence of what you're doing, whether funny or not." And once you have the movement, trust it, says Napoleon. "If you're killing it, the audience will respond."
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:
The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.
"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.
Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.
With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.
Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie
via Bloch Inc.
Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.
When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.