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."
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.