Choose Your Next Move: Choreographic Workshops
Jorma Elo with Ballet BC dancer Darren Devaney. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Christoph von Riedemann remembers feeling anxious when he walked into a studio with Jorma Elo. Then a student, it was his first Ballet BC Choreographic Workshop, and he was nervous about working with an artist of Elo’s stature. But many workshops later, von Riedemann—now a Ballet BC company member and an aspiring choreographer—found diving in headfirst with each new artist made him more open-minded. “I learned as much about how to be a dancer in the choreographic process as I did about the choreographic process itself.”
Choreography workshops can help you play with the tools of dancemaking and try out new ways of moving in a supportive environment. Whether you’re looking to work with new choreographers, learn a different style or take the first step towards movement creation, they allow dancers to tap their creativity and deepen their artistic development.
Inside the Choreographic Process
For Emily Molnar, artistic director of Ballet BC, the idea of hosting a series of workshops sprung from the need to provide young, classically-trained advanced dancers with a way to network and gain exposure to choreographers. The goal of Ballet BC’s Choreographic Workshop, held about five times a year, is twofold: to help young dancers not only learn how to approach and get a diverse perspective of choreography, but to also “build the confidence to experiment, trust and take the risks needed to get their own ideas out,” says Molnar.
The one-and-a-half- to two-hour workshops are led by a variety of international artists such as Elo and Molnar herself. For von Riedemann, the short format forced him to pick things up quickly and absorb as much as possible. In addition, the workshops provided a “window into the beginning,” he says, “because the start of a dance is always a challenge for me when I’m making movement.” The participants, advanced professional students and dancers, experience the various stages of a choreographer’s process: improvisation, collaboration, composition and learning repertoire or new phrase work.
During Helen Pickett’s Choreographic Essentials workshops, held intermittently in Atlanta and New York City, participants construct a dance in a collaborative environment and have a showing on the sixth day. In addition to daily ballet class, Pickett, Atlanta Ballet’s choreographer in residence and a former Ballet Frankfurt dancer, teaches a Forsythe Improvisation Technologies class, which offers hands-on tools for creating movements through an improv practice. The workshop includes three-hour guided choreography sessions and empowerment lectures about ethics in the field. “How do you find success?” Pickett asks on the workshop’s first day. “If you want to become a realized artist, you have to look for inspiration.”
In addition to teaching choreographic building blocks, these workshops develop skills dancers can use in the rehearsal studio. “Today’s choreographers do not always say exactly what they want something to look like,” says Molnar. “You need the most fluent facility to be able to express those big ideas.” Indeed, today’s dancers can now expect improvisation and collaboration to be the rule when a new work is being created on their company.
Robert Sher-Machherndl, artistic director of Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet, says he leads weeklong choreographic workshops around the globe to help advanced students and young professionals find “new ways to move and break down barriers.” During the workshop, students collaborate with Sher-Machherndl on new choreography and take his own form of composition class called “the uggi class,” in which dancers move nonstop and improvise with his guidance. While it’s based in ballet technique, he says, “really anything goes.”
Alexandra Hutt, a BFA candidate at The Juilliard School, signed up for Sher-Machherndl’s workshop not only to stay in shape over the winter break, but to challenge herself both physically and mentally. “To me, that meant working in depth with a choreographer who would bring new ideas, images, suggestions, movement quality and energy into the studio.” She found her experience to be both practical and inspirational, learning skills that she now uses to survive and thrive during long days in the studio. But more importantly, she says, “I have a new way of thinking about dance as an art form.”
Yasmine Mahmoudi, a freelance dancer in New York City, took Pickett’s workshop twice. Interested in meeting the demands of the choreographers who employ her and expanding her creativity, she gained tools to think, and therefore dance, more efficiently. While Pickett stresses the importance of not shying away from technique, Mahmoudi also believes the Choreographic Essentials workshop helped her learn something very important about herself as an artist. “I discovered that I was someone creative, able to work with other dancer-choreographers to create something beautiful, meaningful and very powerful.”
Get Your Work Onstage
You’re making dances in the studio…now what? Samuel Asher Kunzman, a student at the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, applied to the Young Choreographer’s Festival in New York City as he became more serious about his choreography. The festival’s selection committee chooses approximately 10 young artists to present their work each June. YCF also provides them with mentoring; video and photo samples; private classes; and talk-backs on funding, press kits and approaching presenters. Two months of mentoring and at least one hour of free rehearsal space are made available prior to the show, and choreographers may use their own dancers or seek YCF’s resources. Alumni have gone on to be commissioned by bigger festivals and dance companies.
Kunzman cites his mentor, Pascal Rekoert, and the many contacts he made during the festival, as his biggest takeaway. “I now have so many wonderful people rooting for me and willing to help me succeed,” says Kunzman.