Lassoing the Moon: 3 Questions for Choreographers

July 19, 2007

Some choreographers have their own companies; some work on a freelance basis. Some are resident choreographers with a ballet company; others do some combination of the above. Dance Magazine sent a team of interviewers to pose
three questions
 to 15 choreographers: How do you begin making a dance? How do you use your dancers and what do they contribute to your choreography? How does your work connect to the larger world? These edited interviews represent a sampling of the wide array of the styles and approaches in contemporary choreography. However, one trend seems to emerge: Choreographers are depending on their dancers not only to interpret their ideas and visions, but also to collaborate in the creative process.

Moses Pendleton

Artistic director, Momix

Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

I take an athletic approach to creativity. A swim in an icy lake or a brisk morning walk through Oak Wood with a micro-cassette to record an impression or daydream. I draw a great deal from the natural world. It’s probably my agrarian past; I never lost that farmer aspect of being.

Dancers express their essence through their bodies. There’s an intelligence and a mystery there, a vestigial tale that needs to be told. I go into [the studio] with a kind of force field to help release the natural creative process. It’s wildly chaotic here, but we get results. When you’re having fun, work doesn’t seem so difficult.

The larger world is nature for me, including human nature. There’s form to nature that mirrors other forms. It’s a kind of meditation, for example, making contact with a line of an apple tree branch. Those connections give us a feeling that we’re not alone.

New work:
Lunar Sea
, based on all things lunar, tours Italy through early May and will be at The Joyce Theater, May 10-29.

Sara Pearson

Co-director, PearsonWidrig DanceTheater

Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

Where do I start? In the bathtub. In that place where the mind lets go. Hearing the snip of a song that short-circuits my brain. Like a moment of grace. Like R. Crumb’s meatball falling from the sky.

Sometimes I see something internally, a phrase or a complete solo. Then a dancer tries it and they fall over, and it’s the falling over that is the entry into the piece. Sometimes I have the sense of something waiting to be discovered, and [we] are like bloodhounds going after a scent.

In the early stages, we often improvise together to hone into each present moment. It’s about creating an atmosphere of both humor and work where everyone is focused on that same scent.

There is this attitude in America that modern dance is inaccessible. We [Patrik Widrig and I] feel it is as accessible as the Simpsons. We’re committed to doing work that opens this incredible world to people who don’t know it exists.

New work:
, a new dance/theater work, includes a lot of ice (!), March 16-20, The Duke on 42nd Street, NYC.

Joanna Haigood

Artistic director, Zaccho Dance Theatre

Interviewed by Rita Felciano

I inundate myself with the history and the stories of the place I am working in. I sit. I watch the light. I listen. I try to understand it in terms of its physical material. And then I put bodies into it. I’ll juxtapose them with some of those elements to negotiate the architecture or the natural forms. The people I work with have a strong skill base beyond the work they do with me; they are directors, writers, choreographers. So I usually listen to their suggestions. If the piece is really successful, the space itself gets charged enough so your relationship to it finds a new point of view. It becomes part of your memory system, part of this other layer of the way you perceive the world.

Next project: A piece about women and the war effort for the Red Oak Victory Ship, a World War II supply ship that is being restored by a group of men in their 70s. We are at war right now. This brings up a lot of questions in my mind.

Stephen Petronio

Artistic director, Petronio Dance Company

Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

I keep my eyes open—on the street, on television, in the movies, galleries. When I go in [the studio] that stuff comes with me. In the early days, I choreographed the steps before [working with the dancers]. After many years, I realized that the more I accessed my intuition the better my work became. We kind of play around in the studio. I’ll generally show something. Sometimes I’ll want it reproduced exactly. Sometimes I’ll just want to freak them out. Sometimes I’ll want a vague interpretation. Often what they give back is more interesting than what I’m thinking. In that way [the dance] is not built by any one person. It’s built by my direction on a community of people, a kind of assemblage of all the different consciousnesses in the room.

New Work: My company season at The Joyce Theater, March 22-27, includes the preview of a new work,
, created with the singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett

Principal guest choreographer, Carolina Ballet

Interviewed by Martha Ullman West

I have never done it the same way twice. I usually start with an idea and then I search for the music. Recently I’ve done a piece for Philadanco based on rap poetry and a piece for Carolina Ballet with the Red Clay Ramblers. The diversity keeps me moving forward. I’m very influenced by personalities and body types, maybe because I came out of Ailey, not ballet. I find myself influenced by passion more than technique and am drawn to the human being inside each dancer. I think of them as collaborators. I move in my own style to indicate what I want, but I leave a lot of space for personal interpretation.

I have always loved the Christopher Isherwood quote, “I am a camera, my eyes wide open.” Each piece is a snapshot of the world that I want to share. Dance in my life is only a means to an end. The end is telling stories of the heart.

Next project: A Disney project in Hong Kong

Matjash Mrozewski

Freelance Toronto-based choreographer

Interviewed by Paula Citron

I started to choreograph by illustrating a piece of music and knowing exactly where I was going. But because I like to push myself, I’ve latterly begun with a vague idea and without knowing all the answers. I’m increasingly involving the dancers as collaborators because it gives them a sense of ownership. When I have the luxury to experiment, I see myself as a choreographic director, drawing interesting material out of dancers. I don’t have a fixed choreographic process any more, but rather a set of tools that I use as time permits. Overall, it’s my job to strike emotional chords with the audience. Art can, and must, offer a window on life. My dances reflect the human condition, but it is the audience who connects me to the wider world by how they interpret my work.

Next project: A piece for Royal Swedish Ballet

Cathy Weis


Interviewed by Wendy Perron

When I’m horizontal, I dream up things and take them into the studio. I put different ideas next to each other, and maybe some mistake happens and I go, “Oh man, what is that?” I investigate what intuitively moves me without trying to understand it. I always have ideas from the previous work. Now I have a FileMaker database that allows me to track an idea and how it’s evolved in my past work.

Technology is such a part of our everyday life; it’s like breathing. We never stop to think about it. I use it [in performance] so that people can become aware of how they’re viewing things. Why do you look at a huge screen onstage when the live person is there? What makes us look at one thing or another?

Next project: “Look into the Past with Madame Xenogamy,” an installation at Dance Theater Workshop this spring. I’ll have a fortune-telling booth with a crystal ball (my video database). I’ll be able to conjure up dances from the ’80s by people like Bill T. Jones and Steve Paxton.

Yin Mei

Artistic director, Yin Mei Dance

Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Everything was chaotic. My family had a little radio. We called it an opera box, because this little box can sing opera. I would sit and stare at this radio; it became a magic window. It was a way for me to escape. Since I came to this country, my work has been about my memories. You see the everyday life, its purpose. There is another parallel life, beyond purpose. That place is almost timeless. In the mingling together, you have a dream or a memory. I start with little stories, little memories, a subtext for me. Movement comes later. My interest is in investigating my life and connecting that to the universal. I offer another voice, one that knows Chinese, Asian, and American cultures.

Most recent work:
Nomad: The River
, which invokes two fabled rivers—China’s Yellow River and the Ganges River

in India, will tour during 2005-06.

Kevin Tancharoen

Director/choreographer, music videos and live concert tours

Interviewed by Victoria Looseleaf

I sit down with a pad and pen, listen to the song, and start coming up with moves in my head. I see the picture as a whole. I never see it as just a dance. The choreography is there to help with the message the director is trying to portray. It’s my job to find the moves and match it.

The dancers make the choreography come to life by bringing their own flair. I treat a dance like a scene where they are characters. They shed some light that I might not have seen and take it to the next level by boosting the energy of the singer.

I couldn’t go any deeper than the actual lyrics of the song. That’s what I’m there for—to make the lyrics come alive through dance. At my age, 21, I still think I can only express my experiences up to now, and the stuff I’ve been trying to portray is people having fun.

Latest project: a DVD series, “The Jamm X Kids,” which features a superhero-like dance team, ages 8-15.


Trey McIntyre


Interviewed by Martha Ullman West

I come into the studio having done months of research that includes talking to designers, listening to music, collecting photos, twigs, memories, slices of fabric, ideas, arguments. Then, based on these materials, I begin to improvise movement. I’m collaborative with dancers, but not in terms of the actual vocabulary. I’m pretty exacting when it comes to the nitty-gritty. The collaboration comes with the exchange of personality and process. Who the person is and how their mind works, the things that block them from being the best they can possibly be—these things fascinate me. The process of working through them feeds the work. My hope is that if I do my job well, it will speak to a larger human experience.

Next project: a new summertime company of 10 dancers from Washington Ballet, Ballet Memphis, Oregon Ballet Theatre, LINES, and Twyla Tharp to tour festivals including Vail, Aspen, and Jacob’s Pillow.

Elizabeth Streb

Artistic director, Streb

Interviewed by Wendy Perron

I come up with a set of questions, like “Can you provide yourself with a completely frictionless surface?” I develop a prototype of the environment with my designers, then take it to a structural engineer, build it, and bring it in the studio and start developing vocabulary with the dancers.

The dancers provide more and more of the invention. In my brain I imagine it before I walk into the studio. They engage in reckless play; that’s what we get material from. I think of the dancers as method engineers and myself as an action architect.

Since we started Streb Laboratory for Action Mechanics, I want to make sure my ideas can get thrown back to the slop of the streets. Is it made up of verbs or is it just a bunch of nouns thrown together? I’m trying to create an iconography of recognizable moments that are deep enough to matter.

Next project: In ’06 we’re premiering
, which is a mix of action magic, Newton’s law, and quantum physics.

Ronald K. Brown

Artistic director, Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE

Interviewed by Charmaine Patricia Warren

First there’s an idea. Then images come that belong to the idea. Then, there is this collection of images that I have to research to understand the idea. That process takes a couple of years. Finally, I go into the studio to dance the image out. I tell the dancers that all we can witness is what you feel, what your body is going through, and the only people who can do that honestly are you.

I want the work to be called contemporary folklore because folk art and folklore are so dismissed in our culture. But folklore is where people learn how to treat each other; it’s where you see how people lived, the connection to life. So I hope that when people see the work, they leave feeling inspired to do whatever they have to do on their path.

Current touring: Memphis, Chattanooga, Chicago, Washington, D.C.

Maguy Marin

Artistic director, Compagnie Maguy Marin

Interviewed by Michael Seaver

In my experience, dancers feel that they are there to serve the choreographer. As time goes on I’m less satisfied with that type of relationship. The entire cast of
spent a long time working together on ideas. I could turn to them and include them in the decision-making, and they weren’t afraid to contradict me or say “That doesn’t work.” I think most of us are safely cocooned in our world, unaware of the pain and suffering in other parts of our society. In Umwelt I wanted to shake up that coziness. The piece presents images of war, love, consumption, work and so on. Some people in the audience were uncomfortable at the premiere, and there were a lot of walkouts! I know that most of us can’t stop the pain or injustice in the world, but a lot of us can do a little.

Next performance:
at Espace Albert Camus, Bron, France April 14–15.

Christopher Huggins

Freelance choreographer

Interviewed by Charmaine Patricia Warren

A lot of the works I’ve been commissioned have been closing numbers, and I don’t want to be pigeonholed into having to come up with incredibly high-energy pieces. If I’m given the music first, that drives me, and when I’m dealing with concert companies, I try to figure out what music would be best.

To engage dancers in a creative process, you need time. But every job I’ve done hasn’t had enough time. Sometimes I get only four hours a day for five days. So I go in the studio with my assistant and material already choreographed.

Sometimes the work doesn’t have a message. We should educate audiences as we put work on stage. But a lot of audiences just want to be entertained; they want to look at beautiful dancers moving in space. When I watch my work, I love that too.

Next project:
9 Ninas
, to a suite of Nina Simone, songs for Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, April 27–May 1, Newman Performing Arts Center, University of Denver                       

Bebe Miller

Choreographer and professor, Ohio State University

Interviewed by April Biggs

Dancers’ input has always been central. When my own physicality was the jumping off point, everyone worked silently on their own variation of a phrase. What has shifted is that it’s no longer silent or individual and there’s a lot more improvisation. I’m interested in working with dancers who are very different from each other, and I set in motion collisions between dance personalities. My new piece, Landing/Place, began with my return from Eritrea, North Africa, and thinking about the impact of being foreign in and to that environment. I had been working with people whose every gesture taught each other how to be good citizens. I came back to an opaque and mysterious post-modern dance, so I’m asking the question, “What is this about?” I bring all this outside information and it goes through the hopper, but I resist spelling out “This is what that means.”

Next project:
, September, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland