Managing the Mid-Career: What Happens After "Emerging"

November 16, 2020

For choreographers, leaving the “emerging” status comes with its own set of ups and downs. Luck, location and access to gatekeepers all factor into how the doors of opportunity open to arrive in that elusive middle place known as “mid-career.” Whether one works a decade to get there or is catapulted there after a quick emergence, there’s no one way to occupy this space. Dance Magazine spoke with three choreographers about what helped them move beyond the “emerging” category, and what life and work is like in mid-career.

Christopher K. Morgan: Building on Local Support

Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Morgan

Now celebrating his 10th year at the helm of his company, Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, and three running legendary hub The Dance Place, Christopher K. Morgan, 45, feels in a solid place in his hometown Washington, DC, dance community.

He put in his time as dancer with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Kevin Wynn, Shapiro & Smith Dance, Selfish Shellfish (Germany) and David Gordon, and earned his choreographic footing as CityDance’s choreographer in residence and rehearsal director from 2007 to 2011.

After CityDance’s professional company closed, he struck out on his own in a city that already knew and appreciated his work. Flash-forward a decade and it’s clear he made the right choice. Making smart administrative decisions proved strategic, yet he sees the mid-career status related to two things: “I had a body of work with specific themes around identity, which revealed my evolving voice, and funding.”

Access to resources from the National Performance Network Creation and Development Fund (2014) and the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project award (2015) allowed him to up his production values. “Instead of meeting with the lighting designer the week of a show, I could bring him in early on in the process,” says Morgan. “I was able to work with all of my collaborators more fully and more deeply realize my work.”

For Morgan, the deepening of his choreography proved a meaningful marker. Although it was not the first dance sourcing his Hawaiian identity, Pōhaku (2016) proved a threshold work for himself both as a choreographer and as an artistic director. The piece was still touring before the coronavirus hit.

Stronger work and more money gave him the traction he needed to be more visible to presenters and conferences such as APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals). “I see relationship-building as key here,” he says.

Morgan also sees his stability related to the decision to stay rooted in DC. “Having a DC season and cultivating a home audience is really important to me. It was local ties that first emboldened me to start a company here.” He believes his four-year residency at The Alden and two-plus years at American Dance Institute (now the Lumberyard) were pivotal in developing a home audience. He adds, “I am lucky to enjoy every kind of support here; the city has made a deep investment in me.”

Taking the Dance Place director job further anchored him to the community, while providing a home base for the company. Expanding his skill set as a presenter offered even more stability.

Still, the middle is not without insecurities. As funding structures have shifted to project-based, Morgan has realized there will be cycles that don’t come through. “After our first grant rejection, I worried that we plateaued,” he says. “I live with gaps in funding now.”

Morgan finds that now that he’s established, presenters and critics have certain expectations of what his work should look like. “This can make it difficult to garner support for work that differs from what these stakeholders have come to know of you from your previous work. If, for example, my work is supposed to be representative of a Native perspective in a venue’s season, but my Native identity is not overtly in the work, that can impact whether or not I’m programmed.”

Falling out of favor with funders and presenters, and recognizing the cyclical nature of the way the field is currently structured, is a pitfall of being mid-career, says Morgan. “In the same breath, I now have some incredible presenter relationships that have grown over the years.”

His Advice:

“In the early stages of making work, clarify your artistic priorities, define your values, and establish the working conditions you need. While I’m always looking for opportunities to partner with a wide array of individuals and organizations to support and present my work, I’ve learned that the work is made richer and more meaningful when those around me understand my intentions and believe in the way I want to move towards those intentions.”

Michelle Ellsworth: Leaning Into Her Quirk Regardless of Status

Michelle Ellsworth, with short purple hair, plays a typewriter connected to a musical instrument
Nicholas Caputo, Courtesy Ellsworth

From her Boulder outpost where she serves as a professor of dance at University of Colorado, Michelle Ellsworth’s earned her place in the middle by creating breathtakingly original pieces, performing with a charming but relentlessly manic stage presence, and possessing a near-obsessive work ethic. Her heady and often hilarious solo work, sometimes featuring specially designed gadgets and gizmos, defies categorization.

Although she has less name recognition than some mid-career artists, she has been recognized with a slew of honors, including a University of Colorado, Boulder, College Scholars Award (2020); a Guggenheim Fellowship (2016); a Doris Duke

Impact Award
(2015); a NEFA National Dance Project Grant (2014 and 2017); a Creative Capital Fellowship (2013); and a USA Artists Knight Fellowship in Dance (2012), along with three National Performance Network Creation Fund Commissions (2004, 2007 and 2016).

“Awards allow me to make more work,” says Ellsworth. “I let myself feel a bit of adrenaline, then it’s time to put my head down and get to work.”

Ellsworth also acknowledges the early support of individual presenters—like David White at Dance Theater Workshop, Jennylin Duany at Miami Dade Cultural Art Center, Lane Czaplinski, formerly of On the Boards in Seattle, and Loris Bradley and Sixto Wagan, former performing arts curators at DiverseWorks in Houston—in getting her work out, which led to commissions.

However, she prefers a more poetic explanation of her ascent to the middle. Her attitude toward her career growth is not unlike her work itself. She rejects linear trajectories. “It’s inaccurate and alienating to go with some dead white guy’s (Aristotle’s) idea of a narrative,” muses Ellsworth at 54. “I really don’t see a line when I went from ’emerging’ to ‘mid-career.’ So there are things that happen on the outside, such as the gigs, reviews and awards that I try not to notice. I’m not more confident. I don’t take more risks or less risks. Mostly, I get to pay my collaborators more and I can make more things and have more choices, which is huge.”

Her Advice:

“Don’t ever waste your time on the myth of the solo genius. Give your collaborators maximum and accurate credit. Don’t think, work. And go ahead and form the band now, don’t wait.”

Abby Zbikowski: No Longer Invisible

Focus Records, Courtesy Festival Un Pas Vers L’Avant

On the surface, it may look like Abby Zbikowski, 36, catapulted to mid-career on the strength of her groundbreaking tour de force, abandoned playground (2017). The Bessie-winning work placed her aesthetic of relentless physicality out in the open: Her high-octane movement vocabulary activated a virtuosity that also enlisted a vibrant sense of rhythm. The dance field hadn’t seen such a singular voice in pushing the boundaries of the body genre since Elizabeth Streb burst on the scene.

Living in Champaign-Urbana, where she works as an associate professor of dance at The University of Illinois, and having no lineage from a major company, gives her an outsider status. Her training in African-diaspora forms and studying with Germaine Acogny’s École de Sables in Senegal also sets her apart.

For Zbikowski, the “emerging” stage was more invisible. “I have always been making work, but I could not get anyone to look at my work. I couldn’t get a showing at Judson, because of the movement,” says Zbikowski. “People had assumptions about what I was doing because it was really physical. I don’t think my movement language was a plus.”

Things changed for her when Jack Ferver saw a duet of hers at a faculty concert at the American Dance Festival. “Jack asked me why I wasn’t showing my work in New York, and helped me get a show at the Abrons Arts Center in New York.”

Getting abandoned playground off the ground was as heroic a feat as the dance itself. She would drive three hours to Chicago, fly to New York City to rehearse for a day and half, arriving back in Chicago late Sunday night, ready to teach on Monday morning. “It wasn’t sustainable,” she recalls. “I put my eggs in one basket, cleaned out my bank making a work for nine dancers.”

But it paid off. Besides winning the Bessie and a glowing New York Times review, the piece toured to the Fusebox Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, ICA Boston, Bryn Mawr College, University of Albany, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College and the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

Accolades ensued: Dance Umbrella awarded her a “Choreographer of the Future” commission, she won the inaugural Caroline Hearst Choreographer-In-Residence at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University (2017–19) and she was wrapping up a residency at New York Live Arts when the coronavirus hit. “I was always working and applying for grants and residencies, finally the field started to catch up with me.”

The one-hit-wonder syndrome was a concern, though. Could she top abandoned playground? “People wonder what I will do next,” she says. She was about to reveal her next work, Radioactive Practice, right before the lockdown. “We were in technical rehearsals at New York Live Arts when the city shut down.”

She realizes now that what she did to make her breakout piece possible was not sustainable. Now with more opportunities to secure funding, she pre-plans with a more sensible way of managing rehearsals and conducting her company business.

She adds, “I trust what I am doing. My role as a teacher, building my company, and the ability to teach people how to understand my work. Making work and practicing this kind of physicality is a way of life. And leaning into that has been what carried me and the people I work with.”

Her A

“Keep operating with consistency and integrity. Don’t equate the validation of external interest in your work as a measure of its true value. The world, and the dance world, are in constant flux. Keep being yourself.”

This story is part of a
week-long series
guest edited for
Dance Magazine by choreographer Kyle Abraham.