Dancers Are Choreographers, Too. It's Time for Dance Criticism to Reflect That.
Dancers are more than just vessels performing set material. We make contributions to creative processes all the time. Some of these are obvious: We often improvise material or generate entire phrases to be incorporated into a work. Others are more innocuous: Dancers are sometimes asked to give feedback that ends up shaping the composition of a work.
This is choreography.
As working relationships between dancers and choreographers evolve, the dialogue on crediting authorship needs to reflect the collaboration at the heart of so many works. I'm currently performing in Nick Mauss' exhibition "Transmissions" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From Mauss' prompts, 16 dancers created movement phrases to generate, with Mauss' direction, the choreographed material that appears in the show. During the creative process, the curatorial team and Mauss facilitated the kind of dialogue that should always happen with collaboratively created works: We discussed and workshopped language to accurately credit how the work was made.
Sadly, this doesn't feel like the norm. In other projects I've contributed to or heard about, these conversations never happened. As a result, the creative labor of dancers was erased. Even when the contributions of dancers are outlined in a program, critics sometimes distort the reality of the creative process in their writing. In Alastair Macaulay's review of "Transmissions" in the New York Times he wrote: "Mauss proves, with the cooperation of his dancers, something of a choreographer."
The language created by us and sent by the Whitney's press department read: "The choreography performed in this exhibition has been collectively generated by the following 16 dancers in collaboration with Nick Mauss." The distinction between "collaboration" and"cooperation" might seem nit-picky, but the syntax of Macaulay's sentence gives the insidious impression that dancers were just along for the ride of Mauss' creative vehicle.
It also speaks to the distance from which critics often write about a work. While objectivity is often cited as a goal of critics, nuance too easily gets lost with this remove. But all interpretations are inherently subjective, and filtered through a viewer's history, preferences and biases. Instead of pretending like dance writing can be objective, what if critics embraced subjectivity and used it as an opportunity to delve deeper into the work they're seeing?
Anna Witenberg and Ahmaud Culver in "Transmissions," Photo by Paula Court
Typical dance criticism rarely goes beyond a description and an assessment of what happened on stage. What might dance writing communicate about a work if a writer had more insight into a process? By attending a rehearsal or conversing with the collaborators, for example, dance writers could go further in their reviews. They could shed light on dynamics an average audience member may never discover. Perhaps most importantly, they could accurately acknowledge and credit the creative labor that dancers bring to making a work.
In a world where dancers are already underpaid and at times mistreated, it's essential to recognize the creative contributions we make to a work in addition to our performances. Dancers have been choreographing for a long time. Writers, let's make sure our words capture this.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.