On Their Own Terms
Dancers take control by commissioning their own choreography.
Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish rehearsing Conditional Sentences. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.
As a prominent New York City Ballet dancer, Wendy Whelan worked closely with leading choreographers who created original ballets inspired by her long lines and kinetic intelligence. The Kentucky-born ballerina loved the feeling of being “tapped into” as a source of inspiration. To ensure she could relive the experience, late in her career the ballet icon started hiring choreographers to work with her, initiating the creative process herself rather than waiting for a choreographer to hire her.
Dancers who take artistic control by commissioning choreographers turn traditional hierarchies on their head. The experience can be empowering and liberating. But it’s also a new kind of balancing act, requiring dancers to double as impresarios working hard behind the scenes to bring their projects to fruition. The demands are mental as well as physical. But those dancers who do it see it as a way of transforming their careers. “It’s about finding out what you want to explore in continuing your development as a dance artist,” says Whelan.
From Muse to Manager
Going from being told what to do to calling the shots requires great forethought, planning and self-assurance. Your traditional role as interpreter has shifted to one of producer. You are in control of the entire process, from fundraising to forging relationships with presenters who will help you secure a venue for getting the finished work seen. You will need to be a strong communicator with an unwavering belief in your project as you are the one leading a team of artists, starting with the choreographer with whom you wish to work and including sound, lighting and costume designers; tech crews; and publicists. “Find people to collaborate with who support your vision in order to grow and build your ideas,” Whelan says.
Making the Hire
When choosing a choreographer, ideally you want a collaborator, someone confident enough to take direction from you. For her first commission, Toronto indie dancer Danielle Baskerville brought on DA Hoskins, an award-winning Canadian choreographer whom she has danced with for 15 years, often serving as his muse. The resulting abstract work, Jackie Burroughs is Dead (and what are you going to do about it?), debuted in April to critical acclaim. Baskerville both performed and produced it. “Our work is so collaborative and fluid, so it felt incredibly natural for me to take on the role of the initiator,” Baskerville says. “Commissioning DA was really just the next step in our artistic relationship.”
The classically trained Whelan opted for four contemporary choreographers for her 2014 Restless Creature project. “I chose Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Joshua Beamish and Alejandro Cerrudo to lead me on this new path,” Whelan says. “The experience was incredibly challenging, but that’s what I wanted, to be shaken up. After 30 years with NYCB, I knew I needed that for myself if I wanted to continue growing as an artist, and not as a ballerina.”
Bringing these projects to fruition requires dancers to get strategic about finding funding. In 2006, maverick contemporary dancer Louise Lecavalier founded Fou Glorieux to commission new works of contemporary dance. To fund the creations, she secured government grants and forged partnerships with presenters interested in backing her work. She paid her choreographers a flat fee based on the length of the piece, plus royalties for each performance.
Whelan also relied on outside funding, including arts foundations and patrons happy to support her endeavor once she personally reached out and told them about it. “I sent a lot of letters and emails seeking support from people I thought might be able to help or guide me toward others who could,” she says.
To fund her commission, Baskerville applied for all three levels of government grants, receiving installments of between CDN$5,000 and CDN$10,000 at a time over a four-year period. She worked accordingly, continuing with her project only when certain she had the funds. She constructed a budget, paying her artists 35 to 40 percent above the minimum CDN$26 hourly wage recommended by Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists, the union on whose board she sits. “It’s why the process took so long,” Baskerville says. “Paying well was important to me.” Baskerville also paid herself for her work behind the scenes. “Not all dancers will think to do that,” she says. “Because we do so much unpaid work already, we start not to know our value.”
“It’s a huge learning curve,” says Baskerville, now considering a future career as an arts administrator as a result of her experience hiring her own choreographer. “You are forced to think of the longevity of the work instead of just the immediate performance. It’s also incredibly empowering because you have a sense of ownership. You’re in control of the future of the work, where it could go next in terms of being seen by others and in what context.”
For Whelan, commissioning choreographers is a way of prolonging her dancing career. “As an older and more established dancer, being the one making the decisions is imperative for me,” Whelan says. “I need to be able to dictate what I do next and how I do it. And more than anything, it’s important to find collaborators who are right for me at this stage of my life.”
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
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.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
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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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."