Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

The Choreography Festival That's Boosted the Careers of Danielle Agami, Joshua L. Peugh and Olivier Wevers

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.


Over the last two decades, the festival has attracted 38,118 audience members, placed 679 choreographers in the limelight and awarded over $650,000 in prize money. In recent years it has attracted more sophisticated talent as its reputation has grown globally—artists like Danielle Agami, Joshua L. Peugh and Olivier Wevers. That's what prompted French choreographer Manuel Vignoulle to enter the competition in 2017, when he won the festival's Grand Prize.

Manuel Vignoulle winning the Grand Prize. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

Vignoulle was inspired to enter for a second year after having a positive first experience with the festival. "I saw that what I was doing was touching people there," he says. "They are so organized and they treat people really well." Vignoulle won again in 2018, with Earth, a trio tackling the interconnectedness of human relationships through juicy, dynamic partnering.

Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

He hopes to maintain a connection to the dance community in Palm Desert. "When you connect just once it's just nice, but if you see them several times, you start creating a relationship and it's about what we can share together," he says.

Danielle Rowe, an Australian, San Francisco-based choreographer, took the second place award last year for her pas de deux For Pixie, a turbulent yet poignant tribute to her grandparents."They couldn't live with or without each other, so they actually lived next door to each other most of their married life," she says. Rowe also taught a master class for Coachella Valley dance students during the competition weekend.

Danielle Rowe's For Pixie. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

For Vignoulle, the experience has earned him recognition—and confidence. "It gave me self-esteem that pushes me to move forward, to be a bit more bold," he says. "And now I get more attention from bigger dance companies." He has since created a work for Adelphi University dancers, as well as a piece for the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. He also continues to make work for his own company, M/motions, which specializes in taking physicality to new limits.

Rowe, who acts as associate artistic director for SFDanceworks, has choreographed for San Francisco Ballet and Ballet Idaho since the competition. "It's nice to have validation that your work is liked enough to get an award," she says. "It gives me a little more confidence to keep going."

The Palm Desert Choreography Festival is accepting submissions until May 15th.

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Charlene Gehm MacDougal as Lead Nursemaid in Petrushka. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy the MacDougal family.

In Memoriam: Joffrey Dancer Charlene Gehm MacDougal, 69

Former lead dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, Charlene Gehm MacDougal died of ovarian cancer on January 10 at her home in New York City, age 69.

Gehm illuminated the inner life of each of the varied characters in her extensive repertoire. Whether she was the gracious hostess in George Balanchine's Cotillon, the riveting Lady Capulet in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, or in the tumult of William Forsythe's Love Songs, she drew the viewer's eye and heart to the essence of the role.

As Forsythe puts it: "Charlene was certainly one of the most elegant dancers I have had the privilege to work with. Her striking countenance flowed into her work and, joined with her wicked sense of humor and intelligence, created thoughtful, mesmerizing and memorable art."

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February 2021