The inaugural choreographer in residence at Chicago's Harris Theater for Music and Dance has a lot of stretching to do. In the first year of his three-year tenure, Brian Brooks has worked with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's main company and pre-professional dancers; advanced students from the Chicago Academy for the Arts; with street percussionists The Chicago Bucket Boys; his own New York City–based ensemble; and teachers from Chicago Public Schools. Next up is Miami City Ballet, which premieres the Harris Theater–commissioned One Line Drawn February 9–11, March 2–4 and March 17–18.
You've gone back and forth to Miami a few times now. How much time have you had on this project?
We did most of the work over the summer, plus two other short periods: one in January and one the week of the premiere. We're mostly finished, but I'm still editing, clarifying, shaping.
Brooks leads rehearsal at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB
What's the biggest barrier preventing dancers and non-dancers alike from seeing more performances? We think it's safe to say the answer is cost.
New York City's Joyce Theater, known for presenting acclaimed international and domestic companies representing a variety of genres, just launched two ticket initiatives that will offer $10 tickets for dance professionals, and allow all audiences to choose their own ticket price for select shows.
Wendy Whelan gave away all her leotards in December. It was a Christmas surprise for her Ballet Academy East students—and an experiment. By getting rid of her uniform of more than 30 years, she hoped her muscle memory would let go of old movement patterns.
"The minute I got myself out of leotards, my body opened up: I didn't feel so strict and tight and bound," she says. "I never expected you could change so much from the outside-in."
Leaving the ballet world—and life inside such a massive institution as New York City Ballet—has been a revelatory experience for the former reigning ballerina. Since retiring from the company in 2014, she's taken on everything from dance theater collaborations with Royal Ballet star Edward Watson to a multidisciplinary opera choreographed by David Neumann to grounded modern dance duets with Brian Brooks.
She doesn't have a defined vision of where she's going so much as a mission to explore what's possible. With no structured company schedule telling her what to do, she can seek out whatever work she wants, with whomever she connects with.
"I feel like I can be myself," says Whelan, who's turning 50 this month. "I'm thinking and doing things I never would have imagined as a ballet dancer."
Behind the scenes at a shared audition for Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Kate Weare and Anna Sperber this fall
Brooks tests the dancers' creativity with an improvised solo. Photos by Jim Lafferty.
It’s noon, and the audition is already running behind schedule. The next group of warmed-up dancers is led into the room. “Swedish Fish and Terra Chips,” Kyle Abraham tells his company manager, who has offered to make a snack run. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
Nearly 400 dancers are gathered at Gibney Dance in Manhattan for an audition that’s anything but typical. From 10 am to 6 pm, groups of roughly 60 male and female dancers—all of whom submitted a headshot and resumé before arrival—will vie for the chance to work with contemporary choreographers Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Kate Weare and Anna Sperber. In other words, this is speed dating, dance-style. The shared audition offers these dancers the rare opportunity to be seen by four notable choreographers in just one hour. From where the choreographers sit, the equal-parts exhilarating and exhausting day allows them to scope out New York’s eclectic community of contemporary dancers—including some they might otherwise miss out on.
Paying It Forward
Before they show any movement, each choreographer shares a bit about the works they’re casting for. Their introductions hold a common denominator: They view today’s audition as only the beginning of a conversation. Up to 30 dancers will make the cut for the individual callbacks, and only 1 to 3 will ultimately be hired by each choreographer. Still, they welcome the chance to see new faces and stay in touch for future projects. In Sperber’s case, although she will not show any movement, she’s on the lookout for fresh talent.
Abraham initiated today’s shared audition because he often found himself writing the names of other choreographers beside dancers’ names at his Abraham.In.Motion auditions—pairings he thought might work well together, even if the dancers were not quite right for him. This collaborative impulse eventually translated into Abraham’s first shared audition in 2014. He finds that the unconventional format works for both sides of the table. For the hundreds of dancers who show up, it offers the opportunity to be seen by several choreographers at once, introducing them to companies they may not know about. And from the choreographers’ vantage point, they see dancers with a range of backgrounds and movement qualities who might not normally come out for their standalone auditions. Abraham brought Weare, Brooks and Sperber on board since he knew they, too, would embrace the day with an open mind.
Not Just Dynamics
Abraham’s up first. Without wasting a moment, he dives into a fast-paced, fluid sequence that requires dancers to move in and out of the floor with relative ease. He developed this particular material to see how the dancers dealt with dynamic shifts. With less than five minutes to process the choreography, filled with blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moments, the dancers struggle to practice without running into each other. They then break into smaller groups of seven or eight and run through the sequence twice, sans music, before standing in line for the choreographers to note their numbers. Beyond his curiosity in each dancer’s dynamics, Abraham observes their energy in the space, asking himself: “Do they seem like they’re being generous with the people they’re dancing with? If they hit someone, how are they responding to that?” He plans to keep an eye out for these qualities during his callbacks the following day.
Abraham and Sperber make notes by the dancers' headshots.
Showing Your True Self
Next, Kate Weare Company assistant director Douglas Gillespie and company member Nicole Diaz teach Weare’s sequence. This time, the visceral movement is set to a pulsing electronic beat. Her sequence emphasizes clarity, sharpness, attention to detail and a controlled relationship with the ground. Weare’s choreography also invites the dancers to showcase their artistry through split-second decisions, like which subtle details to emphasize, where to focus their gaze, when to breathe and how long to extend a moment.
Though the dancers appear game, their nerves are palpable. Absorbing movement from three choreographers with minimal processing time is an undoubtedly anxiety-inducing experience. However, Marquise Hitchcock-Jones, 21 and a junior in the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, is enjoying the fast-paced atmosphere. “It is thrilling knowing that we only get one or two opportunities to perform each choreographer’s selection,” he says. “But something about that is liberating. You don’t have time to overanalyze. You are forced to do what is innate. You simply have to dance.”
Similarly, Weare is invested in each dancer’s “selfhood.” During a post-audition conversation held at Gibney she says, “I’m interested in the way you resemble yourself and no one else.” The format of this audition pushes dancers to move outside of their comfort zones, but also offers moments to shine on their own terms. If they do not find clarity or connection in one part, they might find it in another segment. “The most effective auditions are happening in both directions,” says Weare. “The work has to be speaking to something in the dancer. Otherwise it will fall apart.”
About 60 dancers watch each other's improvised solos.
On the Spot
At last, it’s Brooks’ turn, and his choice is surprising: a 15-second improvised solo. “Time is so relative,” he tells the dancers, whose eyes grow wide at the thought of performing on the spot. “Fifteen seconds can be a very long time.” Brooks offers some qualities that he plans to explore in his new work: convulsive, cascading, muscular, displaying an energetic range. Mostly, though, he wants to see the dancers’ individual impulses. “Explore your instincts,” he says.
After a brief moment to physically sketch out their ideas, the dancers form a line. One by one, they step forward, say their name and begin. Using Brooks’ key words for inspiration, each dancer stamps his or her distinct style onto the space. Some don’t hesitate to eat up the floor or show off well-honed tricks; others opt for more contained explorations involving a single hand, or even their mouth. One bold auditionee—eager to stand out—narrates his solo, stream-of-consciousness style.
Hitchcock-Jones is one of the last dancers in line to improvise. Afterwards, he says, “I was nervous, excited and inspired all at the same time. The longer I waited, the more I began to question what I was about to present. I had to remind myself a few times, ‘Just be yourself.’ ” Whatever the day’s outcome, each dancer walks away with that sentiment, one that’s rarely heard in cattle calls. Abraham just might be onto something.
Find the right way to fire a dancer.
Brian Brooks leads a class at Jacob's Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Brooks.
Just before his work premiered at the Young Choreographer’s Festival in New York City in 2014, Steven Blandino hired a dancer who had been recommended to him, even though he did not know her. At the last minute, the dancer told Blandino she had another obligation and couldn’t make it to the final rehearsal. “I could either sacrifice some of my piece or I could pull her out and try to fill her spot with a dancer I really trusted,” Blandino says. He let her know that if she didn’t attend the final rehearsal she could not perform in the show. While the dancer insisted she could miss the rehearsal and still do it, Blandino stood his ground and told her that she was not making the show a priority and that made him too uncomfortable to allow her to continue.
Most choreographers will have to fire a dancer at some point during their career, though they may find themselves unprepared to face this tricky task for the first time. “No one teaches you how to handle these situations,” says Blandino, now in his senior year studying commercial dance at Pace University. Often, in larger union companies, there are clear times set in the spring for the delivery of the next season’s contracts. While it is possible for a dancer to be fired mid-season if the infraction is extreme enough, the most common form of firing is simply not receiving a contract renewal. Likewise, in the contemporary-dance world, many smaller companies work from project to project, allowing a choreographer to end the working relationship by simply not asking a dancer to join his or her next project. But sometimes you can’t wait until the end of the contract, no matter how short-term the agreement.
Laura Peterson, whose small contemporary company Laura Peterson Choreography has been making evening-length dances since 2007, recommends beginning the tough talk with a thank-you. Be specific about the reason you need to let the dancer go, sticking to the professional rather than personal in order to get the message across without crushing them. Keep the meeting as concise and clear as you can and be open to receiving the dancer’s feedback.
For Ana Maria Lucaciu, being fired from the now defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was sudden and upsetting. After rehabbing from ACL surgery following a debilitating kick to the back of her knee in rehearsal, she returned to the stage for the company’s Joyce season. When the run was over, she was told her contract would not be renewed, but she was welcome to take a job as the company’s receptionist. In hindsight, she feels the company’s encouragement of her rehabilitation made the reasons for her firing seem disingenuous. “I think that a conversation about their concerns regarding my injury should have taken place and a trial period should have been offered knowing my work ethic and commitment to the place over the seven years I was there,” says Lucaciu.
In an effort to avoid a confused situation similar to Lucaciu’s, Brian Brooks, of Brian Brooks Moving Company, is up front about what a project will require of his dancers. He’s spent the last decade developing a written document that sets up clear expectations and responsibilities for both the dancers and himself. This means setting realistic hours, conduct and communication guidelines as well as what dancers can expect from him as a boss, including payment, feedback and availability. Additionally, he has hired a dancer representative, who acts as a liaison between the company members and Brooks, to help address any minor problems before they balloon into major emergencies. He meets frequently with his dancers to air concerns. This process allows the dancer to know if they are not meeting expectations and gives them a chance to turn it around. When there is a breach of guidelines, the check in time gives him a chance to follow up with the dancer and resolve the issue. “The setup,” says Brooks, “helps the departure if that has to happen.”
While it can be hard to not hurt feelings in the immediate, you can avoid burning bridges if no one is surprised by being let go. “Honor the work,” advises Peterson, “meaning you should be thinking about the dance you are making more than the personalities or other issues.”