David Hallberg wants to give choreographers a place to experiment. Photo by Patrick Frenette, courtesy ABT
The Metropolitan Opera House is a stadium; an ornately lush stadium, but one nonetheless. The 3,800-seat challenge that American Ballet Theatre readily tackles is typically filled to capacity because of the stalwarts: Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, the classics that, without doubt, have stood the test of time and have brought people in droves to the Met.
A new commission is a risk best handled by the choreographers who can produce works that offer seasoned polish and dependability. Rarely is it given to an "unknown." And although, in the history of large commissions, there inevitably exists a freedom of creative impulse, that freedom must not reach too deep, for the fall off the cliff is steep and far. There is simply too much at stake: time, money, reputation.
In its 70-year history, NYCB has only commissioned four black choreographers—all men: John Alleyne and Ulysses Dove in 1994, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Robert Garland in collaboration with Robert LaFosse in 2000, and Albert Evans in 2002 and 2005. It's been 11 years since Evans, an NYCB alum, made work for the company and 18 years since a black choreographer outside of NYCB has been invited to choreograph.
David Neumann's I Understand Everything Better. Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy Neumann
Collaboration is a curious thing. For choreographers, it can open their practice to another set of eyes. It can allow their work to exist in a larger way. It can add serious heft to the final artistic product, with a signature all of its own.
But: There's an art to working in close communion with another artist, whether they're a designer or a composer. At the heart of the process is developing a rapport where each collaborator feels a sense of freedom within a set of given limits, where each understands what the other needs. Getting to that point takes some back and forth, trial and error, and several stabs in the dark.
Will Rawls in The Planet-Eaters: Seconds. Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy Rawls
"Do away with it."
"How about just plain old 'artist' or 'choreographer'?"
These are a few of the comments that popped up when, on a recent morning, I posted a query on Facebook fielding thoughts about the term "emerging"—as in "emerging choreographer." I can't remember when I first sensed disgruntlement toward the E-word. But in speaking with dancers and choreographers over the years, I've noticed that more often than not it elicits an eye roll, head shake, groan, sigh or shrug of "whatever that means."
Working in a smaller city as a choreographer and worried you're not getting the same opportunities you would in the Big Apple? We've been there and we hear you. But what if your little city can contain your choreographic dreams—and make them come true?
Winston-Salem, North Carolina–based Helen Simoneau, who has gained national and international recognition for her choreography, credits much of her success to being based in a smaller city: "You can shape your environment," she says, pointing out that there isn't as much competition for audiences and funding.