Love them or not, reviews are part of the ecology of being a dancemaker. Critical writing can validate, illuminate or sometimes get in the way of an artist's creative process. We spoke with five choreographers about their relationship to reviews.
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
Improvisation, in its many forms, can be a door to the body's imagination. One of the few festivals to delve into it is the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, July 30 to Aug. 6. This year the intensives are led by risk-taking teacher/performers including Hilary Clark, Anya Cloud, Joe Goode, Angie Hauser, Andrew Marcus and Taisha Paggett. Some of them (it's an improv festival, so last-minute decisions are the name of the game) will participate in the full-day "Dance Innovators in Performance" event on Aug. 4. velocitydancecenter.org.
Fewer choreographers are hiring from auditions. So what’s the best way to secure work?
Casey Loomis (fourth from right) took three intensives and auditioned twice before Doug Varone hired her. Photo by Jim Coleman, courtesy Varone.
The idea of networking can send dancers into a panic. You’re not sure how to do it, what to say or when to say it. And when you do approach your favorite choreographer and shake their hand, your palms are sweaty and your words of admiration stutter out of your mouth. (That is, unless you are the rare dancer who actually communicates verbally as well as you do through movement.)
Yet as the dance landscape changes, and troupes shrink and shift toward project-based models, choreographers have become less dependent on cattle calls to hire dancers. Instead, many prefer to work with people they know and trust—people with whom they already have a relationship. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I hire dancers I already know,” admits choreographer Doug Varone. “I’ll always hold an audition out of fairness to the dance community, but I usually have my eye on dancers that I’m already familiar with.”
Put Yourself Out There
The first way many dancers think to get in touch with choreographers is over e-mail, with a resumé, head shot and performance reel. But if you haven’t yet established a relationship, your letter will most likely be tossed aside. At best, you’ll get a reply from an assistant about taking an open class.
So take one—or 20. Having your name remembered means showing your face months before audition day, and becoming a loyal presence. Get into a choreographer’s classes, as well as any classes his or her dancers may teach, because their opinions often come into play during the hiring process. Even better, take the company summer intensive.
But once you’re in class, relax, and don’t treat it as an opportunity to impress whoever is at the head of the studio. “If I approached classes as auditions it would deplete me so quickly. It disempowers the dancer,” says Casey Loomis, who joined Doug Varone and Dancers in 2014. “The class has to be for you, too. There’s gotta be a balance.”
Joe Goode suggests interested dancers ask to help out with a project. Photo by Kinsburg Hall Staff, courtesy Goode.
San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode agrees: “Focusing all your attention on me is a bit of a turnoff.” Often, when dancers put networking faces on, they aren’t showing their truest selves. Part of the reason choreographers take their time before hiring a dancer has nothing to do with technique, but with personality and work ethic: how you apply corrections, learn material and work with others.
Make Your Intentions Known
Once you’ve become a regular, go up to the choreographer after class and introduce yourself. Most welcome it—or at least they don’t mind if it’s done appropriately. “In the moment I always think it’s a bit of an annoyance,” admits Goode. “ ‘Oh no, not another person telling me they love my work.’ But in reality, you have to put it in the back of my mind. The one that has spoken to me is the one I remember.” Make sure the conversation is genuine and informed. “Keep up with the work that I’m doing,” says Dwight Rhoden, co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. “Know what my old work looked like and where I’m going now.”
As time goes on, stay in touch. But there’s no need to remind them of your presence each week. “I’m a private person, so I usually run away from people who hunt me. And, oh, I’ve been hunted,” says Varone. “There are people who always want to talk to you after class and constantly want feedback.” Asking for special treatment, like taking company class, can be touchy and will depend on the choreographer’s personality. Northwest Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper says she generally doesn’t have the time to open up her company class; Rhoden says go ahead and try: “The worst I say is no.”
Show your interest outside of the studio, too. Go see their shows, and if it feels natural, approach them after to tell them you enjoyed the work. “ ‘I particularly
Sarah Slipper: "Don't email me 'To whom it may concern.'" Photo by Blaine Covert, courtesy NWDP.
liked this aspect’ or ‘I was really drawn to the moment when this happened.’ Make some kind of intelligent insight,” says Goode. And “let me know when you’re performing,” says Varone. “Or if you’re a young choreographer, tell me when your work is being shown. That tells me a great deal about your dancing.”
Another way to stay in the loop: “Ask to help with a project. It could be as simple as volunteering to run an errand or help out backstage,” says Goode. “But do it because you’re interested in being near the project, not because it’s your moment to shine.”
Keep Your Options Open
If you feel like you’ve been following a choreographer for a long time without any results, it might be time to move on. “I’m pretty honest with how I feel about a dancer,” says Rhoden. “Maybe their pointe work isn’t strong enough or they’re at a certain age and just haven’t developed to a certain technical level.”
Very few dancers’ paths to their dream companies are short. It took Loomis three Doug Varone and Dancers summer intensives and two auditions with Varone, one for the company and one for the Metropolitan Opera, before he hired her for the Met gig. He asked her to join his company two years later. In the meantime, she says, “have an interest in a lot of different things, or rejection will destroy you.” Keep pursuing your goal, but continue to learn about new artists and expand your net. For a lucky few, longtime dreams come true. But more often, they shift as you grow. Chances are you’ll end up right where you belong.