What It Takes to Create a Choreographer
Hubbard Street resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. PC Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Hubbard Street.
Dance organizations throughout the country are working to build better laboratories for tomorrow’s dancemakers.
Tommie-Waheed Evans was having a fairly typical Thursday. Having recently earned his master’s degree in choreography, he was preparing to teach two dance classes and a senior seminar at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Not so typical for a newly graduated, aspiring dancemaker, however, was the fact that later that day, Evans would be picking up an ongoing conversation with the Munich-based choreographer Cayetano Soto about ideas for a new work. BalletX had paired the two men as fellow and mentor for its Choreographic Fellowship program. Now in its second year, the program is one of a growing collection of efforts to cultivate aspiring choreographers and give them a formal launch pad for professional work.
“Increasingly, being able to find a group of dancers, space and time to make work is a huge challenge for artists,” says Pamela Tatge, who took over as executive director of Jacob’s Pillow last spring. “Mid-career choreographers don’t have the time and space to create their work. So it definitely doesn’t exist for emerging choreographers.” Although resources remain relatively scarce, several dance companies are now investing in new programs designed to help bridge the gap between early dancemaking endeavors and a sustainable choreographic career.
It’s no small task. As she thinks about future goals for Jacob’s Pillow, Tatge says one of her priorities is to “do for choreographers what we do for pre-professional dancers”: While dancers can follow several stepping-stones—traineeships, second companies, apprenticeships—choreographers typically receive little guidance outside of college composition classes.
Amy Seiwert with her company, Imagery. PC Scot Goodman, Courtesy Seiwert.
“So often, choreographers make in isolation,” says Tatge, who contrasts the 19 national choreographic centers in France with the localized efforts to build dancemaker communities in the U.S. “I’d like to see situations where you have exchanges among choreographers, informal and formal, when people are in studios next to each other.” Although she points to the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University as “one of the finest opportunities for choreographers in this country,” she notes that its residencies are for more established choreographers. The new National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron appears to be similarly focused on mid-career artists: The first three pilot residencies were awarded to John Jasperse, Camille A. Brown and Carrie Hanson.
As a step toward fostering a better system for dancemakers—both established and emerging—the 10 choreographers awarded Creative Development Residencies at the Pillow this season will be given an honorarium to bring an artist of their choice to serve as an editor, dramaturg or outside eye. To be sure, Jacob’s Pillow isn’t inventing the idea of structured support and mentorship from scratch. Bates Dance Festival kicked off its emerging choreographers residency program in 1993. The long-running Springboard Danse Montréal offers early career artists 27 hours of studio time with at least a dozen dancers, access to workshops and mentorship, and an opportunity to present their work alongside major companies. Choreographer Margaret Jenkins’ Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME) has since 2004 enabled self-paired mentors and emerging choreographers to work together for a year. In 2017, Jenkins will mentor three Bay Area choreographers herself.
Yin Yue in BalletX’s Choreographic Fellowship. PC Bill Hebert, Courtesy BalletX.
In seeking to open doors for the next generation of dancemakers, Tatge says, it’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all. While one aspiring choreographer may want formal training in composition, another may crave a sounding board for ideas about process. Yet all need time and space to experiment. That’s something that New York City Ballet’s New York Choreographic Institute aims to support with its new commission initiative. Starting in the 2016–17 season, the program will provide up to $15,000 for an early career choreographer who has been commissioned by a ballet company to spend additional time in the studio researching ideas with dancers.
That kind of opportunity is relatively rare in this field. Although there are an estimated 500 residency programs in North America across all disciplines, only 68 of those programs offer dance studios. In a given year, more than 10,000 artists in the U.S. participate in residencies; dancemakers, however, make up less than 10 percent.
Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, emphasizes that time is the ultimate resource for choreographers: time to create, step away, edit, cast, revisit, refine, stage and design. “All of those different kinds of time need to be accounted for,” he says. “Yet in the dance world, most programs provide for two, maybe three of those stages.” In theater and other performing arts, Edgerton points out, “the gestation period is typically far longer and more dynamic, more inclusive of all these different, equally important kinds of time.”
An installation by Spenser Theberge, one of Springboard Danse Montréal’s 2016 emerging choreographers. PC Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Springboard.
For some young artists, one of the most inscrutable parts of parlaying artistic drive into regular work as a successful dancemaker comes down to logistics that are rarely taught in composition courses. “With grad school, it’s about process-based research. It’s about digging,” says Evans. “It’s not about the finished product.” He knows he’ll need to learn more about switching gears between projects, and gain perspective on how to think about an audience of critics, future funders and artistic directors. He’s hopeful Soto will be able to shed some light on the process: “How does it feel to walk into a country where dancers maybe don’t speak your first language, and produce a work in two or three weeks? How do you deal with the different directors, the different pressures?”
San Francisco Ballet corps dancer Myles Thatcher says he gained a new appreciation of the challenges of running a rehearsal through a yearlong mentorship with choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, sponsored by the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. “There’s politics and keeping dancers happy, and dealing with critics and reviews,” he says. One of the benefits of getting to observe Ratmansky at work, he adds, was seeing someone “respect the work, but not let it consume him or take priority over his family or his loved ones.”
Some companies manage to create internal mentorships organically. Tatge points to Nederlands Dans Theater as an example of a company that has produced a disproportionate number of professional choreographers from its ranks of performers. When she asked company dancers why that is, they told her it was the climate in the studio: Former longtime artistic director Jirˇí Kylián inspired them to feel that they could create as well as perform. “The visioning of a hugely gifted choreographer can be so encouraging to dancers to make that transition,” Tatge says. The company now also guides selected dancer-choreographers in creating work for NDT 2. In recent years, NDT dancers have organized themselves to produce Switch, a program of work made and performed by their peers.
Hubbard Street is another company that has helped propel the choreographic careers of several dancers, including Alejandro Cerrudo, Robyn Mineko Williams, Penny Saunders and Alice Klock. Edgerton points to its Choreographic Development Initiative, which offers several on-ramps for budding choreographers, from festivals to workshops. “These programs allow us to incrementally increase the stakes and resources for these artists,” Edgerton says, “so that they’re continually challenged and supported.”
NDT 2 performs in frayed edges, by Bryan Arias, one of many choreographers incubated at NDT. PC Joris-Jan Bos Photography, Courtesy NDT.
Former Smuin Ballet dancer Amy Seiwert says the full support of her director, Michael Smuin, played a major role in advancing her choreographic career. “My career would not be where it is without his belief in me,” she says. But when first starting out, she never had the benefit of a structured process for developing her choreographic muscles. “No one ever wrecked my work or challenged what I was creating,” says Seiwert, now artistic director of her contemporary ballet company, Imagery. She sought guidance through CHIME, with mentor Julia Adam. “I was looking for a road map for how to survive as a dancemaker,” she says. Later, she informally asked choreographer Robert Moses and Smuin ballet master Amy London for feedback. They responded with questions that helped clarify her intentions.
Thatcher attests to the transformative power of a mentor’s investment. When the Rolex opportunity came up two years ago, he says, “I was creating work, and I was kind of happy with it, and ready to be challenged in a new way.” Ratmansky came in to watch one of his rehearsals, and, seated on the marley, took notes throughout all five hours. Afterwards, over coffee, they talked about what worked and what needed greater clarity. “He tried to get inside of what I wanted to say,” Thatcher says. “Finally, someone was asking me the questions that might have been hard to hear, but that helped me articulate what I wanted to do.”
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
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.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
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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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
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.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
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.
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?
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."