What It Takes to Create a Choreographer

November 29, 2016

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.”