The Creative Process

Why "World of Dance" Choreographer Tessandra Chavez Believes Failure is Essential

Louise Flores, courtesy Chavez

Tessandra Chavez has always had a desire to create: The San Diego native founded her own company, Unity Dance Ensemble, when she was just 15 years old. Today, her intensely emotive work on music videos, concerts and TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars" has garnered her an Emmy win and two World Choreography Awards. Her latest endeavor brings her back to her company as they compete for the top spot on NBC's "World of Dance."

Chavez recently spoke with Dance Magazine about how the show has taught her new skills, and why she embraces both criticism and failure.


On "World of Dance":

"In competing on "World of Dance," I'm faced with the challenge of maintaining my authenticity. We may be playing in a very flashy sandbox, but I'm still trying to hold on to what I do and what my dancers are about.

"There are times where I find that for the flash of the show, I need to add some elements that maybe I wouldn't in another venue. Instead of resisting the change, I embrace it, and look at how these elements can enhance my work and teach me new skills to use later on.

"I never view challenges as a bad thing, just ways to push me as a creator. I'm learning how to communicate in different ways."

On what she looks for in dancers:

"Personally, as a creator, I focus on the mind-set of dancers even more than their quality. It's so much more than the physical experience of movement. It's where it starts in the mind and what they've decided to become in front of me, if they choose to transform."

On why she embraces criticism:

"I'm not prideful about receiving critiques or asking peers for feedback. I'm always asking, 'What do you think of this?' Or, 'Should I try this?' A lot of artists are very attached to their work and avoid asking for feedback for fear that they'll be rejected. I'm always curious, and I want to feel like I'm still growing.

"In the moments where people doubt you or don't believe in your ideas, just remind yourself that your truth works. Someone can easily derail us with just one word, a 'no,' maybe. I think, intuitively, we know when something works. We can't allow ourselves to be swayed."

Chavez's choreography on "So You Think You Can Dance"

Michael Becker, Courtesy FOX

On getting over creative blocks:

"Like any artist, sometimes I hit a creative block. I don't allow myself to get caught up in it. I go face-first and keep digging into it until something makes sense.

"Try all the things that fail, and don't be afraid to fail, and fail a lot. Do the ugly things that don't make sense and don't work, and eventually you'll land on something really beautiful."

Broadway

We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.

But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Cover Story
Jayme Thornton

It's a much-repeated part of Francesca Hayward's origin story that she discovered ballet at age 3, when her grandparents bought a video of The Nutcracker to keep her occupied and she immediately started dancing around the room. What's less well-known is that there was another video lined up next to The Nutcracker that Hayward liked to dance along to: Cats. "I really just did the White Cat bit and fast-forwarded the rest," she remembers. "I'd make my friends who came around be the other cats."

Twenty-four years later, she's not only become a Royal Ballet principal, but has been cast as Victoria the White Cat in Tom Hooper's new movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, out in theaters on December 20. "I remember the director telling me I'd got the part: 'Just to let you know you're the lead in a Hollywood film,' he said." Hayward laughs. "This is crazy!"

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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