Why "World of Dance" Choreographer Tessandra Chavez Believes Failure is Essential
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."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
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:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"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.