How Choreographers Avoid The One-Hit Wonder Trap
While directing and choreographing the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the musical Bandstand, Andy Blankenbuehler found himself tied into knots. After the wild success of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton, for which he would win the 2016 Tony Award for Best Choreography, he began comparing his unsatisfactory rehearsal rut to what he called "the best work of my career."
"I was really struggling," he says. "I knew I wasn't reaching the same bar as I had with Hamilton." Seeing his frustration, his wife reminded him that there would never be another Hamilton—but that didn't mean his other work couldn't be great, too. "She saw how I was beating myself up trying to accomplish a similar thing." Happy ending detour: Blankenbuehler regained his footing and won his third Tony Award for choreography for the Broadway production of Bandstand.
For choreographers, the postpartum pangs that follow a big triumph can summon doubts about their ability to duplicate a career's artistic zenith. Critics sneer, ballet masters and directors stifle skeptical looks, audiences question, producers pressure and choreographers agonize about the label of "one-hit wonder." Has he backed himself into a corner? Has she burned out on ideas? How do you bring something original to the stage without copying yourself or experimenting with disaster?
New visibility can come with increased expectations, warns Ronald K. Brown. In 1999, his masterwork Grace seemed to have found a new spiritual compass for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a way to usher the troupe forward in a choreographic manner that only Alvin Ailey had previously accomplished.
"There was a kind of curiosity about the work," says Brown. Even ballet companies started calling about potential commissions. After Grace, he says, "they might have an expectation that I may use house music or that my style may have a signature look."
He kept in mind words that the late Bessie Schönberg, Brown's former composition teacher and legendary mentor, had told him: "Don't always give in to the pressure to do something new." When he veered off course, Schönberg let him know: "You said you wanted to do X, Y and Z. I didn't see that. Speak up for yourself. I want you to do what you intend." Schönberg died before Grace was choreographed, but the idea of resisting the pressure to create something revolutionary with each work stuck with him.
Expectations can lead to opportunities, however. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's first full-length narrative ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire, was hailed as a triumph of dance/drama and won the best classical choreography award at the UK's 2012 National Dance Awards, as well as an Olivier Award nomination. "Streetcar didn't make me an international choreographer," she says. "But it opened doors and placed me on the market as a choreographer who can tell stories." It was an affirmation of her talent for weaving dance into plot-driven theater.
Ochoa jokes that "I'm past the age to be the next great thing because I'm 44, not 27." Yet her ongoing, hard-won successes have earned her the respect of directors who trust her to create quality work. Today, Ochoa knows that she's booked with eight commissions for the next two years, even if a current piece registers a "meh"; that's a luxury that she feels fledgling choreographers—particularly female choreographers—can't count on.
"When you're a young choreographer, you have a lot of fear, thinking if your work is cool or hip enough, or whether it's repeating someone else's choreography," she says. "When you're older, you don't have that many questions in your head."
For her part, Ochoa feels that her Broken Wings, a ballet about Frida Kahlo, created for the English National Ballet in 2016, was actually more creatively adventurous than Streetcar. A similar feeling holds true for Robert Binet. His first major commission outside of Canada, The Blue of Distance, was praised by The New York Times as the "most remarkably poetic among the premieres" of New York City Ballet's fall season in 2015. But Binet, now 26, considers his 2016 site-specific commission at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the National Ballet of Canada, The Dreamers Ever Leave You, "creatively, a game changer."
The fact that both Binet and Ochoa champion ballets other than the ones that were promoted as critical hits says something about the subjectivity of what constitutes a success. Many choreographers are wary of obsessing over critical opinions. Ochoa uses them for practical purposes: "Every two years, I make a huge pile of all the reviews saying I'm amazing, in order to apply for a U.S. visa." Brown has his associate director Arcell Cabuag filter reviews and alert him "if it's something I need to hear."
On the other hand, Binet reads a bunch of reviews, but only once they've all come in. "Then you see the full spectrum, rather sitting with one for a day and a half and sitting with another for two days," he says. But generally, choreographers say that critics' words are rarely a driving factor in how the next work unfolds.
Binet admits that since The Blue of Distance, some of his subsequent ballets have worked, others not so much. "It's not like you've cracked the code and now you know how to make a great ballet and can make it forever," he says. "Naively, I didn't realize if you figure it out for one ballet, that doesn't mean you have it figured out for the next one. You can only take forward what you've learned."
Blankenbuehler learned to honor his post-Hamilton projects as their own events, and, equally importantly, to analyze the successful ingredients of Hamilton's staging and choreography. "I'm not going to duplicate the choreography, but I'm trying to test myself against that," he says. "Hamilton is very honest. Things don't look like dance steps, things look like emotional ideas and literal words. I'm very proud of Bandstand because it is consistent with Hamilton in that it is honest. Even though there's a big shadow from Hamilton, it has simply made me a better artist."
To avoid being pegged as a one-trick pony, many choreographers aim for versatility. Brown keeps expanding his vocabulary through other dance genres: West African, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian dance forms, for example. Ochoa continues to choreograph both abstract and narrative works in classical and contemporary idioms. And Blankenbuehler moves seamlessly from Hamilton's hip hop to Bandstand's swing, bebop and jitterbug.
Pacing yourself can prove challenging once the phone keeps ringing. Binet tries to manage his time sensibly and not say "yes" to everything. "When you're starting, you need practice to build your reputation and get your work in front of people," he says. "Now I'm in the process of making the transition to larger-scale works and just trying to understand what kind of time I need to set aside for that."
Many choreographers find that proving their artistic currency gives them a stronger negotiating stance. For example, to allow for "the work to get in the dancers' bodies and marinate and simmer a bit," Brown now requests a healthy amount of time in between the rehearsal period and the premiere. Because Blankenbuehler prepares extensively in advance, he requires extra studio space and time before the rehearsal process even begins. He also needs demo tracks with arrangements featuring at least horns and drums, as opposed to a solo piano recording. "That's an odd thing to ask for, but I have to have that," says Blankenbuehler.
Rather than being crushed by the weight of their successes, choreographers are seemingly served best by understanding what works for them. Very little in the act of creating new dances is predictable. "I think it's so easy to get caught up in how your career is building and what each piece is going to lead to," says Binet. "You have to be ambitious, but you can't plan for everything because it never happens that way. Wherever you are and whoever you're working with, you just try to make it your best work and trust in that."
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.
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.
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?
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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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."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
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.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."