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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."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.
When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.
Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).