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."