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."
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
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For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
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.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.