Zachary Whittenburg spent ten years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He has presented choreography in Chicago and Canada and taught ballet and improvisation. Formerly manager of communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, he now serves on the board of Chicago Dance History Project and as an advisor at High Concept Labs.
While you might think of dance as a primarily visual art form, performances engage us on multiple levels. Our ears take in the score, the artists' breathing patterns, fellow audience members' reactions, and the physical percussion made by the dancers' footfalls and partnering. All of this information is available to audience members with limited to no vision, and when it comes to providing them with the rest, there are multiple approaches being refined by experts in the field generally referred to as "audience accessibility."
The dance field isn't immune to the "gig economy" that's disrupting everything from buying groceries to getting a ride to the airport. "We're seeing more people identify as freelance dancers, and more people deciding not to start their own companies, because they've seen how that model works or, rather, doesn't work," says J. Bouey, dancer and founder of The Dance Union podcast. "Even major companies are hiring more often from project to project."
At the same time, the cost of living continues to skyrocket in dance capitals like Bouey's Brooklyn. So it's no surprise that artists feel anxious about making ends meet. But this can also be an opportunity to discard old ways of doing business. "We've made gains, at least in terms of people recognizing what their pay should be," says Lisa Davies, a former rehearsal director at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal who, five years ago, founded the organization Danse à la Carte, which supports Montreal artists. "I never had the level of comfort dancers have today in discussing payment with their employers, even in my full-time jobs."
New York City–based choreographer and director Jennifer Weber once worked on a project with a strict social media policy: " 'Hire no one with less than 10K, period'—and that was a few years ago," she says. "Ten thousand is a very small number now, especially on Instagram."
The commercial dance world is in a period of transition, where social media handles and follower counts are increasingly requested by casting directors, but rarely offered by dancers up front. "I can see it starting to show up on resumés, though, alongside a dancer's height and hair color," predicts Weber.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
Last summer, the FX television series "Pose" served us a debut season which, over eight episodes, grew from a splashy echo of the seminal vogueing documentary Paris Is Burning into an affecting portrait of one of the most marginalized, most vulnerable, most creative communities in New York City in the late 1980s.
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.
Compare the gestation of new works across the performing arts and you'll find an ingredient mostly missing in concert dance that's occasionally used in opera and relatively common with plays and musical theater: the preview period. Ranging from a few days to, in the case of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a record-breaking 182 performances, previews provide extra time for fine-tuning shows after tech and dress rehearsals but before critics can review. (Previews are open to the general public, often at discounted prices.)
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She may not be the first choreographer to claim that movement is her first language, but when Crystal Pite says it, it's no caveat: She's as effective and nuanced a communicator as the writers who often inspire her dances.
Her globally popular Emergence, for instance, was provoked in part by science writer Steven Johnson's hypotheses; The Tempest Replica refracts and reimagines Shakespeare. Recently, her reading list includes essays by fellow Canadian Robert Bringhurst, likewise driven by a ravenous, wide-ranging curiosity.
In late March, The Joyce Theater's annual gala performance included a last-minute substitution: Blueprint, by choreographer Pam Tanowitz. The trio took the place of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, after two Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were unable to secure visas to appear onstage in the U.S.
"It was a shock," says Linda Shelton, executive director at The Joyce Theater. "In all 25 of my years here, I think we'd only been turned down once before. That was ages ago and we already had a feeling that dancer wouldn't be approved anyway, because of an issue with their passport. This was just a big, big surprise."
Crystal Pite is a busy woman.
While her company, Kidd Pivot, toured the globe recently performing Betroffenheit—its acclaimed collaboration with Jonathon Young and fellow Canadians Electric Company Theatre—Pite herself launched three productions at three of the world's foremost dance companies: Nederlands Dans Theater (The Statement, February 2016), the Paris Opéra Ballet (The Seasons' Canon, fall 2016), and London's Royal Ballet (Flight Pattern, spring 2017).
The inaugural choreographer in residence at Chicago's Harris Theater for Music and Dance has a lot of stretching to do. In the first year of his three-year tenure, Brian Brooks has worked with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's main company and pre-professional dancers; advanced students from the Chicago Academy for the Arts; with street percussionists The Chicago Bucket Boys; his own New York City–based ensemble; and teachers from Chicago Public Schools. Next up is Miami City Ballet, which premieres the Harris Theater–commissioned One Line Drawn February 9–11, March 2–4 and March 17–18.
You've gone back and forth to Miami a few times now. How much time have you had on this project?
We did most of the work over the summer, plus two other short periods: one in January and one the week of the premiere. We're mostly finished, but I'm still editing, clarifying, shaping.
Brooks leads rehearsal at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB
Having spent most of the past 15 years in Chicago, I can confidently say that Elevate Chicago Dance was the most comprehensive celebration of the city's dance scene this century. A dozen events packed 10 venues for three full days, featuring the work of more than 150 performers, representing nearly 40 locally-based dance artists and organizations. Nearly all were recipients of Lab Artist Awards from Chicago Dancemakers Forum, or had been selected to participate in a Regional Dance Development Initiative that CDF and the New England Foundation for the Arts launched in partnership in 2015.
It was an occasion to recognize how vibrant and diverse Chicago's contemporary dance community is today, spurred in large part by CDF's Lab Artist Program, which awards to up to six dancemakers $15,000 each and will mark its 15th anniversary later this year. (Choreographers can apply now through February 6.)
At a hip-hop event in Dakar, Senegal, Onye Ozuzu, dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College Chicago, noticed a move that looked familiar.
"I had just come from seeing Don Campbell at a festival in Colorado, where he was talking about locking and the way people used to point at each other," she says. "At this b-boy battle in Dakar, I remember watching the points happen, but they were all loose in the wrists. The dancers weren't pointing at anything specific. I remember thinking, Oh, that's what happens when you learn something off of YouTube."
As early as 2001, hard-core dance fanatics with digital-media skills—not exactly a huge group of people—could swap rare dance videos using peer-to-peer sites like Kazaa. But it was four years later on Valentine's Day that www.youtube.com went live, and a vast repository of hidden dance history began circulating worldwide.
Densely dimensional, unpredictable, strangely graceful and wild, Alice Klock's dances are like elegant ribbons caught in hopelessly tangled knots. In 2018, she'll choreograph more works than she did the year before, extending a trajectory that's continued throughout her still-brief career.
Patron saint of queer quirk and founder of Los Angeles studio The Sweat Spot, Ryan Heffington first made headlines three years ago as the choreographer of "Chandelier," a music video for Sia starring Maddie Ziegler with a combined view count of more than 1.5 billion. Last year, Heffington both broadened his range and reinforced his brand, contributing to the frankly sexual short film for "Worship" by U.K. pop trio Years & Years, collaborating with director Spike Jonze and dancer-actress Margaret Qualley on a cinematic short to launch KENZO's World perfume, and reuniting with Sia and Ziegler for "The Greatest" featuring Kendrick Lamar.
But the most effective vehicle for his idiosyncratic creative voice so far might be the polarizing Netflix series The OA. Heffington's compulsive tendencies to choreograph facial expressions and give discrete actions priority over cohesive phrasing are well-suited to screen actors without much dance experience. Whether the show's second season includes as much dance as its first remains to be seen; either way, chances are good that Heffington himself will remain busy.
It isn't every day—or year, or even decade—that a dedicated choreography incubator opens its doors. As founding executive/artistic director at the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, Christy Bolingbroke says, "I have an opportunity to locate dance in a research and development environment, and reinforce the fact that what a choreographer does is not all that different from a scientist in a laboratory."
The first executive director in New York City Ballet's history is also the executive director of its home, the David H. Koch Theater. Which means Katherine E. Brown oversees a 141-person staff and an annual budget of about $90 million.
Under her leadership, NYCB has never been more accessible. It consistently puts out shareable videos and snapshots of the company's work to an online audience of more than a million, while partnerships with mainstream brands like Puma bring its otherworldly artists down to Earth.
"It's important we communicate how the company is forward-thinking, doing interesting things out there in the world, not just cloistered away at the theater," says Brown. "I'd like to think we're removing some of the obstacles people feel in accessing this art form, without affecting in any negative way the artistic vision of the company."
Chief of program and pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Q: How has your role evolved since joining YBCA five years ago?
"I bring a social practice ethic to performance. You could call me the architect of a program that connects communities to the work that we present."
From dancers to presenters to directors, no one in dance is exempt from the task of building an audience. But keeping up with email, social media and other marketing efforts can chip away at precious time spent honing your craft. Add in the fear of coming across as vain or self-absorbed, and it can be hard to know how to begin.
Ever dream of having one of your dance videos go viral online? The experience may not be all that you expect. Four dance artists reflect on their sudden fame after their videos became online sensations:
Kirk Henning is a company member at Richmond Ballet. You've seen Henning and his groomsmen dancing for fellow company member Valerie Tellmann-Henning as a surprise at their wedding reception.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.