What Are They Thinking?

June 21, 2007

Choreographers on their dancers, their inspirations, and why no piece is ever finished.

Dance Magazine
interviewed 16 choreographers of different ages, styles, and nationalities. We asked four questions. What do you look for in a dancers? how do you know when a work is finished? When you think something is beautiful, what is likely to be the reason? What is your next project? Not every artist answered every question, but they didn’t, they evaded the question beautifully.


Daniel Ezralow

Choreographer, Los Angeles

Interviewed by Darrah Carr

I look for a body intelligence, a way of moving that speaks eloquently. I look for that through improvisation. If the dancers do their own movement, then I can see right away what kind of body intelligence they have.

It is difficult to know when the piece is finished, because I usually only have four weeks. Sometimes it is time that tells me when the piece is done.

When I watch other work, I look for a sense of urgency and for the necessity for that movement to be there. I want to throw out the word “beautiful.” Beauty is a judgment. When watching work, it is dangerous to judge it as right or wrong, black or white, or beautiful or ugly. Our world doesn’t work like that and neither does art.

Next Project
: I’m choreographing Across the Universe, a new musical movie directed by Julie Taymor. It’s a 1960s love story featuring the music of The Beatles and is slated for a Thanksgiving 2006 release through Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures.

Meg Stuart

Artistic Director, Damaged Goods, Belgium

Interviewed by Cynthia Hedstrom

My dancers are open for a process, not immediate results. With Benoît [Lachambre, co-creator and performer with Stuart in Forgeries, Love and Other Matters], I felt a trust that we could go to some risky emotional places. Forgeries developed in an organic way, although we knew that it would start quite dark and that we would merge with the landscape in the end. I look at the other side of beauty—at ugliness. My newest piece, Replacement, is about monstrosity—things we don’t want to see, the grotesque. By going to the absolute depths of that, I have no fear of addressing beauty. I think beauty starts to seep in when someone can say, “I am present, I can accept whatever is here.”

This month
: Forgeries, Love and Other Matters can be seen at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa; Usine C, Montreal; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Dance Theater Workshop, New York.

Lar Lubovitch

Artistic Director, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, NYC

Interviewed by Nancy Alfaro

In today’s world, where cynicism is idolized, it’s almost radical to see or define something as beautiful. Every artist’s reality is governed by some unique sense of what is beautiful to them. It’s a personal reality that’s often opposed to the world’s. When I see my own or someone else’s work as beautiful, it’s because all the forces that can be marshaled at that particular moment are entirely in concert. As far as finishing a dance goes, dance is malleable and exists only when it’s happening, so I can’t think of a piece that I didn’t retool every time I get back to it. And though I require dancers who have a lot of technical ability, far more important is to have dancers with movement imagination, who embellish a phrase beyond your expectations.

Next Project
: This month, the San Francisco Ballet performs Elemental Brubeck at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The dance assays the language of movement suggested by Brubeck’s Elementals, the only large orchestral composition he ever wrote.

Barbara Duffy

Artistic Director, Barbara Duffy & Company, NYC

Interviewed by Karen Hildebrand

I look for dancers with excellent tap skills who are willing to go beyond technique to show a range of emotion. I look for dancers who have a strong personality in their dancing. The fact that we all really like each other is important to the cohesiveness of the company, and I think that shows onstage.

With tap there are so many elements: the rhythm, the movement, the intent. I try to tell a story, and I know it’s finished when the intention has been expressed. For instance, Soldier’s Hymn is about conforming and then finally breaking free with your own voice. I knew the piece was finished when that freedom was attained.

A piece is beautiful when I feel moved. Savion Glover and Brenda Bufalino have brought me to tears with their intense emotion as well as the quality of their sound.

Next road trip
: This month we travel to Tallinn, Estonia, where a former student named his studio and young company, Duff Tap, in my honor.

Graciela Daniele

Choreographer, NYC

Interviewed by Sarah Keough

I expect good technique from the dancers who come to my auditions. But I look for the fire within. I’m interested in more theatrical dancers. I want a dancer who is a human being, not a machine. I like working with women; we can be very honest and direct with each other. That freedom lets us get right to our deeper, truer emotions.

For me, a dance is never finished (laughs). If they’d let me, I’d be changing it forever. I do a lot of pre-production work and research, but then when I work with the dancers I let myself forget it all. I get inspiration from my dancers. I’m finished when someone tells me I have to open the show.

A dance is beautiful when something in it emotionally moves me. I love Jerome Robbins—all of it. He’s my hero. Even in pieces where there is no plot, there’s always something—some kind of feeling of truth.

Latest Project: My show Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life will take to the road in January. And I’m rehearsing a musical adaptation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba.

Paul Vasterling

Artistic Director, Nashville Ballet

Interviewed by Martha Ullman West

I’m interested in people as individuals with a clear technique who can cover space and move large. I want them to be mature, open-minded, willing to take risks, and be part of my process as a choreographer. They need to be comfortable enough in their own skins to step into the unknown, and to show themselves.

For a piece to be finished, it has to feel inevitable. In story ballet, which is my favorite thing to do, it’s finished when it feels right to me. If I’m choreographing to deadline, some moments are not finished. When performances are repeated, I can tweak it so they are.

What’s beautiful for me goes back to truth. The most beautiful moments are so simple and right it’s amazing. In the beginning of Serenade the group is standing there, the arm is up to the head, shielding the eyes, then they turn out their feet. It’s so right with that music.

Next project
: The Velveteen Rabbit, Nashville Ballet, April 7–9 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center with a score by Don Hart, played by The Nashville Symphony.

Hinton Battle

Artistic Director, Hinton Battle Theatre Laboratory, NYC

Interviewed by Nancy Alfaro

I look for style, execution, and the ability to pick up steps and throw something back at me. I also look at their vocabulary and technique in different dance forms. When I’m beginning a dance, I set goals for what I want to accomplish and what feelings I want to evoke. Once I’ve reached those goals, I feel the piece is finished. I also take cues from the dancers as to when a piece is done, and I invite people in for feedback. Dance is beautiful when all the elements come together—how the bodies are intertwined, the music, and the space they are dancing in. Some dancers walk onstage, and just stand there, and their relaxation is beautiful, or when they jump and become boundless they’re beautiful. As an audience member, when the dancers take you with them, it’s a joy you can’t describe.

Current project
: The movie Idlewild, which I choreographed to the music of hip hop sensation Outkast. Also starring are Terrence Howard, Cicely Tyson, and Ben Vereen. I worked with 100 dancers on eight production numbers. I created what I call “swop,” a mixture of hip hop and swing. I’m also in the movie version of Dreamgirls, out soon.

Shen Wei

Artistic Director, Shen Wei Dance Arts, NYC

Interviewed by Amanda Smith

A dancer who understands his or her body can do what an artist or choreographer wants. They can use their body to transfer the artist’s needs, and they can allow themselves to experience something that maybe has never been tried before.

You have the premiere, a certain date, and you get that much time to rehearse. Lots of times, you want to clean up more things, even after performance, after the premiere, or during the tour. New dancers come in, and you may try to make it even better. Or you may like it better when you see the piece a thousand times.

Beautiful for me combines honesty and intelligence. First you need to see that this choreographer or performer is really honest, really truthful, like a beautiful, simple flower. At the same time the artist saw something ordinary that is developed into something intelligent and creative.

Next project:
A premiere at American Dance Festival July 7–9. A short piece for my company, that may become a big piece; it’ll take a few years to complete.

Alex Ketley

Co-Director, The Foundry, San Francisco

Interviewed by Karen Hildebrand

I look for dancers who can allow themselves to be vulnerable and exposed. There’s a certain kind of courage involved in doing that. My favorite dancers have developed their own creative voices. I need our time together to be a dialogue, and I love working with people who change my own thoughts.

I know a section or a work is finished when it finally resonates with me physically. I try lots of things and I work until something exposes me somehow, or puts a performer in a place that feels different and new.

My favorite work is when I see something risked. If you can risk something onstage, that represents generosity to me. We find ways to be at risk, and then we get good at that. Then it becomes a schtick that I do and I have to find a way to change again.

Next Project
: In May, I begin work on Imprint, a multimedia collaboration with Christian Burns (The Foundry co-director), to premiere in 2007.

Ohad Naharin

Artistic Director, Batsheva Dance Company, Tel Aviv

Interviewed by Wendy Perron

I like dancers with musicality—or lack of musicality if their lacking is interesting. I like highly coordinated people, which includes the ability to isolate and to recognize different textures in the body. Generosity. And people that are familiar with their own demons and not afraid to be in touch with them. People who love to work without mirrors.

I’ve never thought of my work as finished, even my 20-year-old pieces. There is the deadline and the premiere, as a sense of a newborn and now it has time to grow. It is always evolving. I like to reconstruct and use different sections and play with it. Nothing in the piece is sacred; it just has to feel right for the moment.

A resting cat is a form of elegance. It’s totally calm but also ready to snap. This is the state of readiness I like—to snap without snapping. Beauty is when I can find an answer in the piece to a question that nature cannot give. But it cannot be spoken, the beauty of it is in the work. Actually I don’t think so much in terms of beauty. I think in terms of the coherence and clarity that one can achieve using the right textures, the right explosive power, the right intention. The clarity that comes from a fresh point of view, a new angle, how we look at something. And that can be beautiful.

Next Project
: Bringing Telophaza, a new work for Batsheva and Ensemble Batsheva, which is the second company, to the Lincoln Center Festival, New York State Theater, July 20–22.

Robert Battle

Artistic Director, BattleWorks, NYC

Interviewed by Valerie Gladstone

When I watch dancers, I want to feel the person behind the movement. I am inspired by how they reveal themselves, who they are and their history. It gives me ideas on how to use them in my pieces and ideas for the pieces.

Dances take on a life of their own, like the church services I attended as a child, when the preacher started to bring a sermon to a close. They develop an energy that should tell you when to stop, when you’ve gone far enough and need to sum up. I also always keep in mind my teacher Bessie Schönberg saying that all dances are too long.

Beauty in dance is when a moment is true. It can simply be the turn of a head or an open hand. But it’s honest and unfiltered. I find it in Ailey’s Revelations, Limón’s There Is a Time, David Parsons’ Caught, and particularly in Taylor’s Esplanade, when the dancers crawl on their knees like animals. It’s such a powerful and primal image and expresses so much about loss.

Next project
: My first season at The Joyce Theater coming up July 4–9. I’ll be sharing a week with Gus Solomons jr, Carmen de Lavallade, and Dudley Williams.

Val Caniparoli

Choreographer, San Francisco

Interviewed by Sarah Keough

I choose dancers who really want to be there. They are not always the most technically proficient dancers or the favorites of the company. When I was a dancer I wasn’t always picked, so I tend to notice the person in the back. My dancers are always musical, and I can see a kind of inner fire in each of them.

When I’m almost finished with a piece, I can suddenly see the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know that I ever actually finish a ballet though. I’m always tinkering. When I stage a ballet with a new company, I’ll change small things based on the dancers. The changes contribute to a whole effect that strengthens the work.

When I’m watching a piece, different musical phrases stand out to me. Interpretations that take the music to a different level are beautiful to me. I love it when a piece can give me a new way of seeing or hearing music.

Latest Project
: a world premiere for Richmond Ballet.

Russell Maliphant

Artistic Director, Russell Maliphant Company, London

Interviewed by Lizzy Le Quesne

In a dancer I look for individuality, and for good flow of movement through the body, the potential to show weight and lightness, and enjoyment of movement.

I know a work is finished when I run out of time! I think there are various stages of “finished” and generally I like to continue making small adjustments throughout the life of a piece.

It is poetry or flow generally, that I see as beautiful in dance.

Next project
: My company tours until May and I’m performing a new duet with Sylvie Guillem called Push, first shown at Sadler’s Wells last September. It’s presented in a program with Solo, a new solo that I made for Sylvie; and Shift, a solo that I perform. My next new work, which I begin creating in August, is an ensemble piece involving a wall, or solid vertical plane that will allow my use of flow and energy to enter into new territory.

Wayne McGregor

Artistic director, Random Dance, London

Interviewed by Lizzy Le Quesne

The qualities that I look for in a dancer are intelligence, curiosity, openness and integrity.

A piece for me is never finished, it’s only a marker in time…to be continued.

For me, beauty is something that puzzles, inspires, surprises and is incomplete. Beauty is really inexplicable—it just exists in the moment.

Next project
: This spring I have a new piece for NDT1, a new work for Random Dance for Brighton Festival, and then I direct Dido and Aeneas at La Scala. In November I premiere a work for The Royal Ballet.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro

Artistic Director, Khmer Arts Academy, Long Beach, CA

Interviewed by Emma Stein

I look for a dancer who is very serious about what she does. Her physical structure, talent, training, and personality are all important. She must be a quick learner, patient, committed, and curious.

When I choreograph, I usually start with something simple and understandable; from there I find a spot for new exploration. Even though Cambodian classical dance has pre-defined vocabulary, creativity is always possible. I know the work is complete when its theme is successfully addressed from step A to step B to step C.

Beauty exists when the music, movement, and mood all correspond. This is true for all dance forms, East to West. In Romeo and Juliet’s love duet, intertwining bodies are physical, emotional, spiritual; in Rama and Ravana’s battle the energy is of attack. The audience can feel choreographically-generated emotions even if they do not understand the storyline. Choreography is human behavior stylized into dance.

New Work:
Pamina Devi: The Magic Flute Revisited, with choreography based in classical Cambodian dance forms, will premiere at the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, Austria, December 2006.

Sally Silvers

Choreographer, NYC

Interviewed by Karen Hildebrand

Because I make work based on my own improvisations, I look for people who can capture something of the eccentric way I approach movement. I tend to choose someone who completely attracts the eye. They know who they are and how to focus while they’re out there onstage. I don’t like people to all look alike. I like contrast.

Sometimes I’m never finished. A piece is only finished for one run of performances. If I ever do it again, I’ll do it differently. The ending often surprises me. I find the piece develops its own voice despite my best intentions.

I’m not sure that beauty is what I look for in work. I look for something that can make what is familiar, like the human body and the way it moves, feel unfamiliar. It may be one movement or combination that I’ve never seen before that intrigues me. That would make the whole performance memorable.

Next project:
In April I’m dancing in Yvonne Rainier’s new work at Dance Theater Workshop. In May, I will perform near my home in Tennessee for the first time in 25 years. In “live choreography” I make work in front of an audience with dancers I’ve never worked with before.