When Inspiration Won't Strike

March 31, 2015

Choreographer’s block. It’s the black cloud that all dancemakers—seasoned artists and green ones alike—experience at some point nearly every time they create. What separates the professionals from the novices is learning how to press on and not let it derail the work. We talked to six choreographers about what they do when they feel stuck. A common theme: When you are having trouble, chances are it’s because you’re challenging yourself in a way that you never have before.


O’Neal’s Opposing Forces. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom, Courtesy O’Neal.

Amy O’Neal

Amy O’Neal. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy O’Neal.

If I’m working on something that has a lot of complex social or political layers, sometimes I’ll get blocked in how I’m going to express that physically. My body gets tight. It feels bound. The three-quarter mark of a piece is most difficult. That’s where you’re worried you will lose your audience—there’s pressure to take the work to an unexpected place. I have people come in throughout the process. Friends, colleagues, some who aren’t even dancers. It helps you get out of your own head, whether you agree with their opinions or not. Visual artists make a million versions of the same work. That doesn’t happen with performance. But there’s nothing wrong with recycling material. There have been periods when I’ll use the same phrase in 10 pieces. I want to explore something from all different angles.

Up next: O’Neal’s evening-length work Opposing Forces will tour through 2016. A


Chloé Arnold

Arnold’s Syncopated Ladies. Photo by Kylie Lewalle, Courtesy The SILLAR Company.

When I’m feeling choreographer’s block I’ll go take class—and not necessarily tap. Salsa, hip hop, something that frees me. Something where I can see someone else being truly creative. Or I’ll find someone else who inspires me. I once went to a Beyoncé concert and stayed up almost all night creating. It’s amazing when you leave something like that and you can’t sit down—whether it’s seeing Beyoncé, a dance performance or live jazz. When inspiration does come to you, get it out right away. When I made Flawless, set to Beyoncé’s single, I was totally stuck, to the point where I was flying out to set it and had very little finished. Inspiration came to me on the plane. I went to the bathroom area and made the movement right there. People thought I was crazy. But it became Syncopated Ladies’ staple dance when we were on “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Up next: Syncopated Ladies: Live will continue to travel the U.S.


Troy Schumacher

Troy Schumacher. Photo by Henry Leutwyler

Teresa Reichlen in Schumacher’s first work for New York City Ballet, Clearing Dawn. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Choreographer’s block is like a wet patch in your ceiling. You can’t just fix the patch, you have to fix the problem. You usually think about what comes right before, but often you have to go back much further to move on. Give your dancers a break and spend five minutes alone. Look at the music. Or look at the sources that inspired the work—paintings, poems, whatever. Keep a notebook and write down every ran­dom idea throughout the process. Very few of mine actually make it into the ballet, but it’s a resource I can look back at when I’m stuck. Don’t be afraid to ask your dancers for a suggestion. When you’re in your mind, your brain is running at 150 miles per hour. Sometimes only the dancers can clearly see what you’ve created.

Up next: Schumacher’s BalletCollective will be in residency at the Palm Theater in Telluride, CO, July 27–August 1.


Gill’s New Work for the Desert. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima, Courtesy NYLA.

Beth Gill 

Beth Gill. Photo by Chris Cameron, Courtesy Gill.

I think about moments of stall as a necessary part of the creative process. I tend to trust that there is processing happening on a subconscious level and it just hasn’t come to the surface yet. Sometimes that means letting go and revisiting the work after it premieres. I just restaged New Work for the Desert, so I had some time to take a look at it again. Now, I have the capacity to clearly see what my intentions were.

Up next: A premiere at New York Live Arts’ Live Ideas festival in NYC on April 15.


Josie Walsh

Josie Walsh. Photo by Kelly Walsh, Courtesy Walsh.

Joffrey Ballet School summer intensive students in Walsh’s work. Photo by Jody Kasch, Courtesy Walsh.

There’s pressure to be brilliant all the time. But that’s just not possible. Sometimes I’ll create a piece like Swiss cheese. I know there are going to be holes. Once I sketch out sections, I can better understand the connecting points. Or, sometimes I write out ballets like scripts: When I did Secret Garden on State Street Ballet, I literally wrote out a version of the story to figure out what it meant on a deeper level.

Up next: Beckanne Sisk and Fabrice Calmels will dance Walsh’s work at the Gala de Danza in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, June 13–14.


Norwood Pennewell and Sade Bully in Fagan’s Griot New York. Photo by Paula Summit, Courtesy Garth Fagan Dance.

Garth Fagan

Garth Fagan. Photo by Steve LaBuzetta, Courtesy Garth Fagan Dance.

Within the average 30-minute piece, I’ll get choreographer’s block four or five times. When I do an evening-length, then, Jesus, at least 10 times. At this stage in my career I’ve learned not to welcome blocks but to embrace them. Because, usually, it means you’re going astray in a positive way. I love my longtime collaborators. I’ll chat with them not just about the piece, but about anything. I’ll go to galleries and look at contemporary art and the classics. I’ll also tape sections so I can look back later. Sometimes you can’t see it in the studio. But when it’s on screen it’s clear that, Oh, she should come in downstage right, not center stage, you fool!

It’s time to roll up your sleeves. Tough it out. Look at the work. Are you sticking to your values? Reevaluate, dig deeper, polish—and don’t be afraid to discard and simplify. Find out what is wonderful about the work, what’s brilliant about what you’ve already said, and build on that. There’s beauty in simplicity.

Up next: Garth Fagan Dance will celebrate 45 years at its April 25 gala.