Keepers of the Choreography
Jonathan Alsberry, who has staged work for Aszure Barton. Photo by Don Lee, Courtesy Aszure Barton & Artists.
Becoming a rehearsal director or a répétiteur for a company used to be considered a path for retired dancers. But the nature of a dancer’s job and the culture of companies are changing. Dancers are dancing longer, and many smaller, choreographer-based companies are seeking ways to get their work out in the world and keep dancers employed for the maximum amount of weeks. “There is less definition now as performing, dancing and staging all really inform each other,” says Jill Johnson, a longtime member of Frankfurt Ballet who began setting William Forsythe’s works in 2000 and is now a professor at Harvard. What was once a career transition can now be considered simply a career addition.
Soak It All In
When choosing a stager, most directors are looking for a level of professionalism that goes beyond showing up to rehearsal on time. When choreographer Jessica Lang was in the process of starting her new company, Jessica Lang Dance, she knew she needed someone she could trust. Clifton Brown was not only familiar with her work and her standards, but he had also been an assistant rehearsal director for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “I knew he had the skills to control the room, and he also has a really wonderful sense of the body and how to coach and fix,” Lang says.
Communication is a huge part of staging: Movements and phrases have to be broken down and taught, and the ideas or stories behind those movements clearly translated to the individual dancers. When she began working with Jonathan Alsberry in 2005, choreographer Aszure Barton found that his natural leadership, “bright and infectious” energy and sense of humor made him a natural choice for staging her work, since setting a positive tone can make a rehearsal more productive for everyone.
Directors also look for a dancer’s ability to pay attention to detail. Setting work not only involves translating steps to a new group of dancers, but keeping in mind the larger vision of the choreographer. For Johnson, it has always been more than a question of sequence. “I try to establish the same conditions and environment for what it’s like to work with Bill, to create an open exchange for this new set of dancers to use the choreography as a means of self expression.”
Learn As You Go
Many stagers find that experience is the best teacher. Johnson believes that all dancers who have spent their lives working with rehearsal directors and stagers begin to absorb the components of the job. To that end, Barton encourages her dancers “to focus equally on both listening to and leading a room” while in her rehearsals.
Brown acknowledges that it took him awhile to be comfortable with the leadership jump. “I’ve found that being willing, open and sensitive to the people in the room and observing how the information is being received is so important,” he says. “Your communication has to adjust and change.” Some ideas and images will resonate, some won’t. There will be times when words work best and other times when it’s better to get hands-on or demonstrate.
But dancers can get frustrated and emotions can run high in the studio. In those cases, Alsberry has learned the value of passing on tricks (like songs or riddles) for memorizing long, difficult sequences in Barton’s work as a way “to channel these emotions into a positive light.” Make a list of approaches that you have seen work and compare it against ones that have gone wrong. Illuminating ways to problem-solve, experimenting with choices and promoting discovery through repetition and analysis of the process is key to passing on choreography to new artists.
Reap the Benefits
Barton finds that sending rehearsal assistants like Alsberry out to set her work not only fosters new relationships, but allows them to dive deeper into the creative process. Alsberry has gone to a variety of universities and institutions, both domestic and abroad, including the Bavarian State Ballet, to set Barton’s work. He has seen how simple repetition of her dense and complicated choreography can perform miracles. He now has less fear of being wrong and is able to be more intuitive in his own performances because Barton’s work has literally become his own.
For Johnson, working with so many different people on Forsythe’s movement gave her job as a dancer more vitality and sustenance. “Even if you originated a part in a ballet, the more you had to explain it to someone else, the more you began to understand the role and work as a whole,” she says. “There is no such thing as a stupid question—each one is an opportunity for me to learn more and be surprised by something I had never noticed before in the dance.”
A cheat sheet for finding yourself in the front of the room:
• Small companies often have one main rehearsal director who is also the right hand person for setting work outside the company. However, when choreographers find themselves in a busy season with several simultaneous projects, more dancers may be needed to stage work.
• Familiarity with the choreographer’s work is necessary, but no set length of time is required with a company or a choreographer to be considered qualified for the job. There is no harm in expressing your interest in setting work.
• Projects and timelines vary: Schedule permitting, many stagers work alongside the choreographer in rehearsals and act as a sounding board during the creation of new work. During busy seasons, you might be sent out to stage repertory by yourself. Time management, whether you have a few days or a few weeks, is essential to the success of each project.
• Compensation varies. Some dancers are paid an auxiliary salary for their services when it is in addition to their job as a dancer. But often, it is simply a way to keep receiving your weekly dancing salary during layoff weeks.
Just hearing the word "improvisation" is enough to make some ballet dancers shake in their pointe shoes. But for Chantelle Pianetta, it's a practice she relishes. Depending on the weekend, you might find her gracing Bay Area stages as a principal with Menlowe Ballet or sweeping in awards at West Coast swing competitions.
She specializes in Jack and Jill events, which involve improvised swing dancing with an unexpected partner in front of a panel of judges. (Check her out in action below.) While sustaining her ballet career, over the past four years Pianetta has quickly risen from novice to champion level on the WCS international competition circuit.
Sean Dorsey was always going to be an activist. Growing up in a politically engaged, progressive family in Vancouver, British Columbia, "it was my heart's desire to create change in the world," he says. Far less certain was his future as a dancer.
Like many dancers, Dorsey fell in love with movement as a toddler. However, he didn't identify strongly with any particular gender growing up. Dorsey, who now identifies as trans, says, "I didn't see a single person like me anywhere in the modern dance world." The lack of trans role models and teachers, let alone all-gender studio facilities where he could feel safe and welcome, "meant that even in my wildest dreams, there was no room for that possibility."
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Inside a bustling television studio in Los Angeles, Lindsay Arnold Cusick hears the words "Five minutes to showtime." While dancers and celebrities covered head to toe in sequins whirl around preparing for their live performances on "Dancing with the Stars," Cusick pauses to say a prayer to God and express her gratitude.
"I know that it's not a given, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do what I love for a living," says Cusick, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For her, prayer is a ritualized expression of her faith that she has maintained since she was a girl in Provo, Utah. Even with her seven-plus years of industry experience, she always takes a moment to steady herself and close her prayer in Christ's name before rushing onto the stage.