Since founding her company, NYC-based Dorrance Dance, in 2011, Michelle Dorrance has won one major award after another, starting with a Bessie and culminating in 2015's MacArthur Fellowship. Like most tappers, she's quick to cite the legends and masters who came before her. But Dorrance's belief in the power of tap has helped her carve out space for her own genre-bending work. —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone
Al Blackstone is one of the fastest-rising choreographers in the industry, creating one successful piece after another. After making his Broadway debut as a dancer in Wicked, Blackstone won the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for Choreographic Excellence, which gave him the opportunity to direct and choreograph a full-length production, Happy We'll Be. For the last three years, he's worked as Sonya Tayeh's associate choreographer, and his work, which often has a musical-theater slant, has also been featured on “So You Think You Can Dance." DS caught up with Blackstone to see what inspires his thoughtful and dynamic choreography.
Choreographer Matthew Neenan, who danced in Pennsylvania Ballet's corps, was eager to include plenty of dancers in his first work for the company back in 1998. “As a corps member, I'd always been around large groups, and it excited me to get everyone in there!" says Neenan, who ended up using 20 dancers in his ballet. But with a large cast come a lot of complications—complications that can sometimes overshadow the fun of having all those dancers to play with. What are the keys to clutter-free, universally flattering large-group choreo? Here are a few creative and practical ways to devise choreography that will help you highlight your cast's strengths.
Kyle Abraham is on fire. In the past few years, he’s been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and honored by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Ford Foundation. College dance departments across the country can’t get enough of the young choreographer—and neither can major dance companies: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, The Martha Graham Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago have all commissioned work from Abraham. He was even the resident commissioned artist at New York Live Arts, NYC’s postmodern dance hub. Dance Spirit caught up with Abraham to find out what drives his historically and emotionally charged work. —Jenny Dalzell
“Many of my works have some sort of Pittsburgh influence in them, since that’s where I’m from.”
(Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)
“The Radio Show was initially inspired by two things: the one urban radio station in Pittsburgh going off the air, and my father, who had Alzheimer’s and aphasia. I was thinking about what happens when a community loses its voice, as well as my memories of the songs I grew up listening to. The radio station had both AM and FM feeds—the AM station played old soul music, by artists like The Shirelles, and the FM station played music by Jay-Z and Kanye West. So my work was broken in two parts, using music from both stations.”
"David Dorfman, whose company I danced with, always said to live in the uncomfortable and divorce the familiar when improvising or choreographing. Sometimes choreographic block hits—and when nothing is coming, you can’t force it. You just have to be patient. That can be frustrating when you’re paying for studio space, but patience can also be really rewarding in the long run."
Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion dancers in Pavement (Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)
“Pavement evolved from looking at the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood; reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; and thinking about my experience in Pittsburgh in 1991, which was my freshman year of high school. I wanted to create a work that explored the time period between the film and the book, as well as the history of Pittsburgh’s black community.”
Wendy Whelan and Abraham in Restless Creature (Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)
“I’m a big fan of mythology, and I’ve been a history geek since elementary school. The piece I created for Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature, ‘The Serpent and the Smoke,’ came from a myth I thought I’d heard: A snake becomes enchanted with smoke and thinks it’s seeing another snake. As it turns out, this myth doesn’t actually exist—I made it up.”
“I love working with Chalvar Monteiro, who was in my company for a little over four years, and with one of my current dancers, Tamisha Guy. I love their versatility: They’re trained in Cunningham and Graham techniques, and they’ve worked with Kevin Wynn, who’s a huge influence on my work. They’re great movement generators, too.”
Abraham (center) rehearsing Another Night with AAADT's Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green (photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)
“I created Another Night for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater while I was making Pavement. It all stemmed from the same ideas. But Another Night was much lighter. It addressed the vitality and the community of an earlier era—the time when jazz artists like Art Blakey and Billy Strayhorn were performing in Pittsburgh.”
“I was initially inspired to dance by Joffrey Ballet’s Billboards, with music by Prince. I was a huge Prince fan, and I identified with the music first—that’s what pulled me in to dance. I’d never experienced that before, and it stuck with me."
When the Wolves Came In (photo by Ian Douglas courtesy Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion)
“The repertory program When the Wolves Came In and the evening-length The Watershed were both inspired by Max Roach’s album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The subject matter—the civil-rights movement, the Emancipation Proclamation and apartheid in South Africa—was tricky. I didn’t want to tap into all of that too literally. Instead, I wanted to create work that nodded to the album.”
Today, 20-year-old choreographer Emma Bradley spends her days touring with the dance convention NRG Dance Project, making work for students across the U.S. and Australia. But her first choreographic ventures were far more personal: During her junior and senior years of high school, Bradley started creating her own solos for dance competitions. “Making work on my body totally influenced the way I think about and process choreo-graphy," she says. “And it set me on a different artistic path than I imagined."
These days, more and more dancers are testing out self-choreographed solos at competitions. It can be risky—you could be going up against seasoned choreographers like Travis Wall—but the potential rewards make it worth taking the chance. “Choreographing your own solo is an invaluable learning experience," says Andrew Winghart, a judge and choreographer for JUMP Dance Convention. “It forces you to look outside of yourself as a dancer, to really analyze your facility and how you can look your best." Tempted to try your hand at self-choreography? Read on to find out more about taking creative control.
“Dancing with the Stars” pro Derek Hough gets around. This year alone, in addition to the work he did on Seasons 18 and 19 of “DWTS,” he starred in both a national tour (MOVE Live on Tour with his sister, Julianne Hough) and in the hip-hop dance film Make Your Move. He even choreographed a gold-medal–winning ice-dancing waltz for Meryl Davis and Charlie White for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and a sultry tango for American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland. Dance Spirit caught up with Hough, who recently earned his sixth Emmy nomination for his choreography on Season 18 of “DWTS,” to find out what inspires his work.
Derek Hough with Amy Purdy in Too Darn Hot (photo by Adam Taylor/ABC)
“I’ve realized that when I hear a song I like, I see colors and shades, like blue, red or an amber glow. That color paints the mood for the rest of the piece. For the jazz duet Too Darn Hot I created for Amy Purdy and myself, I envisioned a smoky haze—and imagined we were in an old-timey detective’s office. I stuck with that first instinct. On ‘DWTS,’ the costumes are designed before a routine’s choreography is finished. So you really need a strong vision before you begin.”
“I’m totally inspired by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo’s energy and work ethic. Their pieces are so fun and creative. And I love watching Travis Wall. He has such a beautiful sense of flow, and he’s evolved so much as a dancer. I’m blessed to have become friends with such phenomenal talents.”
“Reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and books by Deepak Chopra, has taught me to be in the moment. If I’m fully present, everything I see can become a set piece. I’ve learned the best ideas come when you’re vigilant and aware of your surroundings.”
“Most of the time, ‘DWTS’ chooses music for us to use. But earlier this year I heard Christina Perri’s song ‘Human’ and knew I had to use it on the show. It spoke to Amy’s journey from losing her legs at 19 to becoming a Paralympic snowboarder. The same thing happened with Hardwell’s song ‘Dare You,’ which I chose for our finale freestyle. Amy’s message throughout the season was about daring to get up off the ground, daring to live—the song completely fit.”
Hough partnering Allison Holker in Heart Cry (photo by Adam Taylor/ABC)
“A friend of mine wrote the music for Heart Cry, which I performed with Allison Holker on ‘DWTS.’ I wanted to choreograph a routine that was a bit of a departure from what I usually create for the show. And Allison is like my muse. I love working with her, and we share a similar energy and movement quality.”
“Getting to work with Misty Copeland, who, unlike many celebrities on ‘DWTS,’ is incredibly in tune with her body, was so refreshing. It was my first time choreographing a ballet, and I threw myself into it. Over time, I’ve learned to take risks. I have confidence that I’ll figure it out along the way.”
“If I’m stressed out, or if I need to escape, I love going home to Utah. Looking out at the mountains and seeing their vastness is humbling. You can step back and say, ‘You know what? I’m all right.’ The mountains help put my problems in perspective.”
Dana Foglia had a stressful first outing as a choreographer. As a longtime commercial dancer, she wasn’t used to being at the head of the room, and her dancer’s instinct to be “perfect” was so strong that she had trouble developing her personal style. Searching for inspiration, she began experimenting with different types of music, and eventually that tactic helped her switch from following rules to creating new vocabulary. “Understanding that no movement was ‘right’ or ‘correct’ helped me find my creative voice,” she says. Today, Foglia is the director of a successful company, Dana Foglia Dance.
Making the transition from dancer to choreographer can be daunting, especially since dancers aren’t accustomed to taking the lead in the studio. But certain skills you’ve honed from years of experience as a dancer can actually enhance your choreography—and knowing how to use the networks you already have can jump-start your choreographic career. Here are tips from a few of the pros who’ve successfully made the leap.
Jessica Lang Dance performing Lang's Lines Cubed (photo by Kazu, courtesy Jessica Lang)
What Do I Already Know?
One of the biggest advantages dancers have is that they know what it’s like to be choreographed on. You already understand what makes for a great dancer/choreographer relationship (the dancers feel involved and valued) and what makes for a not-so-great one (rehearsals that run overtime, choreographers who never thank their dancers).
Sabrina Matthews, who’s created works for companies in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, says consciously creating an engaging atmosphere in the studio makes the resulting choreography better. “I’m adamant about fostering mutual respect,” she says. “I remember how much I appreciated that when I was a dancer, and without it, the work suffers.” Jessica Lang, who danced with Twyla Tharp before starting her own company, Jessica Lang Dance, sets a similar tone in the studio: “Drawing from my own experience as a dancer, I’m determined to create an environment in which dancers feel safe and able to be themselves. When they know they’re valued, that results in the best working atmosphere.”
How Am I Supposed to Act Now that I’m in Charge?
As a newbie choreographer, your first opportunities may be workshops or school shows, which probably means making work on dancers who are also your peers—and telling your friends what to do can feel awkward. The good news is that if your friends respect you as a dancer, you’re halfway to earning their respect as a choreographer, too. Freelance choreographer Nicholas Villeneuve, who made a piece on Ballet Hispanico when he was still dancing with the company, says, “Always have a great relationship with your fellow dancers—they’re your partners one minute and your bosses the next!”
Doing adequate prep work before each rehearsal will build further trust in your leadership. Have your music ready and your thematic ideas mapped out, for example, so you can get right down to work. Just remember that there’s a fine line between being prepared and being rigid. New choreographers, afraid of looking indecisive, may shy away from creating on the spot, opting instead to create every step in advance. Matthews made her first piece that way, but says she eventually gained confidence and began creating in the moment. “Especially for pas de deux work, it’s impossible to discover all the possibilities without creating on living, breathing bodies in front of you,” she says. Striking a balance between authority and flexibility is usually the best way to go.
Sabrina Matthews (right) working with the Royal Swedish Ballet (photo by Carl Thorborg, courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet and Royal Swedish Opera)
How Can I Juggle Two Roles at Once?
Most aspiring choreographers start out while they’re still performing. Though jumping between roles can be challenging, it’s also a great opportunity to learn your new craft from the inside out. NYC-based choreographer Joey Dowling made her first piece at age 16 for her high school dance company, and kept at it throughout her dancing years. Switching between being the sculptor and being the clay was hard, but it helped develop her creative mind: “I would think to myself, ‘Why is the choreographer making that choice? Would I do that?’ I started to ask questions a dancer wouldn’t normally ask.” Dowling stresses that unpacking a choreographer’s intention will enrich your dancing, too: “Trying to understand the choreographer’s perspective will help you grow and make you a smarter performer.”
What’s the Best Way to Get My Work Out There?
Once you’ve decided to become a choreographer, creating dances is only half the battle. Getting your work seen is a full-time job of its own. Luckily, you already have a broad base of contacts in the business, and there are lots of ways to network.
An online presence is critical, both through social media and a personal website. Dowling recommends setting up a YouTube channel where people can see your work. Villeneuve has a website promoting his choreography, and after updating it he’ll sometimes forward the link to his former directors.
Most dancers aren’t used to being assertive, but Dowling cautions against shyness when it comes to networking. “Especially at first, don’t be afraid to take on the tiny jobs and to ask your friends to dance for free,” she says. “It’s difficult, but when someone says, ‘We’re not accepting work,’ send your reel anyway.” Artistic vision and voice are important, but when it comes to launching a career, persistence is one of the best qualities a choreographer can have.
You already know that deciding where to go to college is a big deal. And finding a school that fits both your academic and your dance needs can be especially hard. But while pursuing a dance major is one option, it’s not the only one! Many colleges are also home to a bunch of impressive student-run dance companies. Why would you want to be part of a group run by your peers? The opportunities just might surprise you.
College is all about trying new things, and student-run dance groups make it easy to do just that. Want to explore a niche dance style, like bhangra or belly dancing? There might be a student group devoted to it. Want to experience a whole range of styles? There are companies that do it all, too. Don’t see the kind of organization you’d want to join? At most schools, you can get funding to found it yourself.
Sarabande, a student-run company at Tufts University, performing Say My Name, choreographed by Ani Loshkajian (photo by Andrew R. Schneer)
Even if you’ve only ever considered yourself a die-hard ballroom dancer, a student-run group like Arizona State University’s Free The Dance can give you the chance to set aside your heels and slip on some funky sneakers. The group, created and run by recent ASU graduate J. Bouey, holds free weekly dance classes for all ASU students. “Our most popular classes are contemporary, jazz and hip hop,” says Bouey, “but we’ll also have partnering, ballroom, tango, Latin, swing, African and belly dancing throughout the semester.”
When Ani Loshkajian, president of Tufts’ student-run dance company Sarabande, first joined the troupe as a freshman, she was a total bunhead who had a hard time letting loose and giving in to movement. Fast-forward four years: “I feel like I’m an entirely different dancer,” she says. Because Sarabande allows its members to explore a variety of styles, “my dancing has become much more personal and expressive of who I am.”
Keep the Passion Alive
If you don’t want to major in dance, student groups offer an alternative way to make it an important part of your life on campus. “I didn’t choose one passion over the other,” says Loshkajian, an international relations and French major. “Sarabande made it possible for me to continue my passion for dance, without sacrificing the other visions I had for my future. In fact, being a part of the company has served as an incredible creative outlet that’s contributed to my academics.”
And if you are a dance major, participating in a student-run group can be the release you need to make sure you don’t burn out. “It can be hard to maintain a real joy for dance when you’re studying it in an academic setting,” says Bouey, a dance major. “Free The Dance has been my escape. I can show up and just move, without worrying about homework. It’s helped me to hold on to that innocent love for dance.”
Go Beyond the Stage
Choosing to take on a leadership role in a student-run group can help you learn to shine offstage as well as on. Sarabande, for example, holds elections each semester to determine who will be a part of an executive board made up of a president, vice president, treasurer, social chair, producer, public relations manager and webmaster. For Loshkajian, serving as the company’s president has taught her many of the skills she’ll need to thrive after graduation. “I’ve learned how to work closely with a team, and how important personal relationships are to leveraging results,” she says. “Most important, I’ve learned that no matter what, the show must go on!”
For those interested in making dances, a student-run group can provide opportunities to try out choreography. It’s pretty much the only time in your life that you’ll have access to great dancers, rehearsal spaces and performance venues at no charge.
Sarabande's Heather Ngai and Matt Evers in Evers' Next Chapter (photo by Kyra Sturgill)
Think choreography isn’t your thing? A student-run company could be just the environment you need to get going. “There’s a freedom that comes from being in a company with your peers that can unlock a flow of creativity,” says Nikolas Kaim, artistic director of Ithaca College’s Rock Hard Dance Company. “You don’t always find that in a professional company or at a studio.”
Student groups may offer teaching opportunities, too. While Free The Dance doesn’t currently put on formal concerts, students can audition to become instructors for the group at the beginning of each semester. “It’s a really great chance to improve your teaching skills,” Bouey says. “At the end of each class, we have a discussion where we give feedback to the teacher. It’s a good time to learn the small things, like needing to speak louder or teach more slowly.”
Ultimately, there’s a wide range when it comes to what your experience in a student-run group might look like, because everything is up to you and your peers. And as you all create things together, you’ll probably become great friends, too. “This is one of the only environments where you’re surrounded by people who love dance and are choosing to spend their limited free time doing it,” Kaim says. “No one’s making money, no one’s parents are forcing them to participate—everyone’s just there because they want to dance.”