Every once in a while, you stumble across a choreographer or dancer on YouTube, and you're like, Wait, how on EARTH am I just now discovering this person?! Where have they been all my life? Did I just reach dance nirvana? And then you proceed to watch every single video you can find, scouring the interwebz for one more glimpse of your new-found idol.

Don't judge: I know you've all done the same thing

This week, Japanese hip-hop choreographer Koharu Sugawara is the artist responsible for blowing the DS editors' minds. While she's based in Japan, Sugawara frequents Urban Dance Camp, the annual international hip-hop workshop in Germany that floods YouTube with brilliant excerpts from choreographers like DS faves Keone and Mari Madrid. We have UDC to thank for facilitating our recent Sugawara binge. And we would be remiss not to share the experience with you.

Simply scroll down, and prepare to experience sheer hip-hop-nerd bliss.

The video that first caught our attention was of Sugawara's combo to Sia's "Elastic Heart." (You know we already have a soft, Maddie-Ziegler-shaped spot in our hearts for this song...) The choreography shows off Sugawara's molten, dare we say elastic style. This girl knows how to work a pair of harem pants, and her use of tension is the perfect example of how to bring the subtle sexy.

But then we learned she can hit hard and bring the stank when we watched her combo to Mary J. Blige's "The One."

Oh, and apparently she also has Michael-Jackson swag—and a rare ability to make the running man look cool (at 1:15)—as made evident by her clip to Ed Sheeran's "Sing."

While watching her video to Clean Bandit's "Rather Be," we saw her overwhelming love and joy for dance.

And then she did a combo to Destiny's Child, and we pretty much lost it.

#winning

courtesy the Kimmel Center

Rennie Harris is one of the most sought-after hip-hop choreographers today. Growing up in Philadelphia, PA, he danced with several crews, including The Step Masters and The Scanner Boys. He started teaching at 15, and continues to teach hip-hop technique and history around the world. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Harris’ Illadelph Legends Festival, the longest-running festival of its kind, as well as the 20th anniversary of his company, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM), which is known for critically acclaimed works like Rome & Jewels and Facing Mekka. In 2007, Harris founded a second company, Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring-Works (RHAW), to educate and mentor young dancers. Harris has also set works on ballet, modern and jazz companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. —Komal Thakkar

Dear Rennie,

I’m writing from 2012 to share some advice with you. 

Rennie Harris in Sixth Grade

Think about the harmful situations you’ve allowed yourself to be in. It’s OK to say no! You don’t have to do what others do to be considered “cool.”  

When introducing yourself, begin with “I am.” Be sure to look people in the eyes when speaking to them. Be honest, even if it’s uncomfortable. 

Seek the input of those who have experience in your field. You can’t do everything by yourself. And don’t be afraid of structure. It’s a “guide-line,” not a “God-line.” You can go off the path as long as you get back on it eventually.  

As a choreographer, make sure to create when you’re inspired—and find a choreographic mentor. Both will keep you from wasting time in the studio.

Most importantly, always remember: Movement is the manifestation of your reality. It’s not what you say but what you do that confirms you. Reality is defined as what is tangible, what we can see and feel. For example: The shirt you have on right now was once someone’s idea, but it required a physical action—sewing—to make that idea into reality. All your dreams can manifest if you take action. Don’t get lost in talking about it. Do it!

Rennie Harris 

If you're in the L.A. area tomorrow, don't miss your chance to see WilldaBeast make his TEDx debut. Wait, say what?

According to an Instagram from the other day, our favorite choreographer/dancer/entrepreneur/all-around dance revolutionary WilldaBeast has been invited to speak at TEDx Watts, an independently organized all-day conference showcasing "ideas worth spreading."

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A choreographer’s notebook can be a very private thing. After all, it’s where she crafts concepts, scribbles formations and documents her dancers’ rehearsal processes before anything is ready to be seen by an audience. And while many artists use video cameras to record phrases and set movement on dancers, others choose to stick with good, old-fashioned pen and paper. Here, three choreographers give us a peek into their notebooks and explain just what their notes mean.

(courtesy Sonya Tayeh)

Sonya Tayeh

Company: Sonya Tayeh’s freelance dancers & The Bengsons

Work: you’ll still call me by name

Premiere: December 2016

Number of Performers: 10 dancers; 6 musicians

There’s something about putting pen to paper that makes me feel present. For this particular piece, I used three notebooks, and I throw all of them in my backpack and carry them with me everywhere. By the end of the day, I tend to be a little disorganized. One journal, which was more like a diary, became homework for the musicians—some of the text was recorded and used as lyrics in the music.

I used a recorder, too—along with a GoPro, iPhone and iPad. I’d create a phrase on my dancers, and, while they were dancing, ask them to describe what they were doing physically—for instance, “I move my arms to the right, I stand, I wait,” or “She drops, she drops.” Sometimes, I’ll write those phrases down in my notes so I remember which phrase goes with which musical cue.

The page with the stage directions is depicting a section I’m seeing as a heated conversation between two people. The broken lines represent one dancer’s trajectory downstage; the arrow is the second person. The circles are other dancers, who are trying to step into the conversation to maybe diffuse the situation. It’s pretty messy—I don’t typically draw out stage directions. But I made this while I was watching the dancers in action, so I could show them their movements—I didn’t want them to forget it. There’s not usually much structure to the pages. I find that my journals often start neatly with great handwriting and devolve from there.

(Courtesy Ana Lopez)

Ana Lopez

Assistant to Alejandro Cerrudo

Company: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Work: Extremely Close

Premiere: 2007

Number of Dancers: 8

These notes were for my first official assistantship. I was setting the piece on a company in Madrid, and I was traveling with Alejandro. I’d performed the piece already, so I knew the movement phrases, but there are also three walls that are crucial to the work. Various dancers move the walls throughout each section, and keeping track of which dancer is behind which wall can get pretty complex. So I had multiple notebook sections: one for the walls, and another for each dancer’s choreography—those I wrote in Spanish. Typically it’s just key words, like “arabesque, left leg,” rather than each individual step in a phrase.

We show dancers learning the piece videos of the work, but it’s impossible to see the behind-the-wall goings on. That’s where the notes come in. I drew squares in pencil to represent the three walls. The red dots are the walls’ trajectory, and the blue squares are their final position at the end of each section. Each square is numbered, which corresponds to the number on the back of the actual wall—some have bars at various heights on the back sides for specific choreography, so they have to be numbered.

I also made sure to write what’s going on in terms of the choreography. For instance, “Andrew and Jessica’s duet,” or “Alice’s Solo.” Alice’s Solo happens in front of wall #2, but since all the walls move during that specific section, it’s helpful to have everything recorded to avoid collisions.

(Courtesy Andrea Miller)

Andrea Miller

Company: Gallim Dance

Work: W H A L E

Premiere: December 2015

Number of Dancers: 8

I have two different note-taking methods. The first is more concept- and idea-driven—the notes come from conversations about the piece I have with dancers and collaborators, or even just conversations in my own head. The second happens during runs of the work, where I jot down what’s working or what’s not. Sometimes I’ll use smiley or frowning faces—but I have to tell dancers that if they see a frown next to their name, it’s not that I don’t like what they’re doing. It’s that the section needs more work.

The page that begins “W H A L E—Gallim 2015” is from early on in the process, when I was still plotting out the concept of the piece. I saw it as multiple film scenes, or vignettes, so each camera icon is my way of notating a scene. I often use little icons: the circle with squiggles, for example, is a lighting cue, in that case to dim the lights. For musical cues I draw little music notes.

Each word or phrase in a box, like “The Proposal,” is a key to the narrative. In “Text,” one of the dancers approaches an audience member in a flirtatious way to get his or her name, as if they were at a party. I don’t do a lot of text in my work, so we needed to develop those skills. “Workshop conversation with audience” is a note to myself to invest time in the rehearsal process to work on that text and explore not only how the dancers could do it more comfortably, but also how it fit in with the larger piece.

I keep my notes organized so that during rehearsals, I can work loosely, stay present and be open to new ideas or changes. I don’t normally notate any of the steps; my dancers are responsible for learning and remembering the movement. If they need to record it themselves, they can. Instead, I take notes about the meaning of the piece, and if the movement I’ve created is driving the emotional needs of a particular moment.

(Photo by Mike Quan, courtesy Tricia Miranda)

 

Tricia Miranda may have left the world of classical dance, but the years she spent training with Arizona’s Yuma Ballet Theater and on the convention/competition circuit haven’t completely left her. As a choreographer for artists including Beyoncé, Demi Lovato and Missy Elliott, Miranda draws on her balletic roots, sometimes inserting an extension or a pirouette into her hard-hitting, full-bodied hip-hop routines, which regularly rack up millions of views on YouTube. Miranda’s choreography can also be seen on “The X Factor” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” and you can find her on the faculty of The PULSE on Tour. —Jenny Dalzell

 

“Missy Elliott called me to create her section of the Super Bowl Halftime Show because she wanted kids to perform, and she knew I had the best students. I love Missy’s music—I’ve probably choreographed to every song she’s ever done!

(From left) Gabe De Guzman, Will Simmons, Miranda, Kaycee Rice and Charlize Glass at the Super Bowl (photo courtesy Miranda)

I had to keep in mind that I was working with children, but those dancers can do anything. They can freestyle, tumble, break—and they’re amazing at contemporary choreography, too. Missy wanted the work to be super-energetic and told me not to hold back.”

“If I ever get choreographer’s block, I go on YouTube and watch old videos of Tina Landon, Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul. They’re my biggest inspirations. I love how simple yet visually effective their movement is.”

“For my 2014 PULSE Summer Intensive piece, I wanted to do something a little out of my element. I’d been working with PULSE students for the previous three years, and I was known for high-energy dance-hall numbers. This time, I tried something a little smoother, a little cooler. I love NYC in the 1930s—I picked out the dancers’ costumes first and looked for images from the time period to appear on screen behind the dancers. Then I started creating the movement to match that theme.”

2013–14 PULSE Elite Protégés (Platoon, courtesy The PULSE On Tour)

“For the 2013–14 PULSE Elite Protégé routine, I used a song by Elliphant called ‘Booty Killah (featuring The Reef).’ When I first heard the music, it sounded very jungle-like, almost tribal. I went shopping for the costumes and found a perfect mask for the dancers to wear—all black with a large beak. As it turned out, the mask didn’t really work. It was too hard to see through. Still, I used it as my inspiration. I choreographed a lot of head-pecking movements and animalistic crawling.”

(Photo courtesy Miranda)

 

“Brian Friedman inspires me in every aspect of life. He’s had such a long career. I used to compete against him when I was a kid in Arizona—he’d win everything! It’s so cool to see where his path has taken him. I get a lot of my drive from watching him work.”

Meet Megan Lawson: choreographer to the pop star (by Rob Daly)

Few gigs compare to creating the moves for Madonna. Choreographer Megan Lawson is living that dream.

Lawson, whom you might know from Fanny Pak, began working on Madonna's Rebel Heart Tour a few months ago. But it's not her first rodeo with the Queen of Pop. The Canadian-born choreographer was also responsible for the moves in Madonna's "Living for Love" and "Ghosttown" videos, along with Madonna's 2015 Grammy Awards performance, and was a contributing choreographer to Madge's MDNA tour.

Dance Spirit spoke with Lawson about her work on the upcoming tour.

Dance Spirit: What's the process of choreographing for a tour of this scale?

Megan Lawson: Jamie King is the show's director. The process starts with a discussion between Jamie, Madonna and I about ideas and concepts. Then, my dancers, Jamie and I get into the studio and experiment for a while before presenting to M. She always has a hand in the choreography. She loves to be part of the process and collaborate with everyone, from the lighting designer to the makeup artist. I'd say every number in the tour has at least one part Madonna choreographed herself. It's a really fun process.

DS: Are there other choreographers working with you?

ML: Since I'm the lead choreographer on this tour, I got to recommend other choreographers to collaborate with. I was so fortunate to bring in other artists, including Jillian Meyers, Matt Cady and Kevin Maher, who are all friends of mine. The great thing about involving other choreographers is that the show becomes really diverse. Every song is different stylistically, and each has a unique choreographic vibe.

DS: Does anything about the tour scare you?

ML: Getting it all done in time! It's been a challenge to coordinate everything. Madonna doesn't settle for anything but the best. It takes time. This is certainly the biggest-scale production I've ever experienced. I can't wait to see it all come together. I know it will. But right now it's crunch time, and that's a little scary.

DS: What are your top three favorite Madonna songs?

ML: "Human Nature," "Messiah" and "Falling Free."

DS: What's your advice for Dance Spirit readers?

ML: Explore as many avenues as you can. I never really had goals or plans that were set in stone. I just knew I wanted to dance and create for living. I tried lots of different things—from taking a wide variety of classes to assisting choreographers to picking up small gigs here and there. What really paid off the most, though, was grabbing some friends and making a few little videos of my own. Those experiences were more satisfying than working as a backup dancer—and Madonna ended up hiring me after seeing some of the clips! It's OK if your goals change over time. Be open to your desires and follow your heart.

Madonna's Rebel Heart Tour begins September 9. Visit madonna.com for more info.

Eeeeeeee!

That's the sound we make when we hear about events showcasing emerging choreographers. Maybe that's oddly specific, but think about it: Whatever directions these artists decide to take will help shape the coming decades of dance. Call us #dancenerdz, but we think that's pretty freakin' exciting.

This July, the Joffrey Academy of Dance held a national competition in search of up-and-coming choreographers of color, and last week they selected the winners: Jennifer Archibald, Abdul Latif and Stephanie Martinez. Let's take a moment to meet these dance-future-holders.

Jennifer Archibald is the founder and artistic director of the Arch Dance Company. Her style combines elements of hip hop and contemporary to create movement that's intensely physical, emotional and spiritual. To get a better sense of what this looks like, check out an excerpt from Archibald's Wings, performed by Ailey II:

Abdul Latif is the founder/artistic director of the performing arts firm D2DT. His choreography is urban contemporary, combining his diverse background of technical training with the urban experience. Check out Latif's There Are No Tangents: Part 1 – Where Have You Been?

Last, but certainly not least, Stephanie Martinez is a Chicago-based dance maker. Her choreography layers elements from all different styles on top of a strong balletic base. Here's Martinez's Orange Bird:

All three choreographers will present world premieres—set on Joffrey Academy trainees and the Joffrey Studio Company—in "Winning Works 2015." The event will hold three performances from March 7–8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. (Click here for tickets.) We can't wait to see what these three come up with!

Choreography

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.

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