“I was a little too ambitious when I made my first piece,” Wade Schaaf remembers, with a laugh. Schaaf, now a member of Thodos Dance Chicago, struggled with his choreographic debut, a piece for the Omaha Theater Ballet. “I was so nervous that I had everything choreographed in advance, almost down to each breath the dancers would take!” Like many first-time choreographers, he learned the hard way that writing a good recipe is important—but not as much as tasting as you go along.
If you’re interested in choreographing, the thought of facing a studio full of dancers waiting for your instruction might be scary enough to stop you in your tracks. But while making a dance can definitely be stressful, the reward, all choreographers agree, is worth the hassle. DS asked six successful dancemakers about their advice for first-timers.
Once you know you want to choreograph, where can you look for inspiration? “The muse that sits on your shoulder and tells you what to do is a myth,” says Kimi Okada, a founding member of ODC Dance in San Francisco. “And it’s pretty hard to make a dance about an abstract concept, like ‘grief’ or ‘happiness.’ Quite often, you’ll just end up with clichés.”
To figure out the mood or theme of a new work, New York City Ballet corps member Justin Peck, who made his first ballet in 2009, suggests devoting a lot of time to brainstorming. After finding a piece of music that speaks to him, “I’ll listen to it hundreds of times,” he says.
When it comes to the movement itself, Okada suggests giving yourself a simple task, like creating a few phrases of material based on what you do when you get out of bed in the morning. Then, play around with that movement. Try speeding a phrase up, slowing one down or rearranging the sequence. Choreography born from a simple set of limitations, she explains, “can suggest emotional content a lot more effectively than trying to portray it directly.”
Be Prepared—But Not Rigid
Prepare for rehearsals ahead of time by having your music on hand and sketching out what you aim to complete each day. But once you’re in the studio, be open to deviating from your plan and to what a dancer might add to your concept. Even the best ideas can get better. Jessica Miller Tomlinson, a colleague of Schaaf’s at TDC, says she’s “never 100 percent sold” on what she’s made. “If something happens to change while we’re working, that’s okay,” she says. And keep the bigger picture in mind. “When I’m choreographing, part of me is always focused on the creation of the whole work, not just the three or four hours I have in the studio that day,” Peck says.
The size of your cast might also determine how you proceed. Kate Jablonski, who directs Beyond Words Dance Company in the Chicago suburbs, says formations for dances that use all of her 31 company members are largely mapped out in advance, since coordinating many bodies requires a lot of planning. But if she’s choreographing a solo or duet, she’s more comfortable creating on the spot.
Get Your Message Across
Some dancers are quick to learn new material. Others may need time to comprehend your steps. Jessica Lang, who’s worked with companies from Joffrey Ballet to Hubbard Street 2, says that paying close attention to how your dancers learn movement is one of a choreographer’s most important skills. Teach your movement in a way that makes sense to the dancer who’ll perform it, whether that’s dancing with them in front of a mirror or telling the story of how you created a phrase.
That said, don’t worry if dancers don’t immediately ace their moves. “That means they have something to work toward,” Jablonski says. And if progress grinds to a halt, set the problematic moment aside and move on to something else. “Let them think about it overnight,” Lang says, and go back to a section that’s already finished. Take a mental break, answer any questions your dancers have and give them a chance to get comfortable in your choreography. As Tomlinson points out, “If I let the dancers run it a few times, a lot of the steps clean themselves.”
Keep Things Fresh
Above all else, stay true to your unique voice. “It’s easy for beginning choreographers to look at a dance they really like and try to imitate the things that they like about it,” Jablonski says. It’s good to be inspired by others, but as you work, check in with yourself every once in a while to make sure that the dance you’re making is coming from you.
At the end of the day, remember to put things in perspective. “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make something ‘good,’ because that’s when you end up with a disaster,” Jablonski says. “It’s dance. It’s fun!”
Contemporary choreographer Jessica Lang has a flair for the dramatic. Whether she surrounds her dancers with large, realistic set pieces or places them in a more abstract stage world, her choreography is passionate and the performers’ emotions are almost tangible. Lang, a Julliard graduate who performed with Twyla Tharp’s company, explains, “It’s not that I do story ballets, but I like to concentrate on having a purpose and a point.”
In the 10 years since Lang burst onto the choreographic scene, she’s created work for ABT II, Pennsylvania Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Ailey II, The Washington Ballet and many others. And she doesn’t just work with professionals: Lang teaches composition and modern classes at ABT’s summer programs, and often does college residencies.
But before she was making waves in the contemporary dance world, Lang, a native of Bucks County, PA, was a competitive dancer at Miss Jeanne’s School of Dance Arts and a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, among other schools. Her path changed at age 13, when she met jazz master teacher Joe Lanteri at a competition. “He said ‘You’re talented, come take my class,’ ” she remembers. “My mom and I ended up driving to NYC every afternoon so I could take class at Steps on Broadway.” Lanteri encouraged Lang to apply to Juilliard. She was accepted and while there she became interested in choreography along with performance. Read on to hear more from this dynamic dancemaker.
DS: Why did you transition from dancer to choreographer?
Jessica Lang: While on tour with Twyla, I realized that I missed the process of creating work. I saw an advertisement for Hubbard Street 2’s choreography competition, and I sent them a video of a piece I’d choreographed as a student at Juilliard. I was selected as one of two winners—along with Robert Battle! During that time I had also started sending my footage out to ballet companies, and John Meehan from ABT’s Studio Company, now ABT II, commissioned me right after I won the Hubbard Street competition. My third commission was by recommendation from John Meehan, to choreograph on Pennsylvania Ballet. It snowballed quite fast—within a year of leaving Twyla, I was choreographing on professional companies!
DS: What’s your choreographic philosophy?
JL: I like to feel something when I watch dance. I like to be taken on some sort of journey and be drawn in not just intellectually but also emotionally. All of my work is generated around a concept, whether the inspiration is a sculpture, the music or a collaboration with a set designer. I always want a through-line so that the whole piece supports the overall idea.
DS: What’s your process when creating a piece?
JL: Every time it’s slightly different. Because I freelance, a lot of different things are asked of me by companies. With a commission, a company may set boundaries for the music, dancers used, movement style and other variables. In the meantime, I’m always dreaming and thinking, and when I get a commission I try to make one of my ideas work. For example, in 2001 I met a painter named Will Barnet. A friend showed me his paintings—he has this series called “Women and the Sea”—and I was immediately inspired by them. But I didn’t create a work based on them until 2007, a commission for Richmond Ballet. They gave me total freedom, and I told them I’d been wanting to do a piece on Will Barnet’s work. Also, I’d worked with the company’s designers, and I knew they would be meticulous about making the paintings come to life. It was a good fit.
DS: What tools have been most valuable to you as a working choreographer?
JL: One thing that I learned from watching Twyla was the way she used videotape. She’d improvise with the video camera running, and the next day we’d come in and she would have spliced it all together to make a phrase. That idea really helped me as I was starting out, because I’d often have too much material in my mind. Thanks to Twyla, I realized that if I set up a video camera in the corner and put my music on, I could physicalize the movement that was happening in my mind. The tape was capturing it; I didn’t have to remember as I created.
DS: Can you talk about your process when working with students?
JL: At Kaatsbaan’s Extreme Ballet Program, I was hired to teach composition and improvisation and was required to show something for the final performance. After the students worked on their compositional studies for a few weeks, I chose what movement would go into the final showing and organized who did what, where and when, and then the students taught their movement to each other based on my direction. In this situation I would consider myself an editor rather than a creator. When I began teaching for American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives, I was hired to teach modern and to choreograph a piece for the final show. I like to keep my own choreographic creations separate from what I consider teaching jobs, and so for ABT I also have had the students create the movement. Then I edit it together. It’s a valuable learning experience for them because it’s rare for a ballet student to come in contact with this creative responsibility in her training.
DS: What’s the difference between working with modern and ballet students?
JL: Modern students tend to be more open to trying anything, whereas ballet students tend to be more reserved but refined. Being a good technical dancer or a dancer who has a beautiful physical facility doesn’t mean that the dancer is a good mover or artist. Regardless of whether dancers focus on modern or ballet, it’s always a pleasure to see a dancer who has true artistry, the passion to express it and is eager to learn.
DS: What else do you like to see from young dancers?
JL: I enjoy watching students grow after being exposed to something new. Whether it’s through choreography, class or a field trip to see a performance, being exposed to many different elements of art and dance gives them the ability to start to define who they are as dancers.
DS: What advice do you have for beginner choreographers?
JL: In rehearsals, focus on communicating your ideas clearly. Nothing’s more frustrating than having a group of dancers staring at you, waiting—or being a dancer staring at someone waiting for something to happen. Appreciate the effort in the room and create an atmosphere where everyone is working toward the same goal. To be a leader like that is a talent within itself.
Tips of the Trade
Jessica Lang’s advice for dancers who want to choreograph
- Add creative classes, like composition and improvisation, to your training schedule.
- Go see dance. You can learn from master choreographers of all styles by watching their work onstage.
- Pay attention to choreographers’ creative processes when you’re dancing in their pieces. Notice what works and what doesn’t and how they handle challenges that arise. How might you utilize some of their skills if you were at the front of the room?
- Immerse yourself in things that inspire you—museums, nature, music. Notice what makes you want to move and allow your imagination to wander.
- My composition teacher at Juilliard, Bessie Schoenberg, told us we must “Do.” Play with movement as often as you can. It’s the only way to practice.
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in NYC.