The Best Things We Learned at Ailey's Choreography Festival

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin shares the best tips she learned. (via Instagram, @hbdance)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recently hosted their first Choreography Unlocked Festival, where artists in the business of creating dance gathered to immerse themselves in workshops, performances, and panel discussions. Young choreographers learned tips, tricks, and all about the creative process of choreographing from Ailey's Artistic Director Robert Battle and other choreography experts, including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Choreographers gathered at Alvin Ailey Studios for the Choreography Unlocked Festival (Nicole Tintle, courtesy Ailey)

The festival emphasized collaboration and unity among fellow choreographers—encouraging artists to bounce ideas off of each other and foster community within their field. Dance Spirit caught up with five artists who attended and asked them to share the best things they learned. Check out the advice they'll carry with them forever, and the moments of exploration that meant the most—then start applying it all to your own choreography process or dance training ASAP!

Kyle Marshall, choreographer

"One exercise that stood out to me was one we did with photographs. They had a few dozen pictures in the room and we all walked around the space, picking up photos we connected with, that either told our own story or inspired us in the moment. It was really interesting because everyone picked different ones. It was cool to see how we each have unique attractions to things.

We also did a great improv exploration where we uncovered our unique ways of moving, and our unique histories of moving. We jotted down our past dance/movement experiences that we don't usually consider within our dance training. For me, it was marching band and musical theater. Then, we did improvisations with those ideas in mind. It was so fun to see everyone tap into their unique histories and grow into improv from that.

The best advice I took away, though, is that dance is a community. For young choreographers especially, it's important to think about how you create a community within your studio with your dancers. How do you create a space that feels inviting, where people want to do their best and feel supported? It could mean showing that a dancer is valued or listening to people's responses. It's important for choreographers to worry not just about making the steps, but about the environment and the atmosphere they're working in."

Esmé Boyce, choreographer and dancer

"The festival was so much about curiosity. To me, it was a reminder of how much we can learn from each other if we just open our minds a little bit and think from more of a 'what if' place. Jawole urged the group to see work in dance genres that some of us might not usually see. There are so many ideas that can be sparked from watching things that aren't what you usually watch. We have to expand our vision as choreographers and keep a very open mind. Every show you see and every engagement you have has the raw potential for ideas, and for opening your perspective and point of view.

One relationship building exercise we did that really stood out to me was when we started with a one-on-one relationship by introducing ourselves to someone and sharing something about ourselves. Then we merged into small groups and used ice breakers to merge into more serious topics. It then turned into a whole-room relationship where everyone felt comfortable, welcome, and open. It became a safe place where people could share and laugh and discuss things. There was so much warmth, and I think the dance community could use more of that. In dance and choreography, you're always trying to present yourself in the best light, so we end up not really discussing the stuff that's challenging or talking about creative problem solving. But it's so important.

My best advice for young choreographers is to just go for it. Make room for your imagination. There are many leaders in the field who want to see new voices be heard. Know that choreography is really important, and that you should keep making work even when the going is tough. Also, see everything, know your history, and follow your gut."

Parisa Khobdeh, Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer

"The Choreography Unlocked Festival became a place where ideas and ambitions were born. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired. The discussions felt like a gathering of old friends having a conversation at the kitchen table. We explored different ideas by ourselves in our own personal spaces, but by the end of the day, we were jamming in a circle with each other while dancers jumped into the center to explore their movement ideas. It was really, really rich witnessing these discoveries.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, told us during the Nuturing New Voices panel (part of the festival's first weekend) that your work will be unique because there's only one of you. He pointed out that Hamlet and The Lion King have the same plot line, but that they're unique because of how the story is told. He said all stories are essentially the same and nothing is new, but it's your distinct way of telling that story that makes it as unique as you."

Hope Boykin, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member, founder of HopeBoykinDance

"Being able to spend a weekend with so many creators and dance makers, most of whom I'd never met, was thrilling. I was reminded that we're a community, and should be supportive of one another. I'm now more determined to make myself available to see and support my peers' works and their creative processes. I often feel a sense of isolation, and I realized I wasn't alone in that. We need community as choreographers just as much as we need community as performers. We have to understand that the first try, work, production may not be the best. But with the right kinds of support, we can grow in our weaknesses and strengths.

The thing that left the greatest impression on me was truly understanding the benchmarks Jawole feels need to be met throughout the creation process. First, you actually must have a process. Then, comes the preparation and research. We also discussed the importance of really celebrating all of those involved in helping to make the 'process' come about."

Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Camille A. Brown & Dancers member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater alumni

"I had no idea what to expect going into Ailey's Choreography Unlocked Festival, but loved the experience. In truth, I didn't even realize how much I'd been missing in terms of community and support. One thing Jawole said that really stuck out to me was her urging us to 'create, create, create, because there's no reason not to.' I think that a lot of choreographers feel like someone needs to say to them 'you should be a choreographer,' or 'you have a gift for this.' The advice we got from the festival was, don't wait for a reason. Just go out and create."

Robert Battle (center, right) and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (center, left) with participants at at the festival (Nicole Tintle, courtesy Ailey)

Dancer to Dancer
Ballet Academy East student Stella MacDonald (Erin Baiano)

It's the rite of passage every young ballerina dreams of: getting her first pair of pointe shoes. But it's important to remember that a lot (and we mean a lot) of hard work and technique-honing leads up to this moment—not to mention getting the green light from your teacher. Dance Spirit turned to Jenna Lavin, former Miami City Ballet dancer and principal of the pre-professional division at Ballet Academy East in NYC, for three exercises meant to strengthen, train, and stabilize the muscles you'll be using once you're on pointe.

Keep Reading Show less
Rochelle Mendoza-Axle, Courtesy Stiskin

In today's dance world, versatility is key. It's not enough to be a master of one style—even when they specialize in one area, dancers are frequently asked to fuse multiple genres, or step out of their comfort zone for specific projects. With their wide variety of summer programs, Joffrey Ballet School aims to prepare dancers for the demands of a professional career. We asked five faculty members to share how they do this:

Keep Reading Show less
Sponsored by Joffrey Ballet School
Kendra Oyesanya, Marcus Mitchell, and Carlito Olivero (courtesy YouTube/Lionsgate)

Happy "Step Up: High Water" eve, y'all! Everyone's favorite internet dance show makes its triumphant Season 2 return tomorrow, March 20th, on YouTube. In anticipation of the premiere, we turned to Kendra Oyesanya (Poppy), Marcus Mitchell (Dondre), and Carlito Olivero (Davis) for the scoop on all things "Step Up"—from on-set shenanigans, to embarrassing stories, to scenes to watch out for this season (hint: Episode 2's dance battle, and the season finale's final number!).

Keep Reading Show less
Dance News
The cast of "Oklahoma!" during last year's run at St. Ann's Warehouse (Teddy Wolff, courtesy DKC/O&M)

You may think you know Oklahoma!, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that made history when it first opened in 1943 and is best known for Agnes de Mille's groundbreaking dream ballet. But the latest Broadway iteration of the musical isn't your average trip to the frontier. Opening April 7, the revival features new choreography by Mark Morris alum John Heginbotham, and swaps the traditional windswept-prairie set and full orchestra for an intimate, minimalistic staging and a bluegrass band. Coming fresh off an acclaimed run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, the daring, unconventional production is sure to turn heads when it begins previews on Broadway tonight. Dance Spirit caught up with Heginbotham to get all the details on the dancing, and what it was like choreographing his first Broadway show.

Keep Reading Show less
BLACKPINK has worked with A-list choreographers, including Kyle Hanagami and Parris Goebel.

K-pop is in the middle of a stateside takeover. South Korea's boy bands and girl groups can always be counted on to produce catchy, upbeat songs—and, most importantly for us dance fans, to feature colorful choreography prominently in their music videos. Over the past few years, the K-pop machine has been churning out a seemingly endless stream of talented groups with choreography worth watching on repeat, and some of them are starting to make names for themselves in the U.S. Check out our list of the dancetastic K-pop bands you need to know.

Keep Reading Show less
Briar Nolet did NOT come to play. (NBC)

Have you ever felt that the Duels round on NBC's "World of Dance" was a bit unfair? During the Duels, each act's success hinges not on how objectively good they are, but on how good they are relative to a single challenger. Which means that mediocre acts can move forward if they best slightly-more-mediocre opponents, while frontrunners who're given tougher matchups end up knocked out.

Newly-engaged goddess J.Lo and her team get that. Which is why, last night, "WOD" introduced a twist designed to make the Duels more just: a redemption round. Formerly, five acts were eliminated in each division during the Duels. But from here out, the two highest scorers of those five will go head-to-head to earn a wild card spot. And that made last night's Upper Division Duels significantly more exciting.

Who just dueled it? Who was redeemed? Who made Derek Hough scream like a teenage girl? Onward to the episode highlights!

Keep Reading Show less
Dance on TV
American Ballet Theatre principal Devon Teuscher (left) meeting with Bloch owner David Fox (right) in NYC. (Marius Bugge for Bloch)

For professional ballet dancers, the search for the perfect pointe shoe is a lifelong quest. Even the smallest adjustment in manufacturing can make the difference between a shoe that allows a ballerina to soar and a shoe that detracts from her dancing. So what goes into creating the perfect fit? A lot of hard work, patience, and masterful attention to detail. We got the inside scoop on how a Bloch pointe shoe is made from beginning to end, and went inside one of American Ballet Theatre principal Devon Teuscher's touch-up fittings with Bloch owner David Fox in NYC.

Keep Reading Show less
Martina Sandionigi as Giselle

We updated your favorite story-ballet tutus with modern details that'll please any 21st-century prima ballerina. Who needs a cavalier, anyway?

Keep Reading Show less
Dance Fashion
Dancers are total brainiacs.

Dancing impacts pretty much every aspect of our lives—including our brains. That's right: Dance makes us smart. Like, super smart. Here are seven ways being a dancer enhances your brainpower.

Keep Reading Show less
Just for Fun
Ballet Academy East student Stella MacDonald (Erin Baiano)

It's the rite of passage every young ballerina dreams of: getting her first pair of pointe shoes. But it's important to remember that a lot (and we mean a lot) of hard work and technique-honing leads up to this moment—not to mention getting the green light from your teacher. Dance Spirit turned to Jenna Lavin, former Miami City Ballet dancer and principal of the pre-professional division at Ballet Academy East in NYC, for three exercises meant to strengthen, train, and stabilize the muscles you'll be using once you're on pointe.

Keep Reading Show less
The ultimate dance mom: Debbie Allen with her daughter, Vivian Nixon (courtesy Nixon)

Dance moms: Where would we be without them? We all know how much support and help they give us—in addition to loads of love. Here are 10 reasons real-life dance moms are undeniably the best.

Keep Reading Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Photo by Samantha Little

It's the fall of 2018. As the Brigham Young University Cougarettes step onto the field at LaVell Edwards stadium in Provo, UT, a crowd of nearly 64 thousand erupts into cheers. The dancers take their places, and a feeling of anticipation hangs in the air: Their reputation precedes them.

The music—Ciara's banger "Level Up"—begins, and unbelievable precision ensues. Eighteen dancers attack the highly technical choreography, which nods at viral social-dance sensations and continuously builds in energy. The school's mascot, Cosmo the Cougar, joins the team on the field, and the audience goes wild. As the piece ends, the sound in the stadium is deafening. The 16-time national-title-winning group has proved once again why they're the standard for college dance team success—they're just that good.

Keep Reading Show less
Dance Team
Paloma Garcia-Lee (center, in gold) and the cast of "Fosse/Verdon" (FX)

The extraordinary Paloma Garcia-Lee, who's danced in no fewer than five Broadway shows, can adapt to any choreographer's style. And before heading back to Broadway this spring in Moulin Rouge! (choreographed by Sonya Tayeh), she's tackling the work of one of the most iconic choreographers of all time: Bob Fosse.

Garcia-Lee plays Adrienne in the new FX limited series "Fosse/Verdon," premiering April 9, which follows the romantic and creative relationship of Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his muse Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Steve Levenson, and Andy Blankenbuehler serve as executive producers, with Kail directing and Blankenbuehler choreographing.

With the exception of performing on The Tony Awards, "Fosse/Verdon" marks Garcia-Lee's TV debut. "I'm really setting my sights on more on-camera work," she says. "Getting the chance to flex my muscles as an actress in this different medium, but still have the dance part, is all really exciting." (She's got real acting chops, too: While a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, she actually quit dance briefly to study acting instead.)

Dance Spirit spoke to Garcia-Lee about "Fosse/Verdon"'s epic final callback, how she got cast, and the transition from stage to screen.

Keep Reading Show less
Dance on TV



Get Dance Spirit in your inbox