CriticalDance Forum

Developing Choreographers
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Author:  djb [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 4:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I agree with Librarian. I'm perfectly happy seeing a new ballet that uses the classical vocabulary, as long as it has the other qualities I look for in a work. And if those other qualities are missing, an entirely new vocabulary won't help.

In the Discovery Program of the San Francisco Ballet's 2000 season, two of the choreographers choreographed purely in the classical idiom. I thought one of these ballets was not very interesting, but I loved the other - the choreography was interesting, beautiful and very musical, and had an original style. But neither ballet received critical or audience acclaim.

Another ballet that also used primarily classical technique (Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania) was very well received. I believe that much of its audience appeal came from its non-dance, theatrical aspects. But I was also impressed by the pure dance sections. A friend of mine who usually thinks that ballet choreography is not very interesting also enjoyed the dance sections of Magrittomania. He said that Possokhov had managed to use classical technique and make it look like something new.

I think an aspiring choreographer witnessing the 2000 Discovery Program might decide it doesn’t pay to choreograph in a classical style, at least not without something to fancy up the production so you don’t realize you’re actually seeing plain old classical technique.

<small>[ 30 December 2002, 06:56 PM: Message edited by: djb ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 6:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Quite right, djb. Additionally, I think that a lot more feel these days that they can choreograph and therefore should, although I feel personally it's a great deal more difficult than they think, that we don't need that many choreographers, that choreographing using ballet is difficult to do well, and that it isn't that big of a leap to the idea that, being difficult, it's tempting for many to discard and enormously egotistical, IMHO, for those who would discard it to try to invent an entirely new vocabulary so that they don't have to bother using it. Drafty out on this limb, somehow! :)

Author:  susie crow [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 8:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

In response to Stuart’s enquiry about other choreographic courses in ballet I thought it might be of interest to remind people of Ballet Independents’ Group work in this area. This began in 1996 with a three day intensive course for graduating vocational ballet students as part of Ballroom Blitz at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Building on the success of this Ballet Independents’ Group was formed and we ran three further courses, under the name of “Ballet into the Twenty First Century” which had been coined for the first one.

The format of the courses was to provide structured composition workshops and opportunities to experiment in a sympathetic and open environment. The courses were attended by a mix of students from the major vocational schools; the format of each day consisted of practical workshops and choreographic assignments which were shared and discussed, with evening seminars, guided viewings and debates to encourage a mixture of doing and reflecting. Guest teachers and lecturers came not only from ballet but the wider arts community, encouraging the young choreographers to think laterally and look at and experiment with compositional strategies from other art forms. However whatever the overriding theme of each course the work started from an analysis of the balletic form, its inherent characteristics and structures, led by Jennifer Jackson, encouraging students to think more objectively about the form, and to use creatively the knowledge and skills they already have access to. The BC21 courses culminated in a major collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s education department in the form of a mentored composition residency for four teams of choreographer (all drawn from participants on the four BC21 courses), composer and designer who over a week at Easter 2000 collaborated to make short works with young dancers and musicians from the Birmingham area as well as some of the CBSO’s own players. The results were presented in the beautiful rehearsal hall of the CBSO Centre.
Articles about these courses have appeared in Dancing Times, Dance Gazette, Dance Expression, Animated etc. I’m sorry I don’t have exact references to hand.

I think that these courses were very stimulating for all concerned. In planning them we fed in ideas explored and developed in our own choreographic research sessions with other dancers and musicians – and the courses and guest input in turn stimulated our own practice. We saw some wonderful work emerging and some very real talent –a lot of it female. However the point is well made about the difficulty of such talent finding opportunities to choreograph if not operating within an established company with access to resources. In our experience it appears harder for small scale independent ballet initiatives to get funding and support than for almost any other kind of dance, as so much of the dance funding cake already goes to the form through the big companies.

I think the structured composition classes that the students are now getting at the Royal Ballet School (from Kate Flatt and Jennifer at the Upper School and Susie Cooper from RAD at White Lodge) are of immense value. It is crucial that young dancers working within such a disciplined and academic form, who have to acquire huge amounts of technical knowledge and vocabulary, should learn to associate that material with creative practice and expressive possibility and have opportunities to find ways to make it their own. Neither Jennifer nor I had formal choreographic classes as part of our vocational ballet training – education as choreographers came once we were professionals. As young professionals wanting to choreograph we both gained valuable experience and opportunities through the Royal Ballet Choreographic Group organised by Leslie Edwards. We also both attended the International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers that used to run for two weeks every summer, organised by the late Gale Law and with a roster of extremely distinguished choreographic and music directors. We were on it the year that Alwin Nikolais led the course which was a fantastic experience. These courses attracted choreographers from a range of dance genres and the focus was very much on the collaboration with composers. It was always trumpeted as “the course which changes your life” and I think it certainly did mine, giving me confidence in my ability to make work as well as opening my ears to contemporary music. There are now all sorts of interesting courses, mentoring and feedback schemes available for professional choreographers in the independent dance scene, but as ballet dancers in the big companies have very full all year round schedules it can be hard for them to get released to take up such opportunities. However I think that for the aspiring choreographer there is also great educational value to be gained from the experience of dancing in a varied repertoire and working with a range of choreographers, if it can be used to develop powers of critical observation and analysis, and define the artist’s individual interests and preferences.

<small>[ 14 January 2003, 02:01 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Tue Dec 31, 2002 6:57 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Here I have a question. I understand, for instance, in the case of notation, the value of teaching it to students so that they might be able to use it later. However I also understand that the actual market for notators is so severely restricted as to make it extremely difficult for even a handful of very qualified ones to make any kind of living. The Benesh School was made part of the Royal Academy of Dancing; was it because of this? I understand that choreographic courses like the ones you are talking about do not train for extended periods of time, but is there a place for every person who might feel like composing dances? And what else are they to do? Is this in the nature, then, if they cannot so earn a living, of educating an audience if nothing else? Please understand that I am not against these courses being offered but wonder rather about those questions.

<small>[ 31 December 2002, 07:58 AM: Message edited by: librarian ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Tue Dec 31, 2002 9:55 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Many thanks Susie for providing us with details of the work that has been done in this area by BIG and others, which is good to hear. I hope that these initiatives are developed in further directions.

In a few days, Resolution! will start in London with 100 pieces of new modern choreography presented in a small, but important dance venue. As the Director John Ashford says there will be a lot of weeds, but that is necessary to give scope for the blossoms. I wonder if something similar could be done for ballet.

Regarding innovation, I have to say that I do think that it is needed in ballet as in every art form. When I think of the 20th C. ballet "greats" such as Fokine, Nijinski, Nijinska, Balanchine and MacMillan, all of these introduced innovations and most received damning criticism for doing it. Creativity does demand a fresh voice and perhaps a new approach.

A painting of today in an Impressionist style may be charming and I might even hang it on my wall, but great art it ain't, because of the lack of innovation. Personally, I want new ballets to be great or at least good art as well and that does demand some degree of innovation as far as I can see. I do see this innovation, (added later) at least to some extent, in ballets by Mark Morris, Mauro Bigonzetti (Italy), Cathy Marston and Christopher Wheeldon.

<small>[ 02 January 2003, 08:08 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  trina [ Tue Dec 31, 2002 6:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I think we have to have to define here what we mean by "choreography". I see most ballet choreographers stringing classroom steps together and calling it choreography. To me it looks academic and stale. There is no expression, point of view, (as early critic John Martin called it) nor originality there; it is mere cliche. Real choreography trascends technique, using the vocabulary as a springboard or physical language. Recent innovators I have seen: Mats Ek, Pina Bausch, Glen Tetley and Jiri Kylian.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Thu Jan 02, 2003 7:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Fightin' talk Trina! I posted the final sentence of my comment above in some haste just as my local Tallinn Internet cafe was closing. After thinking about it, I have addedd a caveat to indicate that while I do see innovation from some of today's ballet choreographers, I do not see levels of creativity similar to those from earlier times.

Although the ballet works of Mark Morris are among the most interesting I see, I would still prefer to see the work made for his own Group. It is also interesting to note that the Ballet Boyz, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt have selected modern choreographers working in a modern/contemporary style to make work for them - Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and Charles Linehan, rather than the young ballet choreographers around.

I think few would argue (but feel free to do so) that for innovation and interest, modern/contemporary choreographers are setting the pace, both in their own arena and, with one or two exceptions, when they are called into the ballet world as well. This is one reason why I was very pleased to read Susie Crowe's description of the work being done with young ballet choreographers.

While I wouldn't go quite as far as Trina in her post above, I do not see a lot of new, creative choreography for ballet. At an English National Ballet triple bill a year ago, the most innovative work was the oldest, "Apollo" from the 1920s.

What do others think?

<small>[ 02 January 2003, 08:38 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Thu Jan 02, 2003 7:43 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Additionally, however, Trina and Stuart, I think an argument could be made that some of the people making dances in ballet these days are possessed of very little actual talent and that what we are seeing on stage is a product of very little imagination, rather than proof that nothing good can be done in that direction. As rich as the ballet vocabulary is, few people either know how or are encouraged to use it well. And innovation can come in many forms, but if one is being discouraged either subtly or overtly from making use of a vocabulary, one isn't likely to buck a trend and use it regardless even if the desire is there. And that native desire that won't be denied, to me, seems to be the genesis for genius, in any form, whether classical or not.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Thu Jan 02, 2003 4:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I am perennially concerned with the "closed shop" aspects of major ballet companies with respect to their ways and means of determining who will receive choreographic opportunities. From long observation, it appears to me that such decisions are primarily made from two groups: 1) senior principal or soloist dancers from within the company who are nearing the end of their performing careers and for whom the artistic director(s) feel the responsibility of providing career-transition opportunities; and 2) established or semi-established choreographers whose works have some established track record with other major companies. In category 2, the established choreographers may be drawn from both ballet and modern dance backgrounds; the semi-established are often drawn from category 1 upon the recommendation of one artistic director to another. If a choreographer finds him- or herself on the outside looking in, there is precious little chance of gaining access to the calibre of dancers with the capability of helping a choreographer fully develop and realize choreographic goals. Lacking the requisite club membership, you are likely to languish in obscurity, at best.

Since we are being encouraged to think futuristically, my ideal solution would be to fund and create a workshop company, which would exist to afford choreographers the opportunity to create, rehearse and videotape new choreography on dancers of professional calibre. [I am using Felix Mendelssohn's wealthy family as inspiration for this idea; they hired a chamber orchestra to afford their prodigy the opportunity to test his musical ideas for balance and orchestration on the real thing.]

I would then propose that this workshop company culminate its year with a festival of new choreography analogous to the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. (For those unfamiliar with the theatre world, the Humana Festival has become a bit of a festival marketplace where artistic directors go to see the current crop of work from playwrights; sadly, I know of no equivalent in the ballet world.)

As an additional step, I would encourage ADs of ballet companies to hold juried auditions for choreographers. Don't just rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from other ADs and pressure from personal acquaintances to give so-and-so a chance. Make it a truly open and competitive audition process. These would be some first steps in opening the windows on what is currently a very closed system.

Author:  djb [ Thu Jan 02, 2003 5:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

That sounds ideal, Francis. There's certainly a lot to be learned from the other arts worlds.

Author:  librarian [ Thu Jan 02, 2003 6:48 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I like the idea of a choreographic workshop, Francis, very much. But I'm not convinced that the process of choosing choreographers is as closed as you think. I've seen directors actually slog through tapes that people have sent them in the hopes that their ballet will be produced, to try to find something worth producing, and I've seen them go to many performances in many places trying to find something worth putting on stage (and I'm really speaking here of director(s) of companies of all sizes). If a large company has a workshop for aspiring choreographers within its company ranks, and hopes to find something in the offerings of that workshop that shows promise, I think that's a wonderful idea. Boston Ballet had a choreographic "competition" in which a group of choreographers, none of whom had ever choreographed for the company before, was given dancers, time, studio space and a series of performances. None of these was a company member, either. What I'd like to see is more of the festivals/workshops that you mentioned, so that directors can see new works, in smaller venues and on groups other than their own, and invite choreographers based on what they see there.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Fri Jan 03, 2003 6:34 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Many thanks for the very interesting contributions. Francis, I was intrigued by your example of the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for new drama. Such showcases do exist for Modern/Contemporary dance - until 2 years ago, there used to be one in London called Spring Collection, which brought about 50 dance bookers from Europe an elsewhere for a weekend of UK dance presentations. An Estonian venue Manager I know is just off to New York for a similar event there. I am not aware of anything along these lines for ballet.

It is interesting that although ballet is far better funded, in every respect we have discussed to date, the post-school infra-structures for development seem to be more advanced in modern/contemporary.

Yuri Possokhov is an interesting example djb. He does put a fresh perspective into his work and I hope we see more of his output when SFB return to london this year.

<small>[ 03 January 2003, 07:35 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  trina [ Fri Jan 03, 2003 12:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Oh dear, I hope I didnt' overstate my opinion regarding the state of ballet choreography :( . I dont' want to sound too too strident. ;) And yes, Francis, I think the juried competition (I don't know if that's the precise word you used exactly) for choreographers is a good one. I see certain choreographers, through "word of mouth" as you put it, suddenly become omnipresent on the ballet scene. They are "hot" for a while, appear in the reps of several companies, and then we're on to the next one. I dont' see a lot of nurturing and development occuring on the grass roots level. Hmmm. Also, I concur with Francis' opinon regarding encouragment of choreographers, AS choreographers, not as retiring ex-principal dancers. Choreography involves a separate set of skills than dancing, although of course they are complementary. Just as teaching/dancing involve separate but complementary skills.

<small>[ 03 January 2003, 01:42 PM: Message edited by: trina ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Sat Jan 04, 2003 6:15 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Trina, I suppose that's somewhat analogous to the Hollywood syndrome, wherein one successful movie gets made and suddenly all the studios are scrambling to make movies on the same theme. A cousin to our globalization debate, somehow. Company B sees that Company A has had success with a ballet from Choreographer C and is desperate to find something new that sells tickets so they can sell the idea as something with a track record to their board, so they go off and get the rights to Choreographer C's ballet because they can prove that it's had success, and maybe the board doesn't want to take risks.

Author:  citibob [ Tue Jan 07, 2003 9:37 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Back to the Past

In the 19th Century, ballet companies were led by a "Ballet Master". Now, the traditional role of Ballet Master has been split up into "Artistic Director", "Choreographer", "Ballet Master" and "Rehearsal Director". It's harder to coordinate four people than one; is it any wonder that good choreographers are so hard to find?

Consider what the "freelance" choreogrpher must deal with today, one who works for many companies: he doesn't get to hire the dancers, he doesn't know the dancers very well, he doesn't get enough time with the dancers to know them well. Often, choreographers are asked to make a dance on one set of dancers and perform it with another. So the choreographer chooses the same few dancers again and again. These are all reasons I've heard about why the Diamond Project does not seem to live up to its expectations.

I dance for quite a different kind company than that. We have one Ballet Master (Jose Mateo), in the 19th Century fashion. He is teacher, choreographer, artistic director, etc. He is everything to us as dancers. No, we do not get the diversity of dancing every new style that comes through. But we know what he wants better than just about anyone else, and he knows who we are --- he trained many of us, and continues to train the rest. He refuses to choreograph for companies other than his own because they would frustrate him, even if the dancers are very good. They do not know what he's looking for. He performs new choreography on the same people he made it for; and when he re-sets it later on other dancers, he changes it as needed.

The results have a certain artistic integrity that (judging by the complaints I've read) seems to be lacking in many other places. The critics seem to agree as well, and we made it into Dancemagazine's "Top 25 to watch" this year.

It turns out, we are using the "traditional modern dance model" of institutional organization. It is not without its problems. For example, the way we do things, it's not clear how long the choreography would last after Mateo is gone.

It's not clear how big this could be scaled up either. But apparently, ballet companies all grew to new sizes in the 20th century, especially in the latter half. The ABT of 1960 was only half the size it is today. The NYCB of 1960 was not the "institution" it is today (it was one company led by a genius). Dhiagalev's Ballets Russes had only 20-30 dancers. So maybe we've lost somthing in our drive to build bigger and bigger. Maybe we need to build more companies, rather than fewer mega-institutions. Ballet is, after all, an inherently regional enterprise. It's not televised like Major League Baseball. Probably the American funding model is responsible for this situation (the rich get richer and the poor never come into existence).

Looking into the history, it seems that most innovation in dance has come from genius individuals who had the resources to improve their dancemaking skills and produce their work widely for many to see. In every such case in America, that has been coupled with the creation of an organization. I have not seen one example of a great American innovator who did so within an existing Institution. The Diamond Project, for example, specifies that it is looking for choreogrpahers who use the language of Balanchine. This immediately ensures it will never see another Balanchine. After all, Balanchine did not use an existing language, but rather had the freedom to invent his own and to train dancers in it.

Europe has a longer history, and has produced so many innovators who worked within existing institutional frameworks. Bournonville, Petipa and Forsythe are three examples that come to mind.

It seems like a waste to build up these huge institutions only to see them slowly decay because they're incapable of harboring the next genius; then to make the geniuses struggle to create institutions in the shadows. Maybe we could figure out what Europe has done right over the past few hundred years.

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