CriticalDance Forum

Developing Choreographers
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Author:  Dean Speer [ Fri Dec 20, 2002 8:29 pm ]
Post subject:  Developing Choreographers

Ballet is developed via an institutional framework. That said, rather than consider, "How can we develop creativity in ballet and the role of new choreographers with the company?," I'd like us to ask, "How can we develop ballet choreographers OUTSIDE ballet companies?"

Most companies offer chances to their own dancers and staff to create ballets or to try their hand at this craft, but there are very few opportunities for those "not in the club" to get a crack at creating ballets on professional dancers. And very few independent choreographers can afford to hire professional dancers to have their works produced and shown. I am not sure what the answer is here exactly but suspect that is involves money and risk (artistic and box office)...

Okay, I'm going to be a bit of a reactionary here and take the posture of keeping a healthy gap between ballet and modern/contemporary dance. Please let me first note that I'm not a modern dance hater! I made my living as a modern dancer for three years and adore this genre but do believe that it is a separate specie from ballet. Influencing each other is and has been fine for the most part, but inter-breeding I find noxious and generally find "fusion" ballets unsatisfactory artistically. I think gaps, with a few good bridge, make good neighbors. (How's that for mixing metaphors?!)

I am happy to see what appears to me to be a real groundswell of companies increasingly tapping ballet people to make ballets. While I think it's great to give work to our colleagues, I've never the less, found it disturbing the persistent trend of hiring modern dancers to make ballets for ballet companies. Not they can't but this has sent the message to me, "Where are the ballet choreographers?" And, "Why aren't ballet people being given the chance to create?"

While there are some really great workshops and venues for budding and experienced ballet choreographers to gain skills, tools, and experience, the one component that I'd like to see in a stronger place is that of connecting these folk with companies in a better and more effective way.

We all learn from each other, and I'd like to hear how we can better effect the creation of ballets for companies and with that, what support for ADs might be developed so they can enhance their professional maturation. Perhaps more forums like this one happening in January.

Happy New Year, all! And best wishes for happy dancing, dance-making, and teaching.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Sat Dec 21, 2002 5:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Deen, many thanks for this contribution. San Francisco Ballet seem to do well in the area of nurturing in-house talent with Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov having achieved national profile as a result. My impression is that apart from workshop opportunities, there was also the chance to see the work performed as part of the season, which is a great incentive.

Your point about nurturing choreographers from outside is interesting. In the UK, a lot of choreographers cut their teeth and make part of their living choreographing for pre-professional dance school classes, including those attached to the major companies. This gives the choreographers a chance to be seen within the extended company framework. In the UK, Cathy Marston has done this and will have a programme in the small theatre in the Royal Opera House next year. Many have their fingers crossed that this will lead to a commission for the big stage.

On the issue of fusion ballets, I have seen some US examples in particular which didn't work well in my view. However, Glen Tetley's "Sphinx" and all the Mark Morris pieces I have seen worked very well indeed.

On the broader issue of helping ballet choreographers, I'm aware that in the UK there are several MA degrees in choreography, where young modern dance makers can work intensively on their style with high quality mentoring. Similarly at undergraduate level there are courses for people to try thier hand, just as there are classes for composition in music academies. I see much more limited parallels in the ballet world. Do you think this could be part of the ballet problem, Deen?

It could be argued that the greats from the past managed without this. However, it almost seems as if there was a wave of creativity that stemmed from the Ballets Russes and spawned Balanchine, and at one remove Ashton and those who followed on. That shows every sign of having run its course.

<small>[ 21 December 2002, 06:47 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Sat Dec 21, 2002 5:28 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I've always thought that some type of course in composition would be wonderful, but that a lot of the people who would benefit from one wasted a lot of time with completely unrelated college-level type courses. I don't know if there's a way around this, however.

Author:  djb [ Sat Dec 21, 2002 8:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

I have no knowledge of exactly how aspiring choreographers are nurtured at SFB. I believe Julia Adam had done choreography for other, smaller companies, and created works for the SFB workshops, before her ballet “Night” was presented in SFB’s 2002 Discovery Program. I wonder whether it’s coincidence that the in-house choreographers whose works were presented in the 2000 Discovery Program (Julia Adam, Yuri Possokhov, David Palmer and Christopher Stowell) were all mature principal dancers? Were they simply the most experienced, and best, choreographers to come out of the choreography workshops? Or were there younger dancers in the company who showed a talent for choreography but who weren’t considered for inclusion in the Discovery Program because their names wouldn’t be as big a draw as the principals’ names? (I’m not suggesting that was the case; I’m really just asking.)

Artistic directors do, understandably, look for big names when they import choreographers, so I suppose part of the reason many modern dance choreographers are being used in ballet companies these days is that there are only so many big name choreographers in the ballet world, and expanding to the modern dance world gives the ADs more choices.

Are there many instances of ballet choreographers from small companies who have been commissioned to create works for major ballet companies? As far as I’ve seen (correct me if I’m wrong), the only way a not-well-known choreographer can get his/her works presented by a major ballet company is to actually be a dancer in that company.

According to Peter Martins in the documentary “Peter Martins – A Dancer,” one day Balanchine just came up to him and told him he should choreograph something. From what I’ve read, Balanchine similarly encouraged his other male stars (D’Amboise, Villela). It would appear he thought that being a male ballet star meant you should have some talent for choreography. It doesn’t work that way. In the London Weekend Television production “Baryshnikov: The Dancer and the Dance” (1983), Baryshnikov recalls hearing Balanchine's former classmates reminiscing about Balanchine in his boyhood. He was always playing pieces on the piano and saying he would choreograph them someday. Obviously, choreography was his focus from an early age. As Baryshnikov said, “You have to want to choreograph more than anything in the world.” However, about his own choreographic ambitions, he says, “I don’t have any desire -- I have a big desire to choreograph, but I’m always stopping myself because…I can’t. Simple as that.”

Although choreography classes may not produce choreographers if the talent and desire aren’t there, they give dancers the opportunity to find out whether choreography is something they’d like to pursue, and whether they have talent for it. I don’t know how well the sort of choreographic exercises that modern dance students are given would translate into ballet, but I think even unstructured choreography workshops are valuable, because they at least provide an outlet for those who are talented enough to create without studying the craft of choreography.

It would be wonderful if artistic directors of large companies would/could take risks and commission choreographers who are neither well-known nor members of the home company, simply on the basis of talent.

<small>[ 21 December 2002, 09:17 PM: Message edited by: djb ]</small>

Author:  Azlan [ Sat Dec 21, 2002 9:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

It's interesting that Julia Adam's name keeps popping up. I always wondered how she always managed to have a full palette of tools when creating a new work (I've seen several of her works for workshops, Lawrence Pech Dance Company and the San Francisco Ballet School Showcase, prior to her choreographic debut for SFB). So I asked her:

Adam isn't sure where her choreographic talents come from but she subscribes to David Bintley's theory that one is born with the talent. She also learned a lot about music composition and art composition at National Ballet School, where she had a broad education in the arts. Interestingly, the school didn't offer any choreography classes. Still, it was at the school that she began to understand the art of making dance. When she was 15 years old and “… Vicky Simon from the Balanchine Estate came to set Serenade, I knew at any given moment in that dance where everyone had to be and what they were doing. In that moment, I understood the machine. It wasn't learned. It was just, I knew. It relates very much to architecture I think too. It's very spatial. I was very good in geometry and math.”
<a href= target=_blank>more</a>

Another young choreographer who seems to have choreographic talent in his genes is Christopher Wheeldon, whose compositional skills were nurtured at a young age. Here are some past discussions in the forum:

<a href=;f=4;t=000151 target=_blank>Christopher Wheeldon</a>

<a href=;f=4;t=000837 target=_blank>Christopher Wheeldon - Resident Choreographer at New York City Ballet</a>

<a href=;f=4;t=001375 target=_blank>Christopher Wheeldon, Choreographer</a>

<small>[ 21 December 2002, 11:31 PM: Message edited by: Azlan ]</small>

Author:  djb [ Sat Dec 21, 2002 11:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Addendum to my last post: Choreography classes and workshops shouldn't be mandatory, as they are in many modern dance programs. They were a real trial for me, since I had absolutely no desire to choreograph, and nothing to express in that way.

<small>[ 22 December 2002, 01:36 PM: Message edited by: djb ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Sun Dec 22, 2002 12:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

djb many thanks for your thoughts about the SFB choreographic workshops. I'm interested in your dislike for your choregraphy classes. In the UK, I think it is also compulsory at undergraduate level. Did you feel you gained nothing fron this experience? Not even a better understanding of the endeavours of the choreographers you worked with later in your career?

Rambert Dance Company has a strong and consistent record of supporting choreographic workshops both from the time of Dame Marie Rambert herself, through to today. Christopher Bruce was told by her that he would have to choreograph whether he wanted to or not! Not an option for today of course.

The Rambert workshops are run on the basis that time is made available and the choreographers have the choice of whether or not to have the pieces performed, but usually they do, in one of the smaller London venues, under a Rambert banner. Raphael Bonachela and Glenn Wilkinson are two current dancers in the Company who have progressed from these workshops to making work for the main Company rep. Didy Veldman is another dancer who used the workshops to explore ideas and choreographs full-time now.

We've had two examples now where companies and their dancers have benefited from the experience. I believe NYCB also operate a similar scheme and some information would be valuable. Any offers?

<small>[ 22 December 2002, 06:08 PM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  djb [ Sun Dec 22, 2002 1:25 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

My dislike for my choreography classes stemmed from my wish not to have to pretend I had something of worth to "say." I suppose it was assumed that all modern dancers would want to choreograph, and the other dancers in my classes seemed to want to. Since I had such a hard time finding work because of my size, people were always suggesting I just choreograph for myself. But I still had no ideas for choreography that I thought I'd enjoy seeing, if I were in the audience, so I never created anything for myself.

What I mainly got out of choreography classes was the realiziation that some people are very inventive, and I am not. You can understand everything about structure, but if there's nothing to apply your structure to, you still end up with nothing.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Sun Dec 22, 2002 5:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

There are some ballet choreography classes around. For instance, Jennifer Jackson of Ballet Independents Group teaches one at the Royal Ballet School.

Do any of our readers have experience of one of these?

Author:  trina [ Sun Dec 22, 2002 5:59 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Toni Pimble in the United States was a dancer from a smaller company who made it big as a choreogrpaher. Or at least potentially. I haven't seen her name around much these days. She was one of the choreographers in the first year of the Diamond Project, or the whatever the name was of the earlier version of that project which the NYCB sponsored. As far as I can tell, the process of finding ballet choreographers is haphazard, and tends to come from the ranks of the principal dancers. I know that the Regional Ballet Association or "NARB" in the US sponsored choreography workshops and seminars quite regularly.

Author:  ksneds [ Tue Dec 24, 2002 1:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

The best source of info on the NY Choreographic Institute is probably their website at

From what I understand and have read, most participants are dancers or former dancers. There are some exceptions though. They can also have the chance to observe classes and performances under certain circumstances. The program works in semesters, with many partipants doing two semesters.
Each participant gets a set amount of rehearsal time, rehearsal space with dancers (usually SAB students I think, as NYCB dancers are busy with rehearsal/performaces). The ballets are performed to a close audience (no general public, no critics) at the end of the semester.
We've seen many of the workshop projects eventually come to the State Theater, including ballets by Chris Wheeldon, Chris D'Amboise, Albert Evans and others. Other pieces, I would suspect, are fleshed out as full blown ballets for other companies-as I suspect pieces by dancers like Chris Stowell, Alex Ratmansky and Julia Adam were.
I think the project is a great idea, and I've enjoyed some of the pieces that have come or been inspired by the workshop. However, it seems I never see ballets by some participants (Aaron Severini etc.)
Whether they are performed as a part of SAB Choreographic Workshops (which don't seem to be open to the public) or are abandoned after the workshop, it's a disapointment not to get to see some of the choreographers work onstage.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Thu Dec 26, 2002 4:52 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

Thanks a lot Kate for your comments and the link. It sounds like a fine project and I seem to remember that the Albert Evans piece was well received.

More information on ballet choreography projects from around the world will be very welcome.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 6:09 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

This thoughtful piece has been prepared for us by David Slade (TUK). David is a teacher and choreographer who works mostly in the United Kingdom. Folowing a career as a ballet dancer, he now teaches a range of courses including RAD and Cecchetti ballet and the practical section of A Level Performing Arts.


How can we develop creativity in ballet and the role of new choreography within the company? Do director/choreographers compromise their own creativity when directing a company?


The issue of creativity in ballet is a somewhat vexed one. Why is it that an art form that consumes the energies of so many performers, choreographers and directors seems to find it so problematic to produce works that both engage its audience and are of artistic merit?

Nowhere else is the dichotomy between ballet and contemporary dance more stark. Irrespective of the quality of the choreography; be it good, bad or indifferent, contemporary dance is buoyed up by a plethora of works, both original and derivative. Its historical precedence is built on the creative prowess of choreographers such as Graham, Humphrey, Cunningham and Taylor. Further generations of new choreographers such as Bourne, Morris and Khan reinforce its modern pre-eminence.
But any study of the history of ballet will reveal how much it too was shaped by the great choreographers who worked in the medium, from Bournonville and Petipa through to Ashton and Balanchine. Today's ballet companies have a repertoire of works partly created by such historic figures but also augmented by modern choreographers such as Forsythe, Duato and Page. However, the depth of creative development so evident in the contemporary genre seems to be absent from ballet, raising the obvious question, why?

Whilst there may be a multiplicity of possible reasons in this article I will focus on just three and by so doing hope to stimulate the kind of debate that might encourage those involved to consider how ballet can encourage both individual and organisational creativity. These are the nature of balletic education, the costs involved in the production of balletic works and the nature of the audience for ballet.

Creativity and Balletic Education

The answer to some questions may appear so axiomatic that they are never really asked or they might have never been thought worthy of consideration. So let us ask one very simple question and see where it leads us. What is the purpose of vocational balletic education? The answer seems obvious, to produce a dancer capable of performing the present balletic repertoire in a ballet company. So far so good, but this one question raises a series of others, not the least of which is what is the nature of the kind of dancer that balletic education produces to fulfil this objective? Well most graduate students will be looking to be taken into the corps de ballet of a company, so it makes sense that the student on completion of his or her studies should be an acceptable addition, both physically and technically, for this body of dancers.

Certainly individuals emerge who transcend this aim and go on to soloist and principal ranks and they may or may not have received particular support in their training that furthered this advancement. However, it does seem that there is a clear 'look' that is being sort of the nascent ballet dancer and it is this that is being pursued by the vocational establishments. It creates a singular mindset, one that is dominated by the desire to achieve the single goal of being employed by a company almost to the exclusion of being involved in ballet as an art form that exists within the context of the wider cultural environment.

Contextual studies place the creative artist at the forefront of the modern cultural zeitgeist, a person who questions its accepted boundaries and challenges its preconceptions whilst interacting intimately within its cultural framework. Whilst it might not be necessary to perceive the totality of this framework the singular goal of becoming a company dancer to the exclusion of all else seems to divorce the ballet dancer from the very cultural ethos from which creativity derives.
The art form needs dancers who are less insular, who see ballet in its overall cultural context and can draw from this wider framework to stimulate and enrich their own creativity. The ballet schools are in the best position to achieve this aim if they are both willing and able and, most importantly, if the companies are willing to support schemes that encourage new choreographers within the educational system, rather than seeing it merely as a source of fodder for the corps.

The Cost of Ballet

The production of new and original dance works is a risky enterprise, with little assurance that they will be a success. The costs involved in even the smallest ballet company mean that a calculation has to be made between the desire to engage new choreography and the need to balance the books. This is often the lot of the Artistic Director who is put in the position of balancing his or her creative output against the need to maintain a repertoire that equates with the position of the company with regard to both its funding agencies and its audience.

With the stakes of financial failure so high the tendency is to commission new work from established choreographers where the level of risk may be considered lower. The corollary of this is that potential talent, particularly within a company, has further barriers to overcome before it reaches fruition upon the stage.

Because of this it is not uncommon for ballet companies to have what are designated as workshop performances in smaller venues that allow artists within the organisation to try experimenting with their own creative output. How far this truly gives opportunities to progress to a higher level is a moot point, but at least it holds out the chance of revealing choreographic ability that might have gone otherwise unnoticed. It then becomes a matter of having the courage to take the risk of giving new choreographers the chance to succeed or fail in the more unforgiving environment of the main stage.

The Audience

As a generalisation the ballet audience tends to be more conservative than that for contemporary dance. This is perhaps most acutely bourn out by the ructions that occurred throughout the artistic directorship of Ross Stretton at the Royal Ballet. This is not to either support or be pejorative of his directorship, only to note how vituperative comments amongst critical elements within the audience can strongly influence the course of a major company.

The expectations the audience has of a company will, of necessity, shape its repertoire and the ballet audience has a series preferences for works most of which are well established within the common canon. Indeed outside the larger metropolitan areas and even to a certain degree within them new unknown works are considered to be box office poison.

Yet this truism need not always be the case, as can be seen in the work of Forsythe at the Ballett Frankfurt. There a company with a traditional repertoire including many of the 19 Century classics was transformed into an instrument for choreography that created a cross over between ballet and modern cultural idioms. Around this vitalised institution an audience developed that appreciated the significance of having art of this significance within its borders (something that the board of the company now seem to have resolutely ignored).

However where the conservative tendency holds more sway it tends to react negatively to experimental and challenging new works, creating another block to the creative output of new choreographers.

Points for Discussion

So at the upcoming retreat how might these issues be addressed? That is something I feel we are all going to have to wait to find out. But for those of us who wish to see the art form of ballet develop and progress as a relevant mode of expression with contemporary culture the need to encourage creativity is of pressing urgency. So with this in mind I would like to propose the following topics.

• How can we broaden dance education to make ballet dancers more aware of and responsive to the contemporary cultural zeitgeist?
• Should we be prepared to risk failure and possible financial loss in the hope of discovering new choreographers?
• How can audiences be encouraged to take a more open-minded approach to new works by un-established choreographers?

What is to be hoped is that the conference produces solid practical debate that comes up with solutions to these and other questions. Good wishes to all involved.

<small>[ 14 January 2003, 02:00 AM: Message edited by: Stuart Sweeney ]</small>

Author:  librarian [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 7:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

May I ask, however, why it is that no one seems to be putting forth creativity within ballet as a viable alternative? Why is there so much fret and fuss over creating a new language when there is a perfectly wonderful language waiting to be used? Is it because some people don't feel validated unless what they've done is completely different? I don't believe that the language of ballet is invalid or irrelevant. Why does it seem to me that people are afraid to express themselves in that framework?

Author:  Maggie [ Mon Dec 30, 2002 3:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Developing Choreographers

While I don't disagree with the idea it is wonderful to create something entirely new and completely different, I wholeheartedly agree with Librarian in developing creativity within ballet. The vocabulary is infinitely versatile and beautiful. I certainly feel the "something completely different" and the "ballet vocabularists" should be able to stand together without one promoting the invalidity of the other to qualify itself, as has been done in the not too distant past. (True in fine art as well.)

Going back to some of the other points regarding choreographic training, there is no argument that more training venues should be available other than just "coming to it" during one's dance training/career, which is how a lot of choreographers evolve and surface. As djb says, not everyone is interested, or even talented or gifted enough to become a choreographer, as it is certainly more than just a technical endeavor, but it would be nice if there were more venues to nurture the potential.

I think David's points for discussion included the issues related to this (venues) regarding financial aspects and audience interest/education. His first point of discussion about the broadening of dance education I found very intriguing. The way ballet is being taught, in general, is, to my way of thinking caught up in it's own past methods, particularly in the US. I'm not talking of the technique of ballet, of course, but a more well rounded approach to the art form as a whole. (History, pedagogy, theater-craft, music, choreography, etc.)

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