As the dancers took their places, Justine Essis Gildea, 17, had an intense case of the jitters. But she wasn’t onstage. The Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student was watching the debut of her ballet, Mishima, part of the 2012 FirstSteps CPYB Student Choreographic Workshop. “I was more nervous than I’d ever been as a dancer,” she says. “Everything is on the line because you’ve worked so hard to create it.”
Most of us strive to perfect our performances, but do you ever wonder what it feels like on the other side of the rehearsal studio? Many top training programs, including the School of American Ballet, Boston Ballet School and the Chautauqua Institution, have started offering choreography workshops, classes or intensives. While these are typically optional, there are plenty of reasons why you should opt in—regardless of whether you plan on becoming the next Balanchine. With more of today’s ballet companies emphasizing new choreography, either through commissioned works (sometimes from their own dancers) or even choreographic competitions, your chances of being created on are quite high. By stepping into a choreographer’s shoes, you can grow more keenly aware of what they need from you as a dancer, making you a more attractive hire.
“We’re not trying to teach people to be choreographers,” says CPYB resident choreographer Alan Hineline, who directs the school’s FirstSteps program, “but we’re trying to provide them with the skills and the experience to understand what it means to be a choreographer.”
This year, Hineline plans to build upon the FirstSteps program by offering composition classes to help dancers better understand choreographic building blocks, such as musical phrasing and spatial structure. His class will introduce students to formal structures shared between different forms of art, such as one group working against another in a canon. “You watch something like Balanchine’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and you see how canons are so effective as a means to express musicality,” says Hineline.
Developing Taste and Style
At Houston Ballet Academy, Chase Cobb helps coordinate an annual choreographic collaboration between summer intensive dancers and student composers from the American Festival for the Arts. “When you choreograph, you’re asked to qualify every choice that you make, distill it down into tangible ideas and then communicate it to somebody else,” he says. “The experience really helps hone students’ communication skills and solidify their ideas as artists.”
For many students, the process starts by researching favorite choreographers to help them formulate ideas and discover their own artistic taste. For his duet Discovery and the Like, Houston Ballet Academy student James Potter, 16, turned to Mats Ek. “A lot of his work has a domesticated, homey feel that’s totally relatable,” says Potter. “I wanted to incorporate that same feel in my work.”
Most schools use a hands-off approach to choreography, allowing students to create whatever they like and cultivate a personal working style. “Some dancers come in and have all the steps mapped out,” says Hineline, “while others are freer in their process.” Either way, students learn that flexibility is key, as ideas often change. For instance, Alexander Manning, a CPYB alum now apprenticing with Miami City Ballet, discovered that phrases that felt comfortable on his male frame sometimes looked laborious on his all-female cast.
Gaining Leadership Skills
Choreography classes can also take dancers to a new level of personal growth: Not only are you forced to dig deep creatively, but you develop time management, organizational and leadership skills. No longer focused on their own dancing, students must take charge of the room and sensitively gauge the work habits of others while staying on course. “I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to be so lenient that the piece didn’t turn out well,” says Gildea. Receptive dancers with a willingness to collaborate proved especially valuable to her during the process. “Next time I work with a choreographer, I want to be the same way.”
Showing your piece and listening to feedback is common during choreographic workshops. “It’s very exposing,” says Cobb, “but it allows the choreographers to step back a bit and see their work for its full value.” For instance, after faculty members advised Potter to create more emotional connections between his dancers, he spent the remaining rehearsal period developing their characterizations. Learning to take critiques about something you’ve created can be one of the most challenging parts of the process, but it builds maturity that can translate back to your dance life.
A Choreographer’s Dancer
Many students say that participating in a choreographic workshop opened their eyes as artists. “It changed how I watched ballet,” says Manning, who used to focus primarily on the dancers. Now, he sees the bigger picture, from music to lighting to spacing. Experiencing the amount of effort choreographers pour into their work—and knowing firsthand what they need—allows you, as a dancer, to approach your work more creatively and intelligently. “Now that I’m back on the other side,” says Manning, “I want to be that inspiring, hard-working, collaborative dancer they look for.”
Kozlova’s Competition Gets Edgier
The Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition is going contemporary this year, with a makeover as the International Contemporary Choreographers and Dancers Competition. The event has always included a compulsory contemporary variation, but this edition will cut the classical component out of the mix. (For classical competitors, the regular VKIBC will be back in 2015.)
For founder Valentina Kozlova, the decision to host a contemporary competition was simple. “For every single ballet company today, you need to be a dancer who can do contemporary as well as the classics,” she says. “This isn’t modern or jazz or acrobatics, but the kind of contemporary that is performed in classical companies today.”
The competition, which will be held in New York City on April 28 and 29, will be open to dancers and choreographers of all ages, with an emphasis on granting exposure to up-and-coming dancemakers. “There are many talented choreographers around and they have trouble starting,” says Kozlova. “I want to use this to help promote young talent.”
Solo dancers will present two works each. Choreographers will be allowed to enter solo, duet or group works. All interested competitors can apply online at vkibc.org.
Class on the Road
Want to take class while you’re on tour or vacation? Download the On Point Dance app for your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. You can search 16 major cities to see a list of daily class schedules at all nearby dance schools. Quickly scroll from school to school and compile your own list of the best offerings. The program costs 99 cents in iTunes.
“I sometimes hold a pen (actually a skinny makeup brush!) between my pointer, middle and ring fingers for a few combinations at barre. It helps me feel my fingers so that I can create a beautiful shape with my hands throughout the day.” —Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson