Students As Muses

More choreographers are creating work inside elite ballet academies—with surprising benefits.
Published in the April/May 2012 issue.

Aszure Barton works with a class at Canada’s National Ballet School. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Larry Keigwin revels in the chance to choreograph in conservatories. “It’s like a working audition,” he says. “I’m introduced to dancers who later can come into my company. I like hiring people after I’ve had experience with them: When you’ve created a piece on somebody, you know how they operate.” Plus, he adds, the extra paychecks don’t hurt.

Professional choreographers have become common inside top ballet conservatories. For Keigwin and other choreographers on this specialized circuit, making new pieces for pre-professional dancers is a win-win situation. The process feeds the artists in ways they don’t always expect. And students graduate from these schools with distinct advantages over their peers: Rather than simply repeating variations that countless dancers have performed before them, learning and participating in the making of a new work helps students pick up choreography faster. They become flexible instruments for dancemakers—and end up as more marketable dancers. 

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has regularly recruited emerging classical choreographers since 1998 through a program called ChoreoPlan. Alan Hineline, CPYB’s resident choreographer, believes students offer professional dancemakers unique benefits. “If what you need is 16 girls who can look alike based on their training, you’re gonna get it,” he says. “That’s honestly something hard to find in the professional world: a corps that all understands movement from the same place.”

In addition to a uniform style, students also bring energy to the studio. “They’re incredibly attentive, disciplined and focused,” says contemporary choreographer Aszure Barton. “They’re interested in being a part of the creation, in doing something challenging and new.” Barton, who graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto in 1993, says she loves going back to work with its students: “Often the money is not the thing. They help me return to my core essence and my voice—the simplicity of being in a creative environment. I feel enabled and unafraid, and that’s when I make the best work.”

The collaborative process works both ways: Young dancers often grow in new directions after working with visiting dancemakers. Students thrown into CPYB’s choreographic crucible, for instance, sometimes discover capabilities they didn’t know they had. Avichai Scher, who made Of Age for ChoreoPlan 2011, says, “I didn’t know any of the students, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what they could do. They had to rise to the level of what I expected the piece to be; I didn’t adjust it for them.” And when Brian Enos made his A Night In The Tropics on CPYB students last year, he says, “After the first showing, one of the instructors said of a student, ‘I’ve never seen her dance like that. She’s such a shy girl.’ The piece showed her talent in a different light.”

It’s not all roses and snowflakes, though, when outsiders encounter students. Darrell Grand Moultrie, a New York–based choreographer who recently made Get in Line at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, is blunt about the lack of information many students have when they audition for his pieces. “Every school I go to, I ask students to tell me what they know about me,” he says. “Students today don’t know choreographers’ histories before they start working with them. And this generation can find out every credit, all the information in five or 10 minutes online!”

Moultrie teaches students what will be expected of them in the professional world. “I try to give them many secrets, share what is really being said behind the audition table or the choreographer’s chair,” he says. “Sometimes it’s jarring; sometimes it can be really helpful. I teach them about networking. If they represent themselves well, they can come to me later for a recommendation.”

The smart students soak up this information. Texan Lindsey Pitts, 24, loved working with Moultrie at DTH. “He is not afraid to push you,” she says. “He doesn’t just sit in the front calling out directions, but is in the middle of the room with us, running behind us, yelling to travel more. In the end the improvement was amazing. He always told us, ‘Just do it—what are you waiting for?’ He helped me understand the mentality of being fearless when I dance.”

Keigwin, who’s worked on Broadway in addition to running his own troupe, demands flair and personality from ballet students. “I’m introducing new compositional tools,” he says. Kingdom, which he created on students at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2009, incorporates their contributions into the choreography. “I’m asking them to participate as collaborators in the work, to be improv artists; that might be different from what they’re used to,” Keigwin says. “This is the time to give them those experiences; they’re more available and open to adventurous tasks.”

Students sometimes find surprising interests that lead them in new directions. After working with NBS, Barton found that a number of the students wanted to audition for Aszure Barton & Artists. “Who’d have thought they’d be interested in doing something other than going into a ballet company?” she asks.

Overall, the experience helps dancers more easily transition to the professional world. CPYB artistic director Marcia Dale Weary cites New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder as a successful graduate of her program who learned to pick up new choreography quickly. CPYB students, Weary observes, “have worked with so many choreographers that graduates are an asset to a company. They don’t waste time. They’re used to standing in the back and understudying, learning the parts so if someone gets injured they can step right in.” And, unsurprisingly, students who’ve had practice being choreographer’s tools are the ones who later find themselves in lead parts not long after joining the corps.


Catching the Choreography Bug

Visiting artists can have an unexpected impact. CPYB alum Antonio Anacan, 25, now at Eugene Ballet, was feeling hungry for something more at school when Brian Enos came to make a dance. “His movement was so loose; instantly I got sucked into it,” Anacan says. “I’d never choreographed, but I heard a piece of music by a Brazilian guitarist that summed up the last two years of my life. I asked Enos if he could help me. He told me to close my eyes and let the music take me, to make sure to use the floor, move around. I finished the piece in just over a week, and actually got to perform it. I was so lucky that CPYB brought in these choreographers and I got to work with one.” —EZ