Company Life: Choreographing From the Corps

Young dancer-choreographers manage a tricky balancing act.
Published in the June/July 2012 issue.

Justin Peck demonstrates in rehearsal. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

The life of an emerging choreographer can be stressful. You’re trying to make a name for yourself, to establish your own distinct voice, to earn and then juggle multiple commissions. But some dancemakers struggle with more than choreographer’s block: They also dance with major companies. And many are corps de ballet dancers, workhorses who perform in nearly every show.

For most, one job will eventually eclipse the other. Usually, the pull of choreography proves stronger than that of performing—especially if a promotion up the company ranks isn’t in the cards—and the artist retires from dancing to focus on creating work. But for a few years in these ambitious dancer-choreographers’ lives, the worry is less about work/life balance than work/work balance.

What motivates a dancer in his or her prime to choreograph? Often it doesn’t feel like a choice. “Making work is something that’s been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember,” says New York City Ballet corps member Justin Peck, who has been choreographing for four years and is working on his first piece for NYCB. “I tried to be practical; initially I thought I should focus on dancing now, when I could, and choreograph later. But I felt compelled to choreograph. I have a lot of visions that I’m hungry to realize.”

Artistic directors, who might reasonably be leery of choreographic projects that could distract dancers from their performing responsibilities, are impressed by that kind of drive. Outgoing Royal Ballet director Monica Mason had no hesitations about taking a chance on corps member Liam Scarlett. She asked the then­–24-year-old to choreograph a main-stage ballet for The Royal Ballet after seeing a few of the pieces he had made for the company’s “Draft Works” workshop. “There was something about Liam’s thoughts, the way he chose his cast and worked with them—he was so confident that there was no anxiety about giving him the opportunity,” Mason says. “Psychologically he was ready.”

When a young dancer steps to the front of the room as choreographer, the studio dynamic undergoes an interesting shift. “It’s like the first day of school, that first rehearsal,” says Emery LeCrone, who dances with The Metropolitan Opera ballet company and has made works on members of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. “I have to think about projecting confidence, rather than getting hung up on the fact that the dancers I’m working with have had longer careers than I have.”

The role reversal is especially pronounced when dancers make ballets on their own companies. “It can be a little weird initially,” Peck says of choreographing on his colleagues. NYCB principal Janie Taylor worked closely with Peck on a video for the designer Chloé for The Block magazine last year. In one sense, she says, the project was easier than working with an unfamiliar choreographer, since she and Peck are friends. “But as a dancer of any level, you understand your place in the room,” she adds. “We always want to earn the respect of the person who’s in charge! I know not to take advantage of a friendship.” Taylor also appreciates artists like Peck because they can do everything they’re asking her to do. “I work better when a choreographer can show me exactly what he or she wants,” she says.

A dancer-choreographer has certain advantages when he’s making work on his own company, too. Being able to tailor the movement to the dancers is one. “I’ve been watching some of the NYCB dancers onstage and in class for 10 years now, so I know how to harness their strengths,” Peck says. Understanding the requirements of the company’s venue is another. Mason is impressed by the way Scarlett is able to make use of the cavernous Covent Garden stage. “It’s the theater he’s grown up in,” she says. “He has an insider’s grasp on its proportions and scope.”

As dancers, artists like LeCrone, Peck and Scarlett have front-row seats to other choreographers’ rehearsals. “Whenever I’m working with a choreographer at NYCB, in the back of my mind I’m taking notes,” Peck says. “You can’t learn how to make a ballet, but you can learn how to run a rehearsal.” And when he’s the one leading the rehearsal, he feels in tune with his dancers’ needs. “Sometimes choreographers come in and it seems like they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a dancer, how hard it is,” Peck says. “But I’m still going through it. So I try to be sensitive to how my dancers are feeling, who is hurting, who’s had a long day.”

Challenges aside, dancer-choreographers are lucky, LeCrone says, to have it both ways. “While I still can, I need to dance and to choreograph, because they’re both fulfilling,” she says. “You have your right and left brain turned on at all times.”