How 3 Dancers Are Launching Their Choreography Careers

February 13, 2024

“I know how to do choreography,” says Alexandra F. Light. “That’s the easy part.” The Texas Ballet Theater principal dancer, who is launching her choreography career, says that the hard part is, well, everything else—the fundraising, budgeting, networking, and marketing that come along with getting dance onstage.

Light has been making dances since childhood, but when she decided to pursue choreography professionally, “I felt like, ‘Where do I go? How do I do this?’ ” Since there’s no instruction book, we asked Light, freelancer Tiffany Mangulabnan, and Boston Ballet artist My’Kal Stromile for advice on the different ways they’re building their dancemaking careers.

Alexandra Light

Since Light is also a visual artist, she started with connections in that community. She pitched a piece called Inside Voices to the director of performance programming at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “She was like, ‘I love this, when can we put it on?’ ”

Alexandra Light and Carl Comer hold hands and face the audience during a performance as Light does a penché with her right leg raised. Coomer stands next to her on his right leg in plié and extends his left leg out. Light, in a multi-colored leotard and pointe shoes, looks directly toward the audience while Coomer, in brown tights and a multi-colored top, looks down.
Alexandra Light and Carl Coomer in Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse with Texas Ballet Theatre. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Alexandra Light.

Putting on a performance entails a lot of logistics, which Light juggles on top of her full-time job at TBT. “I have my planner with me all the time,” she says. “There are definitely days when I’m like, This is too much. You have to take a day off, or you’re going to get burned out.”

Networking has led to choreography commissions from Texas Ballet Theater, Katzen Arts Center of American University, USA International Ballet Competition participants, and the recording artist Laura Brehm. Last July she was one of just two artists chosen from 400 applicants for a creative residency at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House in Buffalo, New York. “You start to get opportunities outside your own bubble, and that told me that people are starting to recognize my work,” she says.

Three female ballet dancers, all barefoot and wearing long dresses, perform in front of a small audience at a cavernous art museum with concrete floors and walls. The dancer in the middle lunges forward, arching her back way back and opening her arms out, while teh dancer on her left bends forward. The dancer to the right stands in parallel and looks back, right arm raiseed up and the elft out to the side. An audience is gathered in front of them, sitting on chairs and watching.
Dancers Rayleigh Vendt, Rieko Hatato, and Dara Oda perform Alexandra Light’s Three Portraits at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2022. Photo by Ted Forbes, courtesy Light.

Mentorship is another inspiring tool for Light, who sent cold emails to three of her favorite female choreographers and got informational interviews with two of them. “The biggest advice I got was to follow my own path,” she says. “You just have to keep going.”

Tiffany Mangulabnan

Trained at Philippine Ballet Theater, Tiffany Mangulabnan joined the company at 15, rising to principal dancer. At 22 years old she moved to New York City and joined BalletNEXT. She started making dances out of necessity, after co-founding the independent company konverjdans with fellow dancers Amy Saunder and Jordan Miller in 2016. “We had no money, so we made our own work,” Mangulabnan recalls. “I made my first solo piece in 2017, and I realized I do want to do this.”

Tiffany Mangulabnan, wearing a pink loose-fitting short dress with draping along the sides, sits on the stage floor in profile and leans back onto her left hand. She bends her knees and holds them with her right hand, looking off toward stage right. She is spotlit from the side on a drak stage. Behind her to her left, a woman in a long, light-colored dress plays a cello under a spotlight.
Tiffany Mangulabnan with bassist Carmen Q. Rothwell, in Mangulabnan’s Don’t Get Comfy/Nowhere. Photo by Arnaud Falchier, courtesy of konverjdans.

Mangulabnan creates one work a year for konverjdans, and she reaches out to a small network of private donors—a mix of family, friends, and dance patrons she’s met over the course of her career who’ve taken interest in her work—to underwrite it. Commissions from the Barnard College dance department, Women in Motion, and Carolina Ballet have come by word of mouth. She plans to be more proactive about getting choreography jobs this year, but her time is divided between co-directing konverjdans, teaching, assisting choreographer Caili Quan, and dancing for the Metropolitan Opera and companies like Gabrielle Lamb’s Pigeonwing Dance.

“I’ve had to accept that there are weeks or months when I have no time for myself,” she says. “I’m running to class, then rehearsing, I’ll be eating my lunch on the subway. It’s tough work.” Meditation helps her filter out the stress and clarify her mind. “Every piece I’ve ever performed, and every choreographer I’ve worked with, is in my body,” she says. “The fact that I get to run around and do all this work feeds my creativity and my choreographic voice.”

In a bright dance studio with white walls and slim windows toward the ceiling, a male and female dancer rehearse an intimate pas de deux. The woman, in a light pink leotard, yellow shorts and socks, crouches low and links her right arm under and around the man's right shoulder as she holds his bicep with her left hand. The man, in a gray t-shirt, gray pants and gray socks, stands in a wide, parallel second position and bends forward as he holds her body. Their faces are close and they look into each other's eyes.
Cortney Taylor Key and Łukasz Zięba, in rehearsal for Tiffany Mangulabnan’s Nobody Knows Our Names for konverjdans, Photo by Magda Rymarz, courtesy of konverjdans.

My’Kal Stromile

One of the first things My’Kal Stromile did when he joined Boston Ballet II in 2018 was tell artistic director Mikko Nissinen that he wanted to pursue choreography. Nissinen has supported him with commissions for BBII and, in 2023, his first main-stage work, Form and Gesture. When Stromile took his bows on opening night, he says, “I was like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”

My'Kal Stromile, wearing a black t-shirt, black pants and red sneakers, demonstrates a dance move on relevé in fourth position effacé. He lifts his left arm up, bending it, and his right arm is srtetched out to the side. Both of his index fingers are pointed. Behind him, three dancers in practice clothing stand and watch.
My’Kal Stromile in rehearsal with artist of Boston Ballet. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Stromile got his first taste of dancemaking while earning his BFA at Juilliard, and estimates he’s created 25 works since graduating—including 10 last year alone. Most of Stromile’s commissions, from companies like Dallas Black Dance Theatre and organizations like Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis, have come through personal connections; one even arose after an artistic director watched an audition video Stromile had choreographed for another dancer.

Stromile joined Boston Ballet’s main company in 2019, and he actively makes use of its resources. For example, William Forsythe, who has a longstanding relationship with the company, is his mentor. “He’s constantly challenging me to think about what I’m presenting and why,” Stromile says. “What happens if you turn this, or move this?” Stromile, who aspires to be an artistic director and freelance choreographer, also sits on the company’s Employee Council, working with Nissinen and senior management on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “I’m getting a lot of inside information about how companies are run, how nonprofits get support, long-term planning, and budgeting.”

On a large, darkened stage, three female dancers in silhouette pose in arabesque in the upstage right corner. Two dancers face into each other with first arabesque arms and the third is between them, posing face on wither both arms raised in a V. On the other side of the stage, two male dancers, also in silhouette, stand facing the women and watch them.
Boston Ballet in My’Kal Stromile’s Form and Gesture. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Despite still enjoying dancing, Stromile no longer performs off-season. “If I’m working closely with another choreographer, I start to see things popping up in my own work,” he says. “I keep a defining line between what I’m trying to say versus what another choreographer is trying to say.” He’s now confident enough in his artistic voice and business skills that he’s planning to become a full-time choreographer in the near future. “I feel this burning desire to make a statement for myself as a dancemaker,” he says. “I’m excited for the journey.”