Gaining Traction (or the Slip ‘n Slide) – Part 1

Part 1
Warning to choreographers: hard work ahead. Yet, those who sign up to make dances are usually aware of the ongoing rigor involved on this path. For some artists, the mere question of how to gain traction draws silence, sighs, and even laughs, reflecting the challenging and individualized trajectory of choreographers. Illuminating current possibilities, a handful of voices from across the country share what has proved relevant to making progress and gaining momentum for creating new works in today’s challenging dance climate. Drawing from experiences of dance professionals and artists operating in solo, project-based, and company structures, Part 1 mines the personal qualities, practices, and DIY ethos of choreographers, and Part 2 (coming Thursday) addresses the role of artistic self production in the mix of platforms for delivering dance.

Across the board, the choreographers acknowledge that the work is foremost. “The first impression for me is the dance that someone creates. Once the dance makes an impression on me, then I’m curious to follow the newsletters and the trajectory of a person’s career, and get interested in how they conduct themselves,” said choreographer Larry Keigwin of New York-based Keigwin & Company. “Among many things, it’s about having a consistent creative output,” he added. Also pointing to ongoing development, Amy Smith, co-director of Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater, commented, “The most important thing is making good work and concentrating on the work .…The reason we moved to Philadelphia was because it was cheap to live here, work part-time jobs and rent our own studio, which we wanted – unlimited access to studio time to make, make, make tons of work and perform it often and for free and not really worry about gigs as much as the creative process.”

So with work created, how to persevere when taking it to the stage? Not surprisingly, the dance makers identified self-knowledge, motivation, responsibility, sustained inspiration, flexibility, and hybridity as qualities that helped them gain traction. Artist representative Ben Pryor recommended participating in communities where you want to continue your investment and grow. “Being able to know yourself is a valuable quality for an artist,” he said. “I value people who have found mechanisms for themselves to assess a situation and come up with the answer that will satisfy them best, even if it’s saying no to something.” Several artists similarly mentioned the importance of being honest and genuine with one’s creative voice, and extending that assessment to clarify a strong and realistic vision.

“I try to work really hard, I never take days off, which I need, but I’d rather get work done,” said New York choreographer Kyle Abraham, of Abraham in Motion. Letty Basshart, a choreographer in Miami, also acknowledged the ongoing toil. “It requires a lot of self motivation, so I’m driven to continue to make things and keep that momentum going and that energy is an important personal quality. The traction that you create here is your own,” she said. Noting continuing education as part of that propulsion, choreographer Erika Surma of Washington, D.C.’s Next Reflex Dance Collective said, “It’s really up to the artist to be self-motivated in finding or creating the educational experiences needed to move forward.” Also in D.C., Kimmie Dobbs Chan and Enoch Chan of Deviated Theatre said they endure long periods of uncertainty by doing something toward a goal everyday. “Flying by the seat of your pants is definitely part of it, especially in the beginning, at least until someone extends a hand from the other side. So you have to just go with the flow, keep putting things in – time, energy, money – until a grant meets you halfway, until a theater asks to present you, until there’s something that helps you plant seeds for the future,” Dobbs Chan said.

In the meantime, leveraging each opportunity, becoming known for those successes, and not being afraid to “toot your own horn” contribute to dancers gaining footing. “When you achieve a success, as small as it is, you have to use that as momentum toward the next thing,” Dobbs Chan said. In a similar spirit, Bianca Cabrera, a San Francisco-based choreographer who has also worked in Seattle and Colorado, said, “You can’t replicate what someone else did. Make traction with whatever you meet up with.” And be really responsible, added Keigwin. “A lot of opportunity comes by recommendation and every gig, every day, every teacher, every student is a possible recommendation – so really show up 100 percent for every job.”

Flexibility to work outside of only concert dance and hybridity, the ability to participate in multiple artistic roles beyond creating work, have their perks, especially in terms of staying visible and “top of mind” to your public between performances. Referring to his participation in fashion shows, musicals, and industrials, Keigwin remarked, “I’ve been able to accept invitations outside the dance community that give me visibility in the larger picture, and I find that it’s helpful to mix and mingle outside the concert [dance] world.” Headlong’s Smith and her co-directors also participate in other dance and theater activities. “I performed in a play this fall and now I’m choreographing an opera, so I’ll do things that are outside of Headlong but still in the arts community, and I tend to think all those things are good for the company because people hear about us.” Performing artist and scholar Keith Hennessy regularly engages in dance communities outside his San Francisco home base. He pointed to teaching as an important way to expose himself to different environments, which occasionally leads to performance opportunities. Other channels that shaped his reputation as an artist include curating, writing, and becoming involved in academia (he is a PhD candidate). Moving fluidly between roles, this hybridity allows him to continually participate in an artistic dialogue between performances. “Hybridity and diversity of talents, venues, contexts, and choreographic projects are central to the flukey and unpredictable traction that I do have,” he said.

Whether today’s dance makers received training in arts administration or learned on the job, chances are they’re fulfilling some of these duties, especially early on. Day-to-day business operations remain essential to gaining traction, no matter what business model a dance artist prefers. Some operate with a collective staffing model, leaning on willing and multi-talented/multi-tasking dancers to contribute administratively. “At first you have to be willing to do absolutely everything yourself. You can’t just be a choreographer. We finally have a group of dancers stepping forward who give input at regular meetings and then we divvy up the tasks,” said Dobbs Chan. Only after operating for several years with help from friends, a small board, and a 501(c)3, did Keigwin hire his first full-time staff member, made possible through a capacity-building grant in 2009. Smith too. “We spent 10 years before hiring anyone to support us. We did all the administrative work, splitting it three ways. Now we have support, but still do a lot of the executive-level work running the company,” she said. Summing up the DIY attitude necessary for working as a choreographer today, Smith added, “There is no model. You can’t plan to be like Mark Morris or Bill T. Jones or anybody. You just have to figure it out for yourself. The ability and creativity to zig and zag and self-invent and reinvent is the key to success.”

Headlong Dance Theater
Deviated Theatre’s “Aspiro,” photo: Enoch Chan
Keith Hennessey, “For Sale,” photo: officerfishdumplings

Julie Potter is a dance artist, writer, arts manager, and yoga teacher based in San Francisco’s Mission District. She was a fellow in the 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Dance at the American Dance Festival and received the 2010 Gary Parks Emerging Writer Scholarship from the Dance Critics Association. Julie served on Dance/NYC’s Youth Advisory Committee and was a 2008 Dance/USA Access Scholar. Her work appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, In Dance, Theatre Bay Area Magazine, Voice of Dance, DCA News, and on her blog,


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