By Nancy Wozny
Selecting new choreographers for a program or a season seems a straightforward enough process at first glance. Artistic directors attend festivals, keep their eyes peeled for talent from within, reach out to their network for hot tips, and rifle through a mountain of DVDs on their desks from aspiring choreographers.
And, yes, all of that happens, along with a much more nuanced process that includes a more focused examination of how any choreographer’s work fits into both the artistic and company culture of an institution. Choreographic matchmaking involves an unspoken chemistry that needs to be present between the director/company and the dancemaker.
At some point in the process, the issue of where and when the new work might fit into a company program comes up. Timing becomes an integral factor, as rising talents often get booked years in advance.
There’s no one way artistic directors go about finding new work to bolster their seasons and raise their company profiles. It’s as individualized a process as directing a company. Five artistic directors and one freelance choreographer give Dance/USA a glimpse into their detailed methodologies.
The Kaplan New Works Series happens right inside Cincinnati Ballet’s (CB) intimate studio and performance space. Since 2006, it’s safe to say that new work is a big priority for artistic director Victoria Morgan. Work by women is also high on her list. She’s done her homework, too. Based on the research that Amy Seiwert did, of 200 new works performed by mid- and large-size companies this season with budgets over $5 million, just 25 were from women, with seven coming from CB.
The Kaplan Series allows new, mid-career, and even staff choreographers to experiment without all the usual expense of a full-blown evening on the big stage. Morgan looks for choreographers with drive, and usually includes one more experienced choreographer on the bill to anchor the program. “It’s a time to take a risk, and show edgier work,” says Morgan. “Choreographers need to be able to fail to move forward. That’s how we grow the craft. We have to be able to make mistakes.”
The dancers thrive on the rush of new moves. “They love it, crave it. And it gives me a chance to see the corps, soloists, and principals in a different light,” she says. “These choreographers lavish attention on them, really pulling things out of them I might not ordinarily see.”
Morgan does get her share of DVDs, which can arouse some interest putting a new name on her radar. Her associate artistic director, Devon Carney, helps narrow the DVD selection down to a workable amount to consider. Cincinnati native Amy Seiwert sent Morgan a DVD, but it was seeing the work live at Smuin Ballet that convinced the artistic director to move forward. “There was a spunkiness to it. She really challenged herself,” Morgan says.
Morgan regularly travels to New York and other ballet companies to scope out new works. “It’s hard, considering what’s going on here, but I try to make a point of it,” she says. Right now, she is working on getting New Yorker Helen Pickett, who has gained an international reputation, to CB. “We are in conversation,” she says. “Helen is on my wish list.”
Stephen Mills is an artistic director and choreographer deeply invested in the actual nuts and bolts of how a dance is put together. So finding a choreographic fit for his company needs to include some perks to him as a working artist. When a dancemaker comes to set a piece, it’s a chance for him to observe, learn, and be inspired. “I’m not just interested in their work, but their practice,” says Mills. “It’s as much about me as them. I want to find out how their minds work.”
Mills is also the founder of New American Talent, a bi-annual contest for choreographers sponsored by Ballet Austin. Mills and his staff cull through 150 to 200 DVDs before selecting a final six. An outside panel then selects three choreographers who will get to set new works on the company during the season. Choreographers take home anywhere from $10,000- $12,000, depending on final awards. Although the program may feel like an outlet for emerging talent, it has commissioned its share of mid-career artists, such as Dominic Walsh and Nelly van Bommel.
Mills needs to travel to see new work, spending summers on the festival circuit. Vienna and Montreal are two of his favorite destinations. Novel vocabulary remains a high priority for Mills, which is what he found in Nicolo Fonte, who has set two pieces on the company and this season is resident choreographer at Ballet West. “I connected to his movement,” Mills says.
He looks for strong work with the right personality for the company, which means an artist with good communication skills who shares his values on how dancers should be treated. He found all that in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who is based in Amsterdam. After seeing a duet at the Dance Salad Festival in Houston, Texas, Mills began conversations with the choreographer. Ochoa’s “Requiem for a Rose” will be set on Ballet Austin just in time for next month’s Valentine’s day. Mills is anxious to watch her work – and learn.
One can’t really discuss the process of commissioning or bringing in new choreographers at Ballet Memphis without understanding the institution’s overall culture. According to artistic director Dorothy Pugh, new work is not an island. She is direly concerned that 200 year-old ballets are no longer satisfying audiences’ needs. “For ages, I have felt that ballet was losing its connection with humanity,” Pugh says about the unabashedly American point of view of her company. “Much of it seems hollow to me. Our work needs to be more closely tied to the human experience. We live in this democracy, and our dancing needs to reflect that.”
New choreographers must become an active part of the mission of this vision-driven company. The artists and the work created under Pugh need to adhere to her values. “I suspect we produce more new work than any company our size,” boasts Pugh about her chamber-sized troupe of just 17 dancers that flourishes on a $3.3 million budget. “New work is simply a priority.” The feisty artistic director also believes that audiences are hungry for something fresh and novel. “They are used to being challenged,” she says. Pugh has created an infrastructure that nurtures creative artists. For six years Trey McIntyre held the resident choreographer position. “That was a turning point in his career. I believe he is grateful for my involvement,” says Pugh. “His ballet, ‘In Dreams,’ is a signature work for us.”
Today, two positions, the artistic associate post, now held by Julia Adam, and the choreographic associate, held by Steven McMahon, assure that new work in-house is always a possibility. Both have created numerous works on the company. “Julia was on my radar. I knew of her work,” Pugh says. McMahon has created more than a dozen new works for Ballet Memphis, and has been dancing with the company since 2004.
For outside choreographers, Pugh takes a multi-faceted approach. “We all talk a lot about upcoming choreographers. I stay pretty tuned to the scene.” Pugh found Washington, D.C.-based Dana Tai Soon Burgess after reading a piece by Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman.
Pugh also likes to get involved in the final product. For this season’s “The River Project,” a fall program of new work, she gave Philadelphian Matthew Neenan an assignment to create a work based on a story from Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Pugh sees a certain freedom in the assignment, allowing her to have more of a voice in the process, becoming part of a different kind of collaborative process.
The Joffrey Ballet
Artistic director Ashley Wheater sees himself as a curator when it comes to programming works for The Joffrey Ballet. Selecting a choreographer entails both fitting a new artistic voice into a program he has in mind, and understanding the temperament of the artist. He has a discerning eye for work, and knows immediately when he sees what he is looking for. “I need to see structure and craft,” he insists.
Yet, the process goes deeper. When Wheater came aboard, the company had not been doing a lot of new work, relying on classic American repertory and Joffrey signature ballets. When introducing a new voice, he says, “The artists and the choreographer need to feel each other. We are most vulnerable in the creative process.”
Wheater looks for artists who possess the kind of studio culture that will nurture his dancers. “Edwaard Liang was amazing in the studio. He knows how to put an artist at ease, which is when they are at their most creative,” he says. “I have sat in the studio and watched choreographers struggle with the artists, which ends up in a ballet not fully realized.” Timing also plays a role. Stanton Welch’s highly athletic “Son of Chamber Symphony” premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last summer and returns to the company rep during this 2012-13 season. He knew he wanted a piece by the Houston Ballet chief for a long time. “A few years ago, we were not ready for Stanton’s work. His work is very hard,” he says. “We are now, and I’m glad we waited.”
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
A chance for the company to grow underlies any decision Glenn Edgerton makes on selecting a new choreographer. “It’s the very basis of why I would take a work into the company,” says Edgerton, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s artistic director. “It’s not about the result, but the process for the company. It must challenge the dancers and create excitement, which will be transferred to the audience.”
Edgerton keeps his eagle eye open at all times for new talent. “We are a repertory company. We are committed to showing new work,” he says. “I read reviews, watch YouTube, and see live performances to see what’s out there.”
Because of the structure of the operation, Edgerton is able to act fast. “We are nimble. If I get excited about a new choreographer, I jump on it,” he says. “Our team is ready to act anytime, artistically and administratively, and we’re self-contained: Our studios, offices, costume and set shops are all here at the Hubbard Street Dance Center. So we’re easily accessible to one another and able to communicate, face-to-face, at any given time. It’s a well-oiled machine, and we don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ for every project.”
Like Ballet Austin, Hubbard Street runs a contest to uncover new choreographic voices. The National Choreographic Competition launched in 1999 when Robert Battle and Jessica Lang became its first winners crafting new pieces for the second company, Hubbard Street 2. Thus far 38 choreographers have created work for the HS2 as a result of the competition, and a handful of those artists have gone on to create work for Hubbard Street. But what’s more extraordinary is the list of winners, which includes such now notable choreographers as Aszure Barton, Liang, and others.
Hubbard Street also has an inclusive tradition of honoring in-house talent, which is in full evidence, considering the numerous works dancer and now resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo has created on the company in the past decade. Cerrudo was already choreographing on Hubbard Street when Glen Edgerton took the helm, but he continued the support begun by former Hubbard Street artistic director Jim Vincent. A moment of pride ensued when Cerrudo presented his first evening-length dance, One Thousand Pieces, this past October.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Don’t ask Belgium-based choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa why she hasn’t started “Company O” or any other machination of her name. She’s a contented professional freelancer. “When you run a company, you spend 80 percent on fundraising and 20 percent in the studio having fun. I like the fun part in the studio,” declares Ochoa. “I’m a bird that will not be caged.”
And sure enough, Ochoa spends most of her time gallivanting the globe setting new and established works on ballet companies of all sizes. Ochoa has set works on Dutch National Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Whim W’Him, Ballet Hispanico, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Ballet X, and others.
Once her choreography career started in 2002 with works on the Dutch National Ballet and Scapino Ballet Rotterdam, it just continued to roll along. Early on, she sent unsolicited DVDs to dance companies but received little response. “Sending DVDs is not the way to get work, but you still have to do it,” says Ochoa. Luck and fate intervened when Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ballet for the Dutch National turned out to be only 30 minutes and not a full-evening work. “They grabbed the top DVD and it was mine,” reports Ochoa. Like Cherkaoui, she says, “I’m Belgium,” and adds, “the piece was on pointe, and that seemed to be the magic combination,”
A serendipitous web of interconnection happened when Houston’s Nancy Henderek, Dance Salad Festival’s founder and curator, saw Ochoa’s “Before and After” in Belgium and subsequently offered her a place in the 2006 festival. Ellen Dennis, then producer of New York’s Fall for Dance, was in the audience, which is how she ended up on the Fall for Dance program with Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) artistic director Peter Boal. Artistic staff from Pennsylvania Ballet (PB) were in the audience. She went on to set “Requiem for a Rose” on PB in 2009, and “Cylindrical Shadows” on PNB in 2012. The domino effect made her realize that it’s more about who is in the audience experiencing the work than anything else.
Although the travel is strenuous, Ochoa likes the lifestyle as she is free of the internal politics of an organization and the burden of supporting a company full time. She gets to come in, do her thing and leave. “Three weeks is a minimum, and five weeks is a luxury,” she says about the creative process with a company. “I’m able to take bigger risks with small companies because audiences are different.”
As time goes on, Ochoa hasn’t ruled out taking over an existing company, but for now she cherishes her freedom and flexible work life. Her relationship with Dance Salad continued with “La Pluie” in 2007, then One in 2008, and “Locked Up Laura” in 2011. This March, two of Ochoa’s pieces will be on the Dance Salad bill: “L’Effleure,” danced by Rubi Pronk, and “In Transit,” danced by Compañía Nacional de Danza/National Ballet of Spain. It will be a homecoming of sorts for her choreographic career began there in Houston.
In the end, choosing a choreographer is not that different than selecting a dancer: a fit in personality and mission must be present. Yet it’s clear that the process of seeking new work goes beyond personal taste, involving many variables to take an artistic director from go from initial interest to commissioning a full blown new piece. “New,” whether it means a piece from an untried artist or full-length work by a hot young choreographic up-and-comer, needs to take place within a context and an artistic mission that has already been well-established to be successful. The integration of that which is new to that which is already in place often determines the success of such choreographic development programs. Each artistic director, of course, has to discover the best way to mine the talent in the field to keep the new work flowing.
Nancy Wozny is the editor of Arts + Culture Houston, reviews editor for Dance Source Houston and a contributing editor for Dance Magazine. She also writes for Culturemap, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. Wozny was a 2005 NEA Fellow of the Institute for Dance Criticism. She was also a 2004 recipient of the Gary Parks Memorial Award for Emerging Dance Critics, a two-time recipient of Artists Project Grants from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, a 2001 finalist for the Sommerville Award in Somatic Writing, and a 1994 research fellow at the Leonard Bernstein Center for the Arts and Education.
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