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May
23

Choreographer Spotlight with Artistic Director JOSH PRINCE

We sat down with BDL founder and artistic director JOSH PRINCE to find out more about his background and his reasons for wanting to start the company. A transcript of that conversation is below.

BDL: At a point in your career where you were really taking off as a Broadway choreographer, what made you want to add Broadway Dance Lab to your to-do list?

JP: After I choreographed Shrek, The Musical for Broadway, the 1st National Tour, and London’s West End I wanted to flex my artistic muscles and try new ways of creating dance. All choreographers live with ideas that they wish to explore. We are inspired by music on our iPods, people we meet, books we read, art we see…the list is endless. After Shrek I looked around for a place to practice my craft and test new ideas and saw that there was no supportive environment in which to do that.  I tried making one new dance with friends who donated their time and that cost me $1000 on space rental alone. I remember always having an eye on the clock and battling strong self-judment when the idea didn’t really work that well. The spaces I worked in were small and it was nearly impossible to secure dancers for more that one full day.  This model seemed broken to me and the cost of exploration (and possible failure) seemed like an insurmountable deterrent for most of my colleagues in the field.  After all, would you take the bold risks necessary for growth if every time you went to do it it cost you a minimum of $1000? I wanted to solve this and challenge the unspoken double-standard that theatre dance makers are supposed to just wait for their next jobs that will dictate what they are allowed to explore artistically. Can you imagine if a composer could only touch the keys of a piano when an employer called? Or if an author could only put pen to paper when told what subject matter they were to explore? What would happen to the art form? This just seemed like a recipe for artistic atrophy and I set about changing it.

BDL: Can you talk about a specific project that you’ve developed through Broadway Dance Lab that might not have been possible otherwise? How has that piece gone on to have a life beyond the Lab?

JP: One of my favorite dances I’ve created is to the famous standard “Sing Sing Sing” by Louis Prima.  Bob Fosse famously choreographed this music for his Broadway show Dancin’ and I really wanted to explore it. The sad truth is, without BDL there simply would have been no safe place to test my own interpretation of this music.  Challenging my judgements of what this dance was “supposed” to look like and creating my own vision wholly separate of Bob Fosse’s was a painful and rewarding creative exercise that will serve me in my career forever.  In addition, as a Broadway choreographer people sometimes call me to present dance pieces of mine in festivals. Where, exactly, was I to create a dance festival piece if not for BDL?  Shrek, The Musical and Beautiful, The Carole King Musical are wonderful musicals. But there is no room for a “Sing Sing Sing” within that context.  Nor should there be.  The bottom line is that theatre choreographers should have a supportive place in which to create stand alone works of art. Works of their own imagining.  I am so proud to say this piece was premiered at The Guggenheim “Works And Process”, was recently seen at the Dance Against Cancer benefit for the American Cancer Society, and will likely be performed again at the Actor’s Fund benefit in New York City in November.

BDL: Can you tell us a little about The Trevor Project and its relationship to BDL?

JP: About a year ago, the producers of a wonderful new musical called Trevor approached me about choreographing.  Marc Bruni, the director of Beautiful, was attached and we were excited to collaborate again on this adaptation of the Academy Award Winning short film of the same name – a film that would later serve as inspiration for The Trevor Project.  The producers had only ever seen the show read at music stands in small rooms and asked me if BDL could help them explore what the movement vocabulary could look like. Of course, we did just that and it was an invaluable resource to the authors.  In July, we head to the prestigious Writer’s Theatre in Chicago where we will mount an out of town tryout of this gorgeous new musical.  Because of BDL’s involvement, the writers, director, and producers were all able to come together to gather important information on staging and even casting, dialogue about movement early on, and be inspired by the choreographic ideas that were presented.  It’s exciting to know that Broadway Dance Lab played a vital role in this musical’s early development.

BDL: What has the response to BDL been like from participating choreographers?

JP: Feedback from choreographers about their time in the Lab has been overwhelming.  Every choreographer who has worked in the Lab has validated the need for its existence. And when other established Broadway choreographers make the case for it, like Andy Blankenbuehler does in his video interview, it really emboldens me.  But I have to say one of the best emails I have received is from Lorin Latarro (Waitress).  She wrote: From the bottom of my heart, these hours with dancers have been incredible. I was so nervous because I walked in with little pre pro due to a very full work schedule…but this week gave me the gift of risking being courageous again, asking questions again, practicing process again.  It reminded me how much I love dance and dancers, and how many ways to spend eight counts there are in the universe. It has been a personal rediscovery of myself as a choreographer. Thank you for this incredible gift. I am eternally grateful.   I think this pretty much says it all.

BDL: There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the art of creating new musicals and new works of dance. What don’t people know and how does BDL play into that process?

JP: I think there’s a common misconception that choreographers make up dance in their heads and just walk in a room and teach it.  But the creation of dance requires community.  It’s pretty difficult to find a lot of master choreographers without also discovering their muses.  Great dancers are essential to great choreographers…and vice versa.  BDL offers choreographers a room full of muses who are there to help achieve the their grandest vision. We also offer choreographers large space in which to create. To create big dance, one needs big space. This is hard to come by in New York City.  BDL solves this for choreographers.  Now, the creation of new musicals is a process of constant, often years long writing and rewriting.  Unfortunately, the dance elements of the musical are too often tacked on to the tail end of this process, leaving very little time for true exploration, trial and error, problem solving, collaboration, and discovery of new ideas.  BDL provides a platform for collaborators to come together early in the process to get the conversation going about dance and how it can help story tell most effectively.

BDL: Where do you see BDL headed in the next 5-10 years? What’s your long term vision for the company?

JP: Think of BDL as a Tin Pan Alley for dance – a busy hub in which choreographers incubate their own ideas and nurture new creations with their collaborators. In 5-10 years we will be housed in our very own building that acts as a beehive of dance activity, gestating new ideas every single day.  This building will serve as a crossroads for choreographers of all backgrounds to interface with one another, be inspired by one another, and feel wholly supported by the New York theatre and dance communities. In a city like New York – the capital of the Arts world – Broadway Dance Lab deserves a spot to call home.  Dance makers deserve it and the theatre community deserves it.  And, most importantly, audiences deserve to be treated to fresh, new ideas that emerge only when creativity is properly nurtured.


May
08

Choreographer Spotlight with WENDY SEYB

WendyHeadshotWe sat down with BDL Spring 2017 Cycle choreographer WENDY SEYB to get to know a bit more about her background, process, and goals for working with us. Below is transcript of that conversation.

BDL: Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did dancing come into your life?

WS: I remember my Mom asking me, “Do you want to try dance?” My memory of my answer was “of course!” I started when I was 4 years old at a strip mall competition school in rural/suburbia Minnesota.  I ate up whatever dance they threw at me. I even made my older sister, who was two levels above me, teach me her dances, much to her annoyance. Luckily, when I was 10, we moved closer to Minneapolis where I was able to switch to a more challenging school, Minnesota Dance Theatre. My love for ballet really began there as I started training and performing in their young company, working my way up to their professional company. In college I studied jazz and hip hop, then in NYC I jumped into the world of modern; then ended up in musical theater. So my training is eclectic, but my love for it began with ballet.

BDL: What led you to start choreographing and how did you make the transition from performer to choreographer?

WS: I started like most kids, creating dances on my friends in their basements. Then, as I got older, I was one of the few trained dancers in my school and the task of choreography fell to me for projects like Swing Choir or the school theater pieces. The idea of it being a job didn’t hit me until college, when the company I joined required all members to choreograph. After college, I moved to NYC to pursue a dance career but quickly realized choreography both satisfied and challenged me much more than performing. Once I made that leap, I never looked back. I began the long and wonderful journey of finding my style and voice as a choreographer.

BDL: What are three words that you feel describe your choreographic style?

WS: Story, comedy, and athletic.

BDL: Your resume is very diverse, including theatre, TV and film work. Can you talk a bit about the difference in choreographing for those different mediums?

WS: They all start the same for me. What story are we telling? Who are the characters, and what style of music are we using? For theater, story is the driving force, but in film and TV, it is mainly about steps and what looks amazing in the frame. Theater is a bit of a longer process spread out over the rehearsals, production, tech, and previews. TV and film, depending on how much movement/dance is needed, can happen in a matter of days.  As I started in film/TV, the fantastic challenge was not being confined to a proscenium.  Yes, you have a frame to build in, but the camera could be anywhere – on the ground just looking at the dancers feet, moving through and past them, even looking down from above. You have more control on what you want the audience to see. Maybe you want them to see a look or the flick of an arm. They might miss that in the back seat of a theater. As I begin to bring my work, Silent Dance Comedies, to film, I am delighted to see how many more choices I have to capture the dance. It is very exciting!

BDL: What interested you in working with BDL? Are you coming to the project with any specific goals in mind?

WS: I have had the pleasure of knowing Josh a long time, and I think it is a fantastic opportunity he has created for both the choreographer and the dancers.  Rarely do we get the chance to just play around and workshop a piece. Usually we are on a deadline and don’t have a lot of chances to try different choices. The project I am bringing in is a piece I workshopped four years ago in a ballet lab in California, which I plan to be the opening scene of my feature film. Having the chance to revisit it through the lens of it being a filmed piece is incredibly valuable for me, and I am so grateful BDL gives me the chance to do so with the amazing company they have picked!

BDL: Tell us a bit about your process. How do you begin?

WS: It starts with music usually. A song grabs me and I can smell a narrative in it. Then I walk around my neighborhood and listen to it endlessly until it finally reveals the story and characters.  Then we are off to the races!

BDL: Are there choreographers you look up to and admire?

WS: Agnes de Mille as she started the dream ballet concept with Oklahoma.  She also brought in company trained dancers instead of chorus girls, to give the dance more strength and character. That choice helped Oklahoma become the game changer is was for musical theater.

I love Gene Kelly for helping move the idea of dance as a narrative forward with the amazing dream ballets he had in his films.  I remember seeing Broadway Melody from Singing In The Rain and thought, “well why isn’t the whole film expressed like this?” He fought each time to have a dream ballet in his films as he knew the moviegoer was interested in it and wouldn’t get bored. Also, he helped bring dance to the people. It was for everyone, not just the elite. He was the everyman dancer, and showed that dance could be athletic.

And then, of course, Jerome Robbins helped to revolutionize dance as a main storytelling element, along with helping to further what Gene started by opening up the dream ballet to a longer form. He also showed men can be tough, sexy, and still be incredible dancers.


Apr
29

Choreographer Spotlight with RON TODOROWSKI

RonSquareWe sat down with BDL Spring 2017 Cycle choreographer RON TODOROWSKI to get to know a bit more about his background, process, and goals for working with us. Below is transcript of that conversation.

BDL: Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from originally? How did you start dancing and how did your transition into choreography occur?

RT: I’m from McDonald, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh. I took a summer program of gymnastics when I was eight years old and my teacher’s mother had a dance school. He suggested I take dance and acrobatics there because of my flexibility. My desire to choreograph didn’t come until much later in my career.

BDL: Tell us a bit about your first choreographic job. Is there any advice you would give that young, budding choreographer now? 

RT: My first professional choreographic job was assisting Mia Michaels on Celine Dion’s Las Vegas show. We had about 50 dancers and could pretty much do anything we wanted. It was overwhelming and tough, but life changing as well.  It was the first time I felt that perhaps I wanted to do choreograph. Mia really encouraged me. The first choreographic job I had was for Wayne State University. I created an eight minute piece without much rehearsal time. My advice now would be to focus on editing. Most of the time, less is more.

BDL: Name one choreographer you admire and tell us why.

RT: Twyla Tharp! Her overall artistry, experience, knowledge, intellect, versatility, work ethic…I could go on forever.

BDL: And you’ve spent quite a bit of time working with her. Tell us more about that experience.

RT: It’s been incredible. She allows an artist the space to find character using dance as the dialogue. Her process has absolutely influenced mine, but my vocabulary I would say is all over the map. I’ve been inspired by so many choreographers I’ve worked with.

BDL: Tell us more about your process now. How do you usually begin? 

RT: It really depends on the project, but I’d say most of the time, the music is where it begins. The ideas and other elements manifest from there.

BDL: What made you interested in working with Broadway Dance Lab?

RT: The opportunity to work with a company of versatile dancers with the space and time to work out ideas is extraordinary and any choreographer’s dream!

BDL: Do you have any specific goals for your BDL residency? Are there any ideas you know you want to explore or techniques you’d like to test?

RT: Yes! I’d like to work on an idea I’ve had for several years. My goal is to work on four songs by the same artist, introducing characters and exploring what the full show could be. I really want to stay in the present moment during rehearsal and create from there without hesitation.

BDL: What is it like working with a company of dancers you’ve never met before?

RT: I’ve actually danced with three of the company members before, so that’s exciting! As for the rest, I’m sure I will get to know them very quickly. Sometimes I start rehearsal with yoga and breathing to get connected, but most likely we’ll just dive right in!

 


Oct
21

VIEWPOINTS with Tré Smith

Tré SmithOur Viewpoints series allows you to hear directly from our dancers as they blog about the process and experience of working with Broadway Dance Lab.

Tré Smith is a native of Charlotte, NC, and a graduate of the University of the Arts. He was a member of Eleone Dance Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and is currently a member of Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Additionally, Tré has performed with Pennsylvania Ballet, Ballet Noir, Waheed Works, Ballet Folkloric Di’Haiti, Collage Dance Collective and Amerca’s Got Talent. He has also assisted several major choreographers such as Desmond Richardson, Troy Powell, Ray Mercer and Camille A. Brown.

 

Starting week 5 of Cycle 3 is so exciting! Seeing how much we all have learned in the space about one another and ourselves is so special.

Day one with all the other Cycle 3 artists was an interesting experience. Sitting around hearing everyone’s background was truly inspirational.  The amount of exposure we’re gaining working with the choreographers is something we won’t forget.

When would we have this opportunity to work with 6 choreographers within an 8-week time frame? Each week we have to adapt to a new story, character, and still be able to produce great work.

Coming from a strong “concert dance” background, working with choreographers over the years has opened my eyes to many levels of exposure. I tend to consider myself a great listener and fast learner when it comes to adapting to a choreographer’s aesthetic, technique, and process. When I received this opportunity to join this cycle of Broadway Dance Lab, I was filled with so much anxiety. Because yes, I have auditioned for Broadway shows and assisted on some pre-production projects, but I never explored the area where the choreographer had the space and time to play with their ideas. That’s exactly what we are doing. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Being a dancer you have to always keep a broad open mind when it comes to process. The choreographer is depending on you and your choices to influence their visions. So I knew our job weighed heavily when working one on one with choreographers.  As we hit the midway mark of the BDL Cycle 3 experience I am very happy with how far we have come but so anxious to see what the weeks have to offer.

-Tré


Oct
09

VIEWPOINTS with Nick Palmquist

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Our Viewpoints series allows you to hear directly from our dancers as they blog about the process and experience of working withBroadway Dance Lab.

Nick Palmquist was most recently seen dancing with The Little Orchestra Society (Prince Charming) at Lincoln Center! Other New York Credits: American Dance Machine for the 21st Century at The Joyce Theatre, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Guggenheim’s 2014 Works & Process series, and The Astaire Awards (dancer).

I became really invested in the power of music theatre storytelling while attending Oklahoma City University, majoring in Dance Performance. I trained in all styles of dance and took several History of Dance/Music Theatre History classes. I remember learning about how stars were discovered in the ensemble or tracks were created for a certain performer because in the audition, the choreographer saw exactly in that person what they didn’t know they were looking for. I wrote several papers about famous choreographers and found one thing across the industry: for each legendary choreographer there was often a muse that personified his or her genre of dance storytelling.

I have absolutely no proof in saying this, but I think it got quite expensive and time consuming in the process of making a Broadway show to allow a choreographer the opportunity to find exactly the right vessel for each project. Instead we’ve asked them to create entire shows, every single step, and hope there is a dancer in the room that can fill the shoes of the dancer in their head. The training and expectations of music theatre dancers has changed and so has the process of creating a *need* for those dancers in storytelling.

Broadway Dance Lab has given me the opportunity to be one of twelve muses for six distinctly different choreographers. My favorite part of this company has been how many conversations it has created between a choreographer and his or her dancers. Because the ideas are mostly forming in the moment, there are also questions that inevitably mirror them. Fortunately for all parties, the point of this company can be to answer those questions!

I am very used to the way my body moves and what I can count on it for, so this has been a really cool opportunity for two things to happen. Either the way my body tells the choreographer’s story is exactly what they wanted or didn’t yet know they wanted and I get to feel like a gratified actor and dancer, or they discover that my body can’t tell the story correctly unless I do something consciously to fix it; and because they have identified, from an idea, what my dancing isn’t yet saying, I have a much more important understanding of why I’m dancing at all! We haven’t even had mirrors in the rooms we’re dancing in, so I am relying almost solely on the way a choreographer is describing what movement he or she wants to use in telling a story. It has forced me to dance in unfamiliar, deliberate ways and I’m learning things I would have no similar opportunity to learn. Likewise, I have also watched the choreographers learn, from one hour of rehearsing in an uninhibited space, what is going to be the most effective and efficient way of using dance to tell a story over word or song.

I have only ever dreamed of dancing in New York City. I never really got more specific than that and I am so grateful I am dancing for this company, with these people, in this city.

-Nick


Sep
30

VIEWPOINTS with Kory Geller

Kory_Geller_HS_1_thumb-0Our VIEWPOINTS series let’s you hear directly from our dancers as they blog about the process and experience of working with Broadway Dance Lab. First up, KORY GELLER.  Kory earned his B.F.A in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (CAP21). Theatrical credits include Mary Poppins (Ogunquit Playhouse), A Christmas Carol (McCarter Theatre) and A Chorus Line (Fulton Theatre). 

And we’re off! After a month of excitedly telling people that I would soon be starting “this cool dance company called Broadway Dance Lab” the day has finally arrived! Being a part of BDL is such an honor, and extremely rewarding to my dancer self. To be in a room each day where I get to create and express myself through movement satisfies my artistic appetite like nothing else! And it is so fulfilling to be surrounded by people who feel the same way. Not only are the other dancers incredibly talented, they are equally excited about this process. We are already one big, happy, SWEATY family.

I have been fortunate enough to work with Josh Prince before in BDL Cycle 2, so I feel very lucky to be back in the room with him. It is nice to collaborate with someone whose style and process are familiar. I feel comfortable with and attune to his creative wave lengths.

The most liberating thing about BDL is that there is no right answer, no specific thing that MUST be created. We have the liberty to take an hour to work on one count of eight, which may or may not end up ultimately leading anywhere. For me, this process is never tedious, but rather a chance to explore multiple options and discover what works best.

Even thought it’s only been one week, it feels like all of us have been creating together forever. There were no first day jitters, no shyness, and we certainly didn’t start slow or small. We dove into the work right away. I love this as it doesn’t leave room for any trepidation. We go for it no matter what the task is. In addition to working with Josh, we have worked with the wonderful Geoffrey Goldberg and we have many more exciting residencies still to come. All of us dancers thrive on being the vessels for different choreographers to investigate and express their ideas and we all love diving into different styles. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic relationship that occurs in the room between the dancers and choreographers.

Now that I’ve gushed about how amazing this experience is, let me be clear that it is not all fun and games. It definitely has its challenges. It is physically demanding, there is difficulty in retaining the steps and counts, and sometimes it is hard to fully understand the choreographer’s full vision. But that’s why we’re in the room: to challenge ourselves! Sure, we may not know what the outcome will be, but predictability can be boring. And one thing BDL is NOT is boring. So we jump into the unknown and as long as we plie when we land, we can achieve our goals.

Gotta go dance!

-Kory

 


Sep
22

JOSH’S JOURNAL

Josh and Cycle 3 CompanySometimes all one needs in life is to get to the starting line. And yesterday that’s exactly what I did.  After a year and a half of planning and fundraising and meetings and scheduling and emailing and the like, I finally stood in a big, open room with 12 talented dancers ready to create exciting new dances.   I breathed it in.   It is always a momentous occasion that is in no way lost on me.  Just thinking about all that it takes to get to the point where I can even begin the work reminds me why I work so tirelessly to bring BDL into existence. As I explained to the diverse company of dancers anxious to get their bodies moving in space, I have not created in this way since the last time I did BDL, which was March of 2014.  You would think that the floodgates of creativity would burst open and waves of movement generation would break the dam. Instead, I was met with heaping amounts of internal dialogue:  “How on earth will I begin?  What do I really want to work on?  How do I do this again??  Will this idea I have in my head even work?  Will I like it?  Will anyone else like it?  Does the idea dance??  Why am I not moving faster?  What the hell am I doing??”   The list went on and on and on.  It felt like I was riding a rusty old, vintage bicycle with only 2 working gears.  But at least I was pedaling.  I may not have been “in the zone” but at least I was in the game.  Reminds me of the great saying from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming!”  It’s times like this when one realizes that creative work takes faith and perseverance and the willingness to just keep at it.  And often the “work” lies in standing before a group of people who are staring at you and saying to them, “I have no earthly idea what I’m doing, what I’m about to do, what I want, or what I don’t want.  I’m stuck and I will likely need your help getting unstuck.”  But that’s collaboration after all, isn’t it?  And I firmly believe that sitting in the muck, the darkness, is just as important as sprinting towards the light.  And that there needs to be a place to go where failure is, in fact, an option.  As Stephen McCranie so eloquently put it: “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”   By the end of the day, we had spent a good hour working on one small phrase of movement that never quite landed the way I wanted it to.  It may very well be the wrong idea entirely.  I half-heartedly proclaimed my “epic fail” to the dancers right before we left and without missing a beat one of the dancers, Jenny Holahan, (pronounced Hoo-la-han) said, “That’s what we’re here for!”  It makes me well up just thinking about it because that’s what I have worked so tirelessly these past three years to create and sustain.  A place were we can all fail big, fail often, and fail boldly…as long as we just keep swimming.

 


Sep
22

STEP BY STEP with Karen Sieber

Karen Sieber photo credit: Peter Hurley

Karen Sieber
photo credit: Peter Hurley

Born in Switzerland, Karen began her career with Zurich Dance Theatre (CH); London Studio Center (UK) and Matt Mattox’s JazzArt (France) before coming to New York City. She enjoyed a successful dance and acting career in both the US and Europe before starting to choreograph.

We asked Karen a few questions about her background, her work and the goals she has for her upcoming residency with BDL.

BDL: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you start dancing?

KS: Up until the age of 12, I trained in Switzerland as a professional ice skater. My routines were theatrical in style and it became clear to my parents that I had a love for the theatre. Both my parents had backgrounds in business but they gave their support and it fueled my desire to express myself through theatre and dance. I was fortunate to have a professional career across Europe and U.S as well as working as an actress on stage, film and TV.

BDL: How did your transition into choreography happen?

KS: When I was performing, I had great opportunities to dance captain and assist choreographers which gave me insight into the process of making dance. I’m the kind of person who’s always looking for a challenge and I find it very challenging to create from nothing; to find the inspiration to even begin. I’m always looking for the deeper story, the meaning behind the dance and the truth that it reveals. I love being able to shape how the story is told and I love collaborating with other creative minds.

BDL: Are you coming to BDL with any specific goals for what you would like to accomplish?

KS: Yes. I am hoping to begin developing an appropriate “physical language” for a new musical I’m working on. I would like to play with some of the themes of the show and begin to see how they might be expressed through movement. It’s going to be an incredible opportunity for me and I’m so grateful.

BDL: How does your choreographic process generally unfold?

KS: Story is key for me. I like to do extensive research on everything related to the piece, be it history, period, style, the way people move or speak, any newspaper articles I can find, or really anything I can find. Then I go to the music and try to let it all go, almost as if I’m handing things over to the creative instinct. The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, the dancers. They influence everything and once I step into the studio with them, a lot of things I thought I knew about the piece begin to change.

BDL: What are three words that describe your choreographic style?

KS: That’s tough. It really depends on the show I’m working on and the style it calls for. But raw, athletic and elegant are qualities that I value in a dance and dancers.

BDL: What’s next for you after BDL?

KS: I’m currently putting together a presentation of my work to be shown in NYC. I’ll also be working on a workshop of the new musical, Lighthouse, in the spring of 2016.


Mar
28

WEEK 3

I’m working differently in the Lab than I have ever worked before.  I find myself exploring more patterns and vocabularies and I am deferring less to story.  Story is hugely important in musical theater and I certainly will never abandon it.  But I am hoping that in trying my hand at more non-literal ideas I can free myself from the “givens” of story and allow my dances to take their own shape.   Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  I’m trying to see what happens if I have no predetermined notion of how a piece should be constructed.  Well this is certainly easier said than done.  Every step of the way I fight the urge to produce a slick product for an unseen “boss”.  Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing or not seeing a result is something that is so foreign to me it often makes my stomach turn.

This past week I came upon a challenge that I have never experienced before.  Ever.  I brought in what I thought to be an almost rudimentary piece of music with a very strong pulse and modern feel.  I told the company that we might simply explore walking patterns to this music. Now, those of you out there who have trained in dance know just how difficult “simple” things like walking and running can actually be. They really are deceptively tricky elements.  So I bring in this music with the driving beat and I ask the ladies of the company to walk to it.  To my horror, they can’t collectively find the beat… they can’t keep a consistent, unified rhythm.  How could this be??  These are some of the most talented dancers in the city.  What’s going on?  I am stymied.  I am stuck.  I have been a tap dancer for 34 years and I can explain pretty much any rhythm to anyone.  How can this music be interpreted any other way than the way I hear it? Nevertheless…What I hear so clearly in this music is not what all of my dancers hear!!  We all feel like we have entered the Twilight Zone of dance.  We get as far as we can that rehearsal but we eventually stop.  I don’t pick this number up again for quite a few days and, in the meantime, the women have banded together to work on the material.  However, after days of practice, it is still no more solid.  How can this be?!   This was a piece of music which I had planned on using to explore something conceptual, yet here I was stuck trying to figure out how to get my dancers to just…well… walk!  

I feel myself getting scared.  Testy.  Confused.  Frustrated.  Resentful.  Angry.  Judgmental.  Self-judgmental.  Defeated. Ashamed. Resistant.   The list of emotions that I felt within the course of one rehearsal was a mile long.   And I am quite certain each dancer felt it, too.  Here we all were encountering a problem that no one in the room could resolve!  Not one of us could put our finger on exactly what was happening.  Why was everyone hearing the music so differently and so inconsistently?  It was confounding and, as you might imagine, it was a severe artistic road block.

The questions began to arise:  “I’m halfway through…Do I want to give up on this?”, “What would happen if we had a show tomorrow night and this was our music?  What would I do?”, “Why can’t the dancers hear what I hear??”, “Why can’t I communicate what I want to the degree that will make this clear to them?”, “I am wasting these dancers’ time”, “I am wasting my valuable time I could be using to explore other more complicated things!”, “Do I present this piece at our showing on Monday?  If so…what do we present?  A bunch of talented dancers walking off the beat??” , “Do I change the concept?”, “Do I work to mask the problem?”….”WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!”

These are types of experiences that keep choreographers awake at night.

It just so happens that my family is in town this week.  My brother is a graduate of Oberlin conservatory of music and is a very talented musician and composer.  So I asked him:  “Will you listen to this song and tell me how you hear it?”  In an instant it was clear.  He heard it exactly as I did!   His response came in seconds:  “It’s so clear!  They can’t hear that?! ”   I turned to my parents.  “Can you tell me how you hear this?”  Suddenly, the water became murky.  My mother instantly felt the music differently than we did.  What I mean by this is that she felt the accents -the downbeats – were in different places in the music.  Same with my father.  He felt the song the way my mother did.  Now my parents aren’t exactly trained dancers but I tested other songs with them and we all heard those the exact same way.  My brother and I listened more closely to the music.  Although we could understand what our parents (and my dancers) felt, we argued vehemently against their version.  This went on for, I kid you not, a good two hours.  We sat there playing the music over and over trying to decipher why the hell we all heard something different.  After careful dissection (including some fancy transcribing) my brother finally figured it out!!  It was very easy to interpret this recording as though the off-beats were the downbeats.  That’s how I heard it and that’s how I was inspired to choreograph to it.  But here’s the funny part:  Once my Brother figured it out… he could no longer hear it the way he did originally.  He could not erase what he knew to be the musical “truth”.  He could barely remember how to feel the song the other way.

There’s a very famous drawing that is a test of peoples’ perception.  Perhaps you’ve seen it?:

Young Woman or Old Woman?

Some people instantly see a young woman facing away.  Others see an old lady with a hooked nose and a prominent chin.  And sometimes, if you can see one you truly cannot see the other.   Even when someone points it out to you.  “See the chin is right here?  This is her eyelash…and the hooked nose?”   As fate would have it, I found a piece of music that operates the exact same way sonically.  You either hear it one way or you hear it another.  Or… more correctly… you either feel it one way or you feel it another.

So… where does that leave me with this dance?  The answer is, I have no idea.  As the choreographer I want to see a certain interpretation of this music, but how hard am I going to work for it?  I don’t know yet.  But what I do know is that if I’m feeling this much anxiety over a creation in the Broadway Dance Lab, how would I feel if a director were watching?  What if I had chosen this music to present in a concert in a few days and had no idea it would pose this problem?  What if the composer were there in the room influencing my musicality?  In those instances, the anxiety wins.  In those instances you do whatever it takes to cover up the problem.  To solve it with the tricks you have in your back pocket.

But what if I didn’t have to worry about creating the product?  What if I could take the time to truly explore the nature of this sonic anomaly and mine its unique traits?  Rather than settle for the lowest common denominator solution that perhaps dumbs the piece down for my dancers, what if I am able to exploit this musical choice to its fullest?  What could I create then and how could that inform my work moving forward.

I may not have the time this Lab Cycle to solve this the way I would like.  But if it weren’t for the Lab I never would have discovered this phenomenon.  I never would have even been aware of it.  Something in my psyche led me to this music out of the hundreds of other songs I could have chosen to work on.  Maybe it led me there so I could learn something, not just produce something.   With The Broadway Dance Lab I hope to remove for other choreographers the panic that I felt working on this material.  To provide a space where discoveries like these can be used to inform and serve creators of dance…not cripple them.


Mar
18

WEEK TWO

One of the missions of The Broadway Dance Lab is to remind the industry that choreographers are writers.  The only difference is that we use the movements of the body instead of words or notes to express thoughts and emotions.  This past week has been a difficult one for me creatively.  Writer’s block strikes at the most inopportune moments and poses many challenges.  Anyone who has ever stared at their computer trying to write a simple sentence knows what I am talking about.  Sometimes it’s the simplest idea that seems to take the longest to express.  And because the idea is so simple it makes the writer’s block even that much more frustrating.  “This should be so easy!”… “What is wrong with me that I can’t write this simple sentence?!”.

One of the reasons I am experiencing these blocks is due to the fact that I am trying not to rely on all the things I already know in order to create.  I’m trying to free myself up to explore the things I can’t explore outside the Lab.  The goal of the Lab is to afford choreographers the space to discover new artistic territory.  And that discovery, I have found, can be painstakingly slow.

I was talking about this with my cousin the other day and he was telling me about a film he just saw called “Particle Fever”.  SFGate.com writes the following:

“Particle Fever” is a gripping documentary about the most exacting and expensive scientific experiment ever conducted, and one that may be among the most significant. The film charts a 2012 milestone in the decades-long search by physicists to find an elementary particle called the Higgs boson. If the discovery is confirmed, it brings them a large step closer to understanding the universe at its most fundamental level.”

The New York Times writes:

“The film is a tribute to the creativity and curiosity that drive scientific research, which is shown to be an imaginative as well as an empirical pursuit.  It is enormously suspenseful, too, chronicling a period that included nearly catastrophic setbacks and public relations disasters, as well as progress. There was always a risk that the machinery would not work, that the beams would not collide properly, and that the Higgs would continue to hide at the theoretical center of the universe without empirical confirmation.”

A decades-long search by 10,000 scientists to find one tiny particle that they weren’t even certain existed.  Peter Higgs posited its existence in 1964!  He was awarded the Nobel Prize… last year.  This example of faith and fortitude and determination is what I look to when I feel like I don’t know all the answers.  When I get afraid that I don’t “know what I’m doing”.  When the answers won’t come it is often easy to give up.   To dismiss even the fundamental right to search for answers.

We live in a world where we expect immediate answers.  And when answers don’t come at the touch of a button, or at the next news broadcast, we get increasingly anxious.  My wish is that The Broadway Dance Lab will be a safe place for choreographers to explore the unknown.  To release themselves of the anxieties associated with not knowing and to find a way to move through the unknown and come out the other side unscathed.