The performance started like any other. Parents in the audience fiddled around with video cameras to make sure they wouldn't miss a moment of what was to come; dancers poked their heads out from behind the wings to see how many people were in the audience.
But this wasn't your average dance recital. The members of Young Dancemakers Company, a troupe of New York City public high school students, weren't just dancers. They had choreographed the work on display. The assignment: to create pieces personal to them. Subjects ranged from busy pedestrians in NYC to the relationship of a blind woman and her caretaker to someone lost in a never-ending cycle of drug abuse.
John Jasperse has been a prominent player in many corners of the dance world for nearly 30 years. As a performer, he danced with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas. As a choreographer, he has presented his work at major venues across the globe with his company John Jasperse Projects. As an innovator, he co-founded Center for Performance Research, a rehearsal and performance space in Brooklyn. This fall, he adds one more role to his resumé: director of the dance program at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York.
Getting your dancers to find their rhythm in a group improvisation can be tough, but they’ll grow closer as a team.
Dance competitions call for meticulously polished routines, stunning costumes and bold performances. But the newest category hitting the competition circuit is just the opposite. It’s incredibly stripped down in presentation and movement and is centered around mess-making and risk-taking.
Once reserved for the classroom, improvisation is increasingly making its way to dance competition stages, for groups, duets and soloists. It offers students a chance to test their individual artistry and decision-making skills in a high-pressure environment. But though improv is rooted in spontaneity, it’s a skill that needs to be fine-tuned. Readying it for the stage, instead of using it solely as an exploration, is a unique practice.
Generally, improvisation at competitions is open to soloists, duets and small groups of all ages. Time limits range from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. At some events, dancers are allowed to pick a dance style during registration; other competitions leave the category open to interpretation. Most competitions give dancers a 10-second preview of the music that has been selected for them right before they take the stage, and each entry dances to something different. After that, it’s in the dancers’ hands: Whatever they create onstage is what they’ll be judged on.
How It Will Benefit Your Dancers
Many competition dancers are very Type A—they’ve spent their training years perfecting their technique and learning how to execute choreography with exacting detail. Improvisation encourages free thinking, allows them to discover their own way of moving and forces them to get a little messy.
Putting that onstage heightens all of those ideas and adds bigger-picture elements. Instead of moving freely, students have to think about how their dancing is perceived by the judges and audience, and they have to shape the piece in the moment, while staying in tune with the dancers around them. “Group improv is all about listening—it’s always a conversation,” says Open Call judge Calen Kurka.
The challenge of improvisation onstage is different for each dancer. Shy personalities may be most timid; technicians may fall back on generic steps; outgoing students may try to overpower the group. “With improv, you really have to check your ego at the door,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose dancers have been competing in the improv category for two years. “We had to talk to some dancers about making sure they were equally involved with everyone around them, feeling the people around them.” The biggest change Curtis sees in her dancers is that they learn to work better together and become closer as a team.
Knowing how to improvise in a high-pressure environment, in front of judges who are critiquing, is also essential to dancers who are auditioning for summer intensives, college programs and professional companies. And many choreographers use improv as a way to generate movement. “A lot of dance construction revolves around improvisation,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Choreographers want to see how the dancer uniquely puts themselves inside what’s being made.”
Putting improv on a stage requires students to create the piece in the moment while staying in line with the group.
From the Judges’ Point of View
The most successful improv, says Parsons, is one that makes him forget he’s actually watching an improvisation. Before dancers take the stage, he suggests circling up to talk about how the music makes them want to move, be it with big, sweeping limbs or punchy gestures. “A huge part of improv is connecting with the music,” says Kurka. “In the first couple seconds onstage, I want to see how they’re going to use the music to bring up artistic concepts.”
It’s also important that dancers use pure movement that’s individual to them, instead of strings of technical steps and tricks they’ve learned in class. “I want to see the dancer, not codified movement,” says Parsons. “I love seeing people move from their most internal and authentic place.”
If they’re going to add more technical elements, it’s important that they “fit into the conversation,” says Kurka. “It’s about recognizing that turns make an audience feel a certain way, maybe signifying freedom. Or that extending a leg can have tension.”
Susan Barr, who owns Above the Barre Dance & Gymnastics in Berea, Ohio, says she encourages her dancers to include “about 80 percent pure movement and only 20 percent technique.” Finally, there should be some kind of arc to the piece, which might include a build in movement, intensity or structure.
Though there’s no actual right or wrong when it comes to improv, the dancers certainly won’t create a successful product every single time they take the stage. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the practice: It’s a heightened dancing experience that depends on trial and error. And the most gratifying part of that, says Barr, is watching students overcoming their fears, and, eventually, walking offstage and telling her they can’t wait to try it again. “When we first tried this, I was so nervous for the kids,” she says. “But when they came off with smiles on their faces, I knew it was the right thing.” DT
Kristin Schwab, a former dancer, is pursuing an MS at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Are Your Dancers Ready?
Competition isn’t the time for dancers who have little improv experience to experiment. CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis reserves this category for her highest-level dancers, ages 14 and up. “You need dancers who are mature and creatively very open,” she says. Curtis doesn’t hold dedicated rehearsals, and instead works with her group once a week after class for 10 to 15 minutes to give them critiques.
Improv for the Stage
- Have a beginning “Do you want to start on the floor or standing?” asks Above the Barre’s Susan Barr. “They should always have a beginning in mind, and take a position.”
- Think of what usually makes dances successful Encourage dancers to use the whole stage and vary the heights—on the ground to the space above their heads—and textures of their dancing.
- Designate one dancer as the leader in group improvs “We always had one person who would pick a motif, maybe a gesture, that dancers could repeat,” says CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis. It doesn’t mean that they’re the star of the show or that they even have to stand at the front—they’re just helping guide the dance.
- Set goals for the dance “It’s always good to come into the space with specific tasks,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Things fall short when everyone’s just moving for movement’s sake.” Maybe dancers have to include a section in slow motion, perform a series of movements in unison or have a moment where everyone is touching. Having a loose checklist helps them generate ideas in the moment.
- Less is more “Not everybody has to be onstage the whole time,” says Curtis. “Sometimes you’re a part of the process by not dancing, or just being in the space and standing there.”
Thinkstock; courtesy of Open Call
Monthly e-mail marketing is a must for a studio of any size to announce new classes, limited-time discounts and recital reminders. Two major platforms, MailChimp and Constant Contact, offer similar services with slightly different approaches.
Both have a clean drag-and-drop e-mail–building format, with options for HTML coding: MailChimp’s system is smooth for the marketing novice, while Constant Contact is more involved and sometimes finicky, but it allows for more customization. The systems’ newsletters are automatically refitted for mobile devices and easily shareable on social media. The companies also monitor traffic, so you can see who opened the e-mails at what time, as well as what links they clicked on, to help you decide how to best reach your potential and current customers.
We recommend MailChimp for small studio owners, freelance teachers and choreographers because of its pricing and sleek and simple system. If you have fewer than 2,000 total e-mail contacts, the service is free. Monthly fees apply if you wish to expand your contact list or add features like autoresponders (e-mails automatically sent on a person’s birthday, for instance, or after newsletter sign-up) and spam filter testing. A downside is that customer support is limited to an online form.
Constant Contact may be a better choice for large studios with a dancewear store or multiple locations because of its pricing tiers, bonus features (like survey and polling systems) and ability to manage many contacts. After a 60-day free trial, fees vary depending on your number of contacts and desired features (at its most basic, $15 per month for 500 contacts to $75 for 10,000). And its online and over-the-phone customer support trumps MailChimp.
Regardless of platform choice, if you run a nonprofit school, be sure to ask for their discounted rate.
Music for contemporary dance
Peter Chu’s career has been so demanding that until recently, he hadn’t had a permanent address in more than five years. He was living on the road, with his belongings in a storage facility that he would return to between gigs: teaching at 24 Seven Dance Convention, choreographing for several companies and “So You Think You Can Dance,” directing his own troupe, chuthis., and dancing in Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot.
What keeps him calm amid all the chaos is improvisation. “I’m not a master, but I’m really passionate about it,” says Chu, whose ultra-fluid style nearly masks its tricky athleticism. “Getting into the studio and giving myself tasks like putting a phrase on the floor or moving from just the head or the elbow has helped me find my own groove. It’s about finding a different flavor. Even the kind of improv where I go out and groove at a club helps me figure out who Peter Chu is.” DT
Artist: Johann Johannsson
Work: Virthulegu Forsetar, Part 1
“This sets the tone for my class. There’s a real weightlessness to it, with enough space in the music to focus on breath control and simplicity of movement. Its liquid-like quality helps you move from the bone, not the muscle, which is healthier for the body.”
Song: “Baltimore’s Fireflies”
“I use this to guide improvisational jams and warm-ups. It has a natural and beautiful build, and a colorful tone that makes it so powerful.”
Artist: Jamie Woon
“I use this entire album to create movement phrases. It helps me be free and explore different ways of moving. It has a calm R&B flavor. His voice is so soulful that it resonates and vibrates.”
Album: The Best Of
“My imagination runs free when I listen to his quirky style. I love his attention to detail and wide range of instrumental combinations. It’s so rich. There are many rhythms to choose from, and his music never fails to bring me back to 1950s Las Vegas.”
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Song: “What’s Going On”
“Every time I hear his music I stop everything I’m doing and just move—I can live inside it. It’s rich, colorful and honest. And it reminds me of why I dance, bringing me back to the core of my movement style.”
Photo by Levi Walker, courtesy of Laura Murray Public Relations
Bringing world-class dance to the Midwest
In the years since Pacific Northwest Ballet’s homegrown principal Patricia Barker left the stage, she has tackled many dance-related ventures. Most notable is her ambitious re-envisioning of the Grand Rapids Ballet. When Barker was called in after the former artistic director left, taking much of the company’s repertoire with him, she had only two weeks to plan the upcoming season. Now in her fourth year of leadership, she’s commissioned premieres by Seattle-based Whim W’Him director Olivier Wevers and sought-after freelance choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Her goals for the company: “We’re the only professional ballet company in Michigan, and I want to become its cultural export—a destination for exploring. When I came, the repertoire lacked variety and the dancers weren’t being fulfilled artistically. We had to fight back to get the community to think we’re a vibrant organization, and that was key to our survival.”
Dancer vs. director: “When I arrived, compartmentalizing my time was most challenging. When you’re a dancer, your rehearsal schedule goes up 24 hours in advance and everything is planned for you. Now I have to find my organized head. It was also hard to know which decision was the right one. I realized, though, that you just have to commit and know that just because you make one decision doesn’t mean you can’t make another down the road. Don’t get on a bus and not know where it’s going. Create a clear idea of where you want to be.”
Tough love: “There’s nothing like having a talented dancer in front of you who doesn’t understand hard work. After I spent one year as an apprentice and another in the corps de ballet at PNB, Francia Russell didn’t renew my contract. (It was renewed at the end of the summer.) At the time, I didn’t realize what the company wanted from me and didn’t know what I wanted for myself. And I definitely learned a lesson from that. It’s my job to take a younger dancer with a lot of talent who is rough around the edges, and make sure she understands her social graces and work ethic. I don’t let my dancers get away with anything.”
On women as leaders: “It’s funny; when a woman does the Sleeping Beauty variation, she’ll always do those hops on the right leg. But when the man takes the stage, he can do his turns on whichever side is his best. I was lucky enough to work under a female director, so I never thought that I couldn’t be an artistic director one day. Now we have Karen Kain (The National Ballet of Canada), Victoria Morgan (Cincinnati Ballet) and Lourdes Lopez (Miami City Ballet). So maybe all that’s changing—women in dance are evolving.” DT
Performance Career: danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet for nearly 30 years
Dance-Related Ventures: created BKWear, a dancewear company; was a pointe shoe consultant for Bloch; stages works for The George Balanchine Trust
Health Advocate: helped create Fit to a T, which spreads awareness to young dancers about bone health and osteoporosis
Photos by Michael Auer and Angela Sterling, courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet
How I teach lyrical jazz
The beginning of Suzi Taylor’s lyrical jazz class closely resembles a ballet barre—except there isn’t a physical barre to cling to and there aren’t pauses for rest between exercises. It’s a strenuous, nonstop warm-up packed with all the tools of classical technique: pliés with port de bras, rond de jambe en l’air and fondu. At one point, Taylor, sweaty from leading the class full-out, runs around the room to shape students’ feet as they balance in sur le cou-de-pied. It isn’t until an hour in that the dancers get to take on her choreography full of expansive shapes and gooey transitions.
Technicians like Taylor are rare in today’s choreography-obsessed industry, where classes outside the codified forms quite rarely reach beyond the stretch-and-learn-a-combo equation. “Style has become a technique and it drives me crazy,” says Taylor, who teaches with New York City Dance Alliance and at Steps on Broadway. “You almost have to threaten kids to take ballet these days.”
When she first moved to New York, the term lyrical, a subset of jazz, was just becoming a brand. The style budded in California, where Taylor studied under Doug Caldwell, one of lyrical’s early teachers. And though many stamp her class with the label, Taylor doesn’t often use it herself. “When they decided to name it lyrical, I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’” she says. “I always found that a weird thing to call it. Sure, I use music with lyrics sometimes, but often I don’t. What really got people interested in my class was the floorwork and exploring movement that was familiar, but not necessarily ‘big and jazzy.’”
Taylor says she understands that since then, dance trends and training have shifted—e.g. the often indefinable style of contemporary has become a mainstream favorite. “There’s some beautiful contemporary work happening professionally that I really admire, but I worry when young dancers attempt it and don’t understand where the movements are coming from. It takes them out of the process of training, and that’s not doing much to prepare them for their professional life.”
This fall, Taylor became an adjunct professor at Pace University’s commercial BFA program. And while she loves the vibrant communities at Steps and NYCDA, she’s excited to work with students at a different stage in their dancing. “It’s hard to find a consistency of people who want to train,” she says. “I’m a teacher, and I like this work because I want to see the changes that happen with them.”
Suzi Taylor trained in Southern California with Douglas Caldwell, Jaime Rogers and Philip and Charles Fuller before moving to New York City. There, she studied at The Ailey School and with Doug Wassel, David Howard and Finis Jhung. She has been teaching at Steps on Broadway for 25 years and is a founding teacher at New York City Dance Alliance. In fall 2013, she joined the dance faculty at Pace University.
Rachel Kreiling trained with Abby Lee Miller in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under Taylor’s mentorship, she began assisting at New York City Dance Alliance and, in 2008, joined its touring and summer intensive faculty. She also teaches at Onstage New York. Kreiling has danced in Rasta Thomas’ Rock the Ballet and currently dances with Alison Chase Performance.
Photography by Matthew Murphy
Driving music for modern and contemporary dance
In Larry Keigwin’s Megalopolis, dancers in shiny biketards repeat isolated arm patterns as they enter and exit from the wings. At first, the music is Steve Reich’s looping marimba melodies, but soon the pulsing beat of M.I.A. booms through the speakers. It transforms the work into a sort of modern dance rave, flashing lights and all. “The direction a piece goes can come from anything, even a piece of music or a particular dancer,” says Keigwin, whose Keigwin + Company turns 10 this fall. “When I made the piece at Juilliard, I set it to Reich, and one day a student suggested we try the dance to M.I.A. I lean on the dancers because they’re inside of the work.”
Keigwin often prefers recorded music because “there’s more room for trial and error” during the creation stage. At first, he looks for something with drive. “I need a catalyst to get us moving in the studio,” he says. Later though, he might throw that out and replace it with some opera or pop. “I’ve even heard music I like at bodegas and asked what was playing. Being an artist is about staying tuned in as an observer—even when you’re outside of the studio.” DT
“I really enjoy all the tracks on this album. There’s a lot of breathing room in the music to investigate movement qualities through improv. And it feels very modern dance. I like to play it at the beginning of class to set the tone.”
Artists: Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP
Song: “We No Speak Americano”
“It’s nice to use music in a foreign language because you don’t feel so attached to the lyrics and instead connect to the melody and rhythm.”
Artist: Philip Glass
Piece: “Mad Rush”
“I feel like I’m leaning further away from pop than I used to, so in class I like something quieter and melodic. This piece is about 14 minutes. It just rolls along and has an emotional undercurrent that I enjoy. It’s nice for a yoga warm-up or unison improv.”
Artist: Françoise Hardy
Song: “Le temps de l’amour”
“‘Le temps’ is another good foreign pick. I like using it for a study when we’re just creating movement and playing off it.”
Artist: Pat Benatar
Album: Ultimate Collection
“We create a very playful climate in the studio. Even if we’re working on something serious, we always throw in a sense of play and lightness. She brings the energy back up. Her music is great for a combo.”
Artist: Adam Crystal
Album: Final Dress
“Adam is a very versatile young composer whom I most recently collaborated with for a Vail International Dance Festival commission. He has such a range, from very classical to an Eastern feel.”