Carl Flink’s new company, Black Label Movement, held its inaugural season at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater this past August. The debut was no small achievement for Flink, who is also director of dance at the University of Minnesota–Minneapolis. During the school year, he juggles company rehearsals several times a week with a teaching schedule of two to three classes per semester.
Like Flink, many higher-ed dance professionals balance the dual roles of professor and artistic director, because presenting work beyond the university stage is essential to their endeavors as artists. And while it may require some scheduling feats, the rewards can be great: for the company director, free or low-cost rehearsal space and an ever-replenishing supply of student dancers on whom to work out new choreography; and for the students, the opportunity to work with a faculty member who is especially tuned in to the professional dance world. Here, three experienced dance professors talk about how to strike the right balance between campus and company.
All in the Timing
Take full advantage of summer and other school breaks, says Linda Lehovec, associate professor and BFA program director for the dance department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—they are prime times for choreographic work. “I almost always have to work in blocks of time [during the school year], rather than in a longer, ongoing rehearsal period,” explains Lehovec, who has run her pick-up company, Linda Lehovec & Dancers, on and off since 1999.
Recently named the head of the dance department at Connecticut College in New London, CT, David Dorfman has been the artistic director of the New York City-based company David Dorfman Dance since 1987. He has found success with the same approach when creating and rehearsing a new evening-length work. “Winter break in January is usually a two- to three-week rehearsal period in NYC, and spring break in March is good for two solid weeks of work,” Dorfman says. In between, he travels from New London to NYC for long weekends to continue the rehearsal process.
Quiet periods during the school year also are good times to schedule rehearsals and performances. “Look at the year ahead and pinpoint the crunch times in your department, and avoid doing outside work at that time,” says Lehovec. “Usually, [finding time for] the actual performance isn’t a big problem . . . it’s a matter of needing a few days free to tech and then perform.”
Classroom as Laboratory
Speak to your department chairperson about integrating your professional work as part of your research on staff. Successful dance instructors who also run companies allow their work in both spheres to inform and enrich each other, after all. “Since my work with [my company] is considered a large portion of my research as a professor, I can spend some of my time at the college researching material that will go into a new company dance,” says Dorfman. “Sometimes this takes the form of a dance that I will make on the students at the college, and other times it might be written work such as proposals for grants, or scholarly work such as published articles.”
Lehovec has taken a similar path. “I often start ideas for eventual works in my research at the university,” she says. “I do this when I make work on our students, and also when I’m teaching modern class.” Several years ago, Lehovec spent a semester creating a piece called [ital: Submerge] for eight of her students. She then drew on that dance to create an evening length work, [ital: Swim,] with professional dancers. Over the next summer, she continued to work with dancers and created new material, putting all the pieces together one week in the fall.
Sharing your company work with students is mutually beneficial: You have talent to mobilize your early ideas, while they become a part of your work on the ground level. “They seem to really enjoy [it] and flourish when they know they are actually working on material that may find its way into a dance,” says Flink.
Assembling Your Troupe
Recognize the collegiate milieu as the excellent networking hub that it is. As a faculty member, you instantly have a pool of graduates who know you and your style. In Flink’s company, for example, six of the nine company members are U of MN alumni. “Because I don’t work over long periods outside of school, it’s pretty hard to get to know a dancer that I haven’t had as a student,” says Lehovec. “I wouldn’t say that I limit my dancers to my [former] students, but often I’ll find that [if] I work with them several times, they fit my material well and we get along well, I’ll ask them to come do a project with me.”
Dorfman’s company members often come from Connecticut College in addition to festivals and other guest teaching gigs. “I am always looking for those who are curious about the issues with which I like to work, and who can excel with the physical vocabulary,” says Dorfman. “So far, the students at Connecticut have been immeasurably helpful in developing ideas for our company work, and in that way, I get to see them trying on the notions of our professional style."
As much as you may utilize the university as a resource for your outside work, be sure to bring the benefits of that work back to help your students grow. For example, Lehovec passes on the practical aspects of running a company to senior students interested in starting their own. “I’ve learned a lot about press kits, renting theaters, applying for grants . . . all of which I’ve passed on to students in our Senior Career Seminar class,” she says.
Similarly, what Flink learns as a director, he imparts to his students to help them become better working dancers. “I am able to directly observe and experience the kind of skills and attitude that I find constructive in a rehearsal process, and can communicate that to my students,” he says, adding that being entrenched in the professional world also keeps his outlook current. “By having a professional company, my finger is directly on the pulse of what is happening right now in the dance world.”
You can also leverage your dual status to help out your company members. “The reality is that when you start up, you won’t have much money to actually pay your dancers, but you should also have access to free or low-cost space with your [university] program. This gives you a huge advantage that other independent artists rarely have,” Flink says, and enables you to begin compensating your dancers earlier in the process.
Another option is to start a pick-up company rather than a year-round organization. “Start small,” says Lehovec. “Find one or two dancers who you know to work on a few pieces and then find places to present your duet or trio concert. Once you’ve learned the art of coordinating a few people’s schedules—and finding the resources to pay [them]— you can make larger works and use more dancers.”
Despite the many benefits of working in both the classroom and company environments, it’s not always smooth sailing. Dorfman, for instance, has found himself in a stressful spot each year in June, when CC’s spring semester has wrapped up and his company is preparing for a major premiere. “I hope one day [I won’t have to] rush away from the college so quickly, so I can linger a bit more with my thoughts, graduating students, organizational needs for the department,” he says. “I want so badly to be everywhere at the same time, to have long conferences with students, to see every guest speaker at the college. I really, really like to be there for everyone.”
Since cloning isn’t yet an option, Dorfman's best tactic for reconciling the issue is to prioritize and delegate, “even when doing so is deeply against [my] nature,” he says. “That simple act of saying ‘no’ to certain activities—delegating to another faculty member or giving a student or company member new responsibility—can be a win-win situation for all involved.”
Lehovec looks to her colleagues for help when rest is simply what's needed. "I have very supportive colleagues who will kindly step in and teach for me," she says. "It's in the best interest of the department and the school to have us working professionally, so we usually help each other out."
Nowhere else will you find a group of professionals and students who are as familiar with your work as your institution, which makes the time ripe for creation, says Dorfman. "Starting a company is a leap of faith," he continues. "The initiation has to be one of love and dedication, and being at a college or university can provide support not found elsewhere- and that's a good thing!" DT
Lisa Arnett is the Midwest editor of Dance Spirit magazine and a Chicago-based freelance writer.
Like many studio owners preparing for recital season, Sue Sampson-Dalena of the Dance School of Fresno in California ordered costumes for her June performance in January. But when the arrival date for one class’s costumes passed with no sign of the shipment, she put in several concerned calls to the costume company, only to be met with constant busy signals.
Luckily, just days before the show, a few dedicated parents—who, to Sampson-Dalena’s delight, were also talented seamstresses—volunteered their time to buy fabric and whip up makeshift costumes for every member of the class. She never did get through to the company, though the costumes eventually arrived—weeks after the performance.
Whether it’s a costume shipment lost in the mail, backordered costumes that didn’t get delivered in time or a suitcase of garments misdirected on the flight to Nationals, costume mishaps are often unavoidable. Keep these creative strategies in mind the next time you’re in a jam.
Beg, Borrow or Rent
“Try to borrow costumes from one of last year’s classes—that’s the first line of defense,” says Sampson-Dalena. This works best if you can pinpoint a class where all students have remained local; tracking down a costume from last year’s senior who’s now a busy college freshman can be tricky.
Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studio in North Andover, Massachusetts, has maintained an in-school costume closet for just this reason. “We started stocking the closet with my three daughters’ costumes and then had everyone donate their old costumes as well,” says Director Nancy Chippendale.
“When soloists need costumes, they go into the closet and put their outfit together, or at least use pieces from our inventory. I encourage my graduating seniors to donate items that they will never use again . . . such as jewelry, headpieces, trunks [and] belts.”
Next, look to local studios that may let you borrow or rent items they’re not currently using. “I can recall borrowing costumes from a friend [who owns a nearby studio],” says Sampson-Dalena. “She always had her show in early May, and she usually kept a lot of her costumes.” Cynthia King of Cynthia King Dance Studio in Brooklyn, New York, has often swapped costumes with teacher friends, especially those who work in public schools. “Sometimes they’ll have a budget [for costumes] and they’re just sitting there,” King says. She also suggests compiling an e-mail list of teachers you meet at conventions and teacher training seminars; in case of a costume emergency, you have a support system right at your fingertips.
If you’ve exhausted local dance schools, don’t overlook local theater companies or high school theater departments; there’s always a chance they produced Cabaret last year and could kindly rent you their hats, canes and gloves for your advanced jazz routine set to “Willkommen.”
Start From Scratch
If you have the time and funds to invest in a completely new set of costumes, consider ordering in-stock items from a company whose warehouse is in the same state as your studio; in-stock items could ship in a day if you pay for premium shipping. Keep in mind you may have to be flexible about style and size, given what’s available—hemming pants or tightening straps are small adjustments that can be made easily, if time allows.
“I have always had parents who are willing to come to the rescue,” says Sampson-Dalena. “I really admire those who can sew.” If you have several parents with sewing savvy, consider commissioning them to select fabric and construct a simple costume, as Sampson-Dalena did in the wake of her class’s costume disappearance. King keeps bolts of stretchy fabric, tulle and elastic at her studio in case her seamstresses need to quickly create a crop of simple circle skirts.
If sewing isn’t your forte, you’d be surprised at what can be put together with a hot-glue gun, says King; or look for no-sew hem tape, fabric glue or fusible webbing (a stiff fabric that becomes adhesive when ironed) at a craft store. Consider taking a basic garment from your local dance retailer, like a simple lyrical dress, and using fabric paint to create swirls, stripes or starbursts. For added sparkle, glue on rhinestones, sequin trim, fringe or beads. For a disco number, a trip to a local resale shop or the back of parents’ closets may yield enough retro pieces to outfit your group on the cheap.
Jazz Up Basics
If buying new or creating from scratch isn’t an option, think of what your dancers already have and build from there, says Sampson-Dalena. To meet one last-minute costume need, for example, she had a class wear black shorts and matching studio-logo tank tops that students already owned.
You can easily dress up your dancers’ classwear basics—black leotards, shorts and jazz pants—without altering them permanently. Start with all-black bodywear and add a big prop or accessory: a polka-dotted neck scarf, bright red satin gloves, glitter-covered top hat, sequined Mardi Gras mask or neon wig could do the trick. If the costume companies you’d usually count on for such accessories are tied up with spring recital orders, proceed to a local party- or theater-supply store. To order fabric in bulk and accessories such as hats, wigs or canes with a quick turnaround, King relies on Theatre House, a theater-supply catalog that can often ship orders by the morning of the next business day.
Another economical option is to buy a bolt of flowy fabric and let each of your dancers layer, drape and tie it over a leotard or unitard. Designs are limited only by their imagination: Sheer fabric can be worn toga-style, tied at the shoulder and belted at the waist with a ribbon; no-sew sarong skirts can be made by cutting a large triangle out of no-fray fabric; and thinly cut strips can be wrapped around legs and arms for a wild, twisted look.
Check out your library or local bookstore for craft books offering design inspiration. For DIY tricks like transforming an old sweater into legwarmers and gauntlets, or a T-shirt into a punk-rocker top or elegant halter, look for these titles: Generation T: 108 Ways to Transform a T-Shirt, by Megan Nicolay; 99 Ways to Cut, Sew, Trim, and Tie Your T-Shirt into Something Special, by Faith Blakeney, Justina Blakeney, Anka Livakovic and Ellen Schultz; and Second-Time Cool: The Art of Chopping Up a Sweater, by Anna-Stina Linden Ivarsson, Katarina Brieditis and Katarina Evans.
If you don’t have the lead time, helping hands or creative energy to go the DIY route, look to local retail outlets for inexpensive costume possibilities you can bring home the same day.
The sleepwear/intimate apparel department at big-box discount stores can be a great starting place for inexpensive lyrical and modern costumes: Modest slips can double as dresses, while satin pajama pants can be slipped over a leotard. If you can’t find all the sizes and colors you need at one location, ask an employee to locate the remaining garments at nearby stores and designate parent volunteers to pick them up.
One of Sampson-Dalena’s teachers often finds costume pieces at discount stores like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx. “She always manages to find really cool things . . . and it’s always cheaper,” says Sampson-Dalena. Mall stores that serve the teen market—Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, H&M, Deb and Rave, to name a few—often stock large quantities of low-priced trendy garments. Sparkly tops meant for a night out on the town can pair with black jazz pants; bright mini-skirts can be layered over your dancer’s own leotards and capri tights; chain belts can give a solid unitard extra pizzazz.
Raid Your Dancers’ Closets
“Not everybody has to be dressed alike,” says King. Going for an individual look can take off the pressure to find identical garments for a class of 20—and it lets your dancers showcase their personalities.
If you’re doing a casual jazz, tap or hip-hop routine, look to your students’ closets for inspiration. Ten years ago, most dancers wouldn’t have dreamed of taking the stage in their blue jeans; now, however, almost all jeans are made with some Lycra for extra stretch. Start with jeans and have your dancers layer on their own colorful tanks, T-shirts and jackets. Consider introducing one unifying element, like visors in the same color or a bandanna each dancer can tie anywhere on her outfit.
Another option is to choose a color theme—black and red, or pink and turquoise, for example—and have your dancers put together new outfits using their own costume pieces, street clothes and accessories. Host a “costume call” day at the studio when dancers bring possibilities from home and help each other put their outfits together.
Losing your costumes may feel like the end of the world. But with a little ingenuity and elbow grease, you’ll be able to turn any costume catastrophe into a cause for celebration. DT
Lisa Arnett is the Midwest editor of Dance Spirit magazine and a Chicago-based freelance writer.