Adriana Pierce made Acantilado on her colleagues at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy Pierce

Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."

Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.

Show Up Prepared


Setting an agenda for each rehearsal shows your dancers that you respect their time. In return, they may be more likely to respect your leadership. "With peers, you can't walk into the room and say, 'I'm the teacher; you're the student,' " says Pierce, who can currently be seen in the Broadway revival of Carousel. "Authority has to be earned."

Preparation can also ease nerves about your new role. When Maddie Hanson, a dance major at The Juilliard School, began choreographing on her classmates as a freshman, "I always came into rehearsals with a movement phrase and goals for the day," she says. Now a junior, Hanson has become more confident creating on the fly. Still, she strives to be organized, and to bring something new, like a particular image, to each session.

But preparing doesn't mean being inflexible in rehearsals. Elizabeth George, who teaches composition at the University of Arizona, explains, "You never want to be so rigid that if something spontaneous happens, you're not willing to explore it." A collaborative environment can keep everyone invested in the process.

Communicate Clearly

MCB dancers in Pierce's Acantilado. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy Pierce


Last semester, George and her co-teacher Sam Watson asked their composition students what helped them most when choreographing on classmates. The top response: communication. "Dancers want information about what they're doing," Watson says, "whether they're working with a guest artist or a fellow student."

Communication should be a two-way street, Pierce adds. If a transition looks awkward, ask what would make it feel better. If your dancers seem exhausted, see if they have the energy for another full-out run.

Frame Feedback Wisely


To avoid hurting friends' feelings, frame criticism to be both positive and constructive. Rather than saying "That's not right" or "I don't like that," try acknowledging what a dancer is doing before asking to see it another way. "Then, you're offering options instead of barking orders," Pierce says.

When it comes to behavior issues, you may need to put your foot down. Pierce advises approaching the dancer the same way you would if you were having a non–dance-related issue. "Make it a conversation, not a confrontation," she says. "It can help to find out where they're coming from. Everyone is a human with emotions and a life outside the studio."

Cast Carefully


Juilliard students performing Hanson's work. Photo courtesy Hanson


Casting from a group of peers can feel fraught. What if your best friend isn't a good fit—or a strong enough performer—for what you have in mind? Hanson advises putting your vision first. "The people who support you will understand that you have to do what's right for your choreography," she says.

If the dancers you want aren't available, be open to what others have to offer. "I've worked with dancers I initially didn't see myself using," Pierce says. "They've always brought something surprising to the table." Stand by what you're looking for, but be ready to find the best in every dancer.

Lead with Confidence


Maddie Hanson in the studio, Photo courtesy Hanson


Even if you're new to running rehearsals, you already know what works for you when you're dancing for someone else. Call on those experiences when you're in charge.

Remember that you aren't the only one who wants the process to be productive and fulfilling. Your dancers—your classmates and colleagues—are on your side. "If you're considerate of your cast's needs and confident in your own abilities," Hanson says, "you'll have a better piece in the end."

How I teach pas de deux

Charles Askegard coaching Ballet Academy East students Marisa Trapani and Alexandros Pappajohn

The hall cutting through Ballet Academy East on a late Thursday afternoon is hectic. Students sprawl out in straddles, hovering over math homework, and parents peek through the windows to get a good look at their tots. But the air inside the advanced ballet class in studio five is calm, as is Charles Askegard’s demeanor. He is subtle, yet assured, a quality that carried his dancing during his years as a principal with the New York City Ballet.

Clarity of technique is Askegard’s priority at BAE, where he began teaching last fall, and it’s reflected in his to-the-point approach. “See this tendu? When you’re not so turned out here, you can get by. But when you bring it up here,” he says, lifting a student’s leg in a high à la seconde, “well, that’s not nice to look at.” Combinations throughout the level 8/9 class are short and square, and he’s extremely particular about hip alignment and how the soles and toes of the feet lie on the floor. “There’s so much you want to accomplish in your technique at the pre-professional age, but how much and how fast can students actually learn?” he asks. “I’m not saying to dumb it down, but succinct combinations let dancers really work on their technique. And it’s really important in building their confidence.”

Helping students break down their technique, says Askegard, has sparked curiosity in his own. “I’ve talked to others, and they all say, ‘When I started teaching, my technique got so much better than when I was dancing,’ because you have to be committed to doing it the right way to teach others,” he says. “Teaching is a new adventure, and I’m learning a lot.”

Askegard’s goal is to codify a class syllabus for pas de deux—a skill often praised by critics, as well as his own partners, during his performance career—for both himself and BAE. “Often when students start partnering, the girl is just thrown at the guy, and it’s like ‘OK, go.’ And that’s because many schools don’t have the ability to make a full partnering class viable. But it results in a deer-in-headlights level of fear. Try to squeeze 10–15 minutes into pointe class for some pirouettes and promenades,” he says. “When I was a student, I was the only guy to partner with. And I learned a lot about partnering when I was forced to dance with a girl a foot taller than me.”

Here, Askegard guides BAE students Marisa Trapani and Alexandros Pappajohn through partnered pirouettes:

Charles Askegard began studying ballet at Minnesota Dance Theatre and School (now The Dance Institute) under the direction of Loyce Houlton. At 16, he moved to New York City, where he trained with Maggie Black. He joined American Ballet Theatre in 1987 and became a soloist before leaving to dance with the New York City Ballet, where he remained for 14 years. As a principal there, he originated roles in ballets by Christopher Wheeldon and Peter Martins. Upon his retirement in 2011, Askegard co-founded Ballet Next, a project-based ballet troupe, with former ABT principal Michele Wiles. He has been a guest faculty member at the School of American Ballet and has taught company class for NYCB and Armitage Gone! Dance. Askegard joined BAE’s faculty full-time in fall 2012.

Marisa Trapani and Alexandros Pappajohn, both 15, are students in Ballet Academy East’s Pre-Professional Division.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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