johnno

Effect of earlier career on Choreographers

32 posts in this topic

Some choreographers were dancers before becoming choreos, and some weren't. Do you hard-core balletomanes think that this makes a difference in their works? Would it be noticeable to the dancers? I'm not sufficiently immersed in the art to answer the question myself.

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While it's not required that a choreographer be a truly skilled dancer in order to make dances, I can't really think of too many people who were absolutely without experience -- can you give us an example of who you're considering?

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When Tobi Tobias interviewed Jerome Robbins as part of the "Dance in America" broadcast of Other Dances long ago, she asked him whether it was necessary for choreographers to have been a dancer first. I don't remember her exact words, but he said, with a look of astonishment: "Yes! How would you know what to do!"

I can't think of any credible ballet choreographers who didn't first have a career as a dancer (although not necessrily as a great dancer), but I'm curious if anybody else has thought of someone.

I do vaguely remember an ice show (perhaps one organized by John Curry?) in which major choreographers designed skating sequences. Tharp and Martins are two I remember, but there were others. None of them had any experience with ice skating themselves, so it's interesting they had the courage to try working with skaters.

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Some choreographers were dancers before becoming choreos, and some weren't. ----

Johnno,

I can't think of any. Could you name the ones that weren't that you are referring to?

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I do vaguely remember an ice show (perhaps one organized by John Curry?) in which major choreographers designed skating sequences. Tharp and Martins are two I remember, but there were others. None of them had any experience with ice skating themselves, so it's interesting they had the courage to try working with skaters.

Laura Dean, Lar Lubovich -- who also did a long "Sleeping Beauty" for Rosalynn Sumners and Robin Cousins that was televised and at one point may have been available on VHS -- Eliot Feld, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in addition to Tharp and Martins choreographed for the John Curry Skating Company, documented by Jennifer Dunning and Anna Kisselgoff in their reviews of the company's Metropolitan Opera performances.

http://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/28/arts/dance-john-curry-skating-troupe-at-met-opera.html?scp=3&sq=john%20curry&st=cse

http://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/27/arts/dance-curry-s-ice-show-at-the-met.html?scp=8&sq=john%20curry&st=cse

In addition, Curry choreographed many numbers, including an Ashton tribute, and company member Patricia Dodd also choreographed. Two of the top skating choreographers today, Lori Nichol and Sarah Kawahara skated for Curry at various times.

Ice dancers traditionally work with non-skating choreographers and dancers off the ice, and at least over the last few decades, the more prominent skaters have made it a collaboration between the off-ice and on-ice choreographers (and coaches). Some singles skaters have done this as well, especially those working with Antonio Najarro, whose skating renown began with a Flamenco Original Dance for Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat in the 2002 Olympic season and continues to this day.

The Bolshoi experimented with creating a production of "Romeo and Juliet" that was produced? assembled? directed? by the British theater director Declan Donnellan, described in Ballet.co.uk's Magazine:

http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_04/jul04/interview_donnellan.htm

It was not even clear to him at first that he would need a choreographer and he imagined that he and the dancers might work together to generate sequences of movement. A choreographer, if one were needed at all, might work in the background. But Donnellan soon changed his mind, and decided to work with the Moldovan choreographer, Radu Poklitaru.

This was not the most successful of experiments.

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There have been plenty of dancers who weren't renowned as such and became highly celebrated choreographers. Balanchine and Massine were both excellent dancers, but certainly nothing like on the order of what they became as choreographers. Is this what you mean?

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I would think that a choreographer would have to be to FEEL the movements as he creates and connects them. It's not enough to visualize what the should look like.

That means working from inside the body. Being able to empathize with what the dancer is experiencing as he or she attempts to create the look. This would be especially important when it comes to linking movements.

Think of all the wonderful photos of Balanchine creating new work by demonstrating, so elegantly, the essence of a movement for the dancers. Those moments have always struck me as being essentially collaborative. Dancer and choreographer are linked by the shared knowledge of what it is to dance.

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I would think that a choreographer would have to be to FEEL the movements as he creates and connects them. It's not enough to visualize what the should look like.

That means working from inside the body. Being able to empathize with what the dancer is experiencing as he or she attempts to create the look. This would be especially important when it comes to linking movements.

Think of all the wonderful photos of Balanchine creating new work by demonstrating, so elegantly, the essence of a movement for the dancers. Those moments have always struck me as being essentially collaborative. Dancer and choreographer are linked by the shared knowledge of what it is to dance.

I think this need for understanding is also why adults study ballet; it helps to understand the language and the feeling that one is attempting to convey with words and phrases.

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somewhat off topic here, i recall Clive Barnes' writing in the early 1970s of a pattern he discerned in the dancer-to-choreographer route, which had to do with the quality of the dancer.

if mem. serves, Barnes wrote that the greater choreographers tended to be individuals who were not usally great dancers, the context, again, if mem. serves, was Eliot Feld's early career, which, when looking back over his Feld's somewhat recent career as a dancer, led Barnes to observe something like: he (Feld) was perhaps the worst Hilarion in living memory.

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There have been plenty of dancers who weren't renowned as such and became highly celebrated choreographers. Balanchine and Massine were both excellent dancers, but certainly nothing like on the order of what they became as choreographers. Is this what you mean?

Also, wouldn't Ashton fit into this category? Although a great mime and he "danced" many character roles, he was never considered a great dancer. But what blissful choreography! And wouldn't Tudor also fit the bill? Stretch it a bit and you'd have DeMille.

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somewhat off topic here, ... led Barnes to observe something like: he (Feld) was perhaps the worst Hilarion in living memory.

Oh, ouch!

I am hoping that someone will take a look back at Feld's transition from dancer to dance maker, and the ups and downs of his choreographic career while he is still around to be interviewed about it. I remember when he was the freshest thing on the market, and the comments that people made when he left ABT to create his own ensemble. The buzz surrounding Wheeldon's Morphoses experiment reminded me of that hubbub, and I wondered if anyone else was looking at Feld's trajectory when they were speculating about Wheeldon.

I would give a lot to see Intermezzo again.

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Laura Dean, Lar Lubovich -- who also did a long "Sleeping Beauty" for Rosalynn Sumners and Robin Cousins that was televised and at one point may have been available on VHS -- Eliot Feld, and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in addition to Tharp and Martins choreographed for the John Curry Skating Company, documented by Jennifer Dunning and Anna Kisselgoff in their reviews of the company's Metropolitan Opera performances.

Marcia Siegel also wrote about this experiment, particularly about Curry's work with Tharp on After All. I cannot find the review at the moment, but it is worth seeking out.

I remember being gobsmacked by the solo when I saw it, and how Tharp worked within and outside of the conventional aspects of figure skating at that time. I wouldn't have wanted her to shift to that world full-time -- I've loved too many of the dance works she's made since then -- but if I were part of the figure skating world, I would still be grieving for opportunities lost.

The Bolshoi experimented with creating a production of "Romeo and Juliet" that was produced? assembled? directed? by the British theater director Declan Donnellan, described in Ballet.co.uk's Magazine:

http://www.ballet.co.uk/magazines/yr_04/jul04/interview_donnellan.htm

It was not even clear to him at first that he would need a choreographer and he imagined that he and the dancers might work together to generate sequences of movement. A choreographer, if one were needed at all, might work in the background. But Donnellan soon changed his mind, and decided to work with the Moldovan choreographer, Radu Poklitaru.

This was not the most successful of experiments.

You are quite tactful. I actually thought it was pretty interesting as a theatrical experiment, and very, very dim as a use of ballet dancers.

One exception that might prove part of a rule here would be the film choreographer and director Busby Berkeley -- his use of dancing figures as surreal architecture was phenomenal, and is still influencing filmmakers and cinematographers.

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I do know of a public school teacher on NYC who won awards for his choreography on school kids... He had no dance training.... But I don't think this is quite the venue you were thinking of...

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somewhat off topic here, ... led Barnes to observe something like: he (Feld) was perhaps the worst Hilarion in living memory.

Oh, ouch!

I am hoping that someone will take a look back at Feld's transition from dancer to dance maker, and the ups and downs of his choreographic career while he is still around to be interviewed about it. I remember when he was the freshest thing on the market, and the comments that people made when he left ABT to create his own ensemble. The buzz surrounding Wheeldon's Morphoses experiment reminded me of that hubbub, and I wondered if anyone else was looking at Feld's trajectory when they were speculating about Wheeldon.

I would give a lot to see Intermezzo again.

I too would give a lot to see Intermezzo again. Also At Midnight, another early Feld work.

On the topic - Frederick Ashton started dance studies late and didn't have much of a dance career. I've read that he was envious of the training the Balanchine had received at the Imperial School in Russia.

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Judging from the little footage I've seen of Ashton dancing, I'd say he was a PHENOMENAL dancer -- unbelievable lightness and rapidity in entrachats-sixes and sissonnes, like Manuel Legris. It's true he started late, and it's also true, he envied Balanchine the training he'd had at the Imperial Ballet School.

On another note, I've heard an interview with Lar Lubovitch in which the point was brought out that he was a painter before he became a choreographer. The questions were subtle and the whole conversation was fascinating. I wish I could remember it, but the discussion was not simple. Not sure of his biography -- I think he had studied dance, but his concentration was in the visual arts......

And on yet another note, while what Mel says is true about Balanchine in some ways -- he was a character dancer in his early career, not a premier, and his career was almost ended when he got some lung disease -- TB? -- which left him with only on lung; nevertheless there are MANY accounts from the dancers that he was a superb dancer -- his gestures were wonderful, and he could do the most difficult things perfectly -- not sure what, but something like a double tour landing in arabesque in his street clothes with moccasins on his feet. And Tallchief among others has said that Balanchine knew how a woman was going to feel in her pointe shoes.... He'd ask dancers 'which was are you falling" and incorporated that knowledge into hte next phrase, so the movement had a natural feel to it. Dancers have often said that solos made for them seemed tailor-made, they were comfortable to dance.

[They've also often said he did NOT take into account -- or only rarely -- the dancers' need to take a break, get offstage, and catch their breath. That's another matter.]

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I think understanding how a ballet feels to a dancer and how it looks to the audience are not quite the same thing, and perhaps the latter is ultimately more important; it is after all for the dancer to rise to the steps rather than the steps to make life easier for the dancer. I know that composers who were pianists like Liszt write pieces that "fall under the hands" naturally , but can still be fiendishly difficult in terms of speed and other virtuous tricks. Whereas Beethoven, not a great pianist, writes beautiful piano music but it is much more "effortful" and less natural for the performer. Of course you have to know the technical limitations of the dancer's body/the instrument (I have worked on an ensemble piece by a young composer which made literally lno allowance for brass players to breathe for 5 whole minutes) but within those boundaries I don't think it makes much difference from the audience's perspective - although perhaps moving the dancers out of their natural comfort zone can make for an ultimately more powerful performance.

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I imagine the classic example of a non-dancing choreographer of today would be Wayne MacGregor.

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When I was just starting to choreograph, I was sitting in on the rehearsals of an older, more experienced choreographer who had been with several major companies.

He was working on tailoring portions of the male variation from Grand Pas Classique for a young professional dancer who was quite good, but everything he was trying was just too intricate.

"Can I try something?" I asked, and showed him a simpler variation of a tour jete. "Of course, that's perfect. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Do you really want to know?" I asked. He looked at me.

"Because you can dance and I can't." I said.

Natural dancers can have a harder time with choreography because every idea works in their bodies - they didn't have to figure things out. They have to work harder to learn which ideas are good and which aren't worth the audience looking at.

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I do vaguely remember an ice show (perhaps one organized by John Curry?) in which major choreographers designed skating sequences. Tharp and Martins are two I remember, but there were others. None of them had any experience with ice skating themselves, so it's interesting they had the courage to try working with skaters.

Kenneth MacMillan and Ronald Hynd did pieces for Curry, as well. The results tended to be mixed. On the one hand the dance choreographers came to the ice without preconceptions and so came up with novel ideas that might not have immediately occurred to a choreographer with a background in skating, but by the same token the material produced was often constrained by their not having a real understanding of the technique, and the stuff Curry and other ice choreographers came up with on his/their own was as good if not better. The assessments of Curry’s troupe by dance critics were sometimes similarly limited, for that matter; they knew dance and movement, of course, but not necessarily a great deal about skating or the skating world, and it could show.

Returning to the question raised in the original post, I don’t know offhand of any choreographers, distinguished or otherwise, with no dance training or background. It’s hard to see how such choreographers would develop outside the dance world. It’s true that there were/are choreographers who come to ballet from the world of modern dance and Broadway, but that doesn’t sound like what you meant, johnno.

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Oskar Schlemmer. "Dances that only a painter could have choreographed": Jack Anderson

Reconstructions in 1984

... The avant-garde legacy of Schlemmer and his Stage Workshop students would eventually influence the performance theory and work of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, the Judson Dance Theater, Laurie Anderson and David Byrne, amongst others.

Bauhaus Dances

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Thanks, Quiggin. I didn't know that.

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I loved this and would have enjoyed seeing and listening to it without the background noise. Made me think of the strangeness of Pierre Lunaire -- and also, because of the slow motion and the puppet-figures, of the clip from Maguy Marin's Cinderella, posted on another thread recently.

http://balletalert.i...__1#entry290604

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Thanks for your replies.

I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular when I posted the question. I'm new to the study of ballet and in reading around the subject simply gained an impression that some choreos had not been dancers. California's observation that some choreos were not known for their dancing is probably the best answer to my question: it's not that they weren't dancers, more the case that they're known for their choreography.

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When I was just starting to choreograph, I was sitting in on the rehearsals of an older, more experienced choreographer who had been with several major companies.

He was working on tailoring portions of the male variation from Grand Pas Classique for a young professional dancer who was quite good, but everything he was trying was just too intricate.

"Can I try something?" I asked, and showed him a simpler variation of a tour jete. "Of course, that's perfect. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Do you really want to know?" I asked. He looked at me.

"Because you can dance and I can't." I said.

Natural dancers can have a harder time with choreography because every idea works in their bodies - they didn't have to figure things out. They have to work harder to learn which ideas are good and which aren't worth the audience looking at.

A marvelous story, Leigh. I was wondering how would you fit Balanchine into this?

Evidence suggests that Balanchine was by any definition a "natural dancer" despite his physical limitations. But he had an enormous facility for tailoring movements to the needs of individual dancers. And for scrapping his original ideas if they weren't working out in rehearsal. Granted, his dancers were, for the most part, superlative instruments, usually chosen by him for the work he was creating. As time went on, he was able to develop a new generation of dancers in ways he wanted, through the School and then company class.

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