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"American Choreographers" Post-performance Q&A

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Tonight's participants were Kent Stowell, Louise Nadeau, and Paul Gibson, former SFB and PNB Principal and now Assistant Ballet Master at PNB and choreographer of The Piano Dance, in which Nadeau created a leading role. The general topic was Choreography from both the view of the choreographer and the dancer.

Kent Stowell (KS) asked Louise Nadeau (LN) to talk about what it was like to work with Paul Gibson (PG) and choreographers in general. LN responded by saying that it was great to have someone with whom she danced for so long (10 years) choreograph for her. She said PG knew all of her strengths and weaknesses from that experience, and choreographed to her strengths, while leaving out her weaknesses.

LN spoke a bit about her approach, and how it sometimes takes her a while before she's able to get or do what the choreographer wants, which she sometimes needs to work out in the studio. She said that PG knows this about her, and that she's comfortable asking for something to be done on the other leg or side, or saying, after trying it out on her own, that something isn't right. She said she preferred a collaborative effort, which isn't always the case with new/unknown choreographers, some of whom come in with their ideas already set.

LN described how when new choreographers come to cast, the entire company "auditions" in an open rehearsal, performing movement by the choreographer. She made the analogy that this approach was good for good test-takers. She called this process "The Great Equalizer," because most of the time, the first-time choreographers come in cold, and all of the dancers are on equal footing. She mentioned she still gets nervous during this process.

KS said that he and Francia Russell (FR) try to convince first-time choreographers not to make snap decisions, but to take their time, as sometimes, "a choreographer will fall in love with a dancer and realize the next week that they've made a mistake." He and FR will also try to tell the choreographers about the strengths and weaknesses of particular dancers, although he also said that he encourages choreographers to look at dancers afresh. He noted that his and FR's policy was to try to work with a choreographer two-three times ("unless the first time was a complete bust") because a longer-term relationship was more productive. The first time, he said, was like a blind date.

He described how he and FR get together at the beginning of the season to plot out general casting, based on which dancers need what, who needs a push, who's done the role in the past, which roles are now too hard for a dancer, the number of roles a dancer had in a program, etc. This affects the dancers that are available for a choreographer.

Someone asked PG if dancers come to him to ask for roles. He and KS said "no," and that the dancers go to KS and FR to ask for roles. Casting for new choreography is at the discretion of the choreographer, subject to logistical limitations. PG mentioned and LN confirmed that Gibson's ballets have been very physically strenuous and require counting. It must be a testament to their friendship that Nadeau dances in them so frequently, as she said she prefers to listen to the music instead of counting, and that PG always chooses music that requires counting, which she called "brain busters"!

LN remarked that The Piano Ballet was less strenuous than other PG pieces, because the "vignettes" were shorter. PG mentioned an eight-minute pas de deux that he once choreographed for LN and Christophe Maraval.

After LN spoke about counting, someone said when LN danced, it looked like she was in a different plane in her own world and asked if that was an illusion, if she were counting. LN said that she was in that zone 90-95% of the time, and when she wasn't she felt cheated. Even if the audience didn't know, she did. PG mentioned that at first the counting is important, but as the piece becomes more familiar, often the music moves more to the forefront. KS said that there were some parts, like Juliet, where it was easy for the dancer to get in the "zone." PG described it as being in control and aware, yet, at the same time, blocked out.

PG was asked if being involved with choreography made him wish he hadn't retired. He said that when he heard the Lambarena music, he thought "oh, no" because he had loved the role so much. But he said he liked getting out of bed and being able to walk. He noted he had worked with every major [living] choreographer, he had done what he wanted to do, and felt he wasn't going to miss anything when KS and FR offered him the Assistant Ballet Master position, for which openings are few and far between. (The role was created for him, after he had spoken to them about his future). KS said that if they hadn't offered him the ABM position, PG would be a free-lance choreographer now.

PG was asked how he became a choreographer. He said that while he was at San Francisco Ballet, a former teacher asked him to choreograph a piece for the school workshop. Then an orchestra strike led to a Choreography Workshop. He described how he choreographed to music he heard and wanted to dance to, and how he hears music differently, hearing undertones and counter rhythms. When he hears music, he sees dancing to it, and starts moving his hands and feet.

PG talked about the choreographic process. When he gets ideas, he sometimes writes them down in a little book, using descriptive words -- ex: "praying mantis" for the insect imagery he was to use in what he called the "Eyes Wide Shut" pas de deux in The Piano Dance -- and stick figures. After describing how the inspiration came from watching The Discovery Channel, he said that you never know where an idea will come from. He brings his ideas into the studio, and then tweaks them after working it out on the dancers. When asked by an audience member if his intent was to showcase the dancers, PG replied "Absolutely."

LN said that dancers get energy from the audience, which provides great motivation and that dancer can hear cell phones and laughs, and even feel the audience hold their breath in complete silence (like in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.) She said that it great to hear the audience "get" the comedy, but it can break concentration if it's unexpected.

KS added that McCaw Hall is a much more intimate space, and that the dancers feel more connected to the audience, and the audience to the dancers because of physical proximity. He said it has changed the audience's perception and appreciation of the performances.

Someone asked if that feeling of getting lost on stage carried over when offstage. LN shook her head, and KS spoke eloquently. He said that when dancers get addicted ballet is when they are about 14. At that time, their bodies are changing, their parents are telling them they are too young for everything and asking them to do chores, and the world around them is chaos. But for that 1.5 hours in class, they have control over their life and have great power.

KS continued to say that what happens in the studio is also creating order out of chaos and having control: he and FR tell the dancers what to do, and the dancers [control their bodies to] do it. He said that them moment he leaves the studio -- CHAOS: there's a finance meeting. Most of the rest of the time, people live in chaos -- navigating traffic, dealing with difficulties and the unknown -- but in the studio they experience control.

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Thanks so much for posting this -- I had to miss the post-show discussion this time around and was very disappointed.

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