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On becoming a choreographer...

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How does one become a choreographer - is there a specific education/training that people go through in order to excel at this art? Are all choreographers former ballet dancers and are they necessarily professional ballet dancers first? Do programs such as Julliard, in NYC, offer this as a major - yes, I know I can look some of these specific college things up...but I'm interested in a general answer here re going to college for choreography, as well.

Is it more likely for someone with a major ballet company background as a dancer to have the opportunity to choreograph for professional companies?

Recently my daughter's ballet school gave three students the opportunity to choreograph their own work on the top 3 levels of dancers there. I have no idea how they were chosen. One in particular stood out - very much so. Later in the week I spoke to her and encouraged her to keep at it.

What is this field like - is it even more competitive than ballet itself?

I'd love to hear some personal stories, if that's possible - but please, don't limit yourselves to this as a prerequisite! :)

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Choreographer is an even harder job than dancer. The "major company" circuit is very hard to break into, no matter how good you are. That is in spite of the fact that people complain constantly about a lack of good choreographers. Companies often seem to prefer choreographers with a background in the culture of that company.

The other way to build a career as a choreographer is to build your own company. I have seen that done with success. So far in America, that has been the only way do something significantly different from what came before (witness Balanchine). But it is a LOT of work; it is one of the hardest, most thankless jobs I have ever seen. Our choreographer Jose Mateo works 24/7/350 (literally). Ballet is his life even more than for the dancers. Ultimately, you have to build an audience and dancer base that believes in your work. That is what it takes.

Yes, it is more competetive and pays worse than a dancing career.

Choreography is a very different skill from dancing. Ballet is a visual art; that's something we forget as dancers. And you have to have a good sense of what your visual images are communicating to the audience.

I do not know of one decent choreographer who was not a professional dancer for at least a little while. But often, they were never really stellar as dancers, nor do they have to have danced for well-known companies.

I also believe a choreograph has to be a ballet master in the true sense of the word --- a master and teacher of the art. I'm sure some will disagree with me on this point. But choreographers who cannot teach their dancers will never get their dancers to do exactly what they are looking for. The best choreographers are teachers. Again, witness Balanchine.

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I wish there were a system for teaching choreographers that would require them to study the works of old and new masters. However, there isn't, as far as I know...I think the college choreography programs tend not to be very substantive and tend to focus on modern dance, which is not a bad thing in itself, but unhelpful to the ballet world. I would say yes, it is definitely easier for a dancer with a major company to become a major choreographer--think of the connections they have just laid right out for them! Some major ballet schools such as SAB and the RBS have choreography projects or competitions that allow their students to choreograph--if they choreograph a great deal, while they may not become high-level dancers, they may choreograph for the company.

While choreographers must be good teachers in one sense of the word--they must be able to communicate what they want from their dancers--they are sometimes terrible teachers of technique, preferring to create beautiful movement sequences rather than logically planned lessons. This is why ballet choreographers, while they may make good company directors, often do not make good teachers. I don't think Balanchine was any exception to this, but have expounded upon that point enough already. Martha Graham was an exception--she created her very own solid, logically thought-out technique with absolutely no gaps, nothing based upon aesthetics* or personal whims, just pure movement. She also happened to be a gifted choreographer who was able to use this technique to create works that did take her personal sense of aesthetics, &c into account. This is a difficult separation to make, but she did it.

*One could argue that all dance is based upon aesthetics, but I think this is less true in Graham's case in terms of her students' technical training. She advocated "feeling" a movement rather than checking it in the mirror and sometimes had her dancers practice movements with their eyes closed. When it feels right, it usually looks right. You shouldn't have to look in a mirror to know whether you are fully turned out. If you're using your muscles correctly and to their full potential, you'll be turned out. The mirror is however necessary for more abstract concepts, such as the angle of an elbow or the height of a leg in relation to the body. It depends upon whether the director would rather see a certain type of energy or mirror-image positions.

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Unlike modern dancers, ballet dancers are rarely taught composition as a matter of course.

An exception to this "rule" is the School of the National Ballet of Canada -- this was pointed out to me by Julia Adam, a very talented choreographer in San Francisco whom I interviewed a couple of years ago when she got her first commission at SFB. She had a already won an Isadora Duncan Award for choreography for work set on another group.... She made a big point of the training at NBC: not only about how they were specifically taught composition, but also how they were taught to differentiate different techniques as styles -- e.g., she was taught how to do a "Balanchine ecarte" == which of course means being able to imagine using a particular "palette" of lines and actions to create the “world” of a ballet... and from there you're well on your way.

As someone noted above, most college dance departments are modern dance depts -- ballet may be taught in a phys ed program, but "dance" is usually modern, except at Indiana and North Carolina School of the Arts... college departments always have choreo requirements....

I’ve also noted that most of the choreographers I really love had GREAT familiarity with folk dance -- Balanchine, Petipa, Robbins all had this familiarity, and of course so does Mark Morris...... it means they have a deep deep deep wealth of rhythms to choose from....

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Choreographers have to be good at "debugging". Suppose you have five dancers doing a step in formation. And after the end of the step, they're no longer in formation. Then you must answer, what did they do differently from each other to fall out of formation in just one step?

The result of this examination leads to a refinement of the technique. We work on many of the technical details we do just to stay together. Some ways of doing things technically tend to keep a group together; others tend to make it disperse.

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Choreography is insanely competitive. Success involves skill, luck, pedigree, desire and timing.

At this point in my career, if someone asked me what I were the skills necessary to be a choreographer I'd have to say from personal experience:

  • A real fondness for writing grant proposals.
  • A complete lack of shame about constantly requesting money from friends, acquaintances and people you barely know.
  • Willingness to commit very large sums of his or her own funds.
  • Ability to work in Microsoft Word and especially Excel. Accounting skills and HTML useful.

Yes, I know I haven't mentioned actual choreographing skills at all. I get to use them about 2-3 months out of the year. The rest of the time is spent doing the above. It would be lovely if choreographers only had to choreograph. It would also be lovely to live until I was 900. Most choreographers are doing something else most of the time and choreograph on an occasional basis. The number of full time ballet choreographers can probably be counted on my fingers and toes. And I don't think the field is expanding.

Tongue only partially in cheek -


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So what advice would you give a teenager whose ambition is not to dance professionally, but to choreograph?

Aside from Leigh's good advice, I mean. Assuming s/he can acquire the writing/begging/promotion skills, how does s/he learn to choreograph?

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Get a group of good ballet dancing friends together and choreograph a dance for them. It only has to start off small, a couple of minutes at first, then a few more dances. Try and video them when they are ready to perform, and try and get them to be performed at the end of class perhaps?

but working hard during ballet class and aspiring to be the best dancer you can be, really absorbing what your teacher says and watching others in class, the way they dance, how they dance, picking up little things like that as well as learning how your teacher teaches and choreographs, the best and worst of it, will all help you.

But the most important thing, I think, is having a core group of very good dancers to work with, even just two. You need them to be good enough to understand what you want and to give you that beautiful extension to second, or to be able to do very fast steps when motivated! and to just watch them improvise.

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Trying to be a touch less crabby about it - I need to apologize about that. I've spent about six weeks mired in grant and proposal writing to the extent where I haven't been able to deal with artistic matters I'd rather be dealing with (like planning upcoming repertory). It really is part of the territory.

When I took an acting course in college, the professor began it with the admonition that you should only conceive of acting as a career if you would be unhappy doing anything else. I think the same applies to choreography. As I stated before, the number of places is infinitesimal, and like any other profession that has precious few openings, arbitrary barriers are thrown up to keep people out. One of them is that there is no real training program out there. You learn on the job.

A dancer will generally have to show initiative and self-motivation to choreograph and this is one of the barriers to entry spoken of above. With so few available opportunities, who is going to open them to those who aren't really hungry?

Xena's advice is sound. Doing is essential. I'd add to that, that so is watching. Good writers are good readers. Good composers are good listeners. In the same way, good choreographers watch a LOT of dance, as omnivorously as possible. It forms the material for synthesis. Look at dance, decide what works, what doesn't and how.

There are very few basic ballet composition classes out there and I substituted watching for them. Watch the dance with an eye towards construction, not individual performances (but don't forget to factor that in. A dance is a theatrical creation.)

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Treefrog, a young dancer who is creative, imaginative, and especially, musical, first needs to become the very best dancer she can be. In college there are dance composition courses, history, and more music and arts studies that can broaden her horizons and lead towards development of choreographic skills. College dance programs, and there are a few good ballet programs as well as modern dance programs out there, provide the opportunity for choreography, and seriously encourage the young choreographers. A lot of the skills are learned by doing, and the sooner one starts, the better. When I had my own school we started the Level 2 students with improvisation for a minute or two on the Studio Concerts we had several times a year. By Level 3 they were led into a bit more structure in actually setting a very short solo for themselves. In Level 4 they were given more time for their piece, and more help on music, structure, use of space, etc. By the upper levels those who showed the interest and desire were starting group pieces and eventually, for graduation, a longer work for a group of top level dancers. Not all students did this, of course, however those who showed the potential were encouraged and developed. By starting them this way, choreography was not something quite so daunting, and many really wanted to do it for every performance!

One year I had a young dancer who was about 13 or 14, still not even in top level, who was showing an absolutely amazing ability to move groups and come up with very creative work. She went on to major in dance, and, in addition to choreography she specialized in creative movement and ballet for very young dancers. She is now teaching pre-ballet in a major school while pursuing a graduate degree in Arts Management, and continues to do choreography for a group of her own.

Another of our more promising students in this area has become a constantly working and award-winning choreographer for musicals and cruise ships.

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First, I have to say I'm not a choreographer, so what I'm going to say comes only from LOOKING at a lot of choreography and thinking about what separates the "masters"...

but what they've got that the others don't is not really a "look" or a technique, thoug they usually do -- the BIG thing is overall rhythmic organization.....

>>> learn Irish or Scottish dancing, or any form of folk-dancing that features geometric patterns of steps...

Learn "Thread the needle" (which Balanchine based the adagio of Concrto Barocco on ), spindles, skip-chains, all the shuttle-and-weave patterns (again, Balanchine used these ALL THE TIME), allemandes (BAlanchine used these ALL THE TIME -- they're the basis of finger turns, but MUCH MUCH more -- the pas de deux in Diamonds features these)...

floor-plans, and hte trajectories of whole lines of steps, are the part that inexperienced choreographers tend to not have mastery of -- these have to be there like hte settings for jewels -- big extensions, fancy pirouettes elaborate solos have to be organic to hte overall rhythm and action or else they just clog everything up.....

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Oh and get hold of books on choreographers and by choreographers. Their biographys and autobiographys. Its great to actually get near enough inside their head, I found it gave me such a boost Try second hand bookshops and libraries.

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I appreciate everyone's responses and Leigh, I'm so glad you became a bit less crotchety in your second post! ;) I realize it's a seriously tough road...but I still appreciate hearing about it the different paths taken.

And Treefrog, I really enjoyed reading your older daughter's choreographical diary from last summer - I hope she continues this year, too!

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BW, she certainly will keep on working on choreography, but owing to other commitments she will not be able to attend the same workshop this year.

What a bleak outlook, though! I'd better encourage her to find a day job, too. Victoria, the way things are heading now she might follow right in the footsteps of your student, as teaching youngsters is a current passion of hers as well.

To whom do choreographers turn when they want to mull over ideas, get reactions and critiques, or discuss the finer points of their art? Is there a fellowship among choreographers? Or do the limited resources push them towards competitive isolation?

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Treefrog, I'm afraid this is another bleak post - rereading your earlier post, I noticed your daughter said she had an ambition to choreograph but not dance professionally.

In today's job market for ballet, this isn't an either/or option. Yes, they are separate skills, but a young choreographer will not be taken seriously without some sort of credits or pedigree. And that comes from one's schooling or one's company affiliation. Hoping to become a ballet choreographer without acquiring pedigree makes the job just that much harder. This is far less true for modern dance though.

I'm friendly with several choreographers, however, your second statement has a lot of truth in it. It's hard to be fraternal when you're competing for the same jobs and grants. Personally, I have people I habitually discuss ideas with, but they are usually not colleagues.

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I haven't seen a lot of "think tanks" for classical ballet, the way that, say, Marie Rambert had, where she not only had a performing company, but a sort of salon that nurtured emerging choreographers. Some architects are good for bouncing ideas off, though, and musicians speak a similar language to some choreographers.

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Our faithful Ari, who combs the news across the globe for the Links section, has posted one that might be appropriate for this thread...at least it might open up the choreographic aperature for Treefrog's creative offspring!;)

It's from today's Village voice: - Wired Dance World

Be sure to click on each article.

I found them all worth reading...having been a fine arts photo major in college, I only wish that the whole video thing had been around way back then... There are many avenues out in this world and if one has a true love of dance but is not, can not, or chooses not to pursue their love of it by actually dancing...these articles may bring some other means to the light.

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Treefrog, or anyone else with an interest in the educational trajectory of a choreographer, I was reading the Links forum's post for the past few days and came across this article that Ari had posted from the "Houston Chronicle", written by Molly Glentzer, on July 16, titled: High school students stay busy creating new ballets:

The 19th century had Marius Petipa and Peter Tchaikovsky. The 20th had George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. And now Gregory Brown and Hugh Lobel?

Well, that may be a little premature. But it's not every day that choreographers and composers are given everything they need to create a new ballet -- including dancers, rehearsal space and time, volunteer musicians and three performances -- especially when they're still in high school...

I think you'll find it encouraging to read about this sort of program. :blushing:

Does anyone have any experience with this particular program, or another like it?

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It is encouraging -- ballet needs new composers as much as it does new choreographers. The one thing that such a program can't give, however, is the kind of institutional background and general arts context that both Petipa and Balanchine had growing up. You can't make ballets in a vacuum; you have to have models.

If I were starting a program for choreographers, I'd make them spend two years staging masterpieces, in the same way baby painters have to copy masterpieces. You may never plan on painting a bowl of fruit in your life, but you need to learn those lessons about light and color and texture. Of course, you'd need a great stager to teach such a course, and they're in short supply, too :blushing:

But who knows. There may well be a genius lurking in Texas high schools!

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I just wanted to comment on the earlier comment that most college departments are modern. When I first majored in dance at a large midwestern university, decades ago, the major was clearly and equally divided between ballet and modern. Period. If you wanted to take yoga or jazz or character, you did so through a university extension program, but did not receive college credit for it, nor did it count towards the major. I also took several levels of dance composition, but comp was, for whatever reasons, focused on modern. Student performances were choreographed by teachers and students, but the ballet choreography, to my recollection, was always done by the teachers. Students either didn't care to try it or didn't feel capable of it.

A friend of mine from those days danced for, among others, the Milwaukee Ballet, and when we caught up several years ago, she urged me to do what she had done. Go back all these years later and finish what I'd started. I first went to meet with the chair of the department we had attended so many years ago and where she went back to finish. It was totally modern. Ballet was an elective. I asked the chair about the shift in focus over the years and I'm going to paraphrase her explanation as to why most college dance departments are now modern-based. She said that modern dance is feasible for the older dancers or the dancers who start late, or the dancers who simply don't have the technique for ballet, etc. She said that only a few ballet-oriented dance departments still exist in the U.S. because in order to recruit truly talented ballet dancers, the departments would have to be endowed with the same kind of funds that athletic departments have. Those ballet dancers, she explained, are going to choose an early career over a dance major.

At the time that I had this interview with her, it was the last days of ballet teaching for the professor I'd had many years ago. Those must have been bittersweet days for her. I just couldn't see myself returning to that department with those changes. And, I also felt the BFA was too easy -- a total of 7 semesters of dance were required, and those semesters could include the lowest levels of technique.

As I was beginning to think this was all a pipe dream, I ran into a woman with whom I've taken class in this city, who is also chair of the Theater/Dance Department at a private university in my state. She told me that the department, which had offered a minor for years, had just started a dance major, the only one offered in the state. It offers a BFA and BA. Both are demanding. There is equal emphasis on ballet and modern. The BFA requires 16 semesters of technique (2 courses each semester in ballet and modern) and you must audition, and you must achieve advanced level in both for graduation. The BA requires 8 semesters of technique, and you must achieve advanced level in either ballet or modern and intermediate in the one you don't achieve advanced level in.

Also, the intermediate level of class works twice a week by itself and joins with the advanced level twice a week, so there is still the impetus to keep up with the higher level.

I successfully auditioned for the program as a transfer student in fall 2001, and in so doing, became the oldest dance major in the history of the university (and the state). Doing this while in cancer recovery was especially rewarding for me. I felt like a kid again every single day -- what a joy to place my hand on the barre each morning, look out the window at this beautiful campus, hear the music, and begin the plies all over again. I completed the program this past spring with a solid 4.0 and, while I am happy to begin a new career of motivational speaking for others in cancer recovery, I now feel the whole experience flew by way too fast. However, even though I've completed the requirements for the major, I still have to take several non-related (science) courses to achieve the degree. The department chair told me they've established a new rule -- that as long as a dance major is still taking courses at the university, she must remain in technique class each semester to keep up her level of technique until she graduates. This is not a requirement I am going to balk at. I get to be a kid just a little longer.

And as to choreography being taught, the major requires 4 levels of choreography training, including a major senior project. Although I had actually completed that requirement in my past life, I opted to take a choreography class again, because I think it's important to look for those workshop opportunities and keep yourself fresh in this regard. For our student concert last year, I composed and recorded the music along wtih choreographing a piece, and it was very rewarding. One thing I've noticed that is similar to my first college experience: students still want to do only modern choreography, and the teachers are the ones who choreograph the ballet pieces. I wonder if anyone, particularly our younger, up and coming dancers, could comment on this.

Edited by Funny Face
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Funny Face - I'm sorry that your reply has been languishing here for a while... My guess is that people are away, as I was, and that it might be sort of buried here in this forum. :) I am thinking it might be better served if it had its own thread and had a title that might catch the eye of readers interested in the path of a dancer returning to college or something along these lines?

Am I correct that you are a former professional ballet dancer who had been enrolled in college at one point, before your dance career, and now have returned?

If you're interested in pursuing this, let me know and we'll figure out where to go from here. I am sure that others would be interested in your experiences and also very interested to learn more about the university that you speak of in your last paragraphs, as well.

I'll wait to hear from you! :yes:

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