TAHOE CITY, Calif. — For a dancer, a new project is a chance to start anew, but because it is the dancer's job to enact the vision of the choreographer or director, this can be a daunting task. A dancer often asks herself: what will the choreographer ask of me? Am I playing a role or am I merely a body in space? Will I be able to do everything? Traditionally, it is the dancer's job as "clay" to do as she is told. Balance on my left shoulder and spin? I'd LOVE to! Which way and how many rotations would you like?
In the last few decades, there has been a change in the way dances are created. Choreographers have always had their muses that have inspired them to create their best work, but improvisation and collaboration between dancer and dance-maker have at last made their way into rehearsal studios. While a choreographer has an overarching concept of how the work should look and what impression he wants to convey, the process is now much more open to suggestion as the steps and phrases are created. As with any group dynamic, this process isn't always ideal, but when it works, there is not only an amazing energy in the air, but also a sense of pride and ownership of the work by each dancer who performs the work on stage. When you see it, you know, because the audience feels the dancers' commitment.
The dancer's coming-of-age experience reflects this evolution in the art form. By 18, I had earned soloist roles in the regional company and school where I trained by putting in my time as a swan, snowflake, flower, friend, merliton, wili, sylph, and pretty much anything else that required standing in a line and doing exactly what we were all told, at exactly the same timing with the music, with our arms all the same height and our heads all tipped identically. The corps de ballet is essential in all the big story ballets, and in our world it's how you move up the ranks.
So after all that regimentation, imagine what it felt like to be standing in a Manhattan studio, alone with a choreographer, and hearing him say "I don't know, what do you think?"
In a time of Occupy, gay rights and a first black president, dancers too are more empowered than ever before. After working in that New York company where I was given not only wonderful performance opportunities but also a chance to be a part of the creation of what I was dancing, I was eager to teach the next generation, and so I returned to a place I love to do so.
As I continue to work with my own mentors and coaches, now as a teacher, and continue to collaborate with fellow artists as a dancer and choreographer, the discussion of how to train dancers for this new rehearsal environment comes up often. So much emphasis in the ballet world is placed on technical virtuosity (legs in the most extreme extension possible and more consecutive turns than you could imagine) that young dancers often lose the sense of the artistry and humanity that their technical proficiency merely serves. To speak up when you need help or don't understand a phrase can be daunting to a young dancer, especially if she has never been asked I don't know — what do you think?
When I brought my friend Deborah Lohse to work with my company last year, the girls created many phrases within her piece that were their own stories told in movement — they even chose a word to write on an arm — and wrote the word on the arms of unsuspecting audience members, a word someone had once praised them with. Unique. Treasured. Beautiful.
This week, Deborah is back in the studio with Tahoe Youth Ballet's growing roster of seventeen young dancers, joined by another young choreographer, Valerie Salgado, Sierra Barter (a former member of the company who has gone on to the Alvin Ailey school in New York), and me, to collaborate on a creation where everyone performs, makes suggestions and is part of the process from start to finish.
In the coming weeks leading up to our performances in March, you can follow this process in this column as well as on our website, which will feature blogs and video excerpts.
There will even be open rehearsals, free and open to anyone who wishes to step in to the studio and watch it happen, from start to finish.
— Christin Hanna is the founding artistic director of Tahoe Youth Ballet. Learn more at www.tahoeyouthballet.com.