30 years of choreographers making their (figurative) mark
By Sarah Halzack
Sunday, January 20, 2013
When Jason Garcia Ignacio decided to audition his new dance for the Choreographers’ Showcase at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, he had one key question for the event’s organizers: “What is the best way to do this without ruining the theater?”
Ignacio was worried there might be collateral damage from the performance of his 10-minute solo, “Ink Spilled in Cursive,” in which he smears his body with paint and, through dance steps, leaves a trail of drips and smudges on a canvas spread underfoot. He and the producers arrived at a solution: He’d have to get someone to hold back the stage curtains so he would not up against them when exiting, and he would have to put on a robe right away when he finishes.
The work’s messy setup has a decidedly neat, straightforward symbolism.
“It’s sort of like the idea of leaving my own mark,” Ignacio said.
That Ignacio’s choreography is about the desire to make an impression seems a fitting mission for the program in which it will be presented. Jan 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the Choreographers’ Showcase, an annual concert that gives upstart dancemakers a platform on which to fine-tune their artistic voices and develop an audience for their work.
The showcase has evolved since its inception, with a change in venue and curator transforming its feel in recent years.
But through the changes, it has remained something of a rite of passage in the Washington area dance community. A long list of the region’s mainstay modern dance choreographers-- Daniel Phoenix Singh, Nejla Yatkin, Tzveta Kassabova, Daniel Burkholder, Gesel Mason and the late Ed Tyler, to name a few -- have shown their work in this program.
By providing artists with a healthy dose of constructive criticism and by serving as a crossroads for future collaborators to meet, the showcase continues to be a milepost for many dance artists who put down roots in Washington.
For a nascent choreographer, the showcase has two key advantages: The audition process is highly democratic, and there are multiple opportunities to get feedback on your efforts.
To strip the evaluations of any favoritism, judges are brought in from out of town and they aren’t allowed to know who choreographed the works.
“You don’t know if it’s a student, if it’s an accomplished choreographer. So you’re really looking at craft, authorship,” said Sean Curran, a former showcase judge who heads an eponymous contemporary dance troupe in New York.
Curran was struck by the broad range of applicants that came to compete for one of the six performance slots. He said the auditions included everything from “finished, mature voices” to “sophomoric maximalism” to “kids who were in pointe shoes that shouldn’t be.”
The judges are required to give comments and critiques to all applicants, even those who don’t make the cut.
“They gave me crazy-good pointers about the piece,” Ignacio said of his experience auditioning for the concert.
This year’s judges, Sidra Bell and Charles O. Anderson, told him his music choice was dragging down an otherwise well-crafted work. It prompted Ignacio to change his score entirely.
Another of this year’s choreographers, Charli Brissey, described the judges’ evaluations as a “kick in the butt.”
The gist of their comments, Brissey said, was, “You need to rehearse about 8,000 more times before you perform this live.”
That prompted her and her duet partner, Felix Cruz, to get in the studio more frequently to rehearse their campy, lip-synced narrative.
In addition to the often humbling critiques, the showcase can provide a chance to ingratiate oneself to the somewhat insular local dance community.
Kassabova, for example, arrived in Washington from Bulgaria in 1999. A tall, lanky dancer who is equal parts quirky and gutsy, she was trying to find a way to break into the region’s dance scene.
She auditioned for a spot in Tyler’s work in the 2000 showcase and nabbed the part. Once other dancers and curators saw her perform, she was able to line up a host of other gigs.
In 2008, when she was looking to strike out on her own as a choreographer, she turned back to the showcase as a launchpad.
The work she presented in the showcase, “To Blue,” was a duet about her relationship with her baby, who had been born just a few months earlier. It earned her a Metro DC Dance Award for emerging choreographer.
In addition to earning her recognition from her peers, Kassabova said the show’s mixed bill helped her expand her reach.
“It’s not only my audience and the audience I collect, it’s people who wouldn’t maybe choose to come to my show,” Kassabova said.
Though it is presented at the University of Maryland, the Choreographers’ Showcase is produced by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. It was held for nearly twenty years at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, a former movie theater space that has been converted into a proscenium stage.
But in 2002, it was moved to the Clarice Smith Center as part of a partnership between the agency and the university aimed at luring the community to the school’s new arts facility. The event is held in the arts complex’s dance theater. The university accepts the production and personnel costs while the commission coordinates and organizes it. For an artist just getting his or her footing, it makes for an economical way to show one’s work in a relatively large venue.
Christel Stevens, a performing arts specialist for the commission, began organizing the event in 2002, taking over for Carolyn Tate. Stevens is just the second person to produce the showcase in three decades.
“When my predecessor was managing it, it was modern dance,” Stevens said. “I don’t have any such prejudices.”
Stevens has added contemporary ballet, aerial dance and other genres to the modern dance showcase during her tenure. It has made the programs more diverse, but perhaps also less focused.
Yatkin said the expanded program has its advantages. “We as modern dancers, we always got so locked into this sort of dancing, and we don’t validate this [other] sort of dancing.”
But ultimately, Stevens said her vision for the performance has limited impact on how it takes shape.
“The adjudicators kind of mold and curate the showcase, so it always has kind of a different edge and a different look,” Stevens said.
Though the opportunity is no longer exclusively for modern dance choreographers, its potential payoffs remain the same.
“It’s not like a showcase that will make you famous overnight,” said Yatkin. “But it’s kind of like one step in the whole scheme of creation and building your voice as an artist.”