Choreography's Emerging Stars, Eager To Get on Their Feet

Julia Adam guides Ian Casady and Lisa Kaczmarek of the Houston Ballet, one of the companies who have commissioned her dances.
Julia Adam guides Ian Casady and Lisa Kaczmarek of the Houston Ballet, one of the companies who have commissioned her dances. (By Bruce Bennett -- Houston Ballet)
By Clare Croft
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 10, 2005

In 1991, the San Francisco Ballet canceled a three-week tour, leaving the company's dancers unexpectedly unemployed. Looking to create work for themselves, the dancers staged their own choreography workshop, creating pieces for their temporarily laid-off colleagues.

But no one asked ballerina Julia Adam to join any of the casts. Devastated, she called her mother.

Adam remembers, "My mom said, 'Instead of waiting for someone to pick you, why don't you choreograph?' "

Mother knew best. Adam enlisted her then-boyfriend and another pal to dance with her in her first work, a trio titled "The Medium Is the Message." The piece was nominated later that year, alongside works by well-known dance artists Mark Morris and Alonzo King, for one of San Francisco's annual Isadora Duncan Awards, and suddenly Adam found herself launching a career as a choreographer. Now retired from the stage, Adam has created dances for the San Francisco Ballet and Houston Ballet and has several commissions for next season.

Beyond ballet and modern dance's most zealous fan base, though, names like Adam's go unnoticed. Washing ton choreographer Nejla Yatkin, now in her early thirties; New York-based Christopher Huggins, 42; Benjamin Levy, 24, founder of the San Francisco company LEVYdance, and other talented emerging choreographers face a variety of obstacles, financially and logistically, to their artistic development. There is no clear path to becoming a choreographer, and until companies or funders start to recognize a name, artists are left to secure dancers, studio space and training in a world without apprenticeships.

Even for people who grow up in dance, what it takes to be a choreographer remains something of a mystery.

Young dancers dream of tutus and bright lights, not hours alone in a studio sketching group formations. Few even experiment with choreography. Dance training -- particularly ballet, with its emphasis on replicating the body positions of others rather than experimenting with new movement -- sometimes quashes the creative drive.

"I think you put your brain and your body in a box a little when you're training as a classical ballet dancer," says Adam.

But few dancers make it in the professional arena, and those who do often have short careers. Some of these former dancers then join the pool of those hoping to choreograph. Many may show promise, but commissions are few and the resulting work must be good immediately. Artistic directors scour the field for the one or two emerging talents to whom they might offer a chance each season.

Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch explains what he looks for from an emerging choreographer: "I need to enjoy the ballet. I need the person to have done something that makes me think, and the work has to be unique in some way."

Although the importance of developing choreographers is not debatable, how to do so is complicated. Is choreographic talent a gift or a learned skill?

"Really great artists are few, though it is an important endeavor to make creative work and find one's voice," says Diane Defries, executive director of the American College Dance Festival Association, a program that nurtures collegiate choreography through annual conferences. "Everybody gets better the more they choreograph, but to bring all the elements of great choreography together takes a certain kind of artist. Any training program can only bring one so far."

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