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. Washington 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."
However they manage it, choreographers must find their own voice, and that process takes time.
Yatkin has spent two years on her newest work, a commissioned solo piece about World War I spy Mata Hari that is to premiere at Dance Place in October. She first researched Mata Hari, her place in women's history and the role of women in dance history. In journal writings, she pondered how these stories connected with her own. Only after all that research did Yatkin begin exploring movement. Later, she returned to writing, creating what she refers to as a "dance script," the sequence of text, video and movement.
Sometimes part of finding one's voice in choreography involves quieting others'. Huggins, a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performer who has recently made work for Philadanco and Dallas Black Dance Theatre, had to move away from the Ailey tradition. After leaving Ailey in 1989, he began teaching, which offered him his first foray into choreography.
"I could only regurgitate that kind of movement for so long," he says, referring to the Ailey style. "After a while my own voice started to have some volume."
Although the individual must have an artistic vision, training and education do matter -- the more exposure to different styles and ideas, the better.
Yatkin began by studying Turkish folk dance, then Latin American social dance. As a student at Berlin's performing arts academy Die Etage, she studied acting, voice, pantomime, flamenco and three modern-dance techniques.
As a student at Berkeley, Levy double-majored in dance and public relations.
"Being a dancer is so much about being an intuitive, educated being," he says. "My experiences learning about . . . hegemony and all those sociological themes really inform me as a dancer and choreographer."
Adam says her education as a young dancer at the National Ballet School of Canada -- particularly composition classes in art, music and photography -- contributed to her choreographic sensibility. Still, she sought exposure to more dance forms when she began choreographing professionally. She took classes in contact improvisation, an outgrowth of modern dance that emphasizes partnering through sharing body weight. (Everyone involved in a lift pushes and pulls against one another instead of one person lifting through brute strength.)
"As a ballerina you're always being partnered," says Adam. "I needed to learn how to make lifts happen, since I wasn't used to throwing bodies around."
Adam is one of the few women regularly choreographing for ballet companies today, a situation all the more perplexing given the large number of women who work within ballet as dancers, teachers and administrators.
Many women face the particular challenge of motherhood, often having children just as they stop dancing and begin choreographing. Adam, a mother of two, says: "The clock strikes 3:30 and I've got to go. My son needs to breastfeed at 4."
And because of the physical changes that result from breastfeeding or pregnancy, female choreographers have to figure out new ways to to roll on the floor or lift a leg to demonstrate movement. Working on commission also involves a great deal of travel, usually three to four weeks at a time away from home.
Some ballet companies have tailored choreographic opportunities for women. Adam's "The Accidental" appeared on the 2004 Houston Ballet bill "Women @ Art" with works by Lila York and Natalie Weir. At American Repertory Dance Theater in New Brunswick, N.J., Artistic Director Graham Lustig commissioned female choreographers in 2001 for a program called "Dancing Through the Ceiling."
Regardless of the choreographer's gender, commissioning new work is expensive in the bare-bones financial climate of many dance companies. Choreographers need to see bodies moving in space, and getting access to those bodies requires paying dancers and renting a studio.
A few professional organizations give choreographers such resources, among them The Yard in Martha's Vineyard and The Field, a New York-based service organization that offers a series of national workshops. One of the most comprehensive programs was the now-defunct Carlisle Project, begun by Pennsylvania Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger in Carlisle, Pa., in 1984, which paid dancers and choreographers a stipend, and room and board for three to four weeks. Participants received training in dance forms beyond ballet and had ample studio time to create work.
Carlisle's former executive director, Dianne Brace, says: "One of the definite advantages was that the environment was very low pressure. Choreographers could try something and then throw it out without the pressure of having to produce a fully staged work. Nowadays the work has to succeed."
Though Carlisle folded in 1996 because of a lack of funding, some of its alumni now run companies that offer similar opportunities. One Carlisle grad, Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre, has twice presented "7x7," producing works by seven choreographers in the low-key setting of the ballet's studios. Most performances this spring were sellouts.
Washington Ballet's success with "7x7" is an exception. Artistic directors find it difficult to raise money to commission work from little-known new choreographers.
Joan Myers Brown, founder and executive artistic director of Philadanco, commissioned Huggins's 2001 "Enemy Behind the Gates," his first major American engagement. As she does with many young choreographers, she gave Huggins the opportunity to work with her dancers, but did not initially promise payment.
"I let him take the risk of starting something, and when I came to take a look, it looked interesting -- exciting," says Myers Brown. "I had to find some money for it."
In college, finding money to pay dancers is not an issue, offering young artists an incubation period free from financial pressures.
Levy says, "There's nowhere else in the world where you have virtually unlimited resources . . . and people who care enough about you to support you and give critical feedback."
Most of Levy's dancers began working with him during college, helping him create "pOrtal," his trademark work that received national recognition at ACDFA's 2002 national festival at the Kennedy Center. He says the input of those dancers, along with the direction of Berkeley dance faculty, helped keep him going after graduation.
As with Levy's work since college, much choreography is produced without commissions from companies. Instead artists raise their own funds, book their own gigs and fill theater seats. At a time when few grants are offered to individual artists, a certain entrepreneurial spirit is necessary.
Levy calls on his public relations skills when approaching donors. He says, "If we come from a place of neediness -- 'Help me, I'm a starving artist' -- it's not realistic. The valor of art is not enough in struggling economic times. It becomes a business conversation, about marketing and target audiences and how we can help you help us."
Finding money for the company is only one aspect of the logistical battle faced by choreographers. They have to support themselves, too.
Before the success of "Enemy Behind the Gates," Huggins pieced together his income from teaching in Europe, Japan and the United States.
Sometimes the nature of an artist's work presents its own administrative obstacles. As a solo artist, Yatkin has trouble getting booked in American theaters, so she spends much of her time working abroad.
"The U.S. is kind of scared of solo dance; presenters think it won't sell," says Yatkin. "Abroad there are lots of festivals that present artists. The festivals are already known and have an audience built-in."
Presenters and companies share concerns over capturing an audience for new work, but sometimes the risk can be worth it. A successful new work from a previously unknown talent helps define a company.
"I don't want us to look like everybody else," says Myers Brown. "I want someone no one else has. When I finally took a chance on Christopher, everybody wanted him."
Welch, who describes new choreography as a way to "give the company a signature," thinks that the goal of creating solid work can be more easily achieved by offering choreographers more time in the theater. The Houston Ballet moves to the theater a week before opening night, rehearsing with full costumes and lights several times. Many dance productions get only one full dress rehearsal, if any.
The help is needed. Survival for choreographers today means an increasingly unpredictable path littered with artistic, financial and logistical obstacles.
Brace says, "It is very difficult for small and mid-size companies to survive these days, and they're the feeding grounds for artistic exploration. If the larger institutions don't take up this kind of work, what will happen?"