Doesn't Dance, Like All Art, Come From the Soul?

(photo of Xiomara Reyes, taken from ABT website).

Sunday evening I attended another Works & Process event at the Guggenheim. These programs are so fantastic — they’re designed to kind of make the average person an insider, to give you a behind-the-scenes view of how art or cultural programming is created. Anyway, this one was on female choreographers and American Ballet Theater. Unbenownst to me (and most I think), ABT in conjunction with Altria has set up the Women’s Choreography Project, whose mission is to encourage more young women to venture into choreography — an excellent aim given that there are so startlingly and inscrutably few female choreographers, at least in ballet.

The women participants whose work we saw were: Gemma Bond, Misty Copeland, Nicole Graniero, Elizabeth Mertz, and Xiomara Reyes — all ABT ballerinas, and all, except Xiomara and Misty, members of the corps de ballet. (Xiomara is a principal and Misty a soloist.) It’s not a given or a demand of course that these ballerinas will necessarily become choreographers, but the program, led by Stephen Pier, exists for them to explore their talents, ultimately decide whether choreography is for them. It will be interesting to see, if programs like these proliferate, if it leads to more women dancemakers.

Anyway, it was really interesting watching Pier work with the women, but, to be honest, a bit confusing. At the beginning, Pier defined choreography for the audience as the movement of bodies through time and space. “That’s all,” he said. Then, he had Gemma Bond demonstrate a phrase she’d been working on.  She walked to the middle of the stage, smiling bashfully, and did a short, abstract lyrical segment. Then, Pier told her to focus on the back wall, to look at the shape of three windows, the lights coming through them, their geometry, and some writing on the wall underneath them (which I think was something like a dedication to whoever funded the auditorium, in small letters).

Bond used her hand to shield her eyes from the stage lights, and squinted up toward the windows. We all turned around, followed her gaze to the back of the room. She then laughed, shrugged her shoulders, and gamely re-performed the phrase. “It’s the same thing,” said the woman next to me. But I didn’t think it was. I thought she used the stage a little more; the pattern was now more horizontal than vertical, which went along with the three, horizontally aligned windows. She did exactly what was asked of her, I thought. Then Pier asked her, “well, what are you going to do with that red light coming out from the middle window?” She looked back at the windows, focused for a moment on the middle one, then, seemingly concentrating hard, repeated the phrase again. This time it was the same horizontal pattern as before, but now she stepped forward in the middle, kind of punctuating the movement with a little dot, making both vertical and horizontal use of the stage. “Now, that’s different,” said the lady next to me.  I agreed, but thought this difference was far more subtle than the last.

It was really interesting, but I think we were all intrigued because we knew exactly what was going on, what the choreographer was using to guide her. If we didn’t, I think it would just have been three slightly different patterns with no real meaning.

Pier then gave the women a pair of opposites to work with: fast and slow, light and dark, sharp and soft. All chose sharp and soft, except for renegade Misty, who chose freedom and constraint — which wasn’t one of Pier’s categories! (At one point, he asked each what they found hardest about the project and Misty said it was keeping within the rules. I love her!) Anyway, I looked deeply at the dances, trying hard to concentrate, to see the contrasts, but couldn’t always find them.

But as I was watching this, I was thinking of what I’d seen earlier in the day — the rehearsal footage of Alvin Ailey choreographing on his dancer Donna Wood Sanders, which I wrote about here. How he told her, you’re a prisoner, you can’t escape, you’re struggling, trying, let me see that. And this dance, Masekela Langage, about a group of people living under systematized racial oppression, was obviously very close to his heart.

I realize Pier was only giving these women exercises, that he wasn’t saying this was all there was to choreography. At least I hope that’s what he meant. He had said choreography was only about the movement of bodies through time and space. Is that all? I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Ailey’s world was so different from that of a lot of contemporary ballet, where it’s all about geometric patterns, interesting shapes, use of space, use of different rhythms, and not so much about creating something from the heart. I mean, literary writers and artists have to create because they have something to tell the world, something they find deeply meaningful. Although this was obviously only a glimpse into their process, I didn’t get the sense that these women were being encouraged to explore their visions of the world and learn to make movement that emanates from that place. It makes me wonder how most contemporary choreographers work — if they’re just thinking of light and shadow and abstract oppositions and geometry; if they’re not concerned with trying to tell us something.

Anyway, I have to say Xiomara (photo up top) completely blew me away with her work. She danced a lyrical balletic piece, but it had a kind of hippy-ness to it, a kind of swaying Gyspy-like, Latin feel. She danced with so much emotion. Her facial expressions almost reminded me of a flamenco dancer’s. I’ve never seen her dance like that before. I feel like perhaps she’s someone who’s better at dancing her own work than classical ballet. And perhaps she’d be good at creating work for other contemporary ballet dancers like her. Maybe she’ll be our next female ballet choreographer?

They also showed pieces by women who’ve choreographed for ABT: Lauri Stallings (whose Citizen I wrote about here) and Aszure Barton, whose work I’d never seen before and really loved. ABT II (the studio company, comprised of teenaged dancers) performed her Barbara, a sweet ballet that didn’t really have one single linear narrative, but had a lot of little subplots involving cutely intriguing characters.

On an endnote, Irlan Silva (above, from the studio company) — whoa! Methinks he is going to be in the main company soon…


  1. Hi! I loved reading about the program. I do a lot of thinking about choregraphy in those terms: concepts and ideas vs. narrative and plots. Especially since upon moving here, I've seen so many contemporary works where choreographers have based a whole piece on a signular idea. I find it really interesting, especially since so much of what we watch and see (especially in mainstream venues like tv and film) are all narrative.

    A really good post–definitely got me thinking!

  2. (I hope this comment doesn't appear twice, I tried sending once and had some pop-up blocking issue!)

    I really liked reading your thoughts and ideas in this post! I'm always thinking about the same ideas in regards to choreography: concept and idea vs. narrative and plot. Upon moving here, I've been introduced to so many contemporary works creatived from a single idea. So much of what we see in mainstream media (for example, in tv and film) is plot-based, and meant, as you wrote “to tell the viewer something.” (Not to say that concepts don't relay any sort of message, but it seems like messages carry better in less abstract works.)

    I wonder what the benefits are to both? And to the creative process?

    I liked this post! Definitely has me thinking!

  3. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Hi Ariel! Thanks for commenting — and don't worry, a lot of people comment two or three times! Disqus is weird and I'm not in love with it, but it has eliminated a huge amount of spam.

    It is an interesting question, what are the benefits of each. I didn't mean that it had to have a linear story in order to come from the heart. I don't think Alvin Ailey's Revelations or Masekela Langage had stories; they're more expressionistic, like Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare, which I also really like. I also think most of Balanchine's works were story-less and I think they all came from somewhere deep within. And, interestingly, didn't Balanchine always say his ballets weren't abstract, just plotless? I feel like we're in an era of abstraction, although I don't know if that necessarily means the art doesn't come from the heart either. I've seen abstract paintings that have really blown me away. I just think a lot of choreographers these days are making dances and they're just kind of putting bodies out there and doing things with them and aren't really thinking of how to engage the audience, of structure, or of what they're even trying to convey, if anything. Have you seen any purely 'abstract” ballets that didn't have any discernible meaning that you really liked? And, if so, why? The colors or lights or geometric patterns, etc?

  4. Ok, Tonya, I feel like a noob but could you explain the difference between a soloist and a principal?

  5. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Hi Katrina — Haha, sorry! A principal is, at most companies, the highest level, a soloist is the next highest. It goes: principal, then soloist, then members of the corps de ballet, then apprentice. Soloists usually get solo roles but for more minor parts, like a supporting actor or actress (like, the friend of a prince or princess). Principals get the main roles — the prince or princess.

  6. ahh ok thanks Tonya. FYI Season 8 cast of DWTS is announced all sunday night (from 8 – 11 PM eye roll*) and then the whole cast will be on Good Morning America monday morning (which is when I'll be finding out the cast)

  7. Really interesting post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what you saw. I'm so glad that there is an initiative to encourage female choreographers in ballet.

    In response to your question/thoughts, I would say that contemporary dance artists have a wide range of processes and objectives in making dance. The post-modern dance era/movement which actually had its beginnings in the 50s I believe, was marked by artists who sought to strip dance down to its bare essentials as well as investigate or push the boundaries of what constituted dance. This was especially strong in the 60s with the Judson Church artists. This movement obviously still has influence today but every artist and company is (put simply) different. Some artists even challenge themselves by experimenting with different processes for different projects. Anyway, you may be familiar with some of the history so I won't go into more than that.

    I think the main point I wanted to add was that many artists find patterns, shapes, bodies moving, etc. deeply meaningful in itself. Therefore, for them the movement is still coming from within, just not not in the sense that it is conveying (or striving to convey something in particular) to the audience. I would say that generally artists that work this way sincerely want the audience to just take something away (whatever that something may be and even if it is simply appreciation of the pattern/shape/movement). They want the audience to participate in the sense that they will bring themselves to the work. I think the problem with this method is that sometimes audiences aren't really equipped or used to looking at dance that way. They are looking for what is being expressed, conveyed, represented and get frustrated when they can't find it. I think if audiences had more experience with the process or creation of art in this manner there would be more understanding and acceptance of the work itself. However, artists that work in this manner must also reconcile what interests them in the process and what interests their audience. It's a difficult line to walk and some just do it better than others.

  8. Thank you for the very thoughtful comment, Nichelle! I know you've been in the dance world a long time and I really appreciate your insights. I have to think more about what you said, but I do think it would benefit dance greatly if more artists would allow audiences insight into the artistic process, as you said. Christopher Wheeldon has done that a little bit with having an open rehearsal during his Morphoses season and he'll show little film clips of rehearsal right before each piece during the programs. They sometimes do that at NYCB too when they're having a celebration of Robbins, for example, and I get so much out of it, as with the clips of Alvin Ailey. I think there's a reason why so many watchers of dance have danced before. They get so much more out of it. But dance can't be closed in on itself, it can't only speak to its own practitioners or I don't see how it can survive as an art form. I mean, with the Judson Movement, dance was really popular then, right? So, when they were trying to deconstruct certain things, or strip dance down to its essentials, more of the general public understood what they were trying to do and appreciated it because they were familiar with Swan Lake and all the Petipa that was exactly the opposite.

    I feel that today sometimes artists are really thinking more about themselves though than their audiences. And they don't have to be a slave to their audiences — and I'm certainly not saying their main goal has to be to create something poppy, but I think in general as an artist you do have to think about how you're expressing yourself and how the way you express something is going to translate to your viewers.

    Anyway, I have to think more about what you said because there was so much there. Thanks again for your insights!

    Katrina, thanks for the info — I guess I know what I'll be doing Sunday night. What would I do without you?!

  9. *shrugs* I don't know! I live my ballet performances through you so what would I do without you? 🙂

  10. Aw, thanks Katrina!

  11. Tonya,
    I was there to ( actually both nights). I think it is hard that they just started to learn to break it. I observed their process few times, I think all the ladies( they did great!) were bit nervous.I would be nervous to show if I were the one of them, just started to choreograph to show the first step. We have to appreciate their courage to do so. As Stephen was explaining, you mentioned it was subtle, it is just an exercise in this point, but this is very important process to go through as a choreographer. (I am pretty sure that all opposition words came from those ladies.) As a dancer, our passage is little bit different from one who create( choreographer) and one who recived, digest and create something on top of it. it is hard to explain… We should meet sometime!!! since we missed each other last chance, right?
    but anyway, I wish I had his class when I was young…Aszure said same thing on Monday on that panel.

    And next day, they were much better, relaxed and freer. They show different things that they were working on. I wish you were there Monday too…

  12. I saw Irlan Silva dance here at FAU in South Florida. He was the best of six male dancers in the group. He is loaded with talent, technical ability, initiative, grace, and determination. “Barbara” was beautiful music, but the best dancing was in “slokas,” also with choreography by Laurie Stallings. He ill go far and is a pleasure to watch.

  13. Hi Miki! Yes, I'm sure they were nervous the first day, and I'm sure the choreographic process is really hard and it takes a lot of courage to show what you've come up with like that. I wish I could have gone Monday night too. Yes, we do have to meet! thank you for commenting 🙂

  14. Hi Dan — yes, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts about Silva! I loved him, and I'm glad someone else noticed him too. He will go far.

  15. I saw Irlan Silva dance here at FAU in South Florida. He was the best of six male dancers in the group. He is loaded with talent, technical ability, initiative, grace, and determination. “Barbara” was beautiful music, but the best dancing was in “slokas,” also with choreography by Laurie Stallings. He ill go far and is a pleasure to watch.

  16. Hi Miki! Yes, I'm sure they were nervous the first day, and I'm sure the choreographic process is really hard and it takes a lot of courage to show what you've come up with like that. I wish I could have gone Monday night too. Yes, we do have to meet! thank you for commenting 🙂

  17. Hi Dan — yes, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts about Silva! I loved him, and I'm glad someone else noticed him too. He will go far.

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