Choreography: The Messy Juxtaposition Of Aesthetics

Sophia Lee in In Tandem, Photograph by Bruce Monk.

                        Sophia Lee in In Tandem, Photograph by Bruce Monk.

I’ve known Peter Quanz since our ballet training years at Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet Professional Division. I have always admired Peter for his courage as a choreographer in taking on supreme artistic challenges and creating inventive, thought-provoking art. It has been a joy to see Peter succeed in what is an incredibly demanding and difficult career path.

I was thrilled that Peter agreed to share with 4dancers readers a bit about his life-changing adventures; his passion and drive for creating cutting edge choreography; and of course, his lovely humanity in connecting with artists across vastly different disciplines and languages. We spoke for about an hour over Skype while he was on a break from rehearsals.   – Karen Musey

Dancers of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. Photograph by John Hall.

Dancers of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. Photograph by John Hall.

KM You have had an illustrious career and have explored many different avenues of work as a choreographer. What has prompted you to branch out?

PQ I’m very excited that I’ve been working as a choreographer now for over 20 years. And that has given me an incredible life, with experiences that I’d never expected I would encounter. I’m looking forward to more.

I’ve really tried to choose projects that scare me. If I don’t face a project in sheer terror with the feeling of “I’m not skilled enough for this”, then there’s an excitement that’s going to be missing.

KM You make bold choices and continually seek out opportunities to collaborate – how have these different experiences informed your perspective as a choreographer?

PQ I am currently collaborating with Montréal Danse for the creation of a new piece. To spark the creative genesis of the piece, Artistic Director, Kathy Casey proposed a question to me – “How would you make a dance if you didn’t consider the audience?”. That flummoxed me, because for me, one of my hang ups is trying to gauge what an audience is going to relate to. But if you always try to make something an audience will like, soon you will end up only sitting in the audience with them.

We started out with an initial two week rehearsal period. We spent the better part of it figuring out different ways of connecting as a group of people, when I suddenly realized that what was most interesting about this collaboration was the bond that we had as a team. The idea became how to find a way to create a social connection with the audience: essentially, a “social experiment”.

Photograph by Jean-Matthieu Barraud.

                                  Photograph by Jean-Matthieu Barraud.

We are now building a durational production where the whole audience is animated the whole time through technology. They will be using their phone and their signals will be turned on. We are playing with people’s connection to their phones. We are seeing the phone as an extension of their bodies, as an extension of themselves. We are playing with the idea of how we can be drawn together through this immediate technology while not getting so disconnected from ourselves physically that it ceases to be dance.

KM An interesting paradox.

PQ Oh it’s been fantastic! We are finding ways of using the phones to show us our bodies and our movement in ways you can’t see in a normal performance. We are using video that is taken live, utilizing different perspectives to see parts of an image; using the settings on the phone to both create light or diminish what you see in an image. This is how we build “community” in this performance; and we risk in being brought close together with an audience in an artistic relationship, which is very exciting.

No one on our team has ever done a project like this. We are learning how to define what is happening without over defining things, because this choreography is not about steps. One of our dancers coined the phrase “aesthetic of the situation”.

I’m interested in revealing how artists think in spontaneous ways, how they make choices based on their knowledge of movement and performance; I’m curious about dancers themselves being the vulnerable material from which our experience emerges.”

The work with dancers I have in Montréal requires a sensitivity to an ever shifting relational dynamic – between the artist, their relationships to technology and the structure we have all defined as a group. In contrast with that process, I’ve gone off to work with very classical ballet companies setting choreography that is highly determinate of the music and relates closely to architectural structures in movement, which of course has to be very precise.

KM What are you currently creating with your company, Q Dance?

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Hidden Gems: Ballet’s Mixed Rep Programs


Atlanta Ballet dancers backstage at a performance of Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony. Photo courtesy of Alessa Rogers.

by Alessa Rogers

Mixed repertory programs can be a tough sell for ballet companies. Audiences are more willing to shell out money and time to see something familiar; like the story ballets Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, of which they already know what to expect and are thus more comfortable. Marquis productions are what bring in the money with their splashy titles, character-driven works, happy or not so happy endings. But there is a younger sibling to the more traditional full-length narrative ballet that deserves just as much audience respect–the mixed repertory program.

Mixed rep defined

A mixed rep show is a stylistically diverse program of multiple shorter works–generally 3 or 4 pieces, each around 15-30 minutes in length, and usually all by different choreographers. Some follow a narrative arc where others are movement for movement’s sake. Unless an artistic director has chosen a unifying theme for the program the pieces stand-alone and are unrelated which leads to a surprising, fresh and exciting program.

Bite-sized dance

In this day and age of instant gratification, a mixed rep show may just be what an entry-level balletomane needs. A 20 minute piece followed by a break to check in to the theater on Facebook and send a few selfies in your theatre-going finery followed by another 15 minute burst of culture a couple more times? Yes this is what 21st century audiences can do at a mixed rep show! No need to buckle your seatbelt for a 3 and a half hour show of the same tortured heroine (though that is perfect for some people). The commitment is less but the pay off is still great. It’s like being served 3 of the most exquisite appetizers and not even needing to order an entrée because you are so satisfied from that.

But besides the practical logistics of maintaining your social life while gaining some culture cred, mixed reps offer something really special. I did a little bit of market research while writing this post, i.e., I asked my boyfriend what he thinks about mixed reps. He is a typical young American male engineer who likes watching basketball, playing chess and not going to ballets (until he met me that is–now he is horrified that he might have missed out on all those Nutcrackers!) Turns out, mixed rep programs are his favorite shows to go to. “They are good for people with short attention spans and there is more of a chance to see something you really like because there are three distinct pieces. Sometimes a piece might be weird and polarizing but in the end that makes it more exciting. And you are exposing yourself to the most density of dance experience in a short amount of time.” (Did I mention he has a Ph.D.? He is very smart and should be trusted.)

21st Century ballet

Mixed rep programs are fun because you never know quite what to expect. This is not stereotypical ballet. In a single show you might see classical ballet, neoclassical, contemporary, a blurring of all of these, or something completely different. There was one mixed rep at Atlanta Ballet that had not one single pointe shoe the entire evening. There were cowboy boots and jazz shoes and bare feet but nary a pointe shoe in sight. This is ballet? Yes, this is ballet in the 21st century and it is glorious. Mixed reps are where ballet evolves and grows up and changes with the times. This is where performers and audiences stretch themselves to the limits, breathing new life into an old art form.


Atlanta Ballet dancers dressed for Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 on tour in Toronto. Photo courtesy of Alessa Rogers.

In a mixed rep program at Atlanta Ballet the audience is treated to some of the world’s greatest choreographers, like Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Jorma Elo. These in-demand dance makers from all over the world are heading South with their ballets. Atlantans don’t have to travel to places like New York and Europe to see these masters. They are coming here. At the same time, many companies use mixed reps to foster their budding in-house choreographers. In a 2014 mixed rep program, I was fortunate enough to be in pieces by internationally acclaimed choreographers Alexei Ratmansky and Ohad Naharin, but it ended up being Atlanta Ballet dancer Tara Lee’s premiere that was most special to me. There is a different dynamic in being choreographed on by a fellow dancer. She knows everything about me as a dancer, what I’m good at, what I’m bad at (and still cast me!), and it formed a kind of trust between her and her cast that was so strong.

In the program Atlanta Ballet is currently preparing for, all three works were world premieres on Atlanta Ballet at one point or another. When new pieces are being created, the studio is fecund with creativity, energy and excitement. Mixed rep shows are where we get to work with choreographers we have always dreamed of working with. I think at Atlanta Ballet this is really where we shine–in collaboration and in versatility. Working with these choreographers in such varied styles is how dancers become versatile artists. Young dancers often get their first chances to be featured and shine alongside virtuosic veterans. It can be hard on a body to go from Possokhov’s Classical Symphony to Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s El Beso in the same night because the qualities are completely different but we crave the challenge. It fills us up. Mixed reps are where we find and push our edges. Even if there is one piece we don’t particularly like or isn’t suited to us we can work on growing in that one and really enjoy the next. There are extremes and there is balance and there is, always, beauty and joy.

When it comes to mixed rep programs, there are plenty of reasons to attend. Choreographer Gustavo Ramírez Sansano shares some thoughts on the value of experiencing a range of different contemporary dances:

Atlanta Ballet’s 20/20: Visionary program is a mixed rep offering that runs from March 18th through March 20th, 2016. Tickets are still available.

Alessa RogersContributor Alessa Rogers began her dance training with Daphne Kendall and left home at fourteen to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. Upon graduation she spent one season with North Carolina Dance Theatre II before joining Atlanta Ballet where she has been for the past eight years.

Favorite roles at Atlanta Ballet include Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, Margaret in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s The Exiled, Lucy in Michael Pink’s Dracula, Ophelia in Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, Lover Girl in David Bintley’s Carmina Burana, and Princess Irene in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin.

She has performed works by Jorma Elo, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin, Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Hampson, Dwight Rhoden and Tara Lee. She has been a guest artist with the National Choreographers Initiative in California and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, N.C.

In her spare time she likes to read, write, cook vegetables, meditate, travel and rock climb.


Fresh Choreography Every Time

Untitled photo by "snickclunk". Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Untitled photo by “snickclunk“. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

by Janet Rothwell

As a high school dance educator I am responsible for choreographing four or five dances each year for various performances. Although choreography is my favorite aspect of dance, it can be challenging to come up with new ideas, movement, spatial designs, beginnings, endings, and themes each year. As someone who values originality and the creative process, I have realized there are certain things I do to help me stay organized and creative in my work.

Over the years I have adjusted my process to include some staple methods so as to not get burnt out with repeating the same movement or spatial pattern every time I choreograph a piece. I thought I would share these specific parts of my choreographic process that seem to aid me each year as I strive to maintain newness in my artistry.

1. Maintain a choreography journal

My choreography journal is my best friend in my creative process. Not only do I use it daily while choreographing works, but I use it year round to write down ideas that pop up at random times for future works too. I write down music I like or ideas I have for themes so that when I have to create a new dance and I feel uninspired or stuck trying to think of something, I can go to my journal and look at the running list of things I have written.

I find that my choreography journal is extremely helpful for me to remember what is happening in the dances I create with my students. When I’m juggling three or more pieces at once it’s difficult to remember what choreographic elements I have already used with other dances, and since I value being original and unique with my choreography I write everything down in my journal. I make drawings of spatial designs, describe movement ideas, brainstorm titles, take notes on my music, and write down costume ideas. I also make notes on what I want to do for the next day so that when I return to my students I can take a look at my journal and know where we are in the work and in the music.

A choreography journal does not have to be pen and paper either, although I find that’s what works for me. You could use a tablet, your phone, or whatever tool you like to work best in your process. However, I would say that staying consistent is best to keep organized. There is nothing worse than having written down great notes only to have misplaced loose papers or random receipts you wrote them on. I keep an actual journal so that all of my ideas are in one place and easy to find.

2. Pick clear themes and diverse music for each dance

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Dancing Balanchine’s Theme And Variations

Boston Ballet Balanchine

Ashley Ellis and Paulo Arrais rehearse George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”. Photo by Lasha Khozashvilli.

by Ashley Ellis

Boston Ballet’s upcoming program is titled Thrill of Contact, and it’s an amazing collection of ballets. Costumes range from Classical tutus to goofy hats—to dancers wearing socks. It’s an ideal program to display Boston Ballet at its best; showcasing the incredible power and range of styles that its dancers can achieve. It features works by Robbins and Forsythe, and a world premiere by Principal Dancer, Jeffrey Cirio.

It also includes George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.

It is extremely gratifying to push myself to try and achieve the control and precision demanded by Balanchine’s choreography. In addition to the demands of the steps and musicality, there are stylistic details that are important to apply when dancing these ballets. They say that some of these stylistic changes surfaced when Mr. B would ask his dancers to do steps quicker than they were typically executed. Part of the fun of dancing Balanchine ballets is applying these details and “flares” that are particular to his choreography and are part of what makes it unique from that of any other choreographer.

At the moment I am preparing for the iconic Theme and Variations. My first experience with Theme was when I was 15 years old; I was chosen to dance an excerpt from the role for the final show at the ABT Summer Intensive. Although it was just a tidbit of the ballet, the experience really stuck with me. A couple of years passed and I got to be a part of the ballet as a whole, dancing one of the corps spots in ABT’s productions. This time around, I have the honor of dancing the principal role alongside my wonderful partner Paulo Arrais.

In Theme, the female variations are very short, but what it lacks in length is made up for in speed. I feel that my heart already needs to be beating overtime just to make my muscles react with the urgency and briskness needed. At first I found the variations to be intimidating; almost like little packages of anxiety when the music played; your legs and feet required to move so fast—all the while making it look like it’s easy. But as with other parts, you work on it and the steps start to feel more natural—and then you are able to apply the quality—like putting icing on a cake.

Paulo Arrais and Ashley Ellis

Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis working on the pas de deux with Paulo Arrais. Photo by Lasha Khozashvilli

The second female variation goes directly into the pas de deux. This is difficult because you are so tired, but it almost doesn’t matter because the music is just so beautiful. I even remember the first time I heard the music during a show with ABT; when it began, my attention was immediately drawn to what was happening on the stage. There is something very unique about it.

I am not an expert on the Balanchine style, or his ballets. What I do know comes from what I have experienced while preparing for and dancing a selection of his wonderful works. His choreography demands a high level of technique and a strong sense of musicality. Both of these details are things that entice me. It is so much about the music, and in turn about the quality of how your execution of the steps embodies that music.

George Balanchine was one of the most influential choreographers of his time. He may even have been the most influential. I always find that I feel something special when dancing his ballets, and because of my long history with Theme, I know that performing this particular treasure will be very dear to me.

Boston Ballet presents Thrill of Contact, a striking program of precision and impressive athleticism featuring works by Balanchine, Robbins, Forsythe, and a world premiere by Principal Dancer, Jeffrey Cirio. It runs from May 14th – May 24th.

Ashley EllisContributing writer Ashley Ellis is a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. Ellis hails from Torrance, California and she received her dance training at the South Bay Ballet under the direction of Diane Lauridsen. Other instruction included Alicia Head, Mario Nugara, Charles Maple, and Kimberly Olmos.

She began her professional career with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and later joined American Ballet Theatre as a company dancer. In 1999, Ellis won the first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award, and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She has performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist. In 2011, Ellis joined Boston Ballet as a second soloist. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.

Her repertoire includes Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty; Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker; Natalia Makarova’s  La  Bayadère;  Marius  Petipa’s  Swan Lake; Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, VIII and Polyphonia; Harald Lander’s Études; Michel  Fokine’s  Les  Sylphides;  Rudolf  Nureyev’s Don Quixote; Christopher Bruce’s Rooster; George Balanchine’s  Serenade,  Coppélia,  Symphony  in Three Movements, Symphony in C, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto; Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room; Stanton Welch’s Clear; Angel Corella’s String Sextet; Wayne McGregor’s Chroma; Jorma Elo’s Awake Only; Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free; Jiří Kylián’s Wings of Wax, Symphony of Psalms, and Petite Mort.


The Royal Ballet Dances La Fille mal gardée


Frederick Ashton’s ballet La Fille mal gardée (The Wayward Daughter) is based on an 1828 French ballet, but was inspired by the Suffolk countryside. This is a ballet with both wonderful choreography and a delightful sense of humor. Where else can you see dancing chickens, folk dance, clogging and maypole dancing–all in one performance?

Ballet fans across the country will be able to take in this well-known ballet on May 5th as it shows on the big screen. Find a cinema near you to get a ticket for this classic, danced live by The Royal Ballet.

The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae. Photo ROH, by Tristram Kenton

The Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae. Photo ROH, by Tristram Kenton

Philip Mosley as Widow Simone and Francesca Filpi, Samantha Raine, Vanessa Fenton and Kristen McNally as Clog dancers in The Royal Ballet production of La Fille mal gardÈe. Photo ROH, Tristram Kenton

Philip Mosley as Widow Simone and Francesca Filpi, Samantha Raine, Vanessa Fenton and Kristen McNally as Clog dancers in The Royal Ballet production of La Fille mal gardee. Photo ROH, by Tristram Kenton

Steven McRae. ROH, by Tristram Kenton

Steven McRae. ROH, by Tristram Kenton

Here’s a sneak peek for you as well:

Disclosure: 4dancers accepts compensation for promoting this series


Choreography, Collaboration & Laughter: Margi Cole & Peter Carpenter

Choreographers Margi Cole of The Dance COLEctive and Peter Carpenter of Peter Carpenter Performance Project discuss collaborating on “Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times #14: Curious Reinventions”, a project that explores the concepts of mimicry and imitation.

Photograph by William Frederking.

Photograph by William Frederking.

What first inspired you to collaborate?

Margi Cole: Pete and I go way back, and I have always admired his work as a performer and choreographer. After a very chance conversation about the possibility of me being a performer in his work, it happened, and I had the great pleasure of performing in two of his very recent installments of Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times, the series he is working on. To be blunt, I am totally turned on by working with Pete in the studio, creating movement vocabulary, exploring the use of text and the creative process. As a result of my own experiences, I wanted my dancers to have an opportunity with him too, as I know firsthand how much can be gained from the work. Double bonus: I get to be a co-choreographer and continue to learn as well. It’s an awesome opportunity created by being in the right place at the right time.

Peter Carpenter: Margi and I have known each other as part of Chicago’s dance community for years. In the fall of 2012, she performed in an earlier installment of the Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times series (a series I’ve been working on since 2011), and then last year she invited me to come and do some workshops with her company. Several of her company members are former students of mine (from Columbia College Chicago, where we are both faculty members) so I was excited to work with them. From there we pursued an opportunity via the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for a produced event at the Storefront Theater. That was about a year ago, and we’ve been in the planning stages of this performance ever since.

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Searching For Swans…

Swan Lake Ballet

Jessika in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

by Jessika Anspach McEliece

The dreary landscape stretched out before us as we migrated northward on I-5. Headed to the Canadian border, we were searching for that powdery white stuff they call snow. A ski weekend for him, not so much for me – there’s always the lodge and hot cocoa, right? Sitting in the passenger seat, the scenery seemed to mimic the weariness of my own self, having spent weeks recovering from mono.

And then, in the brown bleakness he saw it. He saw them.

“Hey. Hey babe? Do you see that?” my husband asked me as he drove. “On the left…”

I looked over his shoulder through the driver’s window and across two lanes of traffic to see a field, all white. And no. It wasn’t snow.

Squinting his eyes he continued, “I think… Are those..?”

The little kid leapt out of me as my eyes grew wide with wonder; as my heart began to flutter; as I shouted aloud, “SWANS!”

There they were. A whole field of them. Swans. Dozens of them. Maybe even hundreds. An invisible string tugged tightly on my heart and suddenly my soul felt awake – alive.

“PULL OVER BABE!” I implored. “Seriously. Please. Please?!! We can take that next exit… At the very least drive past them? I just have to see them!”

His eyes smiled at me as he laughed and shook his head.

This invisible string.

This strange connection to these beautiful white birds. Why did I feel so drawn to them? What was it about them that so compelled me? When had this affinity begun?

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