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
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.
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.
by Michael Estanich
As a dance artist I strive to build connections—between viewer and dancer, between music and action, between image and feeling. For me, moving is the purest way to do that, though its purity needn’t be exclusive. At RE|Dance Group, I develop work that explores the limitless range of human feeling. In order to accomplish this, I stack a variety of images atop each other in the hopes of crafting a multi-sensational experience for the audience. Because all of my senses so beautifully intertwine allowing me to feel deeply and experience life, I welcome all sensorial images into my work. I rely on the audience’s willingness to dispel tradition and embrace curiosity.
Text and visual design collide with movement in all of RE|Dance Group’s work. I create fully realized worlds where every action, sound, and visual carries important information in understanding the whole. I find that these multiple entry points invite the viewer to lean forward and feel.
I enjoy memories and remembering. There is visceral pleasure in retelling something from the past. To me, words and action are undeniably linked. I enjoy how memories translate in my body—through action and in words. I enjoy the process of connecting what I hear to what I see. It is remarkable how willingly the mind catches on and constructs truth and understanding when we engage with all of our senses.
There is comfort in language. We rely on it to let others know how we feel and what we need. To use language to share a part of myself seems so natural. To juxtapose language with motion excites me. Both together enrich the possibility to understand and to feel. This notion is important to me. I want the audience to know that we are complex, that we are moving, hearing, speaking, smelling, tasting, feeling beings and that they can recognize a part of themselves in a singular, special moment inside my work.
With that goal in my mind, I use whatever medium most potently communicates the idea—be it a sly, organic dancing trio, a cacophony of sound, a massive large-scale visual sculpture, or a simple connection through language. Each on their own is powerful art, but combined they produce a complex aural and visual landscape where, as an artist, I get lost in the beauty of my imagination.
Michael Estanich (Artistic Director, RE|Dance Group) is an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He teaches modern dance, composition, dance pedagogy, movement analysis and dance history. He earned his MFA from The Ohio State University and his BFA from Denison University. His creative research currently examines ideas of space, architecture, landscape and habitation often resulting in dances supported by sculptural environments. He and Lucy formed RE|Dance Group in 2009 as a means to explore long distance collaboration. Michael’s performance credits include Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, Cerulean Dance Theatre, Rebecca Rosen, Melanie Bales, Bebe Miller and a reconstruction of Mark Morris’ acclaimed choreography All Fours. He teaches annually at the Trollwood Performing Arts School in Moorhead, MN and at the American College Dance Association (ACDA). He is the North Central Regional Director of ACDA.0
by Jamie Benson
Lights come up on a lone figure, the one burdened with putting a trance over a packed house of smart phones. It’s a tall order to be sure. You don’t just have to dazzle, you have to captivate, ooze an indisputable it-factor that dares an audience of TV brains to look away, as if they could. The best/worst part is that you probably put yourself in the position to be this dance mystic. It’s your fault.
It’s your solo after all.
In an attempt to simplify my life as a choreographer (Ha!), I recently dove headfirst into the idea of making new solos. This was after previously doing a lot of ensemble pieces. It’s more freeing and more terrifying than ever. You’ve been there right? (Or will be.) Let’s have some group therapy real quick and see if we can come out the other end a little wiser, a little more capable of entrancing our next packed house. Game? Good.
Potential Pitfall: How Does It “Read” (a.k.a Do I look nuts?)
It can be tricky to clearly represent the source of whatever emotion one is exploring as a soloist and harder to suss out how it might “read” to an innocent audience-goer. There’s a more immediate response when working with other performers. They laugh when it’s funny, look at you cross-eyed when it’s too complicated or unintentionally awkward, and so on and so forth. As audience members, we’ve all experienced that performance where a soloist goes from poised dancer to insane person in seconds flat. As choreographers we think we know how something looks from the outside because we feel it so deeply. But as an audience member, one can become perplexed and feel alienated really fast if there’s no immediate access point, such as a topical reference, a common emotional gesture, something. Even if we deliberately create space for the audience to make their own choices about what we’re doing, our job is still ultimately to communicate something through movement.7
Assistant Editor Rachel Hellwig interviews Michelle Kranicke from Zephyr – a Chicago-area experimental dance company that has been around for over 20 years…
What inspired you to start Zephyr?
I was very young when I started Zephyr so the reasons behind why I founded the company don’t really resonate with Zephyr’s current aesthetic and mission. What is more important to me right now is what inspires me to continue. And that is my continued fascination with creating work, dance specifically, and trying to push beyond known ideas and preconceptions about what the art form can be.
What’s it like to be artistic director, choreographer, and performer all at once?
I have been all three for so long I guess I am not sure what it is like to not be artistic director, choreographer and performer all at once. I think the roles of director, choreographer, and performer are linked, each having their own specific requirements and priorities. For example, in my role as director I try to make sure that both Zephyr’s productions and its education work are an extension of the company’s mission. To that end I try to make sure company class is structured so that dancers are not only learning technique, but also developing an innate understanding of Zephyr’s aesthetic so that when I am working as a choreographer the performers I am working with have all the tools they need. Regarding Zephyr’s long history of arts integrated education programming, working with schools and students using movement and the creative process to access knowledge and understanding, Zephyr trains its teaching artists in the same clear detailed manner with which its aesthetic is presented. As far as my performer self, that is often the most straightforward role, and one where I am deeply connected.
As a choreographer and dance educator, process is very important to me. It is through my creative process that I problem solve and create various products. My process can vary depending on the task at hand or even on how I feel in the moment. Any changes in my process are usually reflected in the product outcome as well. One example of how changing my process can be helpful is when I am choreographing a work and I do not want it to look or feel like the last piece I created. Changing my process can help me to create new movement and fresh ideas.
In order to teach my students about the value of process I give them many assignments where they have built in time to explore and play. I also have them reflect on their process answering questions like: How did you go about learning a movement sequence? How did you work within your group on a project? How did you approach the creation of your movement?
I often have students work in small groups on various choreography assignments. The most recent project I gave them was to create a short choreographic study based on initiating movement from certain bones in their body. The main goals were for students to learn the names of the bones, where they were located, and how it feels to move from those bones in their body.
The assignment included a rubric which required students to use specific choreography tools and a required length of counts for the whole dance. Often time when I give an assignment like this with a clear rubric of expectations, students look at the list of what the dance must include and work towards this end goal first instead of taking the time to experiment and play with movement ideas. I have to remind them that I’m giving them many days to work on the project to include the process of discovering the movement they want to use and they have time to change their minds and let the dance evolve. I use many analogies like when you create movement and choreography with your group you are writing in pencil not pen so as you go on if you don’t like something simply erase it and make a change.
The majority of the classes that my high school students take are very product focused and students can either be right or wrong with their product. It can be very challenging for students to shift their perspective in my class and linger in the process focused perspective as a means to create and problem solve. In dance class with a creative assignment there is not one way to do anything right so there are many right answers and what I try to teach my students is that I want them to discover what they feel is the best and right answer for them. They discover this through their process.
Having an emphasis on the process rather than the product does not mean that I do not care about the end product. On the contrary, I think that when the process is more fulfilled the end product is also more likely to be fulfilled and realized in a deeper way. The way we go about getting to an end product is through various paths and that we honor the paths we try out and discover what each one has to offer. Students edit and revise more while focusing on process in order to create the product.
As students embrace this mind set I see a shift in the quality of their work and their work ethic. In a world of instant gratification and product focused thinking it is becoming more and more important that we teach young people to value the process, the how we get to an end goal. Teaching students to be process focused can have great implications in many areas of their lives and help them to problem solve in creative ways. I hope to help my students become creative problem solvers and leaders in the world they live in.
Contributor Janet Rothwell has been a dance educator for 10 years. She has taught modern, ballet, and jazz at various studios and schools on Chicago’s North Shore. She received her MA in Dance with an emphasis in Choreography from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and her BA in Communications with a Dance Minor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout her time in graduate school, Janet performed with Sidelong Dance Company based in Winston-Salem, NC.
Currently, Janet teaches dance at Loyola Academy High School in Wilmette, IL. She is the Director of Loyola Academy Dance Company B and the Brother Small Arts Guild, and choreographs for the Spring Dance Concert and school musical each year. Janet is very active within the Loyola Academy community leading student retreats and summer service trips. She regularly seeks out professional development opportunities to continue her own artistic growth. Recently, Janet performed with Keigwin and Company in the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012 and attended the Bates Dance Festival.
When she isn’t dancing, Janet enjoys teaching Pilates, practicing yoga, and running races around the city of Chicago.0
Greg Blackmon is a new choreographer and DanceWorks Chicago alum. DanceWorks Chicago was founded in 2007 and gives early career artists an environment where they can build a foundation and hone their artistry through training, collaboration, performances and mentoring opportunities. They also showcase work from established choreographers.
Greg recently choreographed “PACK: And for All the Lost Ones” for DanceChance, a showcase which features choreographers chosen by chance. Afterwards, his piece was taken into the DWC repertoire – marking the first time that DWC dancer has become a DWC choreographer.
“PACK: And for All the Lost Ones” will make its premiere with DWC on Sunday, November 16 at DanceMoves.
What inspired your piece “Pack: And for All the Lost Ones”?
The piece is actually about a friend of mine and former DWC dancer, Marco Antonio Huicochea Gonzalez, who passed away during his time with us. It was a really rough loss for all of us, and after a few months of reflection I decided I would like to honor him through the art form we got to share with one another. So I dropped my name into the fishbowl at Dance Chance and wound up getting selected, which allowed this idea to come to fruition.
What music did you chose for this piece?
I chose a song by an Icelandic band called Sigúr Ros, “All Alright.” I’d heard it when a friend of mine used it years before for a piece of his own and I’ve always been in love with the juxtaposition of the music’s reflective, emotional tone and its instrumental minimalism.
What style is “Pack: And for All the Lost Ones”?
I would consider the piece to be contemporary. I’ve implemented some ballet principles, but re-imagined and reconfigured them to fit more organic movement.
What is your choreographic process like?
Since I’m just starting out, I think I’ll say my process from piece to piece will be different every time. I like to believe every task– not just in dance, but in life in general– has a formula specific to itself that will breed the most success in terms of what your goals are. This piece started with me taking a lot of note from the emotional displays of animals, mainly dogs/wolves, and fusing that honesty and the body language with styles of contemporary movement that I love.
When did you find out that “Pack: And for All the Lost Ones” was going to be added to the DWC rep?
A few weeks after Julie saw the piece at Dance Chance, she asked if Matt (the other original dancer and a current DWC company member) and I would like to perform “Pack…” at the Dance for Life kickoff gala this summer, which was exciting in itself because so many people that I admire in the dance world got to see it. And then about 3 or 4 weeks after that, Julie asked if we could meet to discuss how it would work its way into the DWC repertoire.
How did you feel when found this out?
I was absolutely ecstatic! This was my first creation as a professional choreographer, and I didn’t even aspire for it to be anything more than what it was– a short, sweet dedication to a very dear friend and to the family that I’ve found in DanceWorks Chicago, as well as a sort of memorial for everyone who’s ever been lost from this world (because everyone means something to someone. And everyone is loved very dearly by someone.). And it’s grown into something that a ton of other people will get to see and hold dear to their hearts because of one idea that I had.
What did you learn during your time at DanceWorks Chicago and how has it helped you?
I could write a book on everything that I’ve learned here. One of the most important things is that you really are a person first and THEN an artist. I think a lot of dancers can get really caught up in the idea of this art form we dedicate our lives to and all of the prestige surrounding the mental and physical dedication it takes, and we forget that we have to be people inside of the movement. Otherwise, you’re just someone else who can throw a leg up or point your foot and pretend to say something, or imply an idea, but never really say anything…never really give it meaning.
I’ve also learned to be more patient and a bit less of a perfectionist. I’ll never forget Julie Nakagawa pulling me aside one day while we were on your and telling me “Just do the work. Don’t fuss or obsess about the mistakes. Just… do… the work. That’s really all anyone can ask of you. But you have to really do it.”
What are some of your dance goals and dreams for the future?
I think my biggest dream for the future is to continue exploring movement and manifesting both my own ideas and the ideas of others through dance. It’s so much fun translating something as abstract as a simple thought into something as tangible as dance. And I love knowing that the things I can put on a stage will touch each audience member in a way that’s unique to them and their experience, because that’s what art does. It stirs people in a multitude of ways and the beauty of it lies in the undeniable sincerity of their response.0