Making Dances

Choreography: On Developing A Personal Philosophy


Madelyn Doyle, photo by William Frederking

You are choreographing for The Dance COLEctive’s “Higher Ground”, an upcoming weekend of performances in Chicago. Can you tell readers a bit about your piece and the idea behind it?

This piece is a look at the physical and mental necessities for an individual to develop a personal philosophy. The materials available to us such as media, literature and specialized individuals give us the ingredients to formulate ourselves, but what does one ultimately need in order to create their true individuality? Experience. Only then do we choose our path and honestly become what we are meant to be.

How did you work with the dancers throughout this process? What was that like?

I provided them with composition assignments, and free-writing prompts to generate movement and text. Then, I gathered the movement information and carefully sewed the pieces together in what I thought was the best way the dance would make sense.

In terms of music, how did you go about selecting what you would use for this, and did you choose it prior to or after your choreography?

After my choreography. I focused on the mood that I wanted to portray, and went from there.

What were the biggest challenges in terms of choreographing this piece?

Putting things together in a coherent fashion. There was so much beautiful movement that the dancers created, and using it in a way that made sense and created a story was difficult.

What has been the greatest learning experience for you throughout this process?

How to be on the other side.

What do you hope that the audience will see when they view your work?

That everyone should acknowledge the ridiculous things we do to better ourselves. As long as we are aware of them and realize that we should, in the end, rely on ourselves to do the work and make the choices.

BIO: Madelyn Doyle, a fourth year member of The Dance COLEctive, graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Education and received a K-12 Certification in Dance through the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She has been a part of the We Stand Sideways Dance Co., Thread Meddle Outfit, and independent productions with artist Megan Adams. In addition to establishing the Dance Department of Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Chicago, she has assisted for the presenting series of Riverside Brookfield High School’s Orchesis and choreographed for numerous musicals and high school dance companies in the Northwest Suburbs. Madelyn is a Choreographer/Teacher/Producer for the Arlington Youth Dance Ensemble in Arlington Heights, and founded her company Demi Dancers in 2013 to support creative movement and pre-ballet in local preschools and montessori schools.


Choreography And Collaboration — Spain’s Taiat Dansa

Taiat Dansa

Taiat Dansa’s Meritxell Barberá and Inma García

When it comes to choreography, international collaborations are always interesting. The circumstances that bring people together. The sharing of new ideas–ideas from other places in the world. Today we’re going to take a closer look at one of these collaborations that is happening in Chicago, between DanceWorks Chicago and Taiat Dansa from Spain. We asked founders Inma Garcia and Meritxell Barberá to walk us through the process of bringing their work to the Midwest this summer…

Can you tell our readers a bit about Taiat Dansa?

We first met studying dance when we were young. Both of us continued studying until we graduated with degrees in dance  as adults. We were passionate about dancing but also really motivated to create our own dance pieces and so more than ten years ago we formed our own company, Taiat.

We always work from the perspective of presenting the body. This is an important distinction for us – we do not want to represent the body or to make dance theatrical; our objective is to present the body in movement. At the same time we also always insist on a strong narrative theme for each piece.

At present we are on tour with two pieces. No Half Measures: Episodes of dance in museums is a piece that was originally commissioned to be performed on International Museum Day on May 18. The aim of the performance was to bring the typical museum-going public into contact with dance, it was a way of bringing the plastic arts and the physical arts together. We accompany the performance with a questionnaire that the audience is asked to complete, to give their impression of the experiment. It was a really successful debut and we were booked by another 22 contemporary museums around Spain, France and the USA.  Also, we are performing We are going to make you dance: Chasing Patti Smith. We are also really pleased to perform this piece again as it has been a really enjoyable 3 year run.

Over the past few years we have worked as choreographers for other companies outside of Spain. We find this facet of our work really satisfying.

How did you wind up teaming up with DanceWorks Chicago?

The Cervantes Institute got in touch with us with the project of facilitating a collaboration between our company and a local Chicago company. They offered us rehearsal and performance space and were really helpful. We proposed the idea to Andreas, the Director of DanceWorks, and the rest is history!

What is your collaboration going to look like and what first steps are you taking?

We have had a very short but intense period in which to investigate movement so that the dancers of DanceWorks can become familiar with the dance language that we use. This time has served to delve into the mood and style of Man Ray’s work. What a lot of people don’t know is that Man Ray himself studied dance – in fact people said he was a very good dancer. Later he turned to photography for his artistic expression but for us the inspiration of dance on his work is very clear. So this time with DanceWorks has been for us, and for them, a time to investigate the different ways we can express his vision in dance, a kind of a full circle for his work. Our first step was of course to inspire the dancers, showing them some of Man Ray’s work. The rest is a work in progress that we hope can be developed into a complete show. The progress that we have made so far will be shown in the theatre of the Cervantes Institute on the 25th of August.

What do you think you might be able to bring to this collaboration?

We hope to bring our particular philosophy of dance and movement to the creation of a dance piece around this interesting theme – Man Ray Dancer. We would love to return to Chicago to create the complete work, we are really inspired.

What are you hoping to get from the collaboration?

For us, as we said, choreographing is really satisfying work. We have always created our own pieces, which is something we love doing, but working with other companies we find that our progress and our creativity are really accelerated. The process of creating new choreography  is always dynamic and challenging and when we work with other companies apart from our own then it is also a process of give and take. Every dancer we work with teaches us something. In some moments inspiration can come from a certain attitude or move that a dancer makes, sometimes we take that initial inspiration and develop it, so our choreography is the result of the very personal  interaction we have with the dancers themselves.

Have you done anything like this before?

Over the last few years, as we said, we have worked with other companies. Our last work in the USA was with the Ballet Hispanico. The difference between our work in the past and this work with DanceWorks is that it is a wonderful luxury to have a time to work together that is specifically for experimentation. Normally we have to jump right into the creation phase. Usually we do the investigative work on our own and  arrive ready to begin the choreographic part of the project when we meet the dancers. It is really nice to have time to investigate with the dancers themselves and of course it is different here again because we have the chance to show the public the results of our investigations –  this way we can gauge their reactions and that will help us to direct the course of the work in case it is to be developed properly in the future .

What has it been like to work with DanceWorks so far?

Wonderful, really great. Andreas and Julie have been very supportive and lovely. The dancers themselves have been really enthusiastic and they have understood our philosophy perfectly. We have seen the dancers enjoying the investigation process so you can imagine, when we see them happy it makes us really happy too. They have lived up to our greatest expectations. We are delighted to have the chance to work with a young company that has so much drive. They have a very exciting future ahead of them.


About Taiat Dansa: Meritxell Barberá and Inma García, with degrees in Classical and Contemporary dance from the city of Valencia, founded their own company Taiat Dansa in the year 1999. Since then they have presented their creations in different spaces and festivals within Spain in Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, the Canary Islands, Sevilla, Murcia and País Vasco; in museum spaces, normally accompanied by an educational work around the country. In the international scene they have performed their work in countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the United States. Also, since 2009 they have worked with other companies as choreographers both nationally and internationally.


New Series With DanceWorks Chicago – James Gregg, Choreographer

Welcome to our new series! In the coming months, you’ll be hearing a variety of voices from DanceWorks Chicago (DWC), an arts organization that has been around since 2007.

DWC 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.

Today we will hear from guest choreographer James Gregg, who will be a part of DWC’s SEASON 8. This season will include other guest choreographers from across the country and around the world as well as a focus on Chicago dancemakers through the DanceMoves Choreography Competition. Keep an eye out for interviews with DWC participants here on the blog.

In the meantime, let’s get to know James Gregg a little better, as he answers interview questions for us here today…

Nocturnal Sense, choreographed by James Gregg. Photo by VIN

Nocturnal Sense, choreographed by James Gregg. Photo by VIN

Why did you make the move from dancer to choreographer? 

I always wanted to be a choreographer, I knew from the very beginning.

What is it about choreography that appeals most to you?

It’s a hard question, there is so much that appeals to me.

I love painting the stage with movement and lighting. I love creating and challenging dancers to get out of their comfort zone. I love trying to connect with the audience and challenge them as well.

Where do your ideas come from for creating dances?

Every piece is different.

Sometimes it’s music, other times it’s a moment between two people on the street, or a commercial. It can be a life-changing moment or subtle exchanges between lovers. I mean, the ideas are all around you, you just need to open to receive them.

Is there anything you don’t enjoy about the process of choreographing a piece?

I enjoy it all—not to say certain days aren’t challenging. It’s all about the process and how we maneuver around those challenges, which in turn gives a better product. Those moments take you to places you wouldn’t have expected.

You created a piece for DanceWorks Chicago titled Nocturnal Sense. Did the choice of music (Vivaldi) come before or after you began choreographing?

The last musical movement of Nocturnal Sense was the catapult for the entire piece.

What was your process like for creating this piece?

I created 5 phrases based off the 5 senses, then manipulated them with each dancer, and then it just kind of molded itself from there.

James Gregg will unveil his new work at DWC’s “Dance Bytes”, taking place August 4th at the Ruth Page Center Theatre.

Choreographer James Gregg

Choreographer James Gregg

BIO: James Gregg began dancing at the age of nine with Ballet Oklahoma. He continued his training with Cece Farha’s Range of MotionHouston Ballet Academy, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, and EDGE Performing Arts Center. In 1999, he moved to Chicago to dance with River North Dance Company, then in 2005, moved to Montreal, where he danced with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal until 2013. James has performed the works of renowned choreographers Crystal Pite, Rodrigo Pederneiras, Barak Marshall, Frank Chaves, Danny Ezralow, Harrison McEldowney, Mauro Bigonzetti, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cayetano Soto, and Edgar Zendejas. Besides RUBBERBANDance Group, he also performs with Aszure Barton and Artists and other dance companies around the country.


Inside Of “In C”

Hubbard Street 2 Apprentice Adrienne Lipson reviews notes in a rehearsal at the Hubbard Street Dance Center, for collaboratively devised choreography to “In C” by composer Terry Riley. Photo by Andrea Thompson.

Hubbard Street 2 Apprentice Adrienne Lipson reviews notes in a rehearsal at the Hubbard Street Dance Center, for collaboratively devised choreography to “In C” by composer Terry Riley. Photo by Andrea Thompson.

by Andrea Thompson

On Friday, June 6, I had the unique pleasure of performing a work’s world premiere and closing show within a nine-hour span. These were vastly different experiences — and that was the point.

For the past two months, my fellow Hubbard Street 2 dancers and I had been knee-deep in creation, collaborating with the Citizen Musician Fellows of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. The focus was “In C,” a piece by composer Terry Riley that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It’s an unusual work to learn, requiring both its sheet music and a set of instructions for playing — and I mean “play” quite literally. Its structure is improvisatory in nature: Each musician is allowed to play the 53 musical phrases or “cells” of “In C” as many times as he or she pleases, dropping out and reentering the score at will. Riley’s instructions contain goals and guidelines, but outside of these each musician has freedom to decide in the moment what and when to play.

In the spirit of game-playing, listening, and the ephemeral nature of performance, we created — with the help of choreographer and Hubbard Street 2 director Terence Marling — our own approach to this ever-changing music. From early on, we knew we would perform an outdoor show to a recording of “In C” prior to an evening show accompanied live by the Citizen Musician Fellows.

In other words: One show would have a predetermined length, while the other could last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. Gulp.

We embarked on our choreographic journey by studying the cells, picking out landmarks we could identify regardless of how the score was interpreted. Cells of whole notes became our best, most recognizable friends. After familiarizing ourselves with the score, we had to figure out what the nature of our choreographic content would be. Games and improvisation seemed a natural fit given the structure of this music, so we set to work brainstorming new and favorite improv tasks, sharing visual images we wanted to achieve, and developing movement phrases inspired by the music.

Notes for choreography

Scan of notes made by Hubbard Street 2 Dancers and Director Terrence Marling, for their collaboratively devised choreography to “In C” by composer Terry Riley. Courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Sequencing all that material was like putting a puzzle together. Certain ideas fell naturally in line with specific cells and became markers — assuming we’d be able to hear them in live performance — and then it was a matter of filling in the blanks with tasks that linked together logically. Like the musicians, we could stretch ideas out longer to challenge each other, or speed through them when it felt right. We developed a long string of cues and signals to indicate to each other when it was time to progress. We ended up with around 43 tasks, which spanned Riley’s 53 cells as a kind of roadmap. Our director Terry used a giant chronometer to denote each change of cell he heard in the music, so we would always know approximately where we were.

Of course, with our piece tied to spontaneity, every time we practiced our structure we landed somewhat differently on the recorded music. Terry rehearsed us to several different recordings of the piece in the week leading up to our shows, so that we wouldn’t be thrown off by unpredictable variations in the live music. And although we rehearsed a few times at Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall with the musicians as well as every day in our West Loop studios, taking our piece outside meant encountering a whole new set of elements we could do nothing to prepare for indoors.

Our debut of “In C” kicked off the inaugural Living Loop Festival (produced by Chicago Loop Alliance and High Concept Laboratories). It was a gorgeous morning downtown when we arrived, with blue skies and warm temperatures. Our stage was in the shade at first, but by noon the sun was beaming down, warming our bodies and our marley as we adjusted to all the sights and sounds around Federal Plaza. Some people sat with their lunches just a few feet away from us, while others stayed further back and watched from a distance. Many stopped to catch just a few minutes of the piece; I even saw people across the street stopping to take in the scene.

Hubbard Street 2 performing outdoors

Hubbard Street 2 Dancers perform to “In C” by Terry Riley in Federal Plaza, to open The Living Loop’s inaugural, summer-long performance festival. From left: Adrienne Lipson, Katie Kozul and Andrea Thompson. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

All the outdoor elements lent themselves beautifully to the nature of the music and the choreographic structure we created to it. “In C” is about paying attention to your surroundings, and deciding to either counter them or let them inform you. Each spectator of our performance became a part of “In C” as they strolled by. The dancers tuned into each other, the music, the clock — and simultaneously took cues from passersby, the Alexander Calder sculpture sharing our plaza, buildings, and the perfectly blue sky above. All told, the performance was an exhilarating experience I won’t soon forget.

The evening performance was an equally memorable, though entirely different occasion. Buntrock Hall was set with a marley in the center of the space, while audience seating and musicians surrounded it on all sides. The piece began with a xylophone — the only constant element involved — setting the tempo, after which the musicians walked to their places and one by one, began playing the first cell. A few seconds later we followed to the edges of the space to enter one at a time as well.

Hubbard Street 2 performing

Hubbard Street 2 Dancers perform “In C” by Terry Riley with the Citizen Musician Fellows of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, June 6, 2014 in Buntrock Hall at Symphony Center. Center: Hubbard Street 2 Dancer Andrea Thompson, with, from left: Lissa Smith, Jules Joseph, Richard Walters and Odbayar Batsuuri. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Musician and dancer alike shared a palpable sense of anticipation. Everyone was open to informing and being informed by what we heard and saw — the backbone and the beauty of our collaboration — and I could sense that cooperative atmosphere as soon as I entered the room. Though we’d rehearsed together before, I was never more cognizant of the musicians’ eyes than during the show. In performance I was acutely aware that how I danced could have an impact on the upright bass, or the trumpet, or the viola — which could in turn affect how other musicians made their sounds. The unpredictable nature of “In C” became even more exciting knowing that I was part dancer, part listener and part co-conductor. Performing the piece with brilliant, enthusiastic live musicians brought it to life in a way completely different from performing outside earlier that day, yet equally fascinating.

It’s hard to believe the project we spent nearly two months on is now over, but the experience has certainly impacted me for the long term. Every member of HS2 contributed to the creation of our structure in a significant way, and I think we all came to realize the value of “just throwing ideas out there.” As a group, we tried every single proposal and held each other to refining what was unclear. We tried to create a work true to Terry Riley’s musical guidelines and appropriate to the playful, unpredictable nature of his piece. I think we not only succeeded in that, but also succeeded in opening ourselves up to new possibilities of how to choreograph, how to work together and how to collaborate with artists of other genres. Our “In C” may be over, but it has left an eternal eighth note–playing xylophone in my head and with it, an eagerness to enter the next cell.

Andrea Thompson enters her second year with Hubbard Street 2 at the start of the company’s 2014–15 season. During Hubbard Street’s satellite Summer Intensive Program at the University of Iowa, Thompson will teach ballet technique and HS2 repertoire to pre-professional dancers ages 14–17 from across the country. For a complete HS2 touring schedule, artist profiles and more, visit


Andrea Thompson photo by Quinn WhartonContributor Andrea Thompson (Maplewood, NJ) trained at the New Jersey School of Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and the Ailey School in New York City. Thompson has also studied at the Juilliard School, Northwest Professional Dance Project, Springboard Danse Montréal, Nederlands Dans Theater and Batsheva Dance Company, which brought opportunities to perform choreography by Gregory Dolbashian, William Forsythe, Natalia Horecna, Jessica Lang, Marina Mascarell, Idan Sharabi, Robyn Mineko Williams, Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. At the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, under the direction of Summer Lee Rhatigan, she trained with and performed works by Christian Burns, Alex Ketley, Thomas McManus, Robert Moses, Ohad Naharin, Alessio Silvestrin and Bobbi Jene Smith. Thompson joined Hubbard Street 2 in August 2013, following work in San Francisco and New York with Zhukov Dance Theatre, Chang Yong Sung, LoudHoundMovement, Backwoods Dance Project and the Foundry.



Help! My Choreography Doesn’t Fit The Dancers!

Photo by Katie Sopoci Drake

Photo by Katie Sopoci Drake

by Katie Sopoci Drake

Oh!  What to do when you’ve been hired to set a piece on a company, school, department, etc. and when you show up, BAM!  It hits you like a ton of bricks.  You realize, “These dancers are going to F. A. I. L. if I proceed as planned with my choreography.” Whatever the reason (too little technique, the wrong technique, stubborn, etc.) you cannot allow this to happen because it is your job as choreographer to…

  1. Make your dancers look good.  Which will, in turn…
  2. Make your choreography look good. Which will ensure that you…
  3. Make your self look good by making the whole process a success. Because you want to be called again to set more work.  Perhaps this time for a piece that is more appropriate for the dancers.

It’s a sticky situation that is mostly avoided by directors doing their homework about a choreographer and choreographers doing their homework about companies/schools/etc.  But let’s be real; sometimes directors just need someone to fill the spot and sometimes you just need to get a choreography gig.  I know all of this too well because, baby, sometimes Momma just needs a new pair of shoes… or to pay the utility bill.   How do we turn this around?  Here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned from all sorts of gooey, hot, messes:

It’s time to Pivot when: the dancers are trained in a completely different technique from yours and there is no time to teach them enough of the one you’re using in your piece Yes, “Pivot” is horrible business jargon, but it’s also a fabulous dance move that we all can relate to.  To pivot is to efficiently turn in a new direction, which is what you’re going to have to do, and quick, if you’re going to finish the dance in the limited number of rehearsals given.  Think, “Is there a way to use their technique to accomplish my dance?”, “Is there another piece in my repertory that might suit them better?”, or, “Is there a more suitable piece in my repertory that I can pull material from to patch rough spots in this one?”.  You’ll have to have a conversation with the director about what you’re seeing in the studio and how to proceed.

Going back to the origin of the movement is essential if you decide to forge ahead with the current piece.  You’re going to need to adapt it to the dancers in front of you and reacquainting yourself with the roots of your dance is going to help you do it.  If your piece has long lines, but the dancers do not, think about why you put those long lines there in the first place.  Was it an architectural choice?  Was it an emotional choice? Was it about the strengths of the original dancers?  Work from the origins of the movement to find an adaptation that will be successful on the dancers you have in front of you.

When I recently reset a piece on a new dancer, I went back to the root of why the phrase/gesture/movement showed up in the first place.  One of the repeating motifs was a twisted and tilted arabesque that elongated to create tension, but I knew that wouldn’t work for this soloist.  I told the dancer that I needed something that stretched from two ends until it about snapped.  Then I sat back and watched her work it out on her body until the new movement jumped out at me within a minute.  I said, “that’s it!” and we were free to move on to the next puzzle. No muss, no fuss.  Dancers are quick thinkers when you give them freedom to work it out on their own bodies. The part looks completely different now, but as long as the dancer is accomplishing the goal of the movement, that is a sign of success in my book.

Get Help! If the current piece is unsalvageable, you have the time to build something new, but are hitting a wall with the dancers, then in the words of Doris Humphrey, “Listen to qualified advice; don’t be arrogant.”  Pull in the director and peers to look at the stages of the dance.  Work that hasn’t had time to be performance-tested needs another eye and the dancers are often more willing to try something new if they know the director is involved in the process.

Lastly, Work with what you’re given.  Trust in your own ability to create a compelling structure, and only build phrases with material that looks strong on the dancers.  Whether you’re someone who has the dancers create the phrases, or if you create each phrase and feed it to the dancers, trust your instincts.  You will see what is working and what is not.  Be honest with yourself and cut out what is not being accomplished to your highest standards and, above all, “kill your darlings”.  Just because you loved it in your previous pieces doesn’t mean it works this time. In the end, this usually means that you are working with less material, but there are plenty of masterworks in every genre that are startling arrangements of simple movements.  Repetition will be your friend here.

Now, get out there and make those dancers look fabulous!

Photo by Katie Sopoci Drake

Photo by Katie Sopoci Drake

Contributor Katie C. Sopoci Drake, MFA, GL-CMA, is a Washington D.C. based professional dancer, choreographer and teacher specializing in Laban-based contemporary dance. Holding an MFA in Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Graduate Certification in Laban Movement Analysis from Columbia College – Chicago, and a BA in Theatre/Dance with a minor in Vocal Performance from Luther College, Sopoci Drake continues to take classes in as many techniques and practices as she can handle to inform her work and life as a curious mover.

Katie Sopoci Drake Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Katie Sopoci Drake
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis

Katie has been on faculty at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Nova Southeastern University, Miami Dade College-Wolfson, Miami Dade College-Kendall, Carthage College, and Lawrence University.  She currently guest teaches and gives masterclasses around the D.C. area and wherever her travels take her.

As a performer, Sopoci is described as a “sinuous, animal presence of great power; watching her dance is a visceral experience.” (Third Coast Digest).  Company credits include Mordine and Company Dance Theater of Chicago, Momentum Dance Company of Miami, Wild Space Dance Company of Milwaukee, and Rosy Simas Danse of Minneapolis.  Katie has also made appearances an an independent artist with many companies including Brazz Dance, Your Mother Dances, The Florentine Opera, and The Minnesota Opera.

Katie’s choreography, described as “a beautiful marriage between choreography, music and poetry” (On Milwaukee), arises from her fascination with the idiosyncrasies of daily life, and the flights of fancy that arise from ordinary inspirations.  Her work has been performed by numerous companies, colleges and studios across the country and her latest collaboration, Telephone Dance Project, will take her to states up and down the East Coast while investigating long-distance creation and connecting far-flung dance communities.



The Sport Of Spectating


by Lizzie Leopold

Ask five people to define dance and you’ll probably get five different answers. Each dancemaker has a personal opinion (or opinions) about how to make steps, what those steps should look like, who should perform those steps, where those steps should be performed, and so on.  And there are even those choreographers (Paul Taylor, most famously) who would tell you that you don’t need any steps at all; stillness is dancing too.  So then, I’m back at the beginning. What is dance?

One of the common grounds that I keep returning to when trying to tackle this impossible question is audience.  All of the disparate genres, venues, styles, and approaches share the act of watching.  Sometimes the audience is also the dancer, starring back at herself in the mirror as she simultaneously moves and monitors.  Sometimes the audience is 4,000 deep in an opera house.  Of course there are exceptions (the private pajama-clad, living room jam session for one); but for this dancemaker there is always an audience.

IMG_2143With that idea settled, or at least settling, I can begin to ask myself more pressing questions about this common denominator.  Questions like: What does the role of the audience entail?  Is there a responsibility innate to the act of watching?  What are the different kinds of watching?  There is watching to judge and to criticize. And there is watching that works to examine and understand.  There is watching without thinking and there is watching with deep, critical engagement. Is there such a thing as gendered, racialized, or sexualized watching? Dance scholars like Susan Manning would tell you yes.  They would tell you that who you are, both how you see yourself and how you are seen by society at large, determines how you watch and what you see.  They would tell you that the historical moment you inhabit colors your vision.  They would tell you that like visual art, there is such a thing as the ‘period eye’ for dance spectators.  We are conditioned to watch in a certain way and to see certain things.

So how would I characterize a 21st century dance audience? What kind of spectators are we?  I believe that today’s audience, first and foremost, wants speed and efficiency.  These are qualities that we have come to expect from our world.  Technology has rendered us impatient; if a webpage takes more than four seconds to load it is refreshed or abandoned, and if the Lean Cuisine calls for a seven-minute cook time we are annoyed by the wait.  So, what is dance’s role in either catering to or subverting this need for speed?  I cannot answer that question for you.  I can only offer my opinion, as one dancemaker, in one moment.  And of course, as my world changes so will my answer.  But for now, here is a proposal:

Stage the act of watching.  Put the audience on the stage with the dancers so that they watch each other as much as they watch the dancing.  Ask your dancers to be better audience members throughout dance work.  Identify watching as an act of responsibility, witnessing as an act of humanity.  Try to blur the lines between dancing and watching; strive for a place where the differences between the two actions are imperceptible and the similarities are many.  Have dancers stare back.  Write a to-the-point program note explaining your intentions and your questions, thus feeding the need for efficiency.  Now your audience will spend less time ‘re-loading the page,’ having already understood its message.  And, all the while, recognize your complicity in this 21st century pacing.  Then end the dance slowly and, like the inertia that throws your head forward at the end of the roller coaster, imagine that the globe stutters on its axis momentarily.

IMG_1478This is just one answer, for one moment.  It is the answer that I will stage on March 28-30 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.  In this instance, as you can tell, I have given into speed and spectacle and I cannot wait to share the results.  In the past I have staged slow dances, long dances, dances with closed eyes (of course, a nod to Yvonne Rainer’s pioneering subversion here), and dances without explanation.  I watch all of my dances aware that there is no such thing as a neutral spectator or a passive spectator (with the possible exception of my father sleeping through childhood dance recitals).

And so I humbly ask, next time you enter a theater ask yourself what kind of spectator you are, and what kind of spectator you want to be.   What do you see and how do you see it?  After all, you, the witness, are a defining factor in the practice of dance and you hold its history in your remembrance.

Tickets for the performance can be purchased here.

Lizzie Leopold, photo by Matthew Murphy

Lizzie Leopold, photo by Matthew Murphy

Contributor Lizzie Leopold is a dancer, dance maker and dance scholar.  She holds a BFA in dance from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with thesis work titled Choreography and Commerce: Tracking the Business of Dance Through the Rite(s) of Spring .  In fall 2011 she will begin work on an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theater and Drama Studies at Northwestern University, continuing to focus on the intersection of dance and business, both historically and theoretically.  Her writing has been presented at the Congress on Research in Dance 2011 Special Topics Conference, Dance and American Studies, and the Cultural Studies Association Conference 2011. She is also a contributor to the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University blog writing about their dance performance series.

Lizzie is the founder and Artistic Director for the Leopold Group, a Chicago based not-for-profit modern dance company.  She was awarded Best Choreography for Green Eyes, a new kind of musical in the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival and has been in residence at the Workspace for Choreographers’ Artists Retreat in Sperryville, Virigina and at the Chicago Cultural Center through DanceBridge.  In addition to choreographing, Leopold has danced with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  She also works for Audience Architects (, , a service organization working to build audiences for dance in Chicago, and is working to launch the New Books Network Dance Channel podcast.  She currently serves on the Alumni Board of Governors at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater and Dance.


Finding The Right Flow – Choreographer Val Caniparoli

Choreographer Val Caniparoli, photo ©Chris Hardy

Choreographer Val Caniparoli, photo ©Chris Hardy

As we continue our series on choreographers we are pleased to welcome Val Caniparoli – Resident Choreographer for San Francisco Ballet…

You have had a long and varied career as a choreographer. Can you describe a few of the highlights?

It’s difficult to describe highlights in the years since my first creation in 1979.  Many highlights for me are when a dancer that I have chosen gets promoted or gets more attention after they have performed my work.  I love to give underdogs a chance in major roles.

The response from the World Premiere of Lambarena from the audience opening night with San Francisco Ballet in 1995 was huge.

Creating two successfully different Nutcrackers for two different Company’s (Louisville Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet) is a highlight.

I guess highlights for me are when I create works that audiences love to watch and dancers love and want to be in them.  Also when the work exceeded my expectations and the concept, choreography, design and dancers all synch together perfectly. Ibsen’s House and Incantations are examples.

What comes first for you in the process of choreographing a new dance? How do you begin?

When creating a new work inspiration from the music that I came across is the easiest and the best way to begin. When I am commissioned I first need to know what is on the program with me if it’s not a full length work I’m creating. Does the director want an abstract or a story? How many dancers does he or she want me to use?

Some other questions I ask are:  Does it need to fit in the beginning, middle or end of the program? What is the budget?  How long is my creation process? Can I pick my own designers? Can I have a set or decor? How long are the stage and tech times before the opening? Can the project fit into both my and the company’s existing schedule?

These (and many more) questions need to be resolved before I can even begin working on the artistic side of the new creation.

What is your process like when you are making dances?

The response above answers the first part. The next part is to solidify the music choice, pick the design team and get to work. I collaborate with all the designers from the very beginning on concepts and vision. I’m not one to create the work and then paste on the designs.

We all start work on each project at least a year in advance. Many meetings and telephone calls. Now we have the advantage of Skype. I try to include the Artistic Director in my progress as much as possible.

What role does the music play for you?

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