Making Dances

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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Making Dances With Puzzles And “Margi Spice”

Ladies and gentlemen…join me in welcoming back the marvelous Margi Cole. For those of you who don’t know her, Margi is a choreographer in the Chicago area and is the Founder/Director of The Dance COLEctive.

I had the good fortune to finally meet her last year at an event and found her thoughtful, interesting–and extremely nice. We are pleased to share this interview with her here so you can get a glimpse of what it is like to work as a choreographer in Chicago…as well as what it is like to be a dance maker–from her point of view…


Margi Cole

Margi Cole, photo by William Frederking

You have been choreographing for a long time. How has your view about making dances changed over the years?

When I started making dances for me, it was all about making the steps. It has evolved over a long period of time into me creating puzzles my dancers must navigate to invent movement vocabulary. I come in with an idea, share it with them, put mechanisms in place for them to begin to investigate and let them have at it. I then become an editor, director, shaper – the girls call it adding the “Margi Spice”. I identify places in the material that are of interest or that don’t seem to work just right, and we explore them and edit it them. Sometimes that even means me inserting myself physically into the moment so that I can help make choices. It also means that lots of material “ends up on the cutting room floor.” I truly enjoy this process, especially watching the dancers engage with each other. I am always working to find new ways to challenge them and myself.

How important do you feel the music is to the dance-making process?

For me, the music always comes later in the process. I always want it to inform/rub against the material so it can be pushed further rather than be consumed by it. I want the movement itself to be interesting enough to exist on its own,  then I seek out its partner. The music for me is sometimes a last step. Fortunately, for the last couple of works I created, I had the luxury of working with someone to create a sound score. In some ways that has proven more satisfying than trying to find existing music.

If a dancer came to you and asked how they should pursue a career in choreography, what would your advice be?

Make lots of dances, see lots of dances, listen, have verbal discourse, be a risk taker, ask more of yourself every time and don’t work in a vacuum. Sometimes the answers to things can be found in the strangest places, not necessarily in the studio or during the process. If you have the good fortune of establishing a relationship with a mentor along the way treat it with respect and care. It is so rare to have someone with an outside eye and ear who can support and challenge you like no other. Treat your collaborators the way you would want to be treated. Allow yourself to fail. Sometimes the trip/journey ends up being the most important part of the work and not the work itself.


Margi Cole, photo by William Frederking

Do I sometimes hit a wall and not know which direction to turn? Yes! And I have found that it is really much simpler to be honest and say, “Hey, I really need to think about this some more. I don’t know what to do next.” Yes! Inevitably I have to walk away from the material for a bit and then come back to it in order to see it differently. It is like being stuck on a move in Words with Friends. You can’t think of anything and then you go back later and you can’t believe you didn’t see this great move sooner. Throughout the years, I have also given myself permission to turn a corner from my original ideas. I call it listening to the material and letting myself see where it takes me/us.

You are a Chicago-based choreographer. How do you feel about the state of dance in the area?

I feel like dance here in Chicago has a strong prescence on numerous levels. There are many unique voices. It has been wonderful to see the dance community grow and the work become more sophisticated over the years. I think Chicago is more recognized as a city for dance, and I am proud of to that and feel good about my involvement in helping that to happen. I am seeing more people work collaboratively across disciplines. Our emerging and mid-career artists are both working hard seeking out new models for ourselves to ensure more thriving and less surviving. Our biggest struggle is that we are all scrambling for the same resources, but that is true of the dance community at large, not just in Chicago. With all that in mind, I would say there is a lot of innovation and enthusiasm around creating a sustained presence here and beyond.

If you had to do your career as a choreographer all over again—what would you change?

I would be less judgmental and more open. Less fearful and more risky. Less conservative and more bold. Less know-it-all and more curious. I would see challenges as opportunities. In short, I would have given myself permission to fail. But, that is just one of those things that it takes time to figure out.

What have you been working on lately?

Right now the company is working on three duets. They are sourced from the same initial topic and movement vocabulary but are developing into three very different studies. It is fun to watch how they are evolving so differently. I also have a deep curiosity for site specific work and an interest in finding new ways to engage the audience. I am trying to wrap my brain around how I can do both those things in a different way. We will see what happens.

Bio: Margi Cole is Founder and Artistic Director of The Dance COLEctive.  She graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts, received a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Columbia College Chicago and a Masters of Fine Arts in Dance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a teacher and guest lecturer, she has taught for numerous educational and professional organizations such as the Alabama Ballet, the American College Dance Festival, Ballet Tennessee, Northwestern University, Columbia College Chicago, Lou Conte Dance Studio, the Joffrey Academy of Dance, the American Dance Festival, and various other institutions throughout Illinois, the Midwest, and the Southeast. As a choreographer, Margi has been commissioned by The Alabama Ballet, Springfield Ballet Company, Sanspointe Dance Company, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Girl’s Preparatory School of Tennessee, Beloit College and Columbia College Chicago.

As a performer, Margi has danced with well-known choreographers and companies, including Ralph Lemon, Joe Goode Performance Group, Liz Burritt, Stephen Koplowitz, Ann Boyd, David Rousseve, Bill Young, Douglas Nielsen, Peter Carpenter, Timothy O’Slynne, Paula Frasz, Colleen Halloran, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, Renee Wadleigh, and Ellie Klopp. In August 2011, Cole traveled to Findhorn Scotland to join 19 international performers to participate in the Deborah Hay Solo Commissioning Project.

Awards and acknowledgements of Margi’s accomplishments include making the list of “Teachers Rated Excellent by their Students” four consecutive semesters while on faculty at the University of Illinois, receiving two Dance Center of Columbia College Choreographic Mentoring Scholarships, two Illinois Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships, a 2005 Chicago Dancemakers Forum grant, a American Marshall Memorial Fellowship, and winning a Panoply Festival Choreography Award for Contemporary Dance in Huntsville, AL.

Margi is active in the Chicago dance community, serving on grant panels and in public forums as an arts administrator, dancer and choreographer. In 2011, she was integral in organizing both the Dance/USA and Marshall Forum annual conferences in Chicago. Cole is currently a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Consortium Member and was a part of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship Selection Committee. She is currently on faculty at Columbia College Chicago, where she has served as a Lecturer and Associate Chair. In 2012 she was named one of The Players in New City”s “Fifty People Who Really Perform in Chicago” List.


Choreography & Creative Movement For Kids


by Maria Hanley

I wholeheartedly believe in creative movement for young children. It’s about educating the whole child, giving them the power of choice, boosting confidence–I could go on and on. I teach children 6 and under and this is what I love to do. Do they need to know the positions, sure! Do they need to know how to build a dance, yes! Give them variety, and you will produce well rounded little people!

A few years ago, I wanted to challenge myself to put on a performance for my young students–but not in the traditional way. I was confused in my beliefs that teaching 3 year olds to stand in a line and follow my movement was not what I wanted to do in my class. But after a while, I could see the value in learning a song, and repeating choreography week after week and then performing it on stage for everyone to see.

So I created a way to do both, choreography and creative movement in the same dance. Standing in a line, plus having the freedom to move around the stage. Here are some tips that I have learned over the years that help me put on a show for the 6 and under crowd!

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Winifred Haun – Creating Something Out Of Nothing

Next in line for our series on choreographers is Winifred Haun–a Chicago-area dance maker who has been around a long time…

How did you wind up as a choreographer?

I started choreographing when I was about 7 years old. My 3 year old sister and I made up dances to my parents Beatles albums. Since I was the older one, I mostly told my sister what to do (in the dance and in life) and we made up a series of what we thought were cool moves and called it a dance. Once we had enough dances, we would put on “shows” for family and friends. A lot of people do this type of thing when they’re young, but most grow out of it. I guess I never did.

Dancers What do you love about choreographing dances?

Choreographers really create something out of nothing. We use the bare minimum of resources; we really only need a body and space to generate art. For me, this is one of the things that makes dance so universal and so accessible. And there are many things that I love about choreographing. I love finding out what’s possible with movement or movement phrases. I love seeing what happens to a whole dance when you make small changes to parts of it. I love being in the studio with dancers. I love learning more about my dancers through the process of making dances with them. I love working with lighting and costume designers. And I love sitting in the audience watching a dance that started out as nothing and has become meaningful to others.

What is your process like for creating a dance?

The inspiration for my dances come from many places: books, visual art, architecture, random movements people make, current events and sometimes music. My process usually starts when an idea, an image, or a movement resonates with me. I’ll get a rush or a feeling that there’s something needs to be expressed. (and this might sound odd, but it always feels to me like the idea comes from outside of me…) The image or idea or movement will swirl around in my head for a while (sometimes for six months or so, one time it was about 3 years). I’ll start some basic research into the idea or create some movement phrases and if the idea keeps presenting itself to me or won’t leave me alone, then I know I have to create a dance.

After that, it becomes about finding the right dancers to work with and developing my ideas in the studio.

How involved do you get the dancers? Do you let them participate in the process or do you prefer to teach the dance and have them perform it? Or somewhere in-between?

Somewhere in between. When I was younger, I used to walk into the first rehearsal for a new dance with the music completely mapped out and all of my ideas in place for how the dance was going to be made and how it would look in the end. Nothing is more terrifying than standing in a studio with one or more dancers looking at you expectantly. So, I felt I had to be choreographically “ready.”

As I matured, I found that some of the best ideas came from the dancers or from things that couldn’t be found or developed outside the studio. (Improvisations in the studio can be extremely productive.) Now when I begin rehearsals, I have a few plans and ideas and 1 or 2 movement phrases but, I let the process unfold more intuitively. The dancers I work with are intelligent, creative, and talented individuals who contribute enormously to the process of making a new dance. I love who my dancers are as people and I love to let their humanity and their individuality show.

How do you select the music you will use?

I like a huge range of different music styles and artists. And I enjoy putting seemingly disparate music choices into one sound design. I also like working with composers and commissioning original sound designs for my dances. (I’d do it all the time, if I could afford it!)

As I mentioned above, when I first began choreographing, the music always came first. The music was my frame and often my inspiration for a dance. In my 20’s, I began to see the work of many different choreographers, and I read essays and books by choreographers like Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe and others. Their intellectual ideas for how to make a dance intrigued and inspired me and I began to realize how limiting it can be to let the music decide how long your dance will be, when breaks in the movement should come, etc.

Now, when I make a work, I begin with the theme or idea or movement and I develop movement phrases, then I’ll structure it, and frame it and then finally I’ll look for music (or a composer) that will express the dance, rather than the other way around.

wini corrects ElysiaWhat would you say the biggest challenge is in choreography?

You mean besides having enough money and time?

The biggest challenge for me is to not rush through the process of creating a dance. I could probably create enough movement for an entire 50 minute dance in about a week. But, to make something that’s significant and worth people’s time and money, its important for me to really fully explore my movement choices and themes and ideas. And its impossible for me to do that honestly in only a week.

What have you been working on lately?

I just finished Vision, Faith, & Desire II: Dancemakers Inspired by Martha Graham, February 6 thru 8 at the Pritzker Pavilion (on the stage, indoors). Audiences got the chance to see artists who’ve been influenced the choreography and technique developed by the 20th century’s most iconic dancemaker. It included an excerpt from my first full length dance, Promise, which has a cast of 18 (9 professional dancers and 9 community dancers of all ages). The opening of the dance includes a series of walks, inspired by Graham walks and the idea of 19th century community.

If you missed it–Vision, Faith, & Desire III: Dancemakers Inspired by Martha Graham will be shown again in Oak Park, IL on Saturday, April 12 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 13 at 4:30pm.