by Lauren Warnecke
When I first started contributing at 4dancers, it was a place where I could process my thoughts from a choreographic standpoint and share my views about dancemaking – as a dancemaker.
Everything was going fine, and then one day people started calling me a dance critic.
In the past year, Chicago has experienced a huge shift amongst the dance writers – a shift of which I was a very fortunate benefactor. The head of state in the world of Chicago dance criticism retired, and everyone sort of just shuffled about and moved up the ranks. The shift in my local community of writers, combined with the impending collapse of print publications, has brought dance bloggers to the forefront. Bloggers are now participating in dance criticism on a pretty significant level.
This is a shift that makes lots of people uncomfortable (journalists and dancers alike). There is an old-school model of arts criticism that requires the critic to be from outside the community in order to remain objective. Bloggers are often working artists themselves, and may, at times, appear to simply be advertising for themselves and their friends. The problem with this way of thinking is: without bloggers, there are only a handful of writers left. The old-school infrastructure is caving in, and can’t support the writers. One-time dance critics have now opted for jobs in PR, marketing, and consulting within the dance community because it’s impossible to make a living as a critic alone. To deny that bloggers don’t carry weight in today’s press is not just narrow-minded – it threatens dance criticism as a whole. In a city such as Chicago with dozens and dozens of dance companies, the odds of getting press from one of the four or so writers left are pretty slim. Enlarge the concept of what a critic is, and you enlarge the possibility for press.
Personally, I never considered myself a dance critic, and it’s a title I’m still not entirely comfortable with. At my core, I’m one of you. I’m part of the community. I just express my voice through a different medium now.
As a dancemaker I used to wonder what the critics were looking for. Artists pour their hearts into everything they do, and expose an enormous amount of vulnerability onstage. For a stranger to come in and, in 500 words, say that you sucked… well… that doesn’t feel good. A bad review might lead to you think you need to change your dance, or change your process, or quit altogether. A bad review makes you not want to enter the theater the next day and do your show again. A bad review feels intensely personal, and what’s worse is that you know it’s not personal to the reviewer. A bad review can (occasionally) affect what other people think, because a dance critic is a trusted source who is supposed to understand dance better than most people.
All of that is true, except the part about you quitting altogether. I know it is, because I’ve been there. I’ve been the subject of some not-so-awesome comments, and know what that feels like. I’ve had to remind myself that this is just the opinion of one person, who isn’t nearly as invested in the work as I am – that there are very few right and wrong answers in dance.
Guess what? I carry those feelings with me every time I sit down to my keyboard. That’s not to say that I think every review should be glowing. Just like dance, a review comes from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. Telling the truth is the hardest part of the job, because I know exactly how hard each choreographer works to develop a piece. But it is pointless to give blanket praise to everything, or to say things I don’t don’t mean or don’t feel because I’m afraid people will be mad or hurt.
Above all else, criticism is about discourse. By its nature, the job exposes the critic to lots and lots (and lots) of dance. While you’ve been working really hard on your own thing, we are out watching everybody else’s thing. So the leg up is not that a critic can kick as high as you can, or make a dance that is better than yours. The cred comes from the fact that we’ve just seen more, and have a broader base of comparison than most people. The longer you do it, the bigger the inventory to draw from. None of this answers the question on the day, which is: what the heck are dance critics looking for?!?
Easily asked, and not as easily answered. I can only speak for myself here, but the next little bit of this manifesto is devoted to telling you, the choreographer, what I look for in a successful dance performance.
In a word: everything.
I consider the dance and the dancers. Are the dancers dancing strongly? Are they in unison when they are supposed to be? Are they pushed outside their comfort zone? Are the better or worse than previous appearances? Is your dance choreographically sound? Does it have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Is there a through-line, or any sort of “letting in” to your audience? Is it new, or innovative, or somehow different from everything else? What sort of adjectives does your dance evoke?
I consider the performance experience. Is this dance appropriate for this venue? Is it a good weekend for this concert? Is your concert worth the ticket price, or the bad parking situation, or the lumpy, uncomfortable chair I’m sitting in? Who is your audience? What does their response appear to be?
I consider collaboration. How are elements of lighting, sound, costume, set, etc. used to enhance (or, in some cases detract from) the performance? Is anything new or different or innovative about these collaborations?
At the end of the day, it comes down to my gut. How do I feel after leaving this performance? Was it awesome? Thought-provoking? Uncomfortable? Memorable? How does this performance stack up to others I’ve seen recently? If I know the choreographer or the company, was this a good effort from them, this time?
Maybe hearing what goes through my head at a dance performance informs your process, and maybe it doesn’t. Your art is your art, and plenty of people have created successful careers while being consistently reviled by the critics. It’s up to you to decide whether or not it really matters.
Love us or hate us, we need each other. We depend on one another, particularly in the live arts, to continue to push, question, and provoke new things from an art form that creates only fleeting moments. After disclosing what I’m looking for from you, the question is: what are you looking for from me?
Contributor Lauren Warnecke is a Chicago-based dance writer. She holds degrees in Dance (BA, ’03) and Kinesiology (MS, ’09) and is currently on faculty for the Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
In 2009 Lauren created Art Intercepts, a blog focused on dancer health, education, and editorial criticism. She is a regular contributor to SeeChicagoDance, Windy City Times, and the Huffington Post, with occasional contributions to Dance Advantage, 4dancers, and The L Stop.
Lauren has freelanced as a production/stage manager, curator, choreographer, and grant writer. She is a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM) and Functional Training Specialist (ACE). She enjoys coffee and vintage apparel, and believes in the Oxford comma. Follow Lauren on Twitter @artintercepts.
by Nel Shelby
I’m amazed by Sumi Clements and Taryn Vander Hoop of Summation Dance. I started filming for them when they first started their dance company, and I was blown away by how driven and organized they were off the bat. We continued to film and edit their dance videos together and formed a really wonderful working relationship. I really respect what they continue to put out there choreographically and in their ideas of how to present dance.
Their Dancing Literate Project features performances by multiple emerging or established artists, curated by Summation Dance. The program was made to offer insight into the choreographic process and provide space for the audience to engage with the companies firsthand through Q&As with leaders in the dance world, a mini-lecture on “What to Look For” in dance and a free performance and class for kids in local public schools.
Ben Richards and Ashli Bickford filmed their most recent installment of the Dancing Literate Project at Judson Memorial Church for Nel Shelby Productions. Take a look:
Contributor Nel Shelby, Founder and Principal of Nel Shelby Productions, is deeply dedicated to the preservation and promotion of dance through documentation of live performances, fully edited marketing reels, live-stream capture, and documentaries and films that encapsulate the essence of nonprofit organizations.
For the past eight years, Nel has served as Festival Videographer for the internationally celebrated Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. Each season at the Pillow, Nel’s responsibilities include documenting aspects of festival culture in addition to its 20 mainstage dance performances, filming and overseeing documentation of more than 100 free performances and events, managing two dance videography interns and an apprentice, and educating students about the technical and philosophical aspects of filming dance.
This year, she is creating four short films for Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature. In 2012, she collaborated with Adam Barruch Dance to create a short film titled “Folie a Deux,” which was selected and screened at the Dance on Camera Festival in New York City. Nel’s videos for the New Jersey Hall of Fame were shown to an audience of 2000 people, and she is currently editing a dance documentary featuring Nejla Y. Yatkin that she filmed for three-and-a-half weeks in Central America in 2010.Nel has a long personal history with movement – she has a B.A. in dance and is a certified Pilates instructor. She continues to train with world-renowned Master Teachers Romana Krysnowska and Sari Pace, original students of Joseph Pilates. In addition to her dance degree, Nel holds a B.S. in broadcast video. She often collaborates with her wonderful husband, dance photographer (and fellow 4dancers contributor) Christopher Duggan on creative projects with dancers in New York City and beyond. They live with their beautiful daughter Gracie in Manhattan.
You may already be aware that The Royal Ballet is bringing Swan Lake to the cinema for one performance on February 20th. Dancing the twin parts of Odette/Odile and handsome Prince Siegfried are Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish. This is a completely different way of experiencing the ballet – and one that is catching on! Imagine being able to watch your favorite ballet–danced by one of the best companies in the world–from the comfort of a movie theater!
Today we have Nehemia Kish with us to provide a quick snapshot for you of what it is like to prepare for — and perform this famous classic ballet…
Q. What is the greatest challenge in dancing Prince Siegfried?
It’s a ballet in 4 acts and Prince Siegfried is on stage in every act. It’s a bit of a marathon.
Q. What is the rehearsal schedule like for this type of full-length ballet?
We are usually preparing a few different ballets at the same time. Our days typically start at 10:30 and end about 6:30. For a full length ballet like Swan Lake we start rehearsing about a month before with a couple hours of rehearsals a day.
Q. Is there anything special you did to prepare for this role in particular, especially in knowing that it would be filmed for audiences across the world?
I wanted to make all the gestures as natural as possible. Avoiding unnecessary posing made it more enjoyable and meaningful to me.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about portraying Prince Siegfried?
I enjoy how passionately he pursues Odette and Odile.
Q. How is dancing this role now different from the first time you performed it?
The way I approach the role depends on the way I feel leading up to the performances and every performance is different.
Q. Swan Lake is a traditional, classic ballet. What is the best part about dancing it?
The best part is dancing to the music of Tchaikovsky and getting lost in an emotional love story.
This performance of Swan Lake will only be broadcast once — on Thursday, Feb. 20th. If you are interested in tickets – just enter your zip code on this page and find a theater near you.
(Can’t make this performance? The Royal Ballet will be back in movie theaters across the country on March 20th for a single performance of Sleeping Beauty.)
Disclosure: 4dancers accepts compensation for the promotion of these events0
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…
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.
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.0
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!0