As director of the World Choreography Institute, I am often asked if choreography can be taught. My answer is an emphatic “maybe.”
Nature versus nurture in choreography presents the argument: Can creativity be taught, or is it a gift? The jury is out, with research and vociferous opinions coming down on both sides. I tend to come down on the side of “it’s a gift,” and that inspired artistic creation cannot be taught. Structural technique, and methods of analysis, rehearsal, and experimentation can — and should be — taught. Especially in choreography.
Why especially? Because it’s not done. Not enough, anyway. The reasons for this are multifaceted, complex, and exist as much by habit as by economics and logistics. The lack of choreographic training exists in all dance genres, each with its own particular issues, but all tending to put choreographers in the position of producing too many works in too little time.
Creating choreography poses more problems than making new work in any other art form. Painters need canvas, paints, and brushes. Playwrights need paper and pen, or the contemporary equivalent. Composers need knowledge of notation, an instrument, or the ability to hear music in their head. They can work alone. Choreographers need bodies and space. Space is expensive, and dancers should be. And that’s prohibitive, often causing choreographers to premiere works before they are fully cooked.
In an example of positive motion, Gemma Bond, who recently retired from American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet, having joined in 2008, will be in residence with her own company, Gemma Bond Dance, at Vineyard Arts Project, sharing her new work on Saturday, Sept. 7. Bond has choreographed new dances for Atlanta Ballet, New York Theater Ballet, Washington Ballet, and other companies. At VAP, she’ll be working on a draft of a commissioned work to premiere this fall for ABT at Lincoln Center, a prestigious task.
Bond studied choreography once 10 years ago, in a short workshop offered by ABT for female choreographers. Even with all of her professional choreographic experience, Bond says, “I do think the ballet world needs to expand its choreographic training. It’s true dancers learn from observing, as in my case, world-class choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, when they set new repertory. But there are many approaches, structural devices, and technical aspects of choreography that would benefit from rigorous study as distinct from dance technique. Plus we tend to have to create work very quickly, often premiering a new dance before it is truly ready. Too often we do not have the luxury of reflection in order to revise works to meet our own artistic satisfaction.”
Gus Solomons jr, the distinguished dance writer, choreographer, and dancer, reflects, “When I taught Dance Composition at NYU, I had the department change the name to Creative Research. My goal was to give students a toolbox of compositional concepts to organize the movement material they invented — rhythm, speed, levels, dynamic energy, etc. I told them, ‘Don’t bore me!’ which meant, ‘Keep introducing new aspects of your material, don’t repeat needlessly without a compelling reason, keep finding new facets of your idea to take us on a journey.’”
The most influential choreography educator in the recent American scene was Bessie Schönberg. Solomons points out Schönberg was probably the most successful choreography teacher who wasn’t a choreographer herself. She managed to teach both modern and ballet artists, helping choreographers to thoughtfully analyze what they actually put onstage, making sure it matched their intention, and pointing out — not necessarily gently — when it didn’t.
There are a growing number of professional choreography courses, representing a tacit acknowledgment by the field for the need of this enterprise. A short list includes ABT’s “Women’s Movement” and “Incubator”; Jacob’s Pillow has the “Choreography Fellows Program”; New York City Ballet’s “NY Choreographic Institute”; and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s “New Directions Choreography Lab.”
Usually, when a small dance company comes into existence, it’s as an ensemble created so that a choreographer has dancers to work with. Longtime ABT corps member Lauren Post, who has joined the fray for slightly different reasons, says, “I’m not a choreographer myself, but I longed for a space where I could perform dance that was more experimental, and the experience more collaborative, than the rep that is typically done in a large, established company such as ABT. I started CoLab Dance so that my colleagues could keep dancing during our annual summer layoffs, which are usually eight or nine weeks in length. I also wanted to give choreographers opportunities to hone their craft and develop new work.” To that end, CoLab invited Bond to participate in a two-week residency at Kaatsbaan Culture Park for Dance just prior to her VAP residency, helping Bond create the new ABT work. Progress.
In order to expand the existence of well-crafted, inspired dances, choreographers need time in the studio with dancers in order to edit, create draft after draft, interspersed with time away before taking a fresh look. And they need support in the form of mentorship, instruction, and classes so they can develop the craft that underpins singular choreographic inspiration.
Gemma Bond Dance at VAP, Saturday, Sept. 7, 6 to 7 pm. Vineyard Arts Project, 215 Upper Main St., Edgartown. To reserve tickets, call 508-413-2104 or visit ticketsmv.com or vineyardarts.org. All tickets are donation-based; pay what you wish.