Be in command of your performance…

By Julie Friedrich, Associate Director for College and Career Programs

“To enter a theatre for a performance is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.”
Simon Callow

As a 7 year old child my mother took me to see Don Quixote in Los Angeles with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). I was completely captivated by the dancing, costumes, lights, and sets. Most of all, I was mesmerized by the allure of the stage and the wonderful performance. Dance stole my heart.

Some experiences change you, or plant a seed that grows over time. I remember this moment as if it was yesterday. This performance was a defining moment in my life that I can point to as the start of my long dance journey. 

That ABT ballet was important to me for a few significant reasons. It did indeed send me along a path to loving dance, so much so that it led to a meaningful career (Little did my parents know how expensive taking me to that performance would be – years of classes, intensives, auditions, travel HAHA). But, as I look back, it also introduced me to what I believe should be true of every great performance: Works that are brought to the stage should do for every audience member what it did for me that night in Los Angeles, every single time they experience a live performance. So if you want to be a creator, your responsibility is a weighty one – it is your job to bring that experience to them. 

As the maker of a dance, you are not only a creative, you are a leader and manager. You are an orchestrator and a pilot; the captain of the ship. You are the person in command of every single detail that will come together to form the work that will go from studio to stage – lighting, costumes, music, and all of the other choices you made in constructing your dance. 

As a dancer, I’ve personally been through enough bad situations to know why strong leadership and management skills are important. Now that I am a choreographer and teacher, I know within the first few minutes after an artist comes in the door to work with my students what to expect in the days and hours ahead. 

I can recall during my time dancing in Europe that I worked with some choreographers who were just not prepared to do the job. Therefore, the experience for my colleagues and I was arduous and extremely tense. It caused arguments between dancers and made it hard for us to work together. There was no vision, direction, or movement being generated by the person at the helm (the choreographer). Therefore, we were left creating the steps, constructing the piece, and then performing it. The product was less than memorable, done a few times, and never seen again. This is not the experience you want for your dancers, nor the environment you want for maximizing high levels of creativity and excellence.

Your role as a leader is about more than just managing the process. It’s also about inspiring the artists with whom you will be collaborating (something severely lacking in the situation I just described). A wise choreographer understands that to make that big, bold impact, they must make the dancers their number one priority.  Respect, nurture, love, and listen to them. Without artists who are committed to you, your work will never reach its potential. These bodies that interpret your movement are the vessels that will execute your steps and bring them to life. Of course there are other important creatives involved in the production, too! The lighting designers, costumers, technical crew, musicians, house staff – the list goes on and on. All of these people are part of the team that will successfully (or not) bring your vision to life. When you pay attention to all of these important people, and it all comes together seamlessly, you’ll have an amazing piece of work that an audience will appreciate, feel moved by, and remember. This takes lots and lots of work, and knowing how to navigate the process of creating a piece is essential. 

Feeling like it might be a lot of pressure? It can be, especially when you are just getting your career started. Let me take that back. To be honest, the further you travel in your career and the more success you experience, the pressure can seem greater because the stakes are higher. So, my advice is to know that this is a part of being a choreographer. If you have made the decision that the excitement and your passion outweigh the stress, then you must go for it! You do bear a huge responsibility as the choreographer, but you also have huge opportunities to make a really big impact on others.

“Of course we all come to the theatre with baggage. The baggage of our daily lives, the baggage of our problems, the baggage of our tragedies, the baggage of being tired. It doesn’t matter what age you are. But if our hearts get opened and released — well that is what theatre can do, and does sometimes, and everyone is thankful when that happens.”
– Lynn Redgrave

Traditionally, the best choreographers in the concert dance world have often been successful dancers themselves, with career performance accomplishments behind them. Increasingly, choreographers are creating while in the earlier stages of their dance careers. As a young creator, it’s important to understand that nothing can replace experience, living through the triumphs, failures, and even tragedies. Knowing what it’s like to fall in love, and feeling the heartbreak of lost love and friendship. Realizing the pain and permanence of death. Nothing can substitute knowing what this is like. However, there are skills that you can learn, and knowledge you can acquire, to increase your capacity to bring work that will be successful and ‘wow’ an audience. There are workshops and intensives to help get you on the road to meeting your career goals and dreams.

One of the very best programs you will find on this journey is New Century Dance Project (NCDP). NCDP was created as a ground-breaking program to properly mentor and educate the  highly talented young dance creators of today – all of which are in different stages of their journey. An artistic team of mentors with a combined amount of experience exceeding 100 years will converge on August 13-17 in Salt Lake City. They are charged with the mission of guiding you to that next level in your choreographic journey and career path. They will generously share what they know through hands-on workshops and discussions, showing you how to take work from studio to stage.

Teaching artists (like myself) are ready and willing to educate you to be more than just another dance maker. We are here to help you be one that has longevity, success, and acclaim in your career. Although I can’t substitute five days of learning at NCDP with this short article, I will offer you some advice below to assist you in making a plan, and hopefully inspire you to take part in NCDP. So here it goes!

Julie’s Top Tips to Successfully Bring Work from the Studio to the Stage: 

  • Be Humble. If you don’t acknowledge that you always have more to learn, you’ll become your own stumbling block. Your ego is not your friend.
  • Be Genuine. We all encounter enough people and productions that are putting on fake fronts. We only feel it when we know it’s real. So be yourself. We all want to like you as a human being.
  • Be Intelligent. The performing arts are full of material that is unoriginal and regurgitated. Smart work shows that you’ve thought through the issues and creatively presented your own perspective on them. 
  • Be Approachable. Talent is one thing. Kindness and openness is another. Other artists want to work with colleagues who are easy to work with. 
  • Be Unique.  There is not another just like you. Your combination of experiences, genes, relationships, and personality are yours alone. Experiment with new ideas that unapologetically push the boundaries with your strong sense of self. 
  • Find Your Voice. You have something important to say – and a way of saying it – that reflects your own lived truth. That’s what we are looking for and that’s what will set you apart from the crowd. 
  • Find Inspiration. Expose yourself to everything from theatre to art to live music performances. Exposure to other art forms will influence your own craft and inspire your movement. 

“There’s no better cure for a creative rut than breaking out of your comfort zone. Go out and sketch in a cafe, source new reference material, or spend time in nature. Remember, inspiration is all around you if you are receptive to it and it’s easy to be uninspired if you are doing and seeing the same things day after day.”
-Jessica Stewart

  • Be Curious.  Remember when you were a small child? You’d push elevator buttons, build things with legos, and ask your parents never-ending questions. Hold on to that. Explore what you don’t know or understand. 
  • Do Research. Then research more. Watch footage of the founding dance makers, the current dance makers, and be on the lookout for the future dance makers. Watch as much material as you can get your hands on. 
  • See it Live. Go to live stage performances as often as possible in every genre of the art form. Good, bad, and everything in between will become your tools for learning.
  • Learn to Direct. Know how to direct dancers in your work. Talking to dancers and telling them what you want as a choreographer is a skill. You have to know how to get the best out of your dancers, and, more importantly, you have to know how to translate the movement from your body onto their bodies.
  • Understand the Production. As the creator, you must know how everything on the stage and in the theatre works. You have to know how to design lights, costumes, sets, and much more to know what is possible for your work.
  • Be Fearless. Being fearless allows you to create with a sense of abandonment and without judgement. Push the limits and boundaries, and do not be afraid of what others might think. If you believe in your work, then others will too.

Are you up for the challenge? I believe you are! What I hope you take from this article is that you begin to see yourself as the kind of dance performer that can leave an audience spellbound, and that you’ve learned a little bit of what you need to do to reach this level. Every dancer who has had great technical training, and has been given the opportunity to develop their own artistic voice, has the ability to become a great performer. It just takes a little more learning than you’ve likely had the time for in your weekly studio training.

Like anything, it takes practice and soaking up knowledge and wisdom from others with experience. The good news is that there are many generous artists willing to be your mentors. For some, it will come more naturally than others, so if it doesn’t come easy for you, don’t be discouraged. You are in good company. Trust me. (Raising my own hand right here). 

The education and hands-on experience to learn the skills of dance performance are readily available to anyone ready to face the challenge. Myself and the rest of the exceptional teaching artists and choreographers at NEW CENTURY DANCE PROJECT are ready to share our knowledge on August 13-17 in Salt Lake City so that you will develop the skills to have a successful and rewarding career. I hope you’ll consider joining us because a little information can take you a very long way. 

In Conclusion: 

In my twenty-plus years as a professional dancer, I was exposed to so much work, and to so many different choreographers. It would be a lie to say it was all good work. The works I danced ranged from brilliant to downright bad, but it was my job as a dancer to always execute to the fullest and to bring the creator’s vision to the stage. I have been blessed to have worked all over the world, from Los Angeles to Europe, and everywhere in between. I learned along the way to always watch and be observant. This is how I learned my craft; watching, listening, and soaking everything in like a sponge. This was my education. 

Witnessing masters of choreography working in the studio is mind blowing. You see unfiltered movement and freedom of artistic expression coming to life before your eyes. Steps pour out, then they take those steps and construct the work like a genius architect, because an architect is what they are. When all is said and done in the studio, they pay attention to every single detail that is needed to bring the work to the stage and into performance level quality. We, as their dancers, trust them and dance with joy in executing their masterpieces. 

On the other hand I have worked with many creators who enter the studio and have no idea how to construct a work. In these instances, the dancers are tentative and the work feels frustrating. The dancers are tasked with creating the movement. The product that comes to the stage is not always successful. The audience feels it of course, and the work fizzles out to never be seen again. 

As an NCDP teaching artist, I know I speak for our entire team when I say that we want ALL of you to be the brilliant ones. We want to have dancers and companies wanting to work with you, and for all of you to be architectural masters of construction, and movement generators. We want you to use your intelligence, have career longevity, and most of all, to find your unique voice. We cannot wait to embark upon this experience with each and every one of you. We look forward to seeing you in Salt Lake City on August 13-17. You are the dance makers of tomorrow and we are here to mentor you along your journey to greatness.