Composers rely on notes and chords when crafting the musical message that an orchestra will deliver. Playwrights create whole worlds on the stage with words. A choreographer communicates through the movement of the human body. Audiences may hold their breath while a dancer seemingly defies gravity but it is a choreographer who crafts her steps.
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asks W.B. Yeats in a famous line of verse. While intricately intertwined, the art of creating the dance is distinct from the art of performing it. The Greek roots of the word choreography are “dance” and “to write” but the term has evolved as dance itself has evolved from a social interaction to a theatrical presentation. Today, choreography refers to the art of creating dances.
Whether the steps are original or drawn from a set vocabulary like that in ballet, the craft of arranging them in space is the essence of choreography. The steps must then face the added challenge of being “set” on a dancer. And, just as every violinist will interpret a musical score differently, the artistic temperament and talent of any given dancer will influence the outcome. Since the art form can only be viewed through the dancer’s interpretation – which may vary from performance to performance – it is constantly in flux.
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Steven Caras, who has navigated the world of professional dance as a performer, photographer and lecturer, believes that the fluidity of the art form is part of its appeal. “You will see the same ballet but it will never be the same twice,” says the West Palm Beach resident, who danced with New York City Ballet for 14 years. “People generally do not flock to the theater to see choreography… but it’s what they end up remembering and loving.” Before retiring from performance in 1983, Caras worked with two iconic choreographers – Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. He vividly remembers being able to sense the anticipation of an audience eager to experience each choreographer’s latest work pulse through the thick curtain as he took his place on stage.
Caras danced during a time when choreographers typically worked for a single dance company, giving them the luxury of working with the same dancers while they developed their craft and earned a name for themselves.
“Other than serious ballet lovers, the public is not coming out to see the new work of this particular choreographer or that one the way they once turned out to see something new from Robbins or Balanchine,” he says. “Good choreographers rarely get their due.”
Most choreographers now work on a freelance basis. Many start off as dancers and teach themselves, gaining experience as they search for opportunities to work with bodies that can interpret their message. Some colleges, dance schools and ballet companies have developed programs for emerging choreographers.
Miami City Ballet regularly presents the works of Balanchine and Robbins but, under the leadership of Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez, the company is also featuring new works by some of today’s most exciting choreographic voices. Lopez, who worked under Balanchine’s tutelage as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, is one of the few women directing a major ballet company and she is making a strong mark with her bold choices in programming.
Recently, she commissioned Justin Peck, the resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, to create a company-specific work for Miami City Ballet. Lopez says it is not easy to provide the right environment for creative collaboration and artistic growth during the rehearsal process but that it is essential to her artistic vision for the company.
“The two [main] ingredients for me are to first establish a relationship with the choreographer and the company,” she says. “The second is to give the choreographer and dancers enough creative time to delve into the work.”
Peck first worked with the dancers at Miami City Ballet in 2013, when he choreographed the duet Chutes and Ladders. Although he created Heatscape, a fast-paced work for 17 dancers, in about three weeks, he had multiple opportunities to return and rework and refine the choreography and the dancers had ample time to digest the new work.
For Peck, one of the most frustrating moments in his work is “imagining some sort of choreographic step and realizing it is physically impossible [to do].”
Peck often seeks out additional collaborations that will influence his work. In creating a signature ballet for Miami City Ballet, he used the music of prolific Czech composer, Bohuslav Martin, and worked with popular street-artist Shepard Fairey, while juggling additional elements like costumes, set and lighting design.
“Choreography has always been about exploring the music… an excuse to really dive into the music,” he says. “It is a place where art, music and lighting and story can all come together and exist in one place.” For a choreographer, seeing all the pieces come together on opening night is the ultimate satisfaction. For Peck that happened in March, when Miami City Ballet presented the world premiere of Heatscape at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.
“It is such a special thing to be someone who makes new dances,” says Boca Ballet Theatre Co-Artistic Director Dan Guin. Although he has choreographed a number of ballets for Boca Ballet, he does not claim the title for himself. Boca Ballet regularly stages classical full-length story ballets, inviting an array of international stars to perform with the students who train at its school. Guin tackles the formidable task of adapting highly regarded variations of famous 19th-century choreographers to the varying talents of his dancers.
“I want dance to stay alive and vibrant for generations to come,” he says. “I think the way I can be the most influential in doing that is in inspiring the next generation of dancers and choreographers.”