It happens so often in contemporary dance that an audience can easily overlook the details while glancing through the playbills before a show. Already this summer, three companies visiting the American Dance Festival—Scottish Dance Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Pilobolus Dance Theatre—have presented evenings in which most or all of the works were created by outside artists.
Professionally, they can't be called outliers: Major companies, including Nederlands Dans Theater, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, regularly invite guest choreographers to set existing pieces on their dancers or create new works with them. The ADF itself commissions emerging guests each summer to create or reconstruct work on the advanced students at the ADF school. (This year's edition of the program, now called Footprints, features new works by Jodi Melnick, Helen Simoneau and Reggie Wilson in performances beginning Monday.)
The convention certainly has its share of attractive upsides. But it also contains real challenges and potential pitfalls. When it works, cutting-edge choreographers find the freedom to explore new ideas, established dance companies get an aesthetic upgrade and dancers sharpen and expand their skills. When it doesn't, considerable resources and time can be sacrificed, and some or all of the parties involved can leave feeling exploited.
Commission fees and the promise of exposure to broader audiences draw choreographers to be a company's guest. But for more established choreographers like Kate Weare, who created Lay Me Down Safe with Scottish Dance Theatre earlier this summer, the challenge of "walking into a room with a group of strangers, starting from scratch and creating a dialogue in body and an artistic dialogue is the most exciting part."
James McGillivray, acting artistic director and dancer with Scottish Dance Theatre, notes that a guest residency also provides choreographers with a rare chance to "come and play." McGillivray says, "I think lots of choreographers find the idea of being brought into another company as kind of a playground. It's somewhere they can take risks they wouldn't normally take and explore areas they wouldn't normally want to risk with their own company, for funding reasons, or their own audience expectations."
Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose work Automaton was premiered by Pilobolus this summer, agrees: "It's like when you're 4 or 5 years old and your mom brings you to your kindergarten, and you engage with people you've never met before. As children, we somehow know how to manage that right away. We share the playground; we share the world of imagination."
But sometimes that playground is shadowed by conflicting agendas, the pressure of the clock and a search for a common language.
"No good commission is easy," observes Kate Weare. "I've done commissions where I felt enormous pressure to produce. But the process—and the work that comes from it—may not be easily boxed or predictable."
As a result, Weare has learned to choose commissions with care. "At this point I'm almost unwilling to go in and make a work in two weeks. It has to do with a company's value system: Do they want you to produce something quickly that they know will sell, versus actually supporting a process-based investigation that really is about exchange? To me those are very different requests in terms of commissions.
"As an artist, I'm not terribly interested in going in and spitting back some kind of formula that's supposed to represent 'Kate Weare's voice,' producing a piece they can just put a stamp on. That's what I have to weed through when I'm looking at commissions."
Repertory companies are frequently drawn to the most innovative choreographers, people who have developed their own unique, distinctive patterns (and sometimes philosophies) of movement. When the dance field refers to an artist's "vocabulary of movement," it's an acknowledgement that a choreographer has basically created a new physical dialect in which to communicate.
This means the guest not only has to teach a group of strangers a new art work; frequently he or she must teach the language it's couched in as well.
"I approach it like a translator," says Cherkaoui of his work with outside groups. "Not for nothing did I study to be a translator before I went to France. I do the same thing as a dance maker: I am trying to translate it into another form, trying to share things—a personal, secret language."
And if you're a dancer in this world, encountering different choreographers regularly basis, your job depends on achieving fluency, quickly, in a bewildering array of movement vocabularies. The task demands a choreographic polyglot.
"Mentally, when you come into a repertory company, you know you're going to have to stretch and adapt to a broad range of choreography," says McGillivray. "We're not just looking for a shape or line; you look for a person who's inquisitive, as inquisitive as possible for that kind of work."
At times, the demands of guests leave dancers feeling disrespected as well. "There can be a sense at times that you're a plaything for the choreographer, in a way," he adds.
For emerging choreographer Helen Simoneau, a commissioned work as guest choreographer in this season's Footprints showcase is providing her with several commodities she doesn't usually get to work with. One is a sizeable cast.
Economic and logistical realities have always limited the size of the group she has toured with in the United States and Germany, in award-winning works that have been performed here and in Canada, Brazil and throughout Europe. Six is the largest original cast she's worked with up to now. Paper Wings, which premieres at ADF next Monday, was made for 19 dancers—all advanced, pre-professional students at the ADF school.
Six weeks ago, they were all strangers. During their initial contacts, Simoneau found herself negotiating the usual, counterproductive dynamics of auditions with them, including the far too careful etiquette that stifles any authentic exchange.
"I think for women in particular that is a hard thing," Simoneau says. "They're not used to taking space unapologetically, owning the phrase work and not being so concerned. Once I really allowed myself to be visible in that way, and stop being so polite in class, that's when I grew the most. Once a dancer gets past that point, it becomes thrilling to watch."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The dance language."