When you’re one of the most sought-after choreographers in the dance world, it might seem as though creating a new piece is as easy as learning the steps to the Electric Slide.
“A lot of young choreographers ask me, ‘Does it ever get easier?’, and I’m like, “No,” said Matthew Neenan, a choreographer debuting new work tonight for NOW: Premieres, which is part of the Vail International Dance Festival.
Overcoming those first dance jitters
Neenan co-founded Ballet X, a company that combines contemporary moves with classical ballet. Neenan said making a new piece is at once both thrilling and terrifying.
“With each piece I do I learn more and more, and that’s what’s great about getting older as a choreographer,” Neenan said. “(But) there’s always a kind of nervous wonder, where I’m thinking, ‘How is that going to look? How is that going to be perceived? And how am I going to challenge myself to be the best I can be?”
Neenan’s new piece is entitled “Increasing”, featuring eight dancers from Ballet X along with Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, principals with the New York City Ballet. Neenan said “Increasing” starts with a solo and grows to include the whole crew, and is “pure dance”.
“A lot of the work I’ve been doing is more conceptual, more narrative,” Neenan said. “It’s been nice to do something that’s all about the physicality of the dancers.”
Painters sketch, musicians pound on the piano and writers begin with a rough draft. But when movement is your medium, the creative process varies, even among choreographers.
“At this point (my) creative process is extremely non-linear. It’s hard to track where a piece had begun,” said Brian Brooks, a choreographer who will also debut a new work this evening. Regardless of where the idea generates, the exciting part for Brooks is meeting with the dancers for the first time in the studio.
“It’s like a really great first date,” Brooks said. “You’re very interested in one another and everything seems like new.”
Working in a ‘creative pressure cooker’
Not yet titled, Brooks’ new piece features Carla Korbes, Joseph Gordon, Zachary Catazaro and Chase Finlay and explores the boundaries between the dancer’s classical ballet training and Brook’s more contemporary work. Brooks said the majority of the piece was developed last week during rehearsals for NOW.
“(It’s like) we go into a creative pressure cooker at the festival,” Brooks said. “We get an extraordinary amount of work done in an extraordinary amount of time.”
As someone who thinks with both his body and brain, Brooks aims for a state of creative limbo when making a new piece.
“I’m really in love with gravity and the free fall,” Brooks said. “I feel like I’m in a constant state of being off-kilter. I want to stay in the fall, I want to be constantly aware of this in my body and the dancers, for it to never rest. I find this is a driving force (in my work).”
Brooks said he can be just as intimidated of the dancers as they might be of him.
“The nice thing about it is each side is so enamored with the other,” Brooks said. “We’ll say, ‘Oh, don’t be nervous, are you kidding? I’m dying to do what you do.”
Dancers and choreographers might envy each other’s respective talents, but those on the outside looking in often only see broken toes, sore muscles and bodies brought to the brink of their physical limits. For those who have devoted their lives to dance, the chance to create everyday outweighs the pain.
“People think we have a very hard life, but even though I’m very old, I’m very senior here (at the festival), I love everything I’m doing,” said dancer and choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu. “I love the whole transition from forming the idea, to the dancers and now doing the choreography.”
Dancing ‘a little deeper’
Sheu created three pieces to be performed for the first time tonight for NOW: a duet with Indian Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa called “One Times One,” a solo piece for New York City Ballet dancer Lauren Lovette and “Scent,” a duet with Herman Cornejo, the festival’s artist-in residence. When working with other dancers, Sheu wants to make them stretch, both literally and figuratively.
“When I see dancers I think, ‘Wow, they are so good at what they are doing. What can I do to bring something different out of themselves, see something they’ve never seen in themselves?” Sheu said. “When I was a dancer, I so wanted to have someone help me to discover a different point of view of myself, to pull something out of me that was so I different, I didn’t even know that I could do this.”
The atmosphere at the Dance Festival is focused on collaboration and camaraderie, but a little healthy competition still worms its way in.
“You have to be inspired by other choreographers,” Neenan said. “That’s what makes you want to be better. When I see a really incredible work … I feel like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to get my [expletive] together. I’ve got to dig a little deeper. I’ve got to dig into my soul and create something that’s as beautiful as that.”
As the clock creeps closer to the curtain rising, sometimes choreographers have to remind themselves that in between the soul digging and creative expression, there’s an audience waiting to be entertained and a job to do.
“Damian (Woetzel, artistic director of Vail International Dance Festival) said to me, ‘I need something new. I don’t care what you do, just go onstage and dance something,’” Sheu said.
With a choreographer as talented as Sheu, you know she’ll debut a dance that’s emotional, innovative and fiercely passionate. Still, it doesn’t hurt to learn the Electric Slide as a backup.