5.21.2014

The, Sometimes, Life of a Choreographer




I haven't really spoken about my work as a choreographer since I left Pacific Northwest Ballet nearly 3 years ago. When I started freelancing, it took all of my effort to make the dancing part of my career happen, so choreography had to take a backseat for awhile. Beyond that, it is very difficult to find time and quality dancers to work with when you aren't staying in one place for an extended period of time.  I got some good news recently relating to my choreography and when a few friends heard about it, they exclaimed, "I didn't know that you choreographed." While a dancer with PNB, I took part in their annual Choreographer's Showcase, Next Step, that used to alternate between dancers from the company and top level students (Professional Divison, or PD's) in the school. This showcase offers any dancer in the company a platform to test out their voice beyond dancing without the pressure of creating for a serious production. When I first heard about the program, I never really considered partaking, as I didn't consider myself a choreographer. But as my first years with the company passed and I saw other dancers try their hand at creating dance works, I thought that I might give it a try to see if I had any talent. Little did I know that choreographing would become something that I am passionate about and excel at doing.

The first time that I ever had any thoughts on the art of choreographing was back in the year 2000 when I was attending the Houston Ballet summer intensive. My roommate, Joseph Morrissey, was taking part in the student choreography workshop that was presented at the end of the summer program. Sitting around our apartment, he would talk about listening to music and seeing steps in his head as music played. To be completely honest, I just didn't have the same reaction. I had never even thought about dance steps when listening to music. I don't quite remember the piece that Joe made, but I have memories of awe and the thought running through my head that I didn't have the mind of a choreographer. After that summer, I didn't consider choreographing until my 3rd season at PNB, nearly 6 1/2 years later.

Basic Disaster - Maria Chapman w/Josh Spell & Jordan Pacitti (Photo: Rex Tranter)
I don't really remember what inspired me to put my name on that lined piece of computer paper that Peter Boal posted on the dancer call board one morning. I remember walking past the list a few times without even giving it consideration. After a few more passes, I started thinking what could happen if I risked choreographing something. Would it suck? Would I embarrass myself? I never saw dance steps in my head while listening to music, so if that wasn't my natural response I surely couldn't choreograph. Then my typical big company complex started kicking in. What will my colleagues think? Will people think that my ego has grown to big? That, I think I'm an amazing choreographer just by placing my name on a piece of paper. I'm not really sure what the final tipping point was in me putting my name on the list, but I did it and I'm very glad that I did.

The process of creating my first work was very carefully thought out. I didn't want to create a work just for the sake of creating. When I started collecting ideas for the piece, I wanted to build something that inspired me. I have always been fascinated by weather and natural disasters. My nerdy fascination with The Weather Channel assured that I was moderately educated on the topic. Within a week of signing up for the showcase, I had already chosen my music, my theme, and my title. I used Australian didgeridoo music that I was inspired to find after listening to a man play this deep, vibrating instrument along my daily walk home through Pike Place Market. I was going to choreograph a three movement work that drew inspiration from earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. And I would name the piece Basic Disaster. This was not only a nod to my theme, but an offer of some humor in the event that the piece bombed. I figured I had all of my bases covered and started creating movement on my colleagues. I enjoyed the process and while I didn't have enough time to create the entirety of the work (the showcase had to compete with our busy company schedules and had last priority), I was pleased with the work in progress I presented.

Pariah w/students from PNBS (Photo: Rex Tranter)
I ended up creating 4 works total during my time working in PNB's choreographer's showcase. We dancers/ choreographers were very lucky to have this platform. Not only were we given top-notch dancers, our works were put on PNB's regular stage. We were able to utilize the company's lighting designer and costumes were borrowed from the costume shop. Taking part in these productions taught me how to take control of a room of dancers, communicate my own unique movement style clearly, clean my works to performance quality, and budget my time to get the best product possible.

Following these workshops, I was selected to create works for Seattle's Men in Dance festival and the Philly Fringe Festival. Beyond those, I have choreographed works for a few schools, including the Alaska Dance Theatre school and local schools in the Philadelphia area. My final goal is to eventually gain my first full commission for a high-level ballet company.

So, what am I like as a choreographer? I spent 8 years dancing in the Corps de Ballet in two of America's biggest companies. Living that much of my life dancing in large groups really taught me a great deal about moving people around the stage in interesting ways. I've spent a great amount of time dancing Balanchine and contemporary works, as well. Due to my background in these works, many of my creations straddle the line between neo-classical ballet and contemporary dance. I prefer to find my inspiration from a topic or story when I begin creating a work. For instance, one of my last works at PNB was inspired by a few anxieties that I have experienced throughout my life, like being asthmatic. I find that I am especially curious about the exploration of the human psyche and why people respond emotionally to certain topics. I feel that choreographing is fascinating because it is essentially taking something inside my mind and showing people what is happening inside me in a visual way.

Creating my work, Pariah, on students of PNB's school (Photo: Rex Tranter)
As I stated at the beginning of this post, it has been awhile since I have had the opportunity to really focus on my choreography. I am proud to say that I was recently selected to choreograph for the National Choreographers Initiative that takes place at the Barclay Theatre at the University of California in Irvine. During my three weeks at the program, I get to create on dancers that I select out of 16 professionals that are hired for the initiative. I will be joined by three other up-and-coming choreographers, Philip Neal; former Principal with New York City Ballet, Garrett Smith; a dancer with Norwegian National Ballet, and Gabrielle Lamb; a former Soloist with Les Grands Ballet Canadiens. We will be joining the ranks of other choreographers that have passed through this prestigious program, like Val Caniparoli, Edwaard Liang, Amy Seiwert, Melissa Barak, Christopher d'Amboise, and many more.

Many people don't realize that most freelance dancers have many skills beyond just that of a dancer. Freelancers use their skills from choreographing to teaching to video editing and beyond to make a living and express themselves. At the conclusion of this summer, I hope to use this platform to really begin pushing to create works for companies around the globe. I would share my plans for my new work at the Initiative, but if you are really interested, you'll just have to buy some tickets and come to the show. I hope to see you there!

Me w/PNB school students in my cast for The Anxiety Variations

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