The Best Things We Learned at Ailey's Choreography Festival

December 2, 2018

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recently hosted their first Choreography Unlocked Festival, where artists in the business of creating dance gathered to immerse themselves in workshops, performances, and panel discussions. Young choreographers learned tips, tricks, and all about the creative process of choreographing from Ailey’s Artistic Director Robert Battle and other choreography experts, including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Choreographers gathered at Alvin Ailey Studios for the Choreography Unlocked Festival (Nicole Tintle, courtesy Ailey)

The festival emphasized collaboration and unity among fellow choreographers—encouraging artists to bounce ideas off of each other and foster community within their field. Dance Spirit caught up with five artists who attended and asked them to share the best things they learned. Check out the advice they’ll carry with them forever, and the moments of exploration that meant the most—then start applying it all to your own choreography process or dance training ASAP!

Kyle Marshall, choreographer

“One exercise that stood out to me was one we did with photographs. They had a few dozen pictures in the room and we all walked around the space, picking up photos we connected with, that either told our own story or inspired us in the moment. It was really interesting because everyone picked different ones. It was cool to see how we each have unique attractions to things.

We also did a great improv exploration where we uncovered our unique ways of moving, and our unique histories of moving. We jotted down our past dance/movement experiences that we don’t usually consider within our dance training. For me, it was marching band and musical theater. Then, we did improvisations with those ideas in mind. It was so fun to see everyone tap into their unique histories and grow into improv from that.

The best advice I took away, though, is that dance is a community. For young choreographers especially, it’s important to think about how you create a community within your studio with your dancers. How do you create a space that feels inviting, where people want to do their best and feel supported? It could mean showing that a dancer is valued or listening to people’s responses. It’s important for choreographers to worry not just about making the steps, but about the environment and the atmosphere they’re working in.”

Esmé Boyce, choreographer and dancer

“The festival was so much about curiosity. To me, it was a reminder of how much we can learn from each other if we just open our minds a little bit and think from more of a ‘what if’ place. Jawole urged the group to see work in dance genres that some of us might not usually see. There are so many ideas that can be sparked from watching things that aren’t what you usually watch. We have to expand our vision as choreographers and keep a very open mind. Every show you see and every engagement you have has the raw potential for ideas, and for opening your perspective and point of view.

One relationship building exercise we did that really stood out to me was when we started with a one-on-one relationship by introducing ourselves to someone and sharing something about ourselves. Then we merged into small groups and used ice breakers to merge into more serious topics. It then turned into a whole-room relationship where everyone felt comfortable, welcome, and open. It became a safe place where people could share and laugh and discuss things. There was so much warmth, and I think the dance community could use more of that. In dance and choreography, you’re always trying to present yourself in the best light, so we end up not really discussing the stuff that’s challenging or talking about creative problem solving. But it’s so important.

My best advice for young choreographers is to just go for it. Make room for your imagination. There are many leaders in the field who want to see new voices be heard. Know that choreography is really important, and that you should keep making work even when the going is tough. Also, see everything, know your history, and follow your gut.”

Parisa Khobdeh, Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer

“The Choreography Unlocked Festival became a place where ideas and ambitions were born. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired. The discussions felt like a gathering of old friends having a conversation at the kitchen table. We explored different ideas by ourselves in our own personal spaces, but by the end of the day, we were jamming in a circle with each other while dancers jumped into the center to explore their movement ideas. It was really, really rich witnessing these discoveries.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, told us during the Nuturing New Voices panel (part of the festival’s first weekend) that your work will be unique because there’s only one of you. He pointed out that Hamlet and The Lion King have the same plot line, but that they’re unique because of how the story is told. He said all stories are essentially the same and nothing is new, but it’s your distinct way of telling that story that makes it as unique as you.”

Hope Boykin, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company member, founder of HopeBoykinDance

“Being able to spend a weekend with so many creators and dance makers, most of whom I’d never met, was thrilling. I was reminded that we’re a community, and should be supportive of one another. I’m now more determined to make myself available to see and support my peers’ works and their creative processes. I often feel a sense of isolation, and I realized I wasn’t alone in that. We need community as choreographers just as much as we need community as performers. We have to understand that the first try, work, production may not be the best. But with the right kinds of support, we can grow in our weaknesses and strengths.

The thing that left the greatest impression on me was truly understanding the benchmarks Jawole feels need to be met throughout the creation process. First, you actually must have a process. Then, comes the preparation and research. We also discussed the importance of really celebrating all of those involved in helping to make the ‘process’ come about.”

Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Camille A. Brown & Dancers member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater alumni

“I had no idea what to expect going into Ailey’s Choreography Unlocked Festival, but loved the experience. In truth, I didn’t even realize how much I’d been missing in terms of community and support. One thing Jawole said that really stuck out to me was her urging us to ‘create, create, create, because there’s no reason not to.’ I think that a lot of choreographers feel like someone needs to say to them ‘you should be a choreographer,’ or ‘you have a gift for this.’ The advice we got from the festival was, don’t wait for a reason. Just go out and create.”

Robert Battle (center, right) and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (center, left) with participants at at the festival (Nicole Tintle, courtesy Ailey)