Eight modern choeographers talk process.

June 30, 2009

One of the beautiful things about modern dance is its sheer scope—grounded floorwork, pedestrian gesture, balletic leaps and pirouettes, acrobatic handstands and cartwheels, improvisation…the possibilities are endless. To keep you in the know on what’s “now” in modern,
DS talked to eight dancemakers from across the U.S., established masters as well as up-and-comers, each with a different aesthetic and wide-ranging body of work. We got the dirt on their first pieces, how they start a new work and what inspires them, plus words of wisdom for young choreographers hoping to follow in their footsteps. Enjoy! —Kathryn Holmes


Robert Moses


San Francisco–based choreographer Robert Moses isn’t interested in mystifying audiences. “I want people to be excited, aware and moved, but not confused,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that the work can’t be complicated, or that you can’t deal with tough subjects, but you have to push yourself to communicate. People need to see something they can identify with.” Moses is renowned for the human touch he puts on issues such as politics and race, as well as for the technical athleticism of his dancers. His own background includes stints with ODC/Dance and Twyla Tharp. Growing up, he studied ballet, modern, jazz, African, street dance and even a little tap—and they all show up in his choreography. This month, you can see his company in action at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, February 14-24. For more:

What made you want to be a choreographer?
I had some fantastic teachers. They insisted that you were well-rounded, that if you were dancing you also knew how to choreograph. I started making dances in college. My first heroes were the same as a lot of folks: Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. I watched their work and thought, “Wow, that’s so interesting, how do they get those people to do that?” That’s different from watching as a dancer and thinking, “How can I do that?”

How would you describe your work?
There’s always an impulse that’s about how human beings touch each other—physically, socially, emotionally. Even if it’s an abstract dance, it’s really about human beings. Also, I work with dancers who don’t all look the same and don’t all have the same approach to movement. Seeing different body types onstage gives people permission to put themselves in the work. As an audience member, you can see yourself in it in some way.

Advice for young choreographers:
Make your work! Make your work! Make your work! Not everything you make is going to be brilliant, but it will be informative in some way. Don’t be precious about everything. See what happens if you push past the hard part. You can come back and fix it at the end.


Shirley Mordine


If you want a mentor in modern choreography, check out Shirley Mordine: She and her Chicago-based company, Mordine & Co. Dance Theater, run a mentoring program for aspiring creative minds. Now in its 40th season, MCDT is one of the most established contemporary dance companies in the Midwest. Mordine has also won numerous awards through the years—the most prestigious being the 1994 Ruth Page Award for outstanding choreography for her work
EdgeMode, Part 1. MCDT continues its 40th anniversary season with the premiere of Mordine’s Quest at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 13-15. For more: mordine.org —Lauren Levinson

What inspires you?
I’m fascinated by the craft of choreography as a language and how I can work with that language to express or reveal ideas, questions and whatever I’m intrigued by at the moment.

How do you start a new piece?
I spend a good deal of time thinking, reading and letting things ruminate until I identify some physical challenge to give myself to begin experimenting.

What’s the first dance you remember choreographing?
A solo when I was about 15 years old. A lot of it was just improvised, but it felt great to dance something I made myself.

Advice for young choreographers:
Learn the craft—how you use the elements of space, time and energy. Ask yourself, why are you doing it? Are you saying something meaningful? Does it represent the core of your being? Reveal your story in the deepest sense?  


Doug Varone


Though he’s now on modern dance’s A-list, Doug Varone actually started out as a tapper! He discovered modern at Purchase College, and went on to dance with the Limón Dance Company and with Lar Lubovitch before starting his own troupe, Doug Varone and Dancers, in NYC in 1986. He’s since choreographed for opera, theater, film and numerous dance companies. His work is beloved for its range and humanity. “I explore everything from small gestures and pedestrian theatrical work, to movement that is enormous and physical with bodies hurling through space in ways that are kind of reminiscent of Jackson Pollock paintings,” he says. After creating six new works for his company’s 20th anniversary last year, Varone had to take a short break from choreography (“My brain is dead!” he laughs), but this month, he’s starting a new work set to premiere this summer. For more:

What made you want to choreograph?
When I was a kid, the way that I looked at the world had to do with a sense of design. I was very good at moving things in space and drawn to a visual sense of how to accomplish that.

How would you describe your work?
It’s a blurring of what we do as human beings and what we do as dancers. I look at the way we slouch, the way our arms swing as we walk, and incorporate that sense of humanness into the highly technical things that dancers do. A lot of that I owe to icons like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—they made dance look extraordinarily ordinary.

What inspires you?
Very often, a piece of music. I love finding a score that I’ve never heard before and finding ways to visualize it. Once I get into the work and understand the music, the piece takes on a life of its own.

Advice for young choreographers:
Making dances is about everything other than dance. The things that can be inspiring are the things we do in life: going to films, reading, being up-to-date on current events. Fill your imagination with the things around you. Once I understood that, the work I made took an enormous jump forward, from being competent to having an undertone of life to it. 


Kathleen Hermesdorf


Kathleen Hermesdorf founded her company, Motion-Lab, with composer/musician Albert Mathias in 1998 to explore how music and dance can be created in tandem. Her choreography is edgy, technical, raw and filled with luscious, space-eating movements: “It’s both improvisation with technique and raw spirit,” she explains. Hermesdorf started dancing at 14, taking ballet and jazz. “I had done sports and pom,” she says, “but I hadn’t found my thing yet.” She went on to take her first modern class as a freshman at Western Michigan University, and attended graduate school at the University of Illinois before moving to San Francisco, where she’s now based. She has performed with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Bebe Miller Company and Contraband directed by Sara Shelton Mann. For more, and to find out when you can next see Hermesdorf in action:
Jana Krumholtz

How would you describe your work?
It’s deeply integrated with the music, slightly tribal, and often structured improvisation. It’s affected by martial arts and nature. It’s athletic and wild, raw with a punk princess edge. I always said that if I wasn’t a modern dancer, I wanted to be a rock star!

What inspires you?
I used to be afraid to see others’ work, but now it inspires me. I’m also inspired by individual dancers. I have people improvise in class. My dancers have to be facile, curious and interested in themselves as explorers. Their minds inspire me so much.

What’s the first dance you remember choreographing?
My solo that I used to audition for grad school. It was so dramatic—I would not want to see it again!

Advice for young choreographers:
Go go go go go! Find your own way. Study composition in school; learn the things that work. But the real thrill is remaking the rules, putting your stamp on them. My favorite choreographers were math majors in college or studied visual arts; they come from all different backgrounds. You need to be able to see shapes and space and pull the eye. Get feedback, but separate your work from yourself. Critiques don’t reflect your personality, heart, brain, intelligence, integrity. 


Liz Lerman


Liz Lerman has made a name for herself by embracing subjects like politics and science in her choreography. The founding artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, based in Takoma Park, MD (just outside of Washington, DC), Lerman has won a handful of awards including the American Choreographer Award and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship. So what sets her apart? For one thing, her dancers range in age from 20 to 70! “It’s amazing to see a 73-year-old guy throw himself on the ground!” she says. “Also, some of the dancers are classically trained, one did hula-hooping professionally on a cruise ship and one was a wrestler. My job as a choreographer is to pull these different backgrounds together and make it work.” For more:
—Alison Feller

What made you want to choreograph?
Choreographing is my way of understanding things I might not otherwise. Right now we’re making a dance about a science experiment in Switzerland. I’d like to understand that, and the only way that’s going to happen is if I do it through dance.

What inspires you?
I get excited thinking about something and wondering, “How can I make a dance about that?” I’m inspired by the dancers I work with, by music and by events happening around me.

How do you start choreographing a new piece?
On the first day of rehearsal, I ask dancers a bunch of questions really fast and make them answer with movement. We collect movements from different dancers and put them together as a phrase.

Advice for young choreographers:
You need dance skills but you also need to nurture creativity in others, to learn to bring out the best in them. Figure out what it is you want to say and think about how to say those things through dancing. If there’s something bothering you in the world, at school or with your family or friends, go make a dance about it! 


Kate Hutter


Performances by the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company are like snowflakes—no two are ever quite the same. Artistic director Kate Hutter estimates that up to 75 percent of LACDC’s October 2007 show,
pinky swear, was improvised! Growing up in Carson City, NV, Hutter trained at her local dance studio before jetting off to Massachusetts to study at Walnut Hill School. Her focus shifted from dance to theater at the University of Southern California. “I wanted to learn about lighting and theatrical design so I could incorporate it into my choreography,” she says. Hutter later earned an MFA in choreography from Purchase College. Since its inception in 2005, LACDC has been hot on the L.A. scene, and 2008 will be no exception: The company has a spring show in the works and will perform at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s popular
NexGen Family Sundays events. For more: lacontemporarydance.org
—Jen Jones


How do you start a new piece?
I try not to bring too much into the studio as far as prep work. It’s more about the group I’ve collected. I look at the dynamics and relationships between the dancers that develop from the first rehearsal. I try to capture the energy in the room, and we go from there!

What was the first dance you remember choreographing?
A contemporary ballet about a nightmare and a dream set to a ghoulish techno soundtrack. I wanted to shake up the classical department at my high school. I had the nightmare women in black pointe shoes, and it moved into a duet that I created with Charlie Hodges, who recently worked with Twyla Tharp—so he definitely prospered from there!

How would you describe your work?
It’s based in the modern tradition, but takes on contemporary movement. I use improvisation to express the human quality of being on the spot and having to make decisions. There are works that are polished and articulated out there, but I’m not as interested in doing that. Also, I like how dance is influenced by text, lighting design and architecture.

Advice for young choreographers:
See as much work as you can, but don’t let it lead you astray from what you’re interested in visually, emotionally and musically. Develop a keen sense of yourself through choreography. You’ll always be developing and maturing, and your choreography can follow that progression. 


Monica Bill Barnes


Monica Bill Barnes’ highly physical and vaudevillian choreography can make you laugh out loud—then hit you with an image so simple and sad your eyes well up. This California native and NYC transplant says, “I like to look at how closely comedy and tragedy are intertwined.” The dancing is big, bold and often endearingly awkward. Barnes is interested in people’s flaws and foibles; she doesn’t make “beautiful dances that you can lean back and admire,” she says. Barnes earned a BA in Philosophy at UC San Diego before moving to NYC to get her MFA in dance from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts in 1995. She started her company, Monica Bill Barnes & Company, in 1997, and you can see them at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA, February 5-10. For more:
—Abigail Rasminsky

What made you want to choreograph?
The summer before college, I studied at The Ailey School. While there, I realized that being a dancer meant being in rehearsal learning other people’s dances or being on tour. That’s such a valuable experience, but I wanted to be the one making the dances. There’s something rewarding about having artistic freedom—choosing who you work with and what you’re doing. Now I have the best of both worlds.

What’s the first dance you remember choreographing?
In junior high, I choreographed a solo. I came up with three counts of eight in my living room, and I thought, “I’ve really started something!” My teacher watched it—she sat down and it was practically over—and said, “I would just continue to add to it….” I remember thinking, “It took a lot to get these five steps together!”

Advice for young choreographers:
There’s a tendency to feel like dancing is not enough, but you should only dive into choreography if that’s where your passion is. The people who make it as choreographers and dancers are not necessarily the most talented, but they have an incredible amount of enthusiasm, drive and dedication. Don’t get too worried about technique and turnout. In modern dance there’s a bit more room for imperfection. It may not look as polished, but it’s about innovation and experimentation—those are high priorities. 


 Photo: Marty Sohl