Dance students today are exposed to more diverse training than ever before and developing vast skill sets. Not only are they growing into more adaptable dancers, they are also increasingly translating their multiform dance knowledge to create their own choreography.
“I think the increase in student choreographers has to do with exposure to more forms and the Internet making it possible to know more beyond an academic format," says Garrett Anderson, Chair of the Dance Department at New Mexico School of the Arts (NMSA). “In companies too, the delineation between genres has dramatically lessened. Dancers are expected to do more, and this leads to more curiosity. Dancers are also being exposed to more collaborative choreographic processes. I think this gives young dancers a sense of agency they hadn’t had before.”
Dance students at NMSA are assigned senior projects which require them to create an original piece. These can be choreographic or filmic, but students overwhelmingly choose to choreograph their own work.
“It’s the most rewarding thing ever,” says NMSA senior and NDI New Mexico student Terrance Matthews.
A double life as a dancer and choreographer can enhance a young artist’s approach to both crafts. “Choreographing helps me understand a lot about what to bring to choreographers as a dancer," says Matthews. “You have to be prepared to really participate in the process, offer ideas, and be ready to try anything.”
“Dance and choreography are absolutely intrinsic to each other,” says Thandiwe Seagraves, another NMSA senior and NDI New Mexico dancer. “You have to know how to dance to be able to make the art. You need to be able to manifest things in your body that you want your dancers to do.”
Seagraves sees choreographing as a crucial mode of self-expression. “I wanted to dance because I wanted to make art. I feel like dancers are almost a tool and a choreographer is more like the sculptor.”
Interestingly, the collaborative choreographic approach may create a virtuous cycle and inspire more and more young choreographers. “My style of working with dancers is collaborative," says Matthews. “I think all choreography should be.”
Both artists identify the challenge of moving ideas onto the bodies of other dancers.
“Things that work on my body don’t necessarily work on dancers with different proportions and movement qualities,” says Matthews.
“During my first two years of high school I was doing theater and directing. The same challenges from directing translate into choreography,” says Seagraves. “The hardest thing is to understand the people with whom you’re working. You have to know what works for them and what doesn’t. Sometimes you think you have to push someone harder but it doesn’t work. What’s challenging for me is being able to recognize the best approach to making the dancers comfortable, but also helping them reach and connect to the movement I want while still being true to themselves.”
Matthews describes his choreographic style as balletic and contemporary, influenced by choreographers like Jiri Kylian. Seagraves describes her choreographic voice as a combination of jazz, tap, and African. “It’s weird but it’s fun!” she says with palpable joy and excitement.
NMSA encourages and helps cultivate the choreographic talent of its students deliberately throughout its curriculum. “They think about composition from the beginning,” says Anderson. Improv classes and working with guest choreographers facilitate choreographic consideration. “We expose them to the process of making a piece before they start to work on their own. The visiting choreographers do not dumb down the process for the students, and you can see huge strides in growth as a result.”
Both Matthews and Seagraves want to continue dancing and honing their crafts, but Anderson firmly believes the skills students develop though dance and choreography will serve them throughout life regardless of the paths they choose. “We want to give them as much exposure as possible to the rigors of professional training and the creativity of the artistic process. The values of discipline and self-expression that are embedded in these arts will carry forward importantly no matter what.”
Pictured: Terrance Matthews