February 2016 | Teaching What Can’t Be Taught

Aspiring choreographers study basic elements of the craft while creating dance works at RDA's National Choreography Intensive. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Aspiring choreographers study basic elements of the craft while creating dance works at RDA’s National Choreography Intensive.
Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

The National Choreography Intensive helps young dancemakers learn to create

By Joseph Carman

Can you teach a dancer—or anyone else—how to choreograph?

For more than five decades, the National Choreography Intensive (NCI) has stood by the idea that the tools and craft of choreography not only can be taught but should be taught, especially to aspiring dancemakers. Every July, the NCI, run by Regional Dance America, convenes to nurture and guide both fledgling and seasoned choreographers, as well as participating dancers, through the process of learning how to construct a dance. A director of choreography and a director of music (in 2015, Ronald K. Brown and Farai Malianga, respectively) serve as the participants’ mentors.

The philosophy . . . is for choreographers to learn how to use all different sizes, types, and styles of dancers.Gretchen L. Vogelzang

Gretchen L. Vogelzang, executive director of Regional Dance America (RDA), says the intensive was engineered to both seek out and develop young choreographers in regional dance communities and to teach the basics of the craft. Among the essentials she cites are “fundamental elements of design, elements of music, basic structure, coming up with concepts and themes, and how to utilize dancers to the best of their abilities.”

Aspiring choreographers study basic elements of the craft while creating dance works at RDA's National Choreography Intensive. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

Aspiring choreographers study basic elements of the craft while creating dance works at RDA’s National Choreography Intensive. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

Although the artistry of choreography is intuitive and less teachable, Vogelzang thinks craft can be implemented in ways that foster sparks of imagination. “There’s nothing that says that being exposed to some of these amazing directors of choreography and music isn’t going to rub off artistically on the people who participate,” she says. “It’s life-changing for those who have very limited exposure to and understanding of dance. It’s about opening their eyes to the possibilities and giving them the tools to explore; then sending them out into the world with a new vision of who they are as choreographers.”

For the last two summers, Brown has served as NCI’s director of choreography, a two-year position. Long before founding his dance company, Evidence, and creating classics such as Grace on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brown was mentored by legendary dance figures like Mary Anthony, Anna Sokolow, and Bessie Schoenberg (who, Brown says, always “encouraged me to do what I intended”). “When Gretchen reached out to me [to serve as] artistic director, I jumped at the chance to support young choreographers,” Brown says. For his director of music, he chose contemporary composer Farai Malianga, for both his expertise and his “library of incredible music.”

The structure

The 12-day NCI provides two tracks for choreographers, depending on their skills and experience, and an additional specialized track for dancer/choreographers. The Emerging Track participants (who are at least age 16) are given daily choreography assignments by the director of choreography, critiqued during evening sessions. The Project Tier Track is reserved for choreographers who have some professional experience; they are given time and space to create more fully fleshed-out pieces. Additionally, dancers who want to test their talents can attend as dancer/choreographers; they participate in the choreography workshops during the first week only.

Madelyne Clark (left) and Lily Cong work on a movement phrase created by aspiring choreographer Winifred Haun. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Madelyne Clark (left) and Lily Cong work on a movement phrase created by aspiring choreographer Winifred Haun. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Those who want to attend solely as dancers are also welcome. Dancers must be at least 13 with intermediate- to advanced-level technique. They are given morning technique classes in ballet and modern dance and other styles and take part in the rehearsals and experimentation—with plenty of choreography to absorb—and performances. Gary Taylor, NCI’s director of operations, says that 57 dancers and choreographers, representing all five regions of RDA, attended the 2015 NCI at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Ten Emerging choreographers and five Project Tier choreographers participated, while six dancer/choreographers nabbed spots on a first-come, first-served voluntary basis. Five of the Emerging choreographers are chosen from the quality of their ballets shown at the RDA festivals in the spring, and five others are chosen by the director of choreography by video audition via online links to the applicants’ work. The director of choreography also chooses the Project Tier choreographers from video link submissions.

Both RDA and non-RDA dancers applying to attend the intensive as a dancer can register for the intensive online. RDA dancers are automatically accepted, but non-RDA dancers must email a letter of introduction from their teacher or director and a photo in first arabesque.

In 2015, 39 of the participants received full or partial scholarships from RDA.

Choreography director Ronald K. Brown (left) and music director Farai Malianga present the NDI choreographers with music choices that are unfamiliar and challenging. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

Choreography director Ronald K. Brown (left) and music director Farai Malianga present the NDI choreographers with music choices that are unfamiliar and challenging. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

The immersion

The first day starts with an audition class in which the Project Tier choreographers choose their dancers. Taylor then assigns the remaining dancers to Emerging choreographers on a rotating basis, so that the dancemakers get to work with all of the remaining dancers. “The philosophy of the conference is for choreographers to learn how to use all different sizes, types, and styles of dancers,” Vogelzang says.

“I don’t know of any other program that focuses on the more established choreographers and also on emerging choreographers,” Taylor says. “There are plenty of programs that choreographers can submit work to and be shown at, but to work with a director of choreography and a director of music, especially of this caliber—that’s pretty unique as well. And I don’t know of any other program that challenges the dancers quite like this does.”

Phil Strom was a student at Mid-Columbia Ballet in Richland, Washington, when he first attended NCI in 2013 at age 15 as a dancer and returned as an Emerging choreographer in 2015. He emphasizes the program’s rich, intense atmosphere. “How far we delve into our work as choreographers—especially at my age—I don’t think I could have gotten that anywhere else,” says Strom, now pursuing a BFA in dance at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The diversity of the choreographers in age, background, and style is also incredible, and it fosters this really wonderful environment. I’ve made friends from all over the country who work as dancers, choreographers, teachers, and professors.”

Project Tier choreographer Kavin Gant (right) works through partnering details with NDI dancers Roy Schoppe and Lakyn Hall. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

Project Tier choreographer Kavin Gant (right) works through partnering details with NDI dancers Roy Schoppe and Lakyn Hall. Photo courtesy National Choreography Intensive

Historically speaking

Originally titled the Craft of Choreography Conference, the NCI was launched in 1961 by the late Josephine Schwarz, a pioneer of regional ballet in the U.S. and founder of what is now known as Dayton Ballet. Vogelzang attended her first conference in the mid-1970s. Recent past directors of choreography include Kathryn Posin, Diane Coburn Bruning, Janis Brenner, Alan Hineline, and Nelly van Bommel. Farther back in time, George Balanchine, Todd Bolender, Birgit Cullberg, Loyce Houlton, Margo Sappington, Glen Tetley, Ron Cunningham, Norman Walker, and Victoria Morgan served as directors. In 2016, choreographer Val Caniparoli will take on the directorship.

The seeds of Regional Dance America were planted in 1956 when Atlanta Civic Ballet director Dorothy Alexander, with the urging of Dance News editor Anatole Chujoy, held the first regional ballet festival, which led to the birth of Southeastern Regional Ballet Festival Association. Within the next 16 years, four more regional ballet associations emerged: Northeast, Southwestern, Pacific Western, and Mid-States. In 1963 the National Association for Regional Ballet (NARB) was incorporated. After the success of Schwarz’s Craft of Choreography Conference, the five regions of the NARB shared the role of running the conference. In 1987 the NARB became RDA and continues to run what is now the NCI.

Choreography students are encouraged to experiment with tools such as canon, structure, theme, and improvisation. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Choreography students are encouraged to experiment with tools such as canon, structure, theme, and improvisation. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

On process: dance

What makes this intensive different from other choreography workshops? It’s all about the mentoring, the guidance on making informed musical choices, the separate tracks for various levels of experience, and the intensity of on-the-spot dancemaking. In many ways, this is the Project Runway of choreography (minus the reality TV drama), particularly with the specific challenges the director of choreography gives.

“I don’t know of any program out there that makes you choreograph all day,” says Christy Aumiller, 27. “That’s all you think about for two weeks. It made me grow in what I want to do and create.” Her ballet Whakatoi, performed at the 2015 RDA/NE Festival, won her a full scholarship as an Emerging choreographer to her first NCI session last summer.

Aumiller outlines her NCI schedule: wake up at 7am. Class/choreography workshop at 9am for three hours with Brown. Afternoon session in which Brown gives a specific assignment and Malianga assigns music to the Emerging choreographers (usually something unfamiliar and out of their comfort zone). Choreographers work with assigned dancers to create material to be performed that evening. From 7 to 8pm, choreographic showing. From 8 to 10pm, critiquing sessions with all the choreographers and directors. Rinse and repeat. (For the second week, Emerging choreographers get a set cast to work with on a full piece.)

Choreographic work created durning daytime sessions is unveiled in evening showings followed by critique sessions with the directors. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Choreographic work created durning daytime sessions is unveiled in evening showings followed by critique sessions with the directors. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

During classes with Brown, choreographers learned about classic choreographic tools such as canon, theme and variations, ABA structure, and improvisation. “I’d give feedback and in the evening see the work,” Brown says. “The next day they had to do something else. You can’t be attached to ‘I want to finish this thing.’ No! You learn the skills, learn the tools, and then go on to the next thing. That’s such a valuable lesson for choreographers because sometimes [the work] feels so precious and personal. With this, there is a kind of detachment.”

Brown also threw some choreographic curve balls. “Ron did this exercise with us where we had the dancers doing the same choreography on different counts, but they all had to end up together,” says 27-year-old Project Tier choreographer Chelsey Dahm Bradley, who has participated at all levels of the NCI since she was 14. “It was very mathematical and cool once you figured it out. But anything that involves numbers I find difficult.”

Brown relishes taking dancers into new territory. “Another thing I taught them was the ‘companion phrase,’ ” he says. “A lot of people would generate movement that was completely freestanding. I had them create a phrase and then another phrase that had a relationship to it.”

Strom was initially stalled by Brown’s “loop phrases,” the technique of using the same or similar phrases of movement for two dancers and working the phrase so they move spatially around each other. Still, Strom says that by expanding his vocabulary and embracing his choreographic voice, “I really got out of my shell.”

Non-choreographing dancers at NDI learn how to be part of the creative process when working with multiple choreographers during the two-week program. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Non-choreographing dancers at NDI learn how to be part of the creative process when working with multiple choreographers during the two-week program. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

One afternoon, Brown did a “text in movement” workshop. “They had to write a letter to one of their parents,” he says. “Then they had to act out the story. One young lady, an Emerging choreographer, wrote of a friend who was suicidal because another friend had been killed. You can be inspired by something emotional—celebrating that life.”

Some of Brown’s critiques of the work exposed familiar novice potholes, such as “not knowing why they picked a step,” he says. “Also, trying to figure it all out in their heads before going into the studio. The why of the composition.” During an improvisation challenge, he made the choreographers scrutinize their work. “They would go, go, go, because they’re thinking about the product,” he adds. “I said, ‘No, you have to step back and look to see. You have to see if the dancers understand what you want. But you have to understand it first.’ ”

On process: music

As director of music, Malianga gave the choreographers plenty to ponder. “My natural inclination as a choreographer is to pick percussive music,” Strom says, adding that Malianga “very quickly figured that out” and steered him to a variety of styles that have less rigid meter. Aumiller flinched at the idea of using songs with lyrics. For her final work, she says, Malianga “compromised and gave me [an instrumental version of] My Favorite Things by John Coltrane.”

At one intensive, Rob Wood, on faculty at University of Utah’s ballet and modern dance departments, served as the director of music. Bradley says Wood wanted to get her out of her musical rut. “When I first started choreographing as a teenager I liked to use big, bold, exciting music like movie soundtracks, music that gets you pumped up and engaged,” she says. Instead, Wood gave her minimalist pieces by composer Arvo Pärt. “That was challenging for me, because I was always trying to make a statement with the music.”

Non-choreographing dancers at NDI (including Abigail Westmorland) learn how to be part of the creative process when working with multiple choreographers during the two-week program. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

Non-choreographing dancers at NDI (including Abigail Westmorland) learn how to be part of the creative process when working with multiple choreographers during the two-week program. Photo by Gary Taylor Photography

The takeaways

On the final day, all 15 of the choreographers show their works, usually 5 to 8 minutes each. They take home a flash drive containing all the work they have created during the intensive, which they can use however they wish. Additionally, all choreographers receive the entire music library of compositions used in class or performances.

For the non-choreographing dancers, the NCI can be revelatory at a young age. “They really gain an understanding of how to be a part of the creative process of dance,” Vogelzang says. “They’re working with 15 choreographers who have different styles, genres, requirements, and means of communicating. Because quite often it’s not just about standing in the room and being told what to do—many times these choreographers come in and say, ‘OK, I want you to improv; show me what you would do with this step.’ There’s more of a back-and-forth than a lot of dancers realize.”

At the end of the intensive, the choreography and music directors, based on the work they’ve seen, choose one Emerging and one Project Tier choreographer to participate in RDA’s Choreography Connection. RDA markets the two choreographers to RDA companies around the nation and pays half of the cost if a company commissions a piece by them.

Since attending the NCI, the choreographers have used their know-how in the working world. Bradley has set pieces for Canton Ballet and Dance Wisconsin and will choreograph her first full-length ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for Dance Wisconsin this spring. Aumiller was granted the 2015 Emerging Choreographer Choreography Connection allocation and continues to teach and choreograph in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. And Strom is embarking on his path as a performer and choreographer.

“I think, through this intensive, I’ve really opened up,” Strom says. “In my work as a dancer and choreographer, I’m embracing my style and aesthetic unashamedly.”

NDI 2016 Information

In 2016, the NCI will again be held at Florida State University in Tallahassee, from July 18 to 29. The cost of the two-week intensive for choreographers, including tuition and room and board, will run from $1,750 to $2,050 for RDA members, and from $1,920 to $2,250 for non-RDA members; the one-week program option, open to dancers only, costs less, depending on the choice of double or quadruple rooms. Choreographers are automatically placed in double rooms; single-room accommodations are more expensive.


Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.