Cool & Contemporary: 4 choreographers share inspiration, approaches, and advice
by Thom Watson
In wide-ranging conversations about contemporary dance, DSL asked celebrated choreographers Tyce Diorio, Teddy Forance, Mia Michaels, and Derrick Schrader how they define the genre, the pros and cons of making dance in an age when dance videos are ubiquitous online, where they find inspiration for their work, and how they approach choreographing and staging contemporary dance. We also asked for their advice for dance teachers in hometown studios.
All four choreographers also told us about the importance of music as an inspiration and foundation for their work, and they offered advice about choosing music for contemporary classes or setting contemporary choreography. (For that portion of our conversations, see “Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them.”)
“My understanding of contemporary dance,” says Diorio, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City, “is rooted in contemporary ballet. When you say ‘contemporary,’ I first think of William Forsythe, Nederlands Dans Theater, Crystal Pite. I think Sylvie Guillem, Matthew Bourne. For me, that’s contemporary dance. But it’s obvious too that the term ‘contemporary’ has evolved and is understood in various ways: it’s open-ended, it’s left for interpretation. And there’s a commercial side of contemporary as well, embodied by people like Teddy Forance, Hofesh Shechter, and Mia Michaels.”
“I like dance not to feel like it’s been choreographed, like it’s been rehearsed. I like dancers to feel like they’re living life.” —Tyce Diorio
Diorio, who won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography in 2009 for his piece Adam and Eve, which he choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance, says contemporary’s commercial side is represented by TV shows like SYTYCD. “It’s distinguished by the fact that it’s showcased on television,” he says. “The pieces on that show are a short minute and 30 seconds, danced to many different types of music, including commercial pop. It’s entertaining, it’s understood by the audience, and there’s a theme and a message wrapped around it.
“Contemporary dance more broadly, though, isn’t always produced as television entertainment. Television and onstage at The Joyce Theatre [in New York City], for example, are different mediums for dance to be translated through, and dance is taken in differently in each. In the theater, audiences may be sitting there for a 17-minute dance piece, perhaps looking to the intellectual side of the work and to be transported and moved by something as thoughtful and thought-provoking as any other piece of theater. On SYTYCD, the presentation is different because of the one-minute-and-30-second length, the commercialism, and the presence of a competitive element.”
But Diorio doesn’t favor one medium over the other. “I am an appreciator of dance and of people’s artistry, whatever it is and however it’s presented,” he says. “I love to watch art. I love to experience art. Even if it’s not my cup of tea, I like to see what people are trying to say. And I can stay somewhat removed from my own personal opinion about how and where it’s presented.”
He does, however, have mixed feelings about the effects of media—including social media—on contemporary dance. “First and foremost,” says Diorio, “it’s great that dance is everywhere and that people around the globe are appreciating dance. That people can even say the words ‘choreography’ and ‘choreographer’ correctly? Let’s start there. That’s a wonderful thing. People are being exposed to dance through TV shows that highlight dance. People are being educated about what choreography really means. Dance is popular and appreciated and understood. Those are all good things. It’s so great to have dance all around us.
“We’re living in a social media world where we can easily view dance and it can affect us. Whether you like a given piece of dance or dislike it, it’s good that you can see it and experience it and then form your own opinion about it. It’s important to have diversity in art, and different takes on different kinds of art.
“That’s the positive side of social media. The negative side is that as a choreographer, once you put your work online, it can feel as though it’s not yours anymore, as though choreographers don’t really own their work. There’s a public perception that an artist’s work, presented online, is there for the taking. People copy what you’re doing and create something that’s exactly the same.
“But even then, you’re inspiring other artists and you’re contributing to the presence of dance and to greater access to it. And that elevates the art.”
For his own art, Diorio finds inspiration “in life, in film, in film composers. I find inspiration in other people’s stories, chatting over coffee. I’m inspired by everything in life: and not just in life, but in death, in change. In nature, in nothingness, in everything. You can be inspired by anything. And you can create anything.”
In his work, Diorio says that he strives for “movement that ‘speaks life.’ That is, I love how people move in real life—when they’re walking, when they’re talking—stripped away raw. And I love imperfections in dancers and in dance. I like dance not to feel like it’s been choreographed, like it’s been rehearsed. I like dancers to feel like they’re living life. I want to sit back and feel the effortlessness.”
Forance grew up in Southampton, Massachusetts. He studied jazz, ballet, tap, hip-hop, lyrical, and contemporary dance at his family’s studio, Hackworth School of Performing Arts, which was founded in Easthampton in 1934 by Forance’s great-grandfather Gerald Geoffrey.
“When I’m creating a new piece I usually start with the music and I let the structure fall into place from there.” —Teddy Forance
“My primary style is contemporary dance,” says Forance. “I’ve performed other styles, like hip-hop and jazz, but I love the freedom of contemporary movement: contemporary dance, to me, is pure freedom of creation. I enjoy watching different types of contemporary, from neoclassical work to something so abstract that it might take me a week to comprehend the choreographer’s and dancers’ intentions. It’s so interesting to watch different contemporary companies around the world blow your mind with completely unique offerings.
“I think contemporary dance has evolved and changed so much through the years, building on what we have learned from the generations before us. And now more than ever I also notice similarities in the textures and musicality of hip-hop movement and contemporary as they are mashed together into a complexity that is so beautiful to see and explore.”
Forance has been living in Los Angeles for about 10 years; he has danced for Madonna, Janet Jackson, Usher, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, P!nk, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Florence & the Machine, Maxwell, and Cirque du Soleil. He is a co-founder, along with Nick Lazzarini, Kyle Robinson, and artistic director Travis Wall, of the L.A.-based dance company Shaping Sound, which is now on tour with its new production, After the Curtain.
“In 2006, I performed at New York City Dance Alliance, at which Mia Michaels was a judge,” says Forance. “She hired me for my first job and I assisted her for four years after that. I learned so much about choreography and the business of TV and stage work.”
His interest in choreography started much earlier, however. “I have been in love with creating choreography since I was 7 or 8 years old,” says Forance. “My mom was always choreographing and the studio did about 150 pieces each year so I was always seeing and doing something new. My choreographic inspirations are Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, and many others.”
Now, Forance choreographs for dance studios, teaches contemporary classes at Jump Dance Conventions around the world (which he has been doing for the past eight seasons), and is part of the creative team at CLI Studios, which offers online classes and resources for dancers, teachers, and studios.
“When I’m creating a new piece I usually start with the music,” says Forance, “and I let the structure fall into place from there. I like to work on the ensemble phrases first and then let the dancers continue practicing those while I create other, smaller moments with individuals.
“For the visual aspect of a piece, I usually see what colors and shapes the music and theme evoke in my mind. Some are more natural and some more futuristic in their style and flavor. Staging is one of the most important parts of choreography. Especially recently, staging has been a primary focus for me: to keep things exciting and visually appealing for the audience. For example, changing levels and reversing half of the group from right to left are simple but effective ways to enhance a simple phrase.”
Michaels says that contemporary dance “is a very personal way of movement. It is a hybrid, a fusion of styles. Compared to modern or neoclassical or contemporary ballet, which are much more categorized, contemporary is a bigger world. Sometimes that also means it’s the kitchen sink approach: people put things into the contemporary category when they don’t know what else to call it.”
“I tell teachers to keep seeking out different ways of moving and of telling your story. Don’t repeat yourself.” —Mia Michaels
Michaels, whose choreographic credits include Celine Dion’s Las Vegas show A New Day; the Cirque du Soleil show Delirium; the Broadway musical Finding Neverland (currently on national tour); the Rockettes’ 2016 summer show, which Michaels also directed; and SYTYCD, for which she won three Emmy awards for her choreography, says, “Shows like SYTYCD brought contemporary to the commercial world and to the forefront and made it more acceptable for the mainstream public. With SYTYCD, someone who might not have known what contemporary dance was, or perhaps wasn’t even a big dance fan, could see contemporary work and connect to it.”
Michaels says that there have been negative changes in the contemporary dance world too, especially with the influence of social media. “The internet makes dance works so accessible that anyone basically can go shopping online for choreography,” she says. “We used to have choreographers who were legends. You had to seek out their work and you could only bring away memories and inspiration. But nothing is sacred anymore: you can literally study people’s work—and copy it. Right now in American dance, especially in contemporary, that can result in everything looking the same. And that breaks my heart a little.
“I can see the value of this vast library of choreography to some people. If I were a kid and an aspiring dancer or choreographer, to have such easy access to all the choreographers in the world, their work, and their philosophies could seem awesome. But as a creator, it’s not so awesome. It’s great for a student, but it’s not great if you’re trying to have your own pocket of creativity. You spend a lifetime to develop your craft and your language as a creator of movement. But once your work is online, other people can basically create the same thing.”
So Michaels advises dance teachers who are setting contemporary work on their students to find their own voices—and explains how to do so. “I tell teachers to keep seeking out different ways of moving and of telling your story,” she says. “Don’t repeat yourself.”
Speaking from personal experience, Michaels, who first learned dance from her father at his school, Joe Michaels Dance Studio, in Miami, Florida, says, “When I had my studio with my family, I was constantly seeking out newness, I was constantly seeking to be uncomfortable, I was constantly seeking the unknown. That is part of being an artist. To stay fresh and relevant and new and constantly evolving, you have to be uncomfortable, you have to stay in the unknown. That’s where the magic lives.
“There’s only one of you ever in the history of the entire world and you should be accountable for your uniqueness. Stay true to that. Be the teacher, the creator, the choreographer that you’re meant to be; don’t try to be like someone else. To find out who you are both as a teacher and as a creator of movement, you have to know what you are trying to teach, create, and instill in your students.”
To reach these goals, Michaels believes that a mentor—someone to guide you, whom you can ask questions, and who can provide a different perspective—can be critically important; a recent venture aims to provide such mentorship as a service. “Because I never had a mentor myself,” Michaels says, “I want to be that for aspiring dancers and choreographers, for studio owners and teachers, so that I can help inspire them.”
This year Mia Michaels Live—a resource that will offer master classes, chats, and a mentorship program called the Monarch Circle—will launch online. “Without inspiration, there’s no work,” Michaels explains. “You’re creating something out of nothing, which takes a lot of passion and energy and vision; if you’re not inspired, none of that will come to life. I would love to offer another perspective and another eye and another way of thinking to challenge these dancers and teachers and choreographers to go into new directions while staying true to their voices, to help them find out who they are in the dance world and to celebrate it.”
A familiar face at DSL publisher Rhee Gold’s DanceLife Retreat Center and DanceLife Teacher Conference, Schrader taught contemporary and jazz fusion classes to rooms packed with teachers at the 2015 DLTC in Scottsdale, Arizona. (He will co-present a jazz intensive for dance teachers at the Retreat Center in Norton, Massachusetts, this July.) His primary work is in jazz, but he enjoys fusing other styles, including contemporary and hip-hop, into his jazz work.
“To me, contemporary means creating unusual shapes stemming from a ballet base, using patterns, shapes, and line to create visual works of art.” —Derrick Schrader
The term contemporary, says Schrader, “can be vague. I find it to be less structured than other forms; it’s the à la carte of dance forms. It started out more as a ballet- and modern-based genre but has morphed into a fusion with multiple facets. To me, contemporary means creating unusual shapes stemming from a ballet base, using patterns, shapes, and line to create visual works of art. It has a vibe, a tone. It’s exciting. I’m happy that it has proved not to be just a fad: it has opened the minds of audiences and opened doors for many creative people.”
At age 9, Schrader started dancing, “mainly tap, at a small-town tap studio” near Minneapolis. After age 11 he started doing other styles to be more competitive, and he started choreographing at age 15. “I was always making up dances in my basement, and really wanted to perform them on stage,” Schrader says. “In fact, choreographing my solos was my gateway into my career in dance, and by 21 I was choreographing and teaching at four studios. Dawn Ruzynski [director of Dance Revue in Ramsey, Minnesota] was my mentor. She let me develop my voice as a choreographer. She taught me how to work with every age and every ability, from recreational to professional. From her I learned the responsibility and character that goes with working at a studio.”
Schrader lives in Los Angeles but is on the road around the U.S. “almost every week.” He operates a freelance choreography and master class business and teaches for Tremaine Dance Conventions. “After I made a leap of faith by moving to L.A., Joe Tremaine took me under his wing,” Schrader says. “It doesn’t get any better than Joe Tremaine. What he has taught me is immeasurable: ‘Never rest on your laurels’ sticks with me. He has always encouraged me to take risks as a choreographer.”
When choreographing a contemporary or lyrical piece, Schrader starts with a personal warm-up. “It’s hard for me to be creative if I’m sore or my muscles are tight,” he says. “A warm-up gets me zoned into my body and mind, making me feel more connected to what I’m doing.”
For his work, Schrader says, “the music always comes first. I figure out its tone and work from there. I stage the piece according to the song. When a phrase changes, usually the staging will too. I love things clean and geometrical. Staging is like a beautiful frame that makes a painting look more finished. I only use props when they’re necessary; I can’t stand watching numbers where the props aren’t integral to the piece. I was always told, ‘The prop is another dancer on stage.’ So if you have one dancer, the prop makes it a duet.”
When it comes to choosing themes and setting contemporary work on students, Schrader says teachers can find inspiration in “anything! Current events. Relationships. Whatever you do, though, make it clear. The audience should rarely be confused about what’s going on or the work’s intent. No one likes being on the outside of an inside joke, so make sure your audience is in on it.
“And know your audience. If young children or families will be attending, telling the story of a death or a traumatic experience might be too much. Sometimes it’s OK to go there, but take some time to envision your audience and their reaction to the content. I have judged multiple numbers in a convention setting that were far too intense to watch, even for me. But if it’s more of a theater or exhibition showcase, there’s more freedom there.”
In terms of choreography, Schrader tells teachers to “showcase what your students do well, not what they’re working on; choreography looks best when it’s clean, not distracting with poor turning, lack of placement, or dangerous stunts. Keep it simple and guide your audience through the piece; if there’s too much going on, they will start to check out. Pay attention to transitions; moving from one picture to the next refines your work. And remember that choreography is a conversation; you don’t want to shout or babble the entire time.”
DSL editor in chief Thom Watson is a San Francisco Bay Area–based aficionado of ballet, contemporary, and folk dance. He has also been an internet and social media executive and a political columnist.