In creating her socially aware choreography, Jessica Starr starts with her students’ stories
by Joseph Carman
In Los Angeles, opportunities and achievement came quickly for Jessica Starr. About a year after graduating from the University of Arizona in 2003, she moved to the entertainment hot spot. Her commercial resume soon filled up with choreography jobs and other work: Elton John’s Las Vegas show, reality TV shows such as Jennifer Lopez’s DanceLife, commercials for H&M and JCPenney. Still, she says, “I never felt fulfilled.” Something was missing.
When a close family member developed a dire eating disorder, Starr felt helpless and at a loss for words. She thought, “If I can’t speak on it, I’m going to create on it.” She furiously wrote several pages about her personal experience with that trauma. Combined with collaborative input from her friend, poet Azure Antoinette, those writings became the spoken-word accompaniment for a dance called Look at Me.
When a group of Starr’s high school-age students from several dance studios first performed the piece at the University of Arizona Jazz Dance Showcase in 2013, the audience was spellbound. Afterward, dancers, parents, choreographers, teachers, and studio owners swarmed around her to share their experiences. “It was rewarding to impact people on a deep level,” says Starr.
Since then, Starr’s choreography has probed diverse social topics such as domestic abuse, same-sex marriage, texting while driving, and depression. Talking about a message is one thing. Bringing it to light through dance is another. How do you create a successful work through message choreography?
Make it personal
Starr, who judges dance competitions regularly, believes choreographers who create based on nothing more than their own life experiences and perspectives often turn out work that lacks impact. Listening to your dancers—and creating work that catches their attention—is vital. “In working with younger dancers for many years, I think sometimes the process prevents the dancers from engaging with the story line,” says Starr, who has worked with dancers from age 4 to college-aged and young adult professional dancers through competition teams, high-school and college programs, pom teams, performing arts schools, and in the creation of concept videos.
Instead, before she crafts a single step, Starr listens to her dancers’ stories and experiences. “Often the things we’ve been through are not at all the relationships or the life experiences of our students. Just because they’re younger doesn’t mean they have fewer life experiences or opinions” than the adult choreographer, she says. “There are things happening in their communities that they are passionate about.”
In 2013 Starr created MusEffect, a nonprofit dance company of 12 professional dancers and three apprentices, with the mission of igniting conversations about social issues. All were dancers she had worked with in various studios or through her summer intensive program, The Muse Experience, in Los Angeles. “All of the work I create for MusEffect is message/social intention based,” says Starr.
A burning issue, such as bullying, often serves as inspiration for workshopping a new piece. Starr asks her students to write their thoughts in a journal, and uses those thoughts to start a conversation. “I learn if they’ve been a bully or a victim,” says Starr.
In turn, she shares with the students the thought process behind her choreographic choices. “I will explain to them, ‘This moment is me looking at you and confronting you for the first time. This is me taking and pulling away the pain; this is pulling all the anxiety you have given me and sending it away,’ ” she says. “There’s a big difference—and you can tell when you see these pieces onstage—between me saying, ‘This falls on counts 1 and 2,’ versus me saying, ‘This moment signifies me walking away from you and starting a new path.’ ”
Starr encourages her dancers to take ownership of their movement. As an exercise, she’ll teach two counts of 8 to a song (with or without lyrics), then ask the dancers what they’re feeling. “It doesn’t matter if the music has no words,” she says. “You should hear a violin or a drum and it should make you feel something. I explain to them there’s no right or wrong answer—one instrument might make me feel happy, and make you feel angry, and make the girl next to you feel jealous.”
Invested, heart and soul
Brittany Anderson-Hoxie, owner and director of Anderson Hoxie Dance Project in Waverly, Nebraska, first asked Starr to teach and choreograph for her 11 years ago. Since then, Starr has created numerous pieces for the studio’s students. “Everything she does is driven from her heart,” Anderson-Hoxie says of Starr. “That passion is in her more than anyone I’ve ever encountered in the dance industry. She has a desire to take people to the next level in dance training.”
One solo, I’m in Here, about a girl who feels shut out, mirrors the dancer’s real-life struggle. “It’s incredible to watch this student dance the piece,” says Anderson-Hoxie. “She is literally dancing her life.”
Still, it’s not easy to translate every hot-button issue into dance. Starr hasn’t yet choreographed a message piece about suicide. “There are so many causes and solutions,” she says. “I won’t make a piece unless I know I’ve got a great concept. I always make sure what the purpose of the piece is and what my intended resolution is.”
Conversely, the choreography she created on MusEffect in 2014 for a public service video titled 953K—Inspiring Action Against Cyberbullying (which is accessible on YouTube) came quickly and organically. “Cyberbullying then was an obscure concept for a lot of adults,” she says. “The intention was to initiate conversations between teachers, parents, and students, and show that cyberbullying is just like bullying, but more painful because people hide behind a screen.” Concerning her choreography, she says: “I don’t want to make your choice for you or tell you what’s wrong or right. But I want you to watch this piece and to get so fired up and passionate about it that you do something about it.”
People often plumb Starr’s experience as a judge for the secret to meaningful competition pieces. She stresses it’s not the six pirouettes or the leg behind the head. “At the end of the day, I don’t remember the cool moves you did but I remember how you made me feel,” she says. “It’s about being creative and leading with your heart.”
Choreographers who teach their young dancers how to engage with their material not only improve the performance quality of their pieces, but also turn those dancers into artists who understand the power of dance to move audiences’ minds and hearts.
Starr shared some steps for creating message choreography:
- Start by talking with your dancers about what they’d like to share with the audience: a personal story? A message for the community?
- Considering the dance’s theme, discuss a dancer’s story or something from your own past that will resonate with the dancers. “I think the biggest thing is intention. Story first, movement second,” says Starr.
- Encourage improvisation so that the dancers learn about who they are as individual movement artists. “I always say if you can’t move like you, how are you supposed to move like me?” says Starr. “They have to feel good about the body they are in. I may find inspiration in their movement qualities and emotional connection to tackle various topics, but I don’t use it to develop movement off of.”
- Encourage the dancers to take on challenges and risks, such as moving bigger, connecting with their emotional lives, and shifting out of their standard framework of movement.
- Teens are often self-conscious and afraid of being judged. Make sure you ask them questions, are receptive to their thoughts, and use their responses to draw connections to the music and lyrics. “If they feel involved, inspired, and creative, you’re in the clear,” Starr says.
- Look at and listen to your dancers. When she was younger, Starr says, she gave her dancers moves she had planned in advance. “I was never successful that way,” she says. “It’s more about allowing the dancers in the room to inspire me to create for them.” (Even in her work with studio dancers, Starr creates on the dancers during rehearsals.)
- Remind the dancers that they are artists. Often.
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications.