Dancer Collab – Doing What Ya Gotta Do

by Joshua Legg

1. How do you define your relationship with your dancers as it relates to the choreographic process?

I always try to allow fluidity in defining this relationship. This relationship should support the needs of all the artists involved, but it also has to meet the needs of the work that’s being created. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

2. As choreographer-to-dancer, what function/s have each of you held in contributing to and/or impacting the generation, selection, staging, etc. of material?

As both dancer and choreographer, I’ve had the full spectrum. I’ve worked with choreographers who decided every detail, and ones who expected complete collaboration. I’ve asked both from various casts I’ve worked as a choreographer as well.

3. In her article, “Collaborating with Dancers,” Hope Mohr talks about a spectrum of collaboration which spans from the “old-school genius” model, where “creativity falls almost exclusively to the choreographer,” to a more mutualistic model, where choreographers “rely heavily on the dancers with whom they work not only to generate vocabulary, but also to problem-solve at every point in the creative process.” As a choreographer, how have you traversed this spectrum?

In her piece, Mohr states that the genius model is "outdated." I actually find that statement itself anachronistic, especially if we truly want an expansive dancemaking toolbox. Sometimes, that genius model *is* the appropriate choice given the circumstances in which we are all making a particular dance. I certainly don’t want to work that way all the time, but sometimes, ya gotta do what ya gotta do to get the job done. That’s just pragmatic. (See below.)

4. Along this spectrum, what factors have influenced how you utilize your dancers in the choreographic process?

A lot of this is predicated by some simple factors, the biggest of which is time. Do I have the luxury of time that it takes to explore an idea through a democratic group process? If yes, then I love to work very collaboratively. Exciting things happen in those processes. I love to give dancers problems and allow them to solve them. My role then is usually to play tailor with the pieces of material they create and stitch it all together. In those cases, there’s a sense of facilitation in my role, more than grand director. I find, when there’s time, that I enjoy helping dancers develop the skills of collaboration as much as I enjoy our development of the dance itself. But, because I don’t have my own company at this point, I’m usually working on commission and I have a limited rehearsal period. I also tend to make bigger pieces at this point, in terms of cast size. When 43 people are looking at you, they are looking for order and direction. Not exploration. Even with 17 dancers in the studio, you have to be judicious, and allow for a hybrid process where it’s mostly you as "old-school genius" with a peppering of places where the cast might contribute ideas as well. Now, when I have a smaller cast, I definitely embrace collaboration full-tilt. Because I rarely have the luxury of time these days, I’ve also had to start working quickly, allocating small blocks of time to each element or section of the dance. I find I have to be more pragmatic, less democratic in many of these situations. In those cases, the "old-school genius" approach is just the appropriate choice. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value other ideas or experiences. It just means we have to be efficient. I’ve had six commissions this year, and have made a seventh dance as well. One of those works was completely collaborative, two were definitely "old-school genius" and the others all fell at various points along the spectrum, based again, largely on rehearsal time more than the work we were taking on. So, my dancemaking toolbox includes that full spectrum of approaches. It has to.

5. Is there a side of the spectrum you tend to lean towards? Why?

Historically, I leaned toward collaboration. I came of age post-Judson. Think, "Democracy’s Body," and you’ll have an idea about the influences that guided a lot of my artistic philosophy, really, until about six years ago.

6. Has that propensity changed over time or as you have gained more experience? if so, what has led to that change?

Yes, there’s definitely been an expansion of my artistic interests over the last six years, and that’s had a big impact on how I work. As a postcolonialist, I always found the collaborative approach to dancemaking liberating. So much of my work until recently was content-driven or concept-driven, so collaboration made sense. I was in my late-30s before I started experimenting with formalism and structure. Abstractionism, shape, and musicality have become much more interesting to me of late, and I find that I’m really attracted to geometry and architecture in space and body. Those elements demand a bit more of a singular vision. Musicality does as well, but to a lesser extent. I have to say then that choreographic devices might be a predicating factor in the collaboration decision just as time is.

7. As a choreographer, what do you glean from your dancers that informs, adjusts, clarifies, confirms, etc., the material and the work at-large?

Oh, goodness. How much room do I have? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are dancers out there. They each bring there own set of cues and influences with them just like they bring their own unique training and performance experiences. Technique is increasingly a more important element in my work. Dancerly movement is taking the place of the pedestrian in terms of the motational foundation for the movement vocabularies I embrace. Speed, length of line, musicality, and an ability to breathe effectively through the movement are motivating factors for me now. When I see a dancer who brings an interesting way of moving, or there is something primal about their understanding of movement, I try to bring that to the surface in what I ask them to do. I don’t necessarily mean athletic virtuosity, but I might. This is true no matter how we’re working on the collaboration spectrum: the qualities that a dancer uses in their approach to one phrase often sparks an idea for what I’d like to see happen in the next phrase, so we build movement to achieve those qualitative ideas. Other times, it will be a quirky movement, or a mistake. I run with dancers’ mistakes all the time. They can be so inspiring. This is also true: dancers have to be open and honest in the creative process no matter how we’re working. If I get the sense that someone isn’t sharing themselves with the ensemble (and me as the choreographer), then I find them difficult to work with. I also find dancers like that not terribly interesting to see one stage either. When I see dancers willing to share themselves, willing to be vulnerable and take risks, then I feel like we’re meeting each other half way. We all have to buy into the creative space in the studio, so when I see dancers doing that, I know we’re already heading in the right direction. I know then we can make something interesting together no matter what approach is being used. Where that’s the case, I’m much more open to their ideas and suggestions even when the piece is largely coming from an "old-school genius" approach. So, I guess in short, I always try to be flexible. As much as it’s about the human beings involved in the process though, it is also about the work. What’s the best choice for the piece? What is it telling us? If we’re listening, the dance will tell us where it needs to go, and how it needs us to get it there. We all just have to be open. And, at least in my case as a dancemaker, I need that broad spectrum of ideas. I need to be able to in a variety of ways with any given cast in order to make the dance, to do the work that’s in front of us. In that sense then, no approach to working is "outdated." In fact, in that sense, any approach that I use on the dance I’m making at the time, is contemporary.

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Read more reflections from Joshua here.