Nailing Senior Production
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Austin Goodwin, choreographer

Anthony Tiedeman, Whitney Schmanski, Dean Biosca, and Zoë McNeil in an early rehearsal of a piece choreographed by Austin Goodwin for Juilliard's Senior Dance Production. 

Riley O'Flynn
Whitney Schmanski and Zoë McNeil rehearse for senior dance

Whitney Schmanski and Zoë McNeil rehearse a piece choreographed by Austin Goodwin for Juilliard's Senior Dance Production. 

Riley O'Flynn

Each year, the fourth-year dancers put on an entire production—not just choreographing and dancing, but also promoting, producing, and fund-raising. Everything, that is, but the tech work, which is taken care of by the third-year dancers, and costume design, which is done by professionals. Three of the participants, seniors Kelsey Connolly and Michael Marquez as well as third-year Cleo Person, reflected on this process after the day on which the seven choreographers and their dancers first showed their work to their classmates, the third-years, the faculty, and the potential costume designers. After that day, there would be a two-month hiatus while the students prepared for the March repertory concert. In April, work gears up again for the Senior Production performances.


Kelsey Connolly

Senior Production is more than an evening of dance; rather it’s the culmination of a year’s worth of work for both the third- and fourth-year classes. The theme for the third-years is behind-the-scenes work. In Stagecraft class, we learned about and apply the elements of theater production, including lighting design and stage management. Armed with newly acquired skills from class, and through our hands-on work in various dance workshops, as well as from the guidance of Juilliard’s professional staff, we became the creative and technical crew for the Senior Production concert. It was our chance to quite literally call the cues!

For the fourth-year class, Senior Production comes with an even greater set of responsibilities. In class each week this year, we’ve been learning about different aspects of putting together a successful show. Fund-raising, for one, is crucial—we’ve carried out bake sales, a silent auction, and calendar and T-shirt sales. We have come to find that, paradoxically, it often takes money to raise money.

On the artistic side, as one of the Senior Production choreographers, I have the opportunity to choreograph on third- and fourth-year dancers. The precursor to the choreographic process began this past fall—we conducted an audition to determine which dancers we wanted for our pieces. However, we didn’t have a chance to work with them until the beginning of the second semester.

Every choreographer has a unique approach to making dance. At the start of the process, it was my intention to get to know the dancers and how they work together. Although I had ideas brewing, I did not know exactly what kind of dance I wanted to make. Rather than set predetermined choreography on them, I came up with movement as the rehearsal time unfolded and as I became inspired by their individual ways of moving.

What I love and find challenging about choreographing is conceptualizing ideas and figuring out how to achieve them in real time. It’s one thing to see movement in your head and another to see how it works in the space and on the dancers. Most importantly, I have learned not to quickly judge and throw away my ideas, but to build upon them and figure out how to make them work.

Even though Senior Production was put on hold, I haven’t stopped creating it in my mind! I’m eager to see where the final product ends up.

Michael Marquez

Seeing the work in progress with an audience [at the late January showing] was very beneficial. During the showing I was actually more interested in the people watching the piece—what intrigued them, what pulled their focus, and what details were more relevant than others. Events that I thought would disappear surprisingly became a major focus. I realized, however, that everything is relative to the kind of audience members: in the case of the showing, it was peers watching other peers.

I also acknowledged the mood and the atmosphere that the music set in the room. It became a sort of landscape and the dancers the dynamic figures within it. It did not overwhelm the audience, as I thought it might. It felt like it guided the events of the choreography and was a complementary layer.

After the showing, I had a discussion with our mentors, faculty members Risa Steinberg and David Parker. I realized after hearing their feedback that my piece is very dense and contains a lot of information. As a result, there are some questions I am using as a guideline to continue the process. Among them: Do events and characters have an equal value at all times? Is there a way to stretch the material to narrate the piece in a clearer way?

Another aspect of this day was what we call speed dating with costume designers, in which we choose them and they choose us. I’m working with Kimberly Manning, and I’m enjoying our collaboration and her energy and imagination. The sketches she brought in for one of our meetings—the fruit of our conversations and image research—were really gorgeous, and I can’t wait to see them fully concretized and physically on the dancers. Each costume is conceived to suit the character that each dancer is representing. It has been mind-opening to see how different artistic points of view on the same topic or character merged together to develop an idea.

Cleo Person

We started rehearsing on our first day back after winter break—we only had two weeks before we’d be put on pause for two months in order to mount the spring repertory concert. However, if you had happened to pop into one of the rehearsals for the piece I’m in, with choreographer Michael Marquez, you would never have known that the pressure was on. Our rehearsals undoubtedly looked like a crazy circus of giggling-fests, yelling out counts, and screaming weirder and weirder noises to movements, while Michael walked around calmly, setting steps, directing patterns, and looking at the piece from all angles (it will be shown in the Willson Theater, with seating on three sides). I can tell that it’s a meticulous and exacting wildness that’s taking place because Michael has been thinking about the piece and working on it long before we got into the studio with him, but nevertheless, it’s pretty wild.

For the third-years, the [January] showing meant a chance to dance the pieces we’ve been working on and also an opportunity see the piece for which we’ll be designing the lighting. I was proud of the work that we’d done so far. And after seeing the work that had been going on in all of the other studios those two weeks, I was amazed that seven choreographers working in almost identical environments with dancers with the same training and surrounded by much of the same stimuli and inspirations can express such radically diverse ways of seeing movement and the world after such a short time.

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