It begins in a conference room in early October as four choreographers with varied backgrounds come together for a brief meeting. They’re welcomed by Dance Division director Lawrence Rhodes and told they’ll work in neighboring third-floor studios for the following 10 weeks, creating the works for New Dances: Edition 2012. Since 2004, this much-anticipated annual event has proven to be a fascinating and creatively fertile program in which all Dance Division students perform. Each choreographer works with one entire class. Aside from a suggested duration of no more than 20 minutes, the choreographers are given the freedom to create according to their own interests and inspirations. As Rhodes tells them during that initial meeting, “Make the piece you want to make—and enjoy it.”
He also emphasizes that New Dances is “a process-oriented project.” While it’s certainly about the finished dances, which will be seen on stage from December 12 to 16, it’s also about giving all 99 students the invaluable experience of working with a choreographer to create something brand-new. “The idea is to give all of the students a creative process at least once a year, with professional choreographers,” Rhodes adds.
“In choosing the choreographers, Larry thinks about each class, who the four choreographers are that they would have worked with over their four years here, so they get a variety of creative experiences,” Keith Michael—who coordinates everything behind the scenes for New Dances and all Dance Division performances—told The Journal. Rhodes also draws on his decades of experience and contacts—and his ongoing intrepid dance-watching; he can be spotted at performances all over the city and the world.
This year’s New Dances choreographers include two who are New York-based; another who lived and performed for many years in the city but is now based in Virginia; and one from the Czech Republic whose work is nearly unknown here. During the second week of rehearsals, each of them talked with The Journal about the specific challenges of the project and their approach, preparation, and expectations.
Queens native Camille A. Brown, who is choreographing for the 26 first-year students, has created a steady stream of intriguing dances that her own company has performed at the Joyce Theater. She also has two works in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s repertory and created a premiere for Complexions, another New York City company, this fall. A spellbinding performer herself, Brown is unafraid of theatricality and skilled at evoking character through dance. “I didn’t want to have too much of a plan before I knew who was going to be in front of me,” she said of her approach shortly before getting into the Juilliard studio. “I wanted the work to be based on the inspiration that they were giving me as individuals.”
Brown is collaborating with composer Jonathan Melville Pratt, a fellow North Carolina School of the Arts alum who wrote the score for Larry Keigwin’s Runaway for New Dances: Edition 2010. His score was completed before she began working with the students, but she didn’t introduce the music to them until the second week because she wanted them to be “driven by the movement,” not the music, she said. “The first week, we were trying to get a sense of who each other are. I threw some movement at them, saw how they took it in, got to feel them out as individual dancers, and how they speak through movement,” she added. “The thing about freshmen is, there’s an excitement there. It’s this new world for them. They’re wide-eyed, and ready for any information.”
The 26 members of the second-year class are the largest cast busy freelance choreographer Emery LeCrone has worked with. Much of her work that has been seen in New York has used the classical ballet vocabulary—she choreographs regularly for New Chamber Ballet and has participated in the New York Choreographic Institute. LeCrone has also worked elsewhere—most recently for Colorado Ballet—but often in a more contemporary vein.
She choreographed for Juilliard’s three-week summer program this year and began developing ideas for her New Dances work then, she told The Journal. “I’m exploring more gestural work in this piece. I think it’s a really nice meshing of two ideas—my vocabulary meeting the students’ physicality,” she said. “I wanted to explore further a lot of the choreographic ideas I explored during the summer.” As the second week of rehearsals ended, LeCrone knew the music would be contemporary—possibly electronic, or else in a more classical style. She was relishing the extended time-frame of New Dances—often she arrives at a company with just 10 days to make a piece. “With this project, I feel that you really get to know the dancers, and they get to know you,” she said. “One of the great things about Juilliard is how diversely talented the dancers are. So that’s one of the things I prepared for—being open to learning from the class as a whole, and giving the different dancers each an opportunity to shine.”
For Susan Shields, who’s working with the third-year class, choreographing for students is familiar territory—she’s a professor at George Mason University’s School of Dance. She moved to Virginia 15 years ago following an extensive performing career that included eight years with Lar Lubovitch and a stint with White Oak Dance Project. She started choreographing about a decade ago, as part of her first university position. Eventually she started creating commissions, for Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Richmond Ballet, and Ballet West.
Shields describes herself as “ballet-trained, with a modern sensibility”—and feels that her perspective and experience mesh well with Juilliard students. And choreographing for a large cast (she has 23 here) suits her. “I tend to like doing big group pieces. I like playing with space and manipulating large groups of people,” she said. “I tend to do a lot of fast footwork. I came in with a lot of prepared material I could throw at them; I wanted to see how fast they could go!”
The music is Visions and Miracles, a 1997 score for string orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis, an American composer who’s on the faculty of the Yale School of Music. “It’s pretty formal, in three movements. The string orchestra sound is really appealing to me. I think it’s really smart, really exciting—and really danceable,” Shields added.
Jarek Cemerek, who’s choreographing for the 17 fourth-year students, also had a specific composer in mind: Ondrej Dedecek, a fellow Czech, with whom he’s collaborated on three previous works. Dedecek composes electronic scores, creating individual instrument sounds himself and then mixing them. Cemerek has performed with companies in Switzerland, Ireland, and Denmark, where he also co-founded a contemporary company. Now working as a freelance choreographer, he has commissions all over Europe, and in October, his Void, for the edgy London troupe Ballet Boyz, was part of City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. Cemerek’s influences include Jiri Kylian and Hofesh Schechter, whose choreography he has performed, and he has made a serious study of the American post-modernist Steve Paxton, who developed Contact Improvisation
Cemerek’s connection with Juilliard was initiated by two of last year’s graduates, who took a workshop with him in Dresden. On a subsequent visit to New York, Cemerek said, “Larry [Rhodes] offered to have me give a trial class for the students,” and an offer to participate in New Dances soon followed. Cemerek said his Juilliard work would be about youth—“who young people are, not what we imagine they should be. They are going to introduce themselves, a little bit, on stage. There’s the idea that for them, there is hope for the future.” Cemerek was planning seven overlapping sections with selected additional, contrasting music to suit the choreography’s varied textures. So the score for the dance now incorporates electronic music by Ondrej Dedecek and additional music by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds and the Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv. “They are really crazy guys, they sing about having fun,” he said.