Honoring the individual: Developing the solo artist.

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Kelli Youngman in rehearsal for her solo

About a month ago, Kelli Youngman- a senior at the Fordham/Ailey BFA Program in New York City- performed a solo that we choreographed in collaboration with the dancers of YSDT for the Fordham/Ailey BFA Senior Solo Concert.  This was my fifth senior solo commissioned by students of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program in the past five years.  Working with the seniors ranks high on my list of priorities, perhaps because of my own pivotal experience as a senior in college when working with a professional choreographer changed my life.

I first saw the work of Iratxe Ansa in Spain when I was studying with Kazuko Hirabayashi’s Dance New York International program between my sophmore and junior years- and fell in love. Her work was physical and narrative, but gave enough room for me as an audience member to let my thoughts run wild.  I knew I wanted to work with Iratxe. The next summer Iratxe agreed to meet me in Spain- even though at the time she was living in France and dancing for the Lyon Opera Ballet.  Our relationship started at a cafe over cortados (espresso and milk) talking about the process, and continued during nights spent out dancing to Spanish and Arab Music, then over many meals of varying cuisine.  I was lucky that we had a full 10 days to immerse ourselves in each other, and even more lucky that Iratxe was the type of person who called for such immersion and didn’t place boundaries or limits on our budding relationship. The fact that she had danced for Stuttgart Ballet, Ballet National de Espana, Ballet Gulbenkian, and later Nederlands Dans Theater may have intimidated me, but she allowed her decorated resume to be an afterthought, her primary concern was to make art. With me.

In the studio, she worked on refining the quality of my movement- removing any unnecessary steps- and juxtaposing seemingly opposite characteristics all in one movement. Refined unrefinednedess. As we worked, she made something come alive. How she nurtured the character, story, technique, musicality, and my relationship to the floor in every rehearsal gave way to an experience that, quite frankly, changed my life.

Some years later now, I have changed roles, and working with the seniors is one of my most satisfying jobs. In the university setting, it’s rare for every student to get a chance to work with a choreographer one on one. A senior solo- where the student must approach a choreographer to work with him/her- is the one time that many students receive such focused attention. Of course time, money, space, and scheduling all come into play and can make this experience less glamorous or fulfilling, but I think it’s up to the student to define what it is they want (a well known choreographer’s work learned from a video tape or assistant, a less known choreographer perhaps with more time, etc…every avenue having pros and cons).

With the students that I have worked with I try to emphasize character development alongside technical skill and athleticism. To embody the character they are playing in the specific narrative we have created is an important skill for the dancer who truly seeks to become an artist. It is this skill that can convey a story, feeling or emotion to an audience. Where do they hold their weight when they stand, what leads their walk, from where do they breathe? Applying this initial character study to the movement is the next step, and where many of the dancers that I’ve worked with have found the most growth.

This year was especially unique in that I had an unforeseen relocation thousands of miles away two months into the process, leaving email, YouTube, text messages, Zoe and Stephanie to keep the work going…but collectively we did it (Kelli overcame a sprained ankle and broken toe she incurred half way into the process as well- so a big mabrook(congratulations) to her)… Because of my experience, I wanted to let some members of YSDT share some things about their experience. I welcome anyone to write about your experience in the comments area below. As well, I hope we can provide a resource of ideas for future seniors who may not know who they want to work with or answer some questions that have come up as you start making decisions.


Sara Genoves-Sylvan
1. Who did you work with? Samar Haddad King

2. Did you learn from the choreographer of the piece or someone else? Samar

3. What was most important take away from the experience? Learning how to really embody and become a character–basically, acting. Which is something that I think I always had in me (you should have seen my childhood antics), but never really developed/allowed to emerge while dancing; I’ve also carried into my other work. I think it helped me in The Store, and in working with other choreographers like Lara and Marquet, where I’ve had to do similarly theatrical roles.

4. Is there anything you would have changed? Only in the abstract sense–working with someone I didn’t already know might have had benefits (expanding my network/repertoire) but that also has it’s downsides (not really developing the working relationship to its fullest potential in such a short time span).

James A. Pierce III
1. Who did you work with? Alvin Ailey’s Hidden Rites

2. Did you learn from the choreographer of the piece or someone else? I learned it from the video and was coached by a number of people that year: Sylvia Waters, Derrick Minter and Troy Powell.

3. What was most important take away from the experience? I continued to do that solo for the two years that I was in the company (Ailey 2).  It was one of my favorites to dance, I still know every single step and haven’t seen the dance in almost 5 years.  That particular performance, I remember, the sound people messed up the music during the performance.  They pressed play but the sound was muted, by the time they realized that I was starting the dance it was too late.  The music was about 45 seconds to a minute in so I had to listen while I danced the wrong choreography so that I could figure out what I needed to do to sync the choreography to the music.  I was successful in doing that without panicking but was mad because we had etched the piece twice that day.  That day I remember speaking to Ms. J and Ms. Forsythe afterwards and feeling like I didn’t do my best work.  They said that I was great and you would never have known that the music was wrong because I handled it very professionally.  They were proud of my growth.  It made me realize that I don’t have to beat myself up so much when things don’t go the way planned, because it’s live theatre.  We’re not perfect and never will be.  This is a hard pill to swallow, and I’m constantly trying to remind myself to let go of the idea of trying to be perfect and accept myself just the way that I am.

Zoe Rabinowitz
1. Who did you work with? Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar (Urban Bush Women)

2. Did you learn from the choreographer of the piece or someone else? Chanon Judson, company member

3. What was most important take away from the experience? Learning a solo, and how to carry a solo performance on a large stage before a large audience (an opportunity I had never had before as a dancer). Feeling invested in as an artist, coached one-on-one and being treated like a true professional (not a student) for the first time. Allowed me to see myself as a professional and as an artist- not just a student/technician.

4. Is there anything you would have changed? I could have benefited from some more guidance on what would have been a good fit for me, perhaps?

5. Additional thoughts: Definitely one of the best/most beneficial experiences of the BFA Program- and one that offered the most insight into the ‘real’ world of professional dance

Kathryn Baer Schetlick
1. Who did you work with? Peggy Baker

2. Did you learn from the choreographer of the piece or someone else? I traveled to Toronto to work with Peggy for over a week.  We were in the studio everyday and spent much time outside the studio talking.

3. What was most important take away from the experience? The most important thing that I took away was the necessity of working as a complete artist not just a dancer and having respect for what it is you do (ownership).  While I was in Canada working with Peggy we talked about music poetry visuals that were not directed related to the solo but would come to inform it later.  She thought it was very important that the dancer know what the dance is for themselves and not just for the choreographer or the audience.  She spoke a lot about creating a specific world that others could then enter into.  It was always amazing to see her rigor and investigation with a single gesture within the solo not trying to get me to do it that very exact way but inscribe it with a similar feeling.

4. Is there anything you would have changed?  I wish I could have gone back to work with Peggy more to develop the solo further.  As usually there is never enough time.  Also I think as an older dancer now looking back I wish I would have approached the process without being so worried about the outcome and whether or not “Ailey” would like it or if it would show my capabilities as a dancer.  I think I became too wrapped up in how I was going to look on stage instead of honestly investigating the movement.  I wish I would have asked Peggy more questions and picked her brain more.

5. Additional thoughts: I think it is super important to keep in mind what you want out of the experience not what you think your university wants from you.  As always, there should be more emphasis on the process rather than such an obsession with the product.

Stephanie Sutherland
1. Who did you work with? Pascal Rekoert

2. Did you learn from the choreographer of the piece or someone else? I learned from Pascal, who choreographed a new solo for my performance.

3. What was most important take away from the experience? The most important thing I walked away with from was a new found knowledge in who I was as a dancer and what I was capable of. That’s quite a large statement, I know, but it’s an honest one. When pascal first started choreographing the piece, I remember hating it… It was incredibly hard on my body and I felt like a freak- “why am I doing all of this squawking around like a bird!?” I was an aggressive, furious, suicidal fire bird- not exactly your ‘pretty little dancer’ like I had been hoping to show people- and I had to find that in myself and my body. I was forced into stretching my idea of what my dancing was, I had to become more than just shapes on the stage, I had to become this THING, this ANIMAL, be weird and freakish and show a very dark side of myself; it was terrifying. It was also liberating. When I walked off stage that night I felt as though I accomplished something great within myself, and I felt proud.

4. Is there anything you would have changed?  One thing I would change… I would have given myself more time to prepare, instead of the two weeks I gave myself to get it all together. Also it would have been nice to have more guidance from the administration in choosing and preparing for the senior solo. Maybe it was just my experience, but I felt like I had no help in looking for potential choreographers for the solo.

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