Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox: The Art of Collaborative Choreography

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Academy Intern

If dancers at the Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive Program are still hungry for a challenge after training in classes for seven hours, they have the opportunity to try their hands at choreography. This year marks the thirteenth annual collaboration between Houston Ballet’s Academy and the American Festival for the Arts (AFA) Summer Music Conservatory, a musicians’ summer program of a similar caliber to the HBA Summer Intensive Program.

The end goal of the collaboration is to create an entirely student-produced performance: one HBA student choreographs a dance to music composed by one AFA student, with dancers cast from the upper level of the HBA Summer Intensive.
Last week, two Houston Ballet Company members, Joseph Walsh and Kelly Myernick, joined Education Outreach Coordinator Chase Cobb to speak with the potential AFA composers about developing a common language across artistic worlds. Dancers and musicians each have a specific vocabulary they use to express ideas and imbue meaning; finding a shared language is crucial for collaboration.

Exploring new ways of communication isn’t the only challenge AFA and HBA students face. During the collaboration, students must compromise and learn to take their own ideas and adapt them to their partner’s vision. Cobb said one of the most beneficial aspects of the program is giving students a platform to engage the creative process.
One HBA choreographer, Luis (Colombia), said he applied to choreograph because he wanted to take advantage of the collaborative aspect of the program. Cast as a dancer in last year’s HBA-AFA performance, Luis said he was looking for a new challenge this year. “I wanted to test myself on the next level,” he said. “I like the idea of working within time constraints and understanding what is realistic within the creative process.”

To catalyze that creative process, the HBA and AFA leadership teams for the project (Academy Associate Director Shelly Power and Cobb, and Aaron Allen, respectively) facilitated a meeting at the Houston Ballet’s new Center For Dance on June 23 between the student composers and student choreographers. Cobb said that was the only organized meeting of the composers and choreographers. After the meeting, Power, Cobb and Allen paired the students—with input from the students, though ultimately making the decisions they deemed best—who then exchanged contact information for future online collaboration.

Myernick and Walsh, fresh off their own choreographic workshop experience, urged students to take advantage of technology to aid their remote collaboration: video-conferencing over Skype, sending YouTube vidoes to show examples of music and style.

The dancers are cast by lottery, with each choreographer requesting the number of men and women their piece requires. Summer Intensive level 8 students receive their casting assignments today. The first recording of the composer’s piece will be sent to the choreographer on July 6. Initial rehearsals with the music and cast begin on July 7 and provide an opportunity for the choreographer to give feedback to the composer before the second, and final, recording is due on July 13.

The student productions will be performed at Pershing Middle School on July 22 at 7 p.m. For more information about the performance, check the AFA website.

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