For the past five seasons, Smuin has presented audiences with its signature Choreography Showcase, an intimate performance almost entirely orchestrated by the dancers of the Company. From choreography to costuming to original music compositions, there is a distinct spirit of collaboration among the artists of Smuin unique to the production. While creativity often comes second-nature to Smuin’s dancers, it’s rare to experience life from the “other side of the studio”—running rehearsals and driving artistic decisions. Three of the presenting choreographers this season, Rex Wheeler, Ben Needham-Wood, and Nicole Haskins, spoke with us about their work and what the 2018 Choreography Showcase signifies for them.
Why is Smuin’s Choreography Showcase such a unique opportunity?
Nicole Haskins: The only way to become a choreographer is to do it. But it’s often difficult to get dancers, time, and space to see what your aesthetic is for choreography. It’s wonderful that Smuin allows us the resources to work without any kind of requirement.They really give everyone the freedom to find their voice.
Ben Needham-Wood: Many [dancers] in the industry don’t actually get to see what the room is like from the other side of the studio, or try driving the narrative themselves. For Smuin to offer a showcase where we can all be actively creating, that gives us more security in our voice and gives us a freedom to explore how our own narrative can influence the room.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re creating this year?
Ben: I’m doing two works for Choreography Showcase this year. The first is actually a very special work that I’ve been creating since my very first Choreography Showcase with Smuin. It’s a solo for Erin Yarbrough-Powell, and the third work of a much greater installment. This piece is a therapeutic approach for myself, a way of working through my mother’s passing from breast cancer. The second piece is for four guys, dancing around on [rolling] office chairs. I wanted something that was fun and carefree, so that I could invest a lot of mental and emotional energy into the solo, and then flip the script and try something totally different!
Nicole: My piece this year is to four sections of songs by Elvis. It’s music everyone knows, it’s upbeat and campy, but I like to challenge myself to counter that with a more subtle and nuanced piece. I’m inspired by dreams. When you’re a kid, you have dreams and you don’t think about their limitations or reality—you just throw yourself into them. As you get older maybe you have self-doubt. You question whether your dreams are worth it, and sometimes they’re not exactly what you expected. I wanted to play with the idea of, rather than falling in love with a person, falling in love with an idea or a hope for the future and where that takes you in life.
Rex Wheeler: I’m creating two new ballets for the Choreography Showcase. I’m creating a solo for Oliver-Paul Adams, who is a dancer that I’ve known since I was 16. He’s a really funny person, so it’s really enjoyable creating a ballet for him and seeing what we can come up with together in the studio. The second piece that I’m choreographing is inspired by a piece of music that I’ve loved for a while—there’s something quite angelic about it. I want to create a ballet that’s aesthetically inspired by the music and visually describes the music for you.
Can you describe your creative process?
Ben: I think my creative process varies from one creation to the next. I love being very familiar with whatever the music I’m going to use might be, or just very familiar with the narrative that I want to present.
Rex: Sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking for. Other times where I go in with a general idea and an open mind, knowing that my colleagues will help me to create something interesting. When choreographing a new ballet sometimes I will have a certain step that I have envisioned in my head that, when tried, will oftentimes look different than what I would expect, so I’ve learned to trust the dancers I’ve been working with to create something out of a starting point that I might give them.
What is it like working with your fellow dancers?
Nicole: It’s such an amazing thing to create with my coworkers, since I know them well. I want the movement I create to be what makes them look their best. I’ve learned to let my intuition guide the dancers, and let their bodies inform what I create. I really want them to be a part of the process.
Ben: I find it fascinating when you can offer something to [a dancer you know so well] with an expectation, and they take it in a totally different form. They can add something nuanced from their own experience that makes your work that much richer.
How does choreographing fulfill you creatively in a different way than dancing?
Rex: As a dancer we’re always striving to contribute as much as we can to the ballet at hand, whether we’re creating a new piece or learning a previously choreographed piece. We’re very used to being the muse or the blank canvas, but choreographing challenges us to think outside the box, and to start creating our own artistic opinions and choices.
Nicole: For me, the best thing about choreography is that I’m not performing it. It’s a lot of work while I’m creating, but in the end I just get to enjoy [the dance] and I think that’s almost more rewarding, because I’m not worried about making a mistake as a dancer, or wondering whether or not my performance was successful. [As a choreographer], I just get to enjoy what the dancers are giving me.
How do you let your voice as a choreographer shine without letting other choreographers’ voices overly influence your own?
Ben: I think the trickiest element in working both as a dancer and then as a choreographer is keeping track of what voice is yours versus when you’re trying to work with somebody else’s. That comes very much with confidence and maturity. It wasn’t until much further in my artistic development that I realized I need to have confidence that I can adopt someone else’s aesthetic for a while, but know that I can go back to my base and use [that aesthetic] to inspire my choreographic work.
Rex: It’s inevitable that we’re inspired by a work that we’ve done, because we develop a muscle memory with certain ballets—certain steps will feel very natural going from one to the other. I think every choreographer is inspired by choreographers that they respect and admire. A lot of people say that every step has been done before, it’s just a matter of how you put things together that cultivates your opinion and your voice. Every choreographer wants their ballets and their own voice to come across as unique and as authentic as possible.
Why should audiences come see the 2018 Choreography Showcase?
Rex: Every showcase that we do is bound to be full of variation in terms of music, aesthetic, and choices. Everybody has a different point of view, everybody has something different to say. I think it’s a cool opportunity to see the dancers bring forth parts of their personality, and showcasing their favorite style [of dance] and their favorite music.
Nicole: I think the showcase is the perfect introduction for anyone who doesn’t know if they like dance, because every piece is different! There’s always going to be some piece that’s one person’s favorite, and another piece that’s another person’s favorite, and that’s the fun of it. I think the showcase is a really easy opening into how fun and diverse and magical ballet can be.
See fresh new ballet works in Smuin’s 2018 Choreography Showcase, a bright and lively performance in which Company members choreograph original pieces on one another. This showcase presents a wide range of choreographic styles, musical selections, and personality unique to the Smuin dancers.
February 16-17, 2018 • Cowell Theater (San Francisco)
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