To me, choreography is a lot like riding a bike. Sure, someone can explain thebasics, help you onto the bike, cheer you on. But, it ultimately comes down to you taking that leap of faith and continually pushing the pedals forward.
I can’t say exactly when I began choreographing because I was always putting on some sort of production whenever my friends came over to my house. At 11, I decided to put together a shortened version of Swan Lake. I rallied my friends and put on a rather extensive production, complete with a corps de ballet, props, and even costume changes. While it began my curiosity with the endless possibilities that arise when you pair music with dancers, let’s just say the video makes for a good laugh now.
From then on, I would hear music, and be unable to stop my brain from picturing dancers in formations, breathing life into the notes. At first, it was just for in-studio shows, but soon my director asked me to help her update the Russian Dance in the Nutcracker, and create pieces for our annual Spring repertoire shows. For three successive years, my choreography appeared in programs that included Petipa’s Paquita and Balanchine’s Serenade and Concerto Barocco.
At my first professional job with The Sacramento Ballet, my directors, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda Cunningham were extremely passionate about encouraging company choreography. They presented an annual in-studio show called Beer and Ballet, which was made up of pieces created by company members. Anyone could sign up, and there were no restrictions on music, type of piece, or number of dancers. For seven years I was given the freedom to really push myself to expand my choreographic repertoire with little pressure or penalty for failing.
My directors were also involved with Regional Dance America, which led to my first commission. It was almost as if I was taking off my training wheels, which was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. I had never even considered being paid to choreograph — I felt honored just to be able to have space and dancers — but now the pressure was on. I love dancing to my core, but it is completely different being in the front of the room. So many elements are involved: spacing, musicality, steps, and with each piece I began to realize that I love choreographing as much I love dancing.
Afterwards, my directors commissioned me to create a new work for The Sacramento Ballet’s Modern Masters series, which was dedicated to new works by modern choreographers. This led to me ultimately creating three works for Modern Masters, and four invitations to choreography festivals.
It also led to my selection for the prestigious New York Choreographic Institute to create a new work on advanced students at The School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s affiliated ballet school. I spent two weeks in New York creating a piece at Lincoln Center, the same building where George Balanchine choreographed some of the most iconic ballets of the 20th century. It was surreal. The following year I was awarded their Fellowship Grant, which gave me the opportunity to create a new piece for Sacramento Ballet. It was the first time I had an entire week specifically dedicated to my choreography. It was simultaneously the most difficult and rewarding experiences of my life.
When I joined Smuin Ballet last year, I once again found myself in a company that fosters and encourages its dancers to explore choreography. Having a Choreography Showcase, where I once again felt the freedom to explore and expand my choreographic vision, was invaluable. Choreographers need the chance to freely explore in order to discover and shape their choreographic voice. Just like you need a bike to learn to ride, you need space, dancers, freedom, support, and time to learn how to choreograph.
The other benefit of these showcases is that I get to choreograph on dancers I know extremely well. Because of this, I can tailor-make my pieces to highlight their specific talents. I get the ability to highlight something in my co-workers’ dancing that they might not get to show off very often. Rather than focus on making a step look tricky or difficult, it is more important to me that I give the dancers the ability to get swept up in the music and bring it to life. Having such incredible artists to create on is a dream, but more importantly, it is extremely humbling to have my peers — whom I greatly admire and respect — work so hard to bring my vision to life.
Choreography has always been about music for me. I will hear something and instantly see formations and steps. I always say I have it easy because composers had to create beautiful music out of nothing while I only have to translate their music into dance, a blueprint already laid out at my feet. My job is to help illuminate the music, not try to compete with its radiance.
I was extremely honored when Artistic Director Celia Fushille asked me, along with my fellow dancers Wes Krukow and Ben Needham-Wood to choreograph for this year’s edition of The Christmas Ballet. Opportunities of this scale are very rare, and the fact that the three of us only joined last season is just another example of how welcoming and encouraging Smuin Ballet is. Celia has also been extremely generous in allowing the time to participate in Richmond Ballet’s New Works Festival. It is the first time I have been commissioned by a ballet company I do not dance with and I have been blown away with how supportive Smuin Ballet has been of me.
There is no denying that I have been extremely fortunate to spend most of my life dancing in places that support dancers’ creativity and exploration. I hope that I will be able to choreograph for a long time to come. But for now all I can do is continue pedaling forward, try to stay upright, and appreciate the view.
* Written by Nicole Haskins