By Carrie Stern
So you moved to New York last spring. You just graduated from college; maybe you have an MFA in dance in your pocket. You managed to find a room, probably in Brooklyn, unless you live with your parents, and a job to pay the rent. But you want to make dances. Thatâ€™s why you came here, to be a choreographer. But how to start?
Thatâ€™s where Brooklyn Arts Exchangeâ€™s (BAX) Upstart Festival comes in. Curated by BAX founder and Executive Director Marya Warshaw, and Cora Danceâ€™s choreographer and Artistic Director Shannon Hummel, a former BAX faculty member, the festival is limited to choreographers working in New York City no longer than three years.
Upstart reflects BAXâ€™s mission â€” to support developing artists by â€śencouraging artistic risk-taking and stimulating dialogue among diverse constituencies.â€ť The festival provides services new choreographers rarely receive: promotional help, limited free rehearsal time at BAX and low-cost rehearsal space in Coraâ€™s Red Hook home, an experienced technical director willing to realize each choreographic vision and Warshaw and Hummel as resources.
More importantly, perhaps, Hummel and Warshaw hope the festival helps build a community of artists, providing a chance for new choreographers to connect. The roundtable is designed to introduce festival artists to each other â€” and in general, begin a dialogue and a support system the choreographers can continue as they pursue their careers.
The festival audition process grew from Hummelâ€™s experience curating a showcase. An artist who creates evening-length work commonly set in specific sites, Hummel knows that itâ€™s hard to capture the quality of her work on video in the three minutes or less required for most audition tapes. She was curious what one could learn differently from live auditions. When Warshaw initiated Upstart, it was with the understanding that, despite the time it takes, she and Hummel would conduct live auditions, allowing them to sense who the artist is, as well as sample their work.
I commented to Hummel and Warshaw that among the several auditions I observed, only one performer had the self-confidence to ask them to move in order for them to see her work from the perspective she wanted. This sureity seemed, to me, one of the qualities that mark a potentially successful choreographer. (This choreographer was chosen for Upstart.) Warshaw agreed.
â€śAs much as we can,â€ť Warshaw told me, crediting Hummelâ€™s thinking, â€śwe look for people who are interested in more than just making a dance â€” theyâ€™re interested in becoming choreographers, which is different.â€ť
Young artists can get on stage two ways: they take class everyday and perform in as many shows as they can, or they make dances for themselves and look for performance opportunities. But it canâ€™t just be about getting on stage. Warshaw has nurtured seven Bessie winners (the New York dance award) through BAXâ€™s selective Artist In Residence (AIR) program, which provides artists with the support that allows them to explore free of the pressures of the next concert.
What interests Warshaw is watching an artist develop a practice, thinking of each dance as part of a developing body of work.
â€śWhat I look for in choreographers beyond the novice stage is a commitment to investigation, to looking, to uncovering, to sticking with it,â€ť Warshaw says, adding that the Upstart choreographers â€śare not there yet, but they have the seeds for it.â€ť
Choreographers must recognize they have a unique voice, she explains. Speaking â€śthrough that voice makes you a choreographer even before you think of yourself as a dancer. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™re looking for, the beginning of the investigation process and those that are willing to go deeper.â€ť
Hummel and Warshaw look for dancers who â€śfaithfully, fundamentally believeâ€ť in his or her work. â€śThereâ€™s a clarity about knowing oneself, and faith makes a choreographer standout. It reflects his or her desire to grow and take charge of her/his work.â€ť
In addition, maybe choreographers are â€śexperimenting with some technology or language that theyâ€™re not sure we can get. Thereâ€™s an audacity and boldness to that. Itâ€™s not in your face, but itâ€™s there and you, the audience, have to deal with it, think about it.
â€śShannon articulates it well,â€ť Warshaw says, â€śaudacity, boldness and companionship, thatâ€™s what weâ€™re interested in.
â€śThereâ€™s safety in mimicking what you know, in taking what you know and reassembling it. Those are the tools you learn in college,â€ť says Warshaw. But to be a choreographer you have to learn to â€śpull out the part of you that goes against the rules, your voice. Later you can apply [the old techniques and rules], but first you must be willing to abandon them, even if what you try is not successful. That willingness makes you a choreographer.â€ť
Hummel and Warshaw hope the festival brings â€śfresh bloodâ€ť to BAX. Hummel, who deeply values her experiences at BAX saying they acted in lieu of a masters degree, wants new people, interested in the community BAX offers, to tap into its resources. â€śIâ€™m interested in entry points,â€ť she says. Warshaw concurs, â€śThatâ€™s something we share.â€ť
Upstart Festival takes place Friday and Saturday March 4 and 5 at 8 p.m. at BAX, 421 Fifth Ave. Tickets ordered online in advance are $12, low-income tickets are $7. Day of the show box office opens at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $15 for general admission; $8 low-income. Further information at www.bax.org. Friday March 4: Simone Fobers, Courtney Cooke, Katherine Partington and Heidi Carlsen. Saturday March 5: (Jo) Sau Yin Leung, Moriah Evans and Sarah Beth Percival, Malcolm Jason Low and Lindsey Drury.
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