National Choreographers Initiative: Process not polish

Choreography by Nicole Haskins for NCI. Photo by Dave Friedman.

Many choreographers out there wonder what they could create if they had at their fingertips quality dancers, premium and unlimited rehearsal space, and time to let their ideas incubate (rather than pressure to produce polished, performance-ready work by a certain date). Some dancers also dream of working under these conditions, in a charged creative atmosphere and with star dancing partners. Some in the general public feel like they enjoy viewing dance, but it’s just not regularly convenient and affordable for them. Others might feel that way if they had the chance to experience it even once. 

The National Choreographers Initiative (NCI) has good news for them all. The initiative invites dancers and choreographers from coast to coast to a three-week residency in Corona del Mar, California. The primary goal is to offer those dance professionals a highly collaborative and process-oriented setting in which they have the resources to do what they do best (view the full mission statement here). Artistic Director Molly Lynch sees the initiative as a laboratory for ballet choreography – “a workshop for experimentation, a place where choreographers can take the next step in their creative process, in their craft, without the pressure of producing for a company,” she explains.  

Choreography by Sarah Tallman for NCI. Photo by Dave Friedman.

Choreography by Sarah Tallman for NCI. Photo by Dave Friedman.

On the other hand, choreographers can stage any work created at NCI at their resident company, or wherever they please – at festivals, in site work. Lynch asserts that it’s very important to her and the NCI board that choreographers maintain ownership of their own work. NCI only requests that choreographers publicize works with a disclaimer that a given piece was created at the residency. Lynch adds that a good number of NCI-created works have been performed nation-wide. Combined with the fact that NCI specifically looks to invite dancers and choreographers from all across the country, NCI truly is national in scope. 

The initiative also encourages a wide scope when it comes to diversity. Short of having “quotas” for female choreographers and multi-ethnic, multi-racial dancers, those who are talented and interested in collaborative experimentation are invited – race and gender aside. That vibes well with the recent conversations on increasing support for female choreographers and promoting diversity amongst professional dancers.

NCI is also supportive of budding dancers and choreographers seeking their footing in the often competitive concert dance world. The initiative has recently included apprenticeships for promising pre-professionals, who are free to take class at the institute, as well as participate in the choreographic process. Lynch describes how the residency also becomes a key networking platform for many choreographers and dancers. “I sometimes have artistic directors calling me to ask for recommendations on choreographers for certain projects,” she says. 

Choreography by Jimmy Orrante for NCI. Photo courtesy of NCI.

Choreography by Jimmy Orrante for NCI. Photo courtesy of NCI.

NCI also brings its outreach into the public realm, in an accessible and wide-ranging manner. The NCI YouTube page, for instance, features videos throughout the process – from rehearsal footage to dancer and choreographer interviews. The latter includes responses to questions like “What’s it like to partner someone with whom you’ve never danced before?” and “How is it working with so-and-so as a choreographer?” Further than that, Lynch’s team includes a Social Media Manager.

Dancers and choreographers also help build NCI’s social media image through posting and sharing videos, posts, tweets, and “snaps” of the initiative. That allows further audience, or potential audience, engagement in the creative process. NCI publicizes through traditional print media as well, which commonly have older readers. “You gotta know who’s your audience,” Lynch asserts, “and for dance, that spans across generations.” 

Lynch describes how all of this helps show a wider public that making quality dance isn’t easy or fast. Choreographers need time in a studio, with trained and energetically engaged dancers, to make their best work. That could become a political message on government fiscal support for dance. Thankfully, that message seems to getting through; NCI received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant last year. That allowed Lynch to enhance marketing as well as production values, such as hiring a costume coordinator to create a more cohesive look for showings. 

All in all, performance values are rather informal, describes Lynch – and purposefully so. She states that showings are not called performances because she wants to avoid putting pressure on choreographers to have “polished” work ready to show. Anything is welcome to take the stage, at any point in the choreographic process. In addition, there’s no proscenium or “wing” curtains. Lynch explains how that lets audience members see dancers warming up, or practicing a lift, before taking the stage – giving the sense of “oh, this is what they do”. 

Also contributing to audience outreach are Lynch’s pre-show introductions, short introductions from choreographers before their pieces run, and pre-publicized post-show talks. Ticket prices are also kept low, $32 for general admission and $20 for students – far lower than most concert dance ticket prices. Along with NCI’s social media presence, that allows for more – and more diverse – types of people learning about what it’s like to make a work of dance art.

In 2016, concert dance is at somewhat of a crossroads. We could see our art form thrive from the support of all types of people and the government. Or we could see more and more dance companies struggle to fill houses and choreographers lack the resources they need to make their best work. The NCI is doing work that has true potential to make the former the case. That’s without perfectly “polished” performances or performance values – but with commitment, courage, and engaging all in creating and experiencing art.

For more on NCI, head to

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Choreography by Nicole Haskins for NCI. Photo by Dave Friedman.

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