Looking Back: Playing Choreographer

I’ve choreographed a number of “works" over the years. At my second grade talent show I premiered and starred in my rendition of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. At the tender age of 9, I created another solo for myself to “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Throughout elementary school, I directed and performed in multiple living-room productions of Cats, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Jingle Bell Rock. When necessary, I corralled my sisters and neighbors to fill the chorus. I was prodigious.

And then I stopped. 

Perfectionism and insecurity claimed a place in my life, and when I finally rolled up my sleeves at age 22 to choreograph a duet on two Joffrey dancers for a colleague’s charity, I was terrified.

I was excessively and unreasonably terrified.

I’d like to document my story here for you, and for me. Because this experience of trying something completely new, and in many moments “failing”, is one of my proudest inner accomplishments. 

I decided to choreograph on my fun-loving friends Graham and Brooke. They are both beautiful dancers, nonjudgemental, and easygoing. I sweet-talked them into dancing for me and got to work finding music. After wandering down many a YouTube rabbit hole, I finally asked a friend to mix a piece of music for me. "Can you take this, and just like, make it more interesting...?". The finished product was weirder and darker than I imagined. It reminded me of a vivid dream from my childhood. I loved it.

But I got stuck on the dream. It had been visceral, a feeling more than anything, and it was so personal that I couldn't articulate it to my dancers. When I tried, it came out sounding phony to me. I was so desperate to make a meaningful piece, a cool piece, that my original inspiration morphed into a commentary on the sate of the world before we had eight counts of choreography solidified.

So I stopped trying to explain. I just focused on making movement. And BAM! It became a romanic pas de deux. I really didn't want to make a romantic pas de deux! That was so predictable. So typical. But I tried to go with it. I walked into the studio and played pretend choreographer. I wore street shoes and sipped lattes and even reprimanded my friends a few times to seem more legitimate. There was a lot of falling and spinning out of control. Graham and Brooke experimented, and on many occasions they created a brilliant lift before dissolving into a giggling pile of arms and legs on the floor. It was fun, and then hard, and then frustrating, and then fun.

I read a book about creativity and fear and I asked other choreographers for guidance. I acknowledged my discomfort and examined it as I went forward. One night, after weeks of rehearsal, I was struck with another idea! I was so excited I couldn't sleep. This one was it! I told my dancers we were changing everything. They smiled and nodded, they probably wanted to kill me. 

So we started over. Again my idea refused to manifest. I finally had a vision but it was too specific. The movement I wanted came so naturally to me that I couldn't figure out how to transfer it to my dancers. I knew what I didn't like but I didn't have the coaching tools to help my dancers evolve. I got frustrated, I tried to surrender, the performance drew closer. 

The week of the show I chose costumes, I set lighting, I named it a name I thought wasn't too cheesy. Mercifully, I was still happy with the music. But I didn’t like my piece. AT ALL. The day before the show, I cried because I didn’t want anyone to see it. I felt ashamed, and silly, and incredibly vulnerable. 

When it was finally time to watch my piece premier, I crouched near the edge of the black box, my heart racing. I held my breath as my friends began to dance. I was agonizingly aware of every unfinished detail, every empty moment. But, as my stomach twisted with nerves, I became increasingly touched by my dancers' commitment to the performance. Every correction applied or difficult step executed filled me with deep gratitude. For the duration of the piece I felt my heart alternatively on the verge breaking or bursting. And then, at the very end, Brooke smiled. It was a purposeful smile that I choreographed in at the last minute, but it was so bright and genuine and committed that it brought me to tears. The smile was honest, it was so Brooke. That moment made me happy. In spite of myself, so happy. 

I learned about a million things from this experience. Next time I won't stress so much. Next time I won't start with a story. Next time I won't expect anyone to dance just like me. Next time I'll insist on more rehearsal. Next time I'll have more fun. Next time I won't expect perfection. Next time I won't give two fishes if people like my music or costumes or ides (no lets be real, I will definitely give at least one fish). Next time I'll do nearly everything differently. I will take myself WAY less seriously because yes, I will be choreographing again.

Graham and Brooke in my piece, "Small Hours". Photos by Alejandro Mallado.