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Home > Blog > April 2015 > A Studio of One’s Own
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A Studio of One’s Own

April 29, 2015 by New York City Center
City Center Studio Series

2014 Choreography Fellow Silas Riener performs as part of City Center’s Studio 5 series; photo by Christopher Duggan.

They’re not pole dancers, yet there they are again each day, hanging onto poles and swaying—in the subway, that is. Choreographers who don’t have their own studios are perpetually commuting from space to space, clutching dance bags filled with electronics and sweaty clothes.

“It’s quite a nomadic lifestyle, being an American choreographer,” says Brian Brooks. Yet there is hope. Brooks is one of the artists whose life changed dramatically when he received New York City Center’s Choreography Fellowship.

Studio space is only one component of the Fellowships, which were established in 2011 by City Center President & CEO Arlene Shuler. “There are so many talented choreographers who don’t have an artistic home,” says Shuler. “We wanted to change that.” Along with 200 hours of free studio time, the Fellowship also provides artists with a stipend and access to the know-how of City Center arts administrators. Yet it’s the studios that choreographers lust after. Gigantic by the standards of contemporary dance, and cushioned with Marly flooring, these spaces are clean and quiet—far above the grit and rattle of the subway. Here dancing bodies can relax, the creative mind can focus, and movement starts to flow.

Andrea Miller Dance

2011-2012 Choreography Fellow Andrea Miller.

The value of a sane working environment is considerable. “We basically let our guard down, on so many levels,” says Gallim Dance artistic director Andrea Miller, who received one of the first Fellowships in 2011. Miller recalls the anxiety that used to accompany her wanderings. Many studios in New York are repurposed offices or industrial spaces with splintery wooden floors, or pillars awkwardly positioned in the middle of the space.

Often, Miller says, she wasn’t sure what the dumps she rented would be like. “Was there going to be heat? Was there going to be a bathroom?” she wondered. “Being able to let go of the energy that goes into that, and fully invest it in the work we were doing—it definitely was a turning point for our company,” Miller says.

She points out that when a choreographer’s time is divided—two hours in one place, and then two hours in another, distant locale—the artist becomes obsessed with hammering out a final product. “It’s like, ‘OK, I need to get this much choreography done in these two hours,’” Miller says. “But when you have a space like they gave us at City Center, that’s not what’s on your mind. What’s on your mind is making the best choices through experimentation, playing with different ideas and different music, and giving the dancers opportunities to ask questions.”

Miller says her Fellowship experience confirmed what she already knew—that she had to scrape together enough cash to get her own place. In 2012 she acquired a home at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, where she now teaches, choreographs, and rents space to others. Miller remains impressed that City Center was willing to help her when her company was only four years old. “They could stick to the big names, but they don’t,” she says. “They keep a really diverse group of people there. It was wonderful, and I’m so grateful to City Center for the impact they’ve made on my career.”

Gabe Lamb Dance

2014 Choreography Fellow Gabrielle Lamb, in process at the National Choreographers Initiative; photo by Ty Parmenter.

Gabrielle Lamb, a Morphoses veteran and a 2014 Choreography Fellow, says the cost of renting space directly affects one’s vision when creating new work. “You really have to decide what you’re going to do based on how many hours you have,” she says. “I was able to find space when I wanted it, but I had not been able to work as intensively, because it’s not easy to find affordable space in the number of hours needed to make the amount of work I made.” (For her, three hours of rehearsal time usually results in one minute of polished choreography.) Lamb’s virtually unrestricted time at City Center felt like a godsend.

Over the course of her year at City Center, Lamb “developed a bunch of raw material,” created a six-minute duet, and devised an 18-minute ensemble piece. Then she splurged and commissioned another choreographer, Adam Barruch, to make a solo for her. She emphasizes that she could not have made the group work in her normal circumstances. “I had never done anything with more than two dancers here in New York,” she says, “and it was only when I was hired to go elsewhere, where they had an existing company, and space, that I could work with more dancers.” Now this emerging choreographer is asking herself whether she ought to relocate. New York is still the center of her world, but mentally she’s weighing the advantages of living in a bustling dance hub versus the space crunch and the tight hours.

During her time at City Center, “I kind of stopped counting,” Lamb says in a tone that sounds half-guilty and half-amazed. “It was a great experience for me.”

Brian Brooks Dance

2012–2013 Choreography Fellow Brian Brooks, reviewing rehearsal footage with Wendy Whelan; photo by Christopher Duggan

Brian Brooks, a Choreography Fellow in 2012–2013, is more established than many of the artists selected for the program; he’s been touring with his Brian Brooks Moving Company since 2002. Yet even after two seasons at the Joyce Theater, he still thought of himself as a “downtown” artist. Rehearsing at City Center meant overcoming a psychological barrier. “It was just out of my circle,” he confesses, chuckling when he says he questioned himself, “Am I allowed to make dance there? Am I allowed in the building?”

Brooks’ horizons have definitely expanded. His Fellowship arrived shortly after he was invited to create a duet with New York City Ballet ballerina Wendy Whelan—that’s seriously uptown—and Brooks used his Fellowship, in part, to polish and expand that pas de deux. At City Center, he also created an evening-length work called Run Don’t Run, which premiered at BAM in 2013.

Brooks says the Fellowship has altered his choreographic practice. In the past, with studio space at a premium, hiring a studio for “solo research” and experimenting on his own body seemed like an extravagance he couldn’t afford. At City Center, however, he quickly acquired the habit; and now he says he’s in the studio alone for a portion of every day.

The choreographer also profited from the mentoring that came with his Fellowship;
when Arlene Shuler attended his rehearsals, he listened eagerly to her comments. “Her voice was encouraging, but it was also really informative for me to hear what she sees in the work, what she’s drawn to and what is new and different for her.”

“Sustaining a dance company is hard,” says Shuler. “When Fellows come to City Center, they really benefit from conversations with our entire administrative staff—from Development to Marketing to Education—which I think sets us apart from other residences in the city.” 2011–2012 Choreography Fellow Shen Wei met with City Center’s production team to figure out how to make his work (which often involves dousing his dancers with gallons of paint) more touring-friendly; other Fellows have received help putting together showings and designing websites.

2014 Choreography Fellows Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener met while dancing in Merce Cunningham’s company, where they had the luxury of not having to think about fundraising and publicity. Now, Riener says, “We’re trying to figure out our own relationship to these questions about visibility and the public reception of our work. Being in an institution like City Center, with such large and impressive fundraising capabilities, really gave us a lot to think about. City Center also invited its own donor base to our showings, which was really helpful.”

Camille Brown Dance

2014 Choreography Fellow Camille A. Brown, photographed by Matt Karas.

Camille A. Brown says she leveraged her 2014 Fellowship to engage young women, as part of her process in creating Black Girl: Linguistic Play, a dance-theater piece slated to premiere this fall. Working through City Center’s Education department, Brown invited a group of Harlem high schoolers to an early showing of Black Girl. In the studio, she taught them African-American social dances (the Charleston, the camel walk) and they taught her current social dances (the nae nae, the new jerk). The students also wrote down words that came to mind when they heard the phrase “black girl” (including “beautiful,” “fighter,” “backbone,” “ugly,” and “angry”).

“They said the negative words were how they were perceived, and the positive words were who they knew themselves to be,” Brown says. “To be honest, I was taken by their honesty and clarity about the perception of Black women. The young women (all graduating seniors in high school) have the same experiences I have walking in the world. Two generations living in what Melissa Harris-Perry calls the ‘crooked room.”

It was one of many exchanges that Brown has had as part of her “Black Girl Spectrum” initiative, designed to empower young women by exploring their identities through movement and dialogue. Since then, says Brown, “We’ve connected with many organizations, including the prison systems, where the African-American female population is growing at a fast rate. I am sincerely grateful that City Center gave my new initiative the legs it needed.”

City Center’s yearlong Fellowships don’t end with a culminating show—and in a sense, they don’t end at all. “We’re delighted that so many of these choreographers have ended up on City Center’s mainstage, whether it’s to choreograph a musical at Encores! Off-Center or to create a world premiere commission at Fall for Dance,” says Shuler. In March, Gabrielle Lamb dropped in on an Encores! tech rehearsal to get a sense of how musicals are teched, and Brian Brooks has become addicted to City Center’s grand studios, which he now rents five days a week. Although he once felt like an outsider, he now says, “I feel tied to the space.”

“The Fellowship acknowledged my work as a choreographer, and it created this foundation for the year,” Brooks adds, pointing out that its benefits continue to accrue. “It’s amazing what a shift of perspective can do, isn’t it?” he says. “It can be pivotal for somebody.”

Robert Johnson is a freelance dance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertJ26215165. This article is reprinted courtesy of Playbill.