Dance students try their hand at choreography


Dancers are often told they need to be versatile. Their technique must be top-notch, and they are required to train in a variety of dance styles and genres. But there is another skill that is becoming increasingly important for young dancers: the ability to choreograph.

The students of the Chautauqua Institution School of Dance will hold their annual Choreographic Workshop performance at 4 p.m. today in the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studio, where 12 students will showcase their original dance compositions.

Students interested in choreographing were asked to create a five- to eight-minute piece for one to six dancers. A panel of faculty judges then adjudicated the works in progress to decide which pieces would be selected for today’s performance.

Mark Diamond, Charlotte Ballet II program director and School of Dance faculty member, said the choreographic workshop has been getting more popular each year. This year, 24 students — more than ever before — submitted works for adjudication.

“It’s exposure for them to find out if choreography is something they want to do more of later,” Diamond said.

The workshop is also a chance for students to try working in a style they are unfamiliar with and work with music- or movement-based concepts rather than a story. Student choreographers are also able to step back from the piece and see it from the view of a choreographer instead of as a dancer.

“We try to have them not do classical ballet, which is what they do every day in class,” Diamond said. “We want them to try to do something that is new to them. Maybe that is working in more contemporary style or style they aren’t familiar with and create some new vocabulary. It might not be new to the world, but it is new to them.”

Samuel Painter, 16, is one of 12 students whose compositions made it through the adjudication process and will be performed at today’s workshop.

His contemporary ballet piece, “Village of Broken People,” was choreographed to “Fratres for Violin and Piano” by Arvo Pärt. The piece features dancers sliding, falling and moving together, often holding each other up.

“They are all memories of sad or bad times in your life,” Painter said. “It’s about you looking back on them.”

He described one solo about a girl not being able to tell someone how she feels and a pas de deux about being in a relationship and knowing it isn’t working but trying to make it work anyway.

However, he also said the piece has a sense of hope about it, knowing that people will be there during all those difficult times.

The music was very influential in his choreography, he said.

“I just listened to the music, and whatever it did to my body is what I set on the dancers,” Painter said.

Music School Festival Orchestra student Stelth Ng collaborated with dance students for a few of the pieces, including Isabelle Ramey’s contemporary ballet piece “We Found Ourselves Lost.” Ng will play piano for Ramey’s piece.

Dancers were asked to collaborate with a musician, often from the Music School Festival Orchestra, for their pieces.

This is a good opportunity for musicians to do solo work, which they don’t often get a chance to do, Diamond said.

Painter asked his musician for a contemporary piece of music one day in the Bellinger cafeteria, and he was excited when the musician mentioned “Fratres.”

“He told me the name of the piece, and I immediately recognized it because I had been wanting to choreograph to it for a while,” Painter said.

Traditionally, dancers do not start choreographing until later in their careers: Diamond said that trend is changing.

“It is getting to a point where people are choreographing at a younger and younger age,” he said. “The sooner you start, the more experience you have, and the higher level you can reach.”

Painter, a student at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, is trying his hand at choreography for the second time. His first time choreographing was for one of his school’s recitals.

“I think, nowadays, we are expected to be able to do everything — not just ballet but jazz, tap, contemporary, but everything,” he said. “I think choreography is a big aspect of that, too. It’s part of being a well-rounded dancer.”

Painter was encouraged to come to Chautauqua by his dance teachers, who performed as members of the company.

“Coming here has really opened me up and pushed me as a dancer and a performer,” he said.

Painter said this piece will stick with him long after it is performed because it is based on his personal experiences.

“I feel like I really connected to this piece of music and this choreography and I opened up my head to the world,” he said. “It’s been a really vulnerable experience, but a good one.”

The Choreographic Workshop kicks off a dance-filled weekend in Chautauqua with Carmina Burana on Saturday and the School of Dance Student Gala on Sunday. The workshop, in particular, has become a favorite among the community members on the grounds, Diamond said.

“[Dance students] seem to have a following of people on the grounds who might not go to other dance performances, but they will come to this,” he said.