Being a female in today’s world comes with many challenges, and as a female choreographer, women are presented with even more mountains to climb. On the evening of Saturday June 24th, 2017, seated around a row of folding chairs and a projection screen in Steps Studio Theater, a group of total strangers gathered to take a look into the minds of some of today’s most successful female choreographers. The Steps Beyond Foundation presented The Creative Process Unraveled: Women Choreographers as a part of their Artist Talk Series. Featured were choreographers Pam Tanowitz, Janis Brenner and Monica Bill Barnes.
Moderator Allen Maniker opened the evening by introducing each of the women and highlighting some of their credentials. Next, he spoke with each choreographer individually asking them questions about their creative processes and then as a whole, addressed the question “What does it mean to be a female choreographer?” Comparing today with women choreographers of that past.
Pam Tanowitz, a Guggenheim fellow and two time Bessie award winning choreographer, showed a video clip excerpt of her piece “Heaven on One’s Head” performed at The Joyce Theater in February 2014 by her company, Pam Tanowitz Dance. She said she was driven by the music (Conlon Nancarrow, “String Quartet 1 & 3”) and then created one phrase that was then manipulated and broken up into what we saw, which was a beautiful execution of line, space and dynamics. Tanowitz also mentioned how she likes to work with the dancers in the rehearsal process because it helps her to see how her movement will translate to them before setting anything in stone. When asked if her dancers were executors or collaborators, she said, both! Janis Brenner also agreed with this statement relating to her dancers. Janis is on faculty at The Julliard School, teaches Composition in the Steps Conservatory Program, has toured to over 35 countries as a soloist performer, company performer and company director of Janis Brenner & Dancers, and has won numerous prestigious awards for her work. She also utilizes her vocal abilities in her choreography, which adds a new element that enhances the story she is telling. Brenner expressed always having an interest in comedy and bringing that to her work felt natural to her. Like Janis, choreographer Monica Bill Barnes performs in her own work. Barnes is the choreographer, performer and Artistic Director of Monica Bill Barnes & Company, who also performs with a lot of humor and character. Her recent collaboration with NPR host Ira Glass, Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host is the first long running show of the company and has been extremely successful. Dance Magazine has just recently named Monica one of the most influential people in dance today.
So, what does it mean to be a female chorographer? When talking about today, the women unanimously agreed that although the field is made up of more women than men, it is somehow still easier for men to rise to the top quicker than women. The question of financial support was discussed and seen as one obstacle for female choreographers to gain recognition. It was made more evident when comparing modern/contemporary female chorographers to female ballet choreographers. The list for ballet was not even ¼ the size of the former, but not too much discussion went into saying why. Maybe it’s because we still don’t quite understand why this is the way it is, but it doesn’t mean we won’t stop trying to push further. Where as back in the day, the female pioneers of modern dance such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Ruth St. Denis, etc, were the ones developing and creating…these issues weren’t as pressing as they are today.
Rounding out the evening was a Q & A. The most memorable moments were the pieces of advice given to young chorographers just starting out in the business. Take risks, utilize your mentors, take the time to develop your craft, gain access to a team of collaborators, and so on. Most importantly, you have to love what you do. As a young choreographer myself, it was incredibly inspiring to listen to these brilliant women speak about their processes and experiences. It’s a pretty incredible event that The Steps Beyond Foundation puts on to bring the arts and education into its community. Taking advantage of these opportunities will help you to grow as an artist and a person and that’s exactly how I felt leaving the studio that warm summer evening.
Be on the lookout for SBF events happening next fall and if you ever get a chance to see one of these women’s works, you won’t be disappointed!
-Steps on Broadway Intern