BETTER NIAGARA ON A TIGHTROPE (thinking about choreography)
by Ana Restrepo
Written by Clive Barnes (no date).
Never want to be a choreographer! Choose some relatively easy profession such as President of the United States, or walking across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Choreography is not simple.
The first difficulty a choreographer must face is learning his craft. Obviously, a choreographer has to be a dancer first - he needs that command of technique. Probably he does not have to be a very good dancer, but, on looking back, it is remarkable how many of the great choreographers have, at least in the early days of their careers, enjoyed a most fruitful period as a dancer.
Who wants to be a choreographer? Many ambitious dancers want to be choreographers, if only because it is essentially a boss-job, and, if you are successful - or super successful in the way of a Balanchine or a Robbins - it can bring career rewards that are unmatched by dancers pure and simple. The successful choreographer is dance's top dog. And reasonably so - for he is dance's creative artist, the man who makes dance happen.
In some ways, a dancer is like a painter or a playwright or, even, a composer. But not in many ways. A playwright can write a play in the privacy of his attic and leave his unproduced masterpiece to a grateful posterity - and we all know about those painters, maligned in their lifetimes, who became rich and well-regarded after their deaths. Choreographers are never posthumous - and this gives them bad dreams.
Every artist needs both the call of his spirit and also physical materials. Now for a writer the physical materials are not too costly; paper, typewriter (or at worst a quill pen and his own blood) and he is up and working. A painter needs more. A studio, of course, perhaps a model, certainly canvas and paints. A sculptor is in ever worse shape - he needs stone, marble, steel, copper, indeed all manner of costly materials. But no one needs costly materials in the way a choreographer needs costly materials. He needs time and people.
A choreographer has to work with dancers. He can try some things out in his own body. He can persuade a few friends to give him time and do certain experiments. But ultimately, when the moment comes for him to start choreography, he has to pay out money. Or someone has to pay out money for him.
The experiments the poor guy is going to have to make are always expensive. Studios to hire, dancers to pay, musicians, and then finally the savage cost of the actual performance. And this is just while he is learning his craft. The results may not be that marvelous. And this is just while he is learning his craft. The results may not be that marvelous - who wrote a marketable (and I am using 'marketable' in a strictly non commercial and artistic fashion) sonnet or sonata first time 'round? Practice may not always make perfect, but it sure ass hell helps.
Most people who think they are choreographers are not. But like water-skiing, you will never know till you try, and any dancer who has the bug, owes it to himself and to the dance world to get it out of his system.
The problems are formidable. It is a fact of dance history that almost every great choreographer (to be honest, probably every great or even half decent choreographer) has made it sensationally on his first trip in public. You can do it like Eliot Feld with "Harbinger" or Jerome Robbins with "Fancy Free". Or, oddly enough, you can do it like John Clifford, who in "Stravinsky Symphony" produced such a vividly bad ballet that in retrospect you might have known you were in the presence of a talent. (Only good choreographers have the potential skill to produce engagingly bad ballets.)
Sometimes I worry - as we all should - about this fact of instant recognition, instant acclaim, and a soft chair-lift to Parnassus. How about the other guys, who do not make it their first time out on skates, who flounder and flop, and leave disasters as memory tokens? Perhaps they too have talent. Dance has no time -economically- for the slow-developing choreographer. This is terrible.