Observing the creative process—Matthew Neenan's choreography for Rachel Shumake

If you’ve never been a dancer or seen any of the preparation that goes into putting a ballet together for performance on stage, you may not be aware of the process or the different phases the work goes through before it becomes the completed production that the audience sees in the theatre.

Each work begins differently, depending on the parameters the choreographer may have been given for the project, and according to his or her own creative workflow. Much of the conceptual development for a new work—developing the concept, selecting music, choosing dancers—begins long before the choreographer walks into the ballet studio for his first rehearsal, but most of this preparation exists solely and intangibly within the choreographer’s mind and imagination. Very little, if anything, is written down in detail. 

I was fortunate to have the opportunity, recently, to watch Ballet Memphis guest choreographer, Matthew Neenan, create his new ballet, Party of the Year,  for the company’s upcoming River Project performances. It’s always fun to watch the creation of a new work at Ballet Memphis, but I was in just the right place at just the right time one day* to watch Matthew create one of the solo sections of his new ballet for company dancer, Rachel Shumake

*There is something magical, even sacred, about the precise moment in which a choreographer translates his ideas from thought to visible form. If you’re not in the room at that exact moment, you miss it. If you’re there too early, the ideas are still in the choreographer’s imagination, unseen. Arrive too late, and the dancer has already imbued the movement with his or her own physicality—the ideas have already begun to take shape.

The atmosphere for this collaboration in Ballet Memphis’ largest studio was quiet and remarkably intimate, given the size of the room, but the molecules in the air were charged with palpable energy. I could sense the expectations of everyone in the room for what was about to transpire: Matthew’s anticipation of finally seeing his ideas come to life; Rachel’s heightened readiness to process and reproduce every nuance of Matthew’s demonstration and direction; and the sense of curiosity and wonder in myself and the other observers scattered around the edges of the studio. I sat there wishing that everyone who would eventually see the finished work in the theatre could experience this moment with us.

Some choreographers come to the first rehearsal having worked out specific movements ahead of time, but most have no definitive steps in mind. While the latter approach probably sounds risky or haphazard (and sometimes it feels that way too), the choreographer knows the music inside and out, and has very strong feelings about the mood or style of movement he or she plans to use. The next step is to communicate those ideas to the awaiting dancers. Sometimes this exchange is verbal, but more often it’s a combination of physical demonstration and occasional phrases such as: “Try this....  Can you do more of...? What if you...? Try this instead.... Hmmm.. Not so much.... More like this..... What about....?  Oooo, that’s even better!  Yes!”  Through the feedback loop of demonstration, direction, experimentation, and refinement, this collaboration becomes an integral component of the choreographic process.

To the earthy, melancholy sounds of Albert King’s, Blues Power,  Matthew began to craft the movements that would become Rachel’s first solo. Sitting in the room, I could sense how the qualities of her dancing and personality inspired his direction. Although she is often cast in happy, joyous roles because of her warm and engaging demeanor, this role will give audiences the opportunity to see another side of Rachel who, like all of Ballet Memphis’ dancers, possesses great emotional depth and artistic range.

Matthew also took advantage of Rachel’s unique physical characteristics. As a young ballet student in our school, her extreme flexibility posed challenges she worked to overcome in order to gain the strength and control that classical ballet technique demands. Now, as a mature and seasoned dancer, Rachel’s hypermobility is an asset that Matthew mined for the kinds of shapes and movements he wanted to use in creating and defining her character.

The give and take between Matthew and Rachel throughout the rehearsal was fascinating to witness—sometimes he would push insistently to convey what he had in mind; at other times, he would see an unexpected result in Rachel’s natural interpretation and be inspired to change course accordingly. When the planets are aligned and the personalities are right, this symbiotic relationship between choreographer and dancer is at the heart of some of the most exhilarating moments in the creative process. 

This solo is just one of many delightful moments in store in Matthew’s highly original and masterful ballet, but I don’t want to give away too much ahead of time. I hope you will come see it for yourself, along with the two other wonderfully diverse world premieres by Steven McMahon and Julia Adam on the program. The River Project, October 20-28, 2012, at Playhouse on the Square. Buy tickets now!

Posted by Janet Parke at 10:49 PM
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