Julie Niekrasz has been in the limelight for nine seasons as a dancer with Ballet Memphis, but a new role in her career is taking her behind the scenes. Like many professional dancers emerging as new talent in choreography, she’s taking the challenges step by step. “I never thought I would choreograph, ever,” said Niekrasz, a Chicago transplant who last year volunteered as a choreographer for Ballet Memphis’ end-of-season show, “InteriorWorks,” which highlights company members’ original works.
“It terrified me for some reason. I would always volunteer to dance (in ‘InteriorWorks’), but then one year, I said I’ll go for it.”
Her pas de deux to Ray Charles’ “Georgia” was so well-received that it was selected to go on tour a few months later.“ I picked two very strong dancers, Crystal Brothers and Steven McMahon, because I knew they could handle pretty much anything I asked them to, and they did,” said Niekrasz, 29. “I wanted her to be tossed around and thrown around and be very vulnerable, and they did it.”
Niekrasz recently choreographed two pieces for trainees with Milwaukee Ballet II, the program from which she graduated in 2004. In Memphis, she’s been working with youths in community centers through Ballet Memphis’ outreach program, including with her original work “Heirloom.” At the end of March, she learned that she’d been selected to choreograph another piece for next season’s iteration of Ballet Memphis’ “The River Project.”
Choreographers are born of on-the-job training as dancers, unlike theater directors, who may not have spent much time acting on stage, or orchestra conductors, who may not have had extensive careers playing an instrument. Still, opportunities are few for young dancers to evolve into choreographers.
“That’s basically my story,” said Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective who was a principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem before moving to Memphis. He got his break even earlier than Niekrasz, landing an opportunity to choreograph a piece at age 16 in his ballet school. He won it by performing a solo work he’d choreographed himself.
“There’s not that much opportunity here compared to the larger cities like New York or San Francisco,cities that have more dance,” Thomas said. “It’s scary at the beginning because as a professional dancer you are critical of choreography.” Niekrasz remembered feeling the learning curve as she attempted to give instruction to male dancers.“ I’m not a man, and I don’t lift,” Niekrasz said. “So I’m still learning about how to hold a woman. I close my eyes and envision what she’s doing in the air, but I don’t know how to get there. The men really help me figure that out.” Sometimes, her dancers help her figure out transitions off the cuff through experimentation.
“There’s an understanding,” Niekrasz said. “The dancers know that I’m a little scared. So they’re patient, and they help me if I can’t figure out a transition into the next step; someone will just do it, and I’ll say, ‘Yes, do that!’ You have to rely on the dancers; they can’t just stand there.”
Collaboration is even more important in modern dance, said Bethany Bak, a dancer and choreographer with Project: Motion. She took a hiatus from dance to work and start a family after studying modern dance at the University of Illinois. “The last piece I made was in college before I made something for Project: Motion in October,” Bak said. “It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, but these days I think any choreographer you’re working with is going to ask you to create your own material. It’s becoming the norm. It’s a collaborative process, so as a performer, choreography has to be in your wheelhouse.” Equally important as skill, though, is developing style, Thomas said. “You pick up the skills, especially when you get the chance to work with many different choreographers,” he said. “You come to gravitate toward the styles that work best for you, but your own style is a work in progress. You start with what you know, and the more you choreograph, the more it develops.”
Niekrasz studies her own developing style by filming rehearsals and watching the videos at night. Sometimes, she said, she tells her dancers to take a break and let her work through tricky parts on her own. Once the piece is created, there’s the matter of letting it go.
“The first time I saw (my own work), I was standing in the audience,” Niekrasz said. “I’d never felt so nervous. It was out of my hands. My name is on it, but it’s the dancers’ now, and it’s no longer mine. I had the sense of anxiety watching it for the first time, and I had to let it go and trust them.