So You Want to Become Choreographers?

Peggy Olislaegers in the studio with Dane Hurst, photo Stephen Wright

With fierce competition on for places in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, we ask what can the budding choreographers  expect?

Aspiring young choreographers have a chance to find out whether they have it in them to become professional dance makers, should they be lucky enough to gain a place in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, which takes place in June 2019.

They will work with the dancers of the Junior Company in a series of creative workshops, which should provide them with a solid basis for future work.

Among the professionals helping and guiding their work will be the Dutch dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers – except she doesn’t like the designation “dramaturge,” if nothing else, she told Ballet Position, because “dramaturge” means different things in different countries. So, how does she describe herself?

Peggy Olislaegers, photo Sophie Knijff

“I am a full time Artistic Ally to choreographers and artistic directors in several countries in Europe. People gave me the title ‘dramaturge’, but everything that I know I developed in practice; I’m not trained in the context of university, I’m trained in the context of studios, theatres and companies. I prefer Artistic Ally.”

You would definitely want Peggy Olislaegers as your Artistic Ally. A small bundle of energy, behind her owlish glasses are sharply intelligent eyes, and she speaks with the kind of passion that results from a restless and inquisitive mind always ready to stimulate new questions, new fields of inquiry.

So, when we spoke at the London home of Rambert, where she regularly works on choreographic creation with company dancers, Ballet Position asked Peggy what was her first injunction to aspiring young choreographers.

“First continue dancing, please, because I think in the broader sense we need choreographers with embodied knowledge, who can do physical research, next to the more traditional conceptual, intellectual research.”

Choreographers’ ‘Embodied Knowledge’

The notion of ’embodied knowledge’ resonates absolutely with the choreographer Juanjo Arques, whose ballet Ignite, inspired by Turner’s painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, wowed Sadler’s Wells in the Spring. Now a well established dance maker, Arques has worked with Peggy Olislaegers and will be involved with the forthcoming Choreographic Academy.

Juanjo Arques at work in the studio, photo Ty Singleton

“As a dancer I had the opportunity to dance different dance codes and styles, from classical repertory ballets to contemporary choreographers from our times. This allowed me to learn how to use my body in different ways, analysing movement from different perspectives and discovering endless possibilities to create dance forms.

“Muscle memory allows my body to remember and store movements that I reuse when I create new works. It is like a library and toolbox that I use to create new steps, sometimes consciously and sometimes intuitively. This knowledge is the key to develop a personal movement vocabulary.”

So, choreographers need to know their bodies and start from their bodies; or, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it,

“they need to feel urgency, and that urgency can be a physical one: I want to go into the studio, and I want to start moving and understand the kind of movement I want to bring across.”

The Choreographers’ Quest

Olislaegers stresses, though, that having an inquiring mind is equally important.

“If you are a dancer, and you want to become a choreographer, you need to have the opportunity to change perspective (…) A young choreographer needs to start from a clear question. That question needs to be related to clear curiosity.

“So, to give you an example, you want to create a work about patriarchy, and you are a ballet dancer, say. Well, study the physical parameters in a pas de deux: who steps into whose space (and just that element is already enough to explore!), so, who steps into whose space in order to be lifted? Is it the man coming to the woman in order to lift her, or is it the woman stepping into the space of the man and allowing him to lift her? There’s a difference.

“That’s a kind of awareness, a kind of tuning that will question spacial projection, that will question details in the construction; and before you know it for us, the audience, that will question the relationship between a man and a woman.”

Luke Ahmet

Luke Ahmet is a Rambert dancer who’s worked with Peggy Olislaegers and found her insistence on inquiry very helpful.

“When I choreographed things, especially earlier, I was very step driven; and then after working with Peggy it really did broaden my way: I had to build my language rather than going straight in with steps and not really exploring to its full potential what would come out, as well as my [initial] intention.  Sometimes it could open up many different things, more questions, until I could really define it and establish something that I was really happy with.”

Next, choreographers need to be able to work with dancers; so, how to communicate, how to lead, how to embrace their dancers’ own embodied knowledge is important.

Choreographers and Leadership

Budding choreographers need to ask themselves, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it, “what kind of leadership is it what I would like to embrace.”

“You co-create with the performing artists in front of you, so that happens more and more in dance, but the core thing is, there’s just one author.

“First of all, it’s crucial that as a choreographer you are able to really see a proposal and then take a proposal further; if the co-creation is a dancer using his or her body knowledge, you as a choreographer seeing that, taking it further, that’s for the dancer beautiful because then the dancer is challenged to use that which is already there, to take it into different directions.”

That kind of communication does not come naturally. English National Ballet (ENB) First Artist, Stina Quagebeur “started creating solos based on things that I had seen in the theatre by the time I was 7,” and has kept choreographing throughout her dance career.

Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan’s Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

Stina is currently working with ENB colleagues on arguably her most significant commission to date: the one-act ballet Nora, inspired by Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, to be performed in the Spring.

“In the first couple of years I had to learn how to communicate with the dancers. You might have a great idea in your head but you need the skill to be able to explain it to a group of dancers. (…) The most interesting time in the studio is once you have created the bulk of movement vocabulary. Then you have to start assembling it in the right order and that’s when it becomes narrative.”

Luke Ahmet puts the relationship between choreographer and dancers this way:

“Giving some of the power back to the dancers,  not just being a tool, really allowed me to explore my choreographic style.”

So, a lot to take in for those hopeful young choreographers; but they are doing it at an exciting time, a time when, says Peggy Olislaegers, there is a fertile dialogue in both ballet and contemporary companies about where dance goes next.

“I think people are reflecting a lot upon the variety of dance languages that dancers seem to connect to more and more, I think we talk a lot about the competences in order to be co-creative with the choreographer, I think we talk a lot about a variety of body types on stage, a lot of questions are there. Each company is embracing that in a different way, which is good.”


by Teresa Guerreiro

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