Justin Peck: A Choreography Role Model for the Millennial Generation

imageBeing a dancer takes sacrifice, while being a choreographer takes vulnerability.  The documentary “Ballet 422” explores the development of twenty-five year old Justin Peck’s ballet creation “Paz de La Jolla.”  In 2013, within two months, he set New York City Ballet’s 422nd creation to a musical composition from 1935 by Bohuslav Martinu.  The ballet featured three company elite principal dancers (Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin, and Amar Ramasar) along with a 15-member corps.  Peck explores a contemporary ballet style with constant fluidity and directional changes.  His style, movement quality, and confidence reminds me of Jerome Robbins’ work where he intertwines movement within a story while bringing the audience deeper into the musicality of the composition.  Peck uses every beat from the quick sound of the violins to the strong brass blows that brings the piece of music truly alive.  His attention to detail and specifics from hand placement to body angles for a lift shows his ability to create strong work like Balanchine.

Peck had a modest start in dance training in tap at age 9.  It wasn’t until he was 13 years old that he started training in Ballet after he saw an American Ballet Theater performance of “Giselle” that inspired him.  At 15, he moved to New York City to study at the School of American Ballet where he ultimately joined the New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 2006 at 18.  From there, Peck rose through the ranks.  In 2007, he became a member of the corps, and as he continued to choreograph and dance his career flourished, and in 2013 he received the title of soloist.

As a choreographer, Peck produced his first Ballet in 2008.  He found success in the Company’s Choreographic Institute.  In 2013, when the documentary was created, he was commissioned to create the only new Ballet of that year for the winter season at 25 years old.  Now at 28, Justin Peck is a soloist at the New York City Ballet and has become one of the most requested choreographers in the Ballet world.  In 2014, he was appointed Resident Choreographer of the NYCB; only the second person in the history of the NYCB’s 68 year institution to hold such a title.  Peck has choreographed 25 works for companies all over the world such as San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, LA DanceProject, and the Paris Opera Ballet. His choreographic work – “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” was award in 2015 with a Bessie for outstanding production.  His focus for the work was about finding a balance between athletics and artistry.  It was primarily an all male cast with men partnering men. It explored that aspect of the men being the center of attention instead of the women, which was a refreshing view considering other Ballet casting structure.

The documentary “Ballet 422” brought the audience into a behind the scenes peek at a young choreographer as his career was beginning to explode.  Unlike most documentary, there was no interviews with any of the members of the production.  The viewer saw the the blood, sweat, and tears that went into “Paz de la Jolla” without verbal interjection.  Seeing Peck develop the work through movement studies in the studio alone as he sketched out formations and movement phrases showed that artists truly need time away from others to be creative.  Many artists are all about control, but Peck seemed to understand that it is important to let others interject in the creative process as it makes the work better as a whole from the costume designers to the dancers.  He seems to have an open forum for the people he works with that makes him approachable as the work is developed in a collaborative atmosphere.

Justin Peck is a forward thinker. Someone who thinks outside the box as a choreographer, dancer, and collaborator, which makes him push the boundaries as an artist.  Mikhail Baryshnikov said, “I found that dance, music, and literature is how I made sense of the world…it pushed me to think of things bigger than life’s daily routines…to think beyond what is immediate or convenient.”  Watching the end of the documentary as you see Peck walk away and preparing to dance after watching his piece on stage, I imagine that the wheels never stop turning for someone who is multi-talented from development to artistic you need consistent evolution.

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Open Letter to Mills College President

Dear Mills College President,

It is with great sadness that I have come to hear about Mills College fading out their undergraduate dance program.  I’m not writing this letter to yell, or cause a riot, but to make you consider a world where every major dance university decided to cut their dance programs to make their college “more contemporary and competitive.”  As a past college student at College at Brockport in upstate New York, the importance of a liberal arts college that encompasses a dance curriculum of technique, composition, and critical engagement is a rarity. Many programs focus on technique, style, and performance as they are more conservatory based, and push their students in the direction of becoming a performer.

College at Brockport taught me to have a passion in my choreography, to critically evaluate and analyze my performances, and to be able to utilize theory based arguments in my writing.  So, I have three questions for you.  One, are you going to deprive the next generation the option to receive this kind of education from your distinguished dance professors?  Two, are you ready to explain your decision of fading out the dance program to generations that you have deprived of the next Trisha Brown, Molissa Fenley, or Nora Chipaumire?  And three, how do you expect to continue to grow your graduate program if there is no undergraduate program to inspire, collaborate, and drive one another?

We need to change education.  To bring back the importance of the arts.  Dance is in numerous basic subjects that are studied such as anatomy, math, and english.  The impact dance has on individuals is more than just a class at a college, but prepares students to understand collaboration, creativity, and focus.  I urge you to reconsider your decision and think about your children, grandchildren, and other young people who are important in your life.  Would you deprive them of such a dance college program that has been around since 1938?  Remember that our lives are full of choices, our actions affect more than just ourselves, and dance is the closest thing we have to magic.

Sincerely,
Chantel

Sign the petition today here – https://www.change.org/p/mills-college-save-mills-dance-major

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Dance Marketing – How to Make A Photo Special

Photo by Haze Kware

Photo by Haze Kware

People say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in dance, a picture is worth a billion words. Dance photographs can make or break a marketing campaign for any dance company. There are three things that are key – a photographer, good lighting, and dancers who can take direction well.

First, you have the photographer. It is important to have a photographer who is great at capturing action shots. When looking

Photo by Rachel Neville

Photo by Rachel Neville

through their portfolio look for shots of music concerts, sporting events, or even dance. Photographers who are famous for modeling shots or stills may not understand how to shoot movement, which could ultimately hurt your campaign in the long run when you go to layout design work for the coming season. Another thing to look for when you are hiring a photographer is variety. You don’t want a photographer who is afraid to take a risk in the art that they create. It could not only give you great pictures to choose from for the future, but give a new twist to your marketing campaign and take you in a new direction.

Secondly, you need fanatic lighting. When setting up a photo shoot you want to make sure you have all the lighting that the

Photo by Rachel Neville

Photo by Rachel Neville

photographer needs to capture the magic through the lens. Bad lighting could kill the shoot, which means your pictures could turn out dark and unusable and would put you back at square one for your marketing campaign. When you see pictures that come out too dark it is difficult to lighten it. When you try to lighten the photo it becomes grainy. Marketing campaigns need sharp photos with colors that pop. When I say pop, the colors don’t have to be neon. The colors just need to grab people’s attention. Make them take a second look. Also a graphic designer can really give you a color concept and change colors or bring other colors out within the design process.

Finally, you need dancers who take direction well. Every dancer has their own personalities. Some are meant to be choreographers, and others are meant to be the stage presence – have a look, a modeling ability, and be able to repeat a movement many times perfectly till the shot is right. It’s hard to find dancers who can take direction with not only movement, but with a presence or a facial expression.

Is a picture worth a thousand words? You decide.

Check out dance photographers Haze Kware and Rachel Neville.

Individual Fundraising – How To Do It

Nobody likes to talk about money, but there comes a time in everyone’s life where you need to start having those hard conversations.  Now, you can continue to avoid the dread ‘M’ word issue or you can deal with the fact that every facet of your life deals with money.  The sooner you become comfortable talking about it in everyday conversation the easier this talk is going to be.

Non-profits thrive and prosper on the development team.  This part of the organization is the area that brings in the money and makes all the wheels turn from production to education to everyday operations.  In my research to become more apart of the dance world in Los Angeles I have recently applied for a development position.  In my prep for not only furthering my career, but an overarching understanding of the arts world from commercial to nonprofits it is important to grasp knowledge and research what you still need to learn.  One of the components of this potential position includes individual fundraising, which I do not have experience in, but you have to start somewhere.  Granted I have an understanding of grant writing, fund reporting, fundraising efforts with the community, database maintenance and upkeep, and donor event planning, but I have never done anything directly with individual donors and major gifts.  So, I did what I do best which is research like a crazy person.

Started by talking with a woman who has been in the major gift and solicitation game for thirty years.  She told me that following the 10, 10, 80 rule is the most important rule.  Ten percent of funding are grants – foundations, government, corporate, ten percent are smaller funding donations from annual appeals and e-mail solicitations, but eighty percent are your major donors.  These donors need to be cultivated, courted, and become part of the company’s family.  Understanding this rule I came to the understanding that individual giving is the most important aspect in development.  Needless to say I have gained a tremendous respect for the employees that have taken on this intimidating and daunting task of approaching people for funding.

So my thought to maximizing an individual giving program is to first draw up a plan with short and long term goals that have deadlines attached to them.  For example, start by concentrating on the circles that surround the company.  Around the company you have the executives of the organization and board members.  I would want to uses these people to test the case of support to the leadership by developing the story of the company that could be presented to donors (i.e. mission, artistic work, education, community…etc).  Exciting and engaging the people that are associated with the organization so they (board and other leaders) will participate and are comfortable to participate and give one hundred percent to fundraising plan.

Once you have the leadership on board and the basic pitch it is time to get to know the database of the company.  What do your current donors have in common?  Are their relationships between the donors (i.e. friends, family, or board relation)?  Once you are able to separate your current donors into giving categories take a look at other organizations to see if their giving levels are the same or is their a potential for a higher donation that hasn’t been tapped.  Don’t solicit your donors the same.  Continue to target and ask for the right amount for the right type of area of the company to fund.  Continue to communicate to all donors through multiple channels – social media, mail, e-mail, and individualize calls and letters.

Next it is time to leverage the connections.  You know how I was talking about those circles around the organization?  Well the next circle would be friends, associates, and connections with VIPs of the company.  Enlist board support by getting their inner circle to get to know the organization by hosting a small event in a personal setting.  Educate, inform, and involve them.  Cultivate the relationship long-term.  Getting the donor to go from donation to investment in the organization is key.  You want these people to not only give money but believe strongly in the organization.  To do this you need to develop an investment opportunity, give the donor an opportunity to transform the organization or the community, and then you as the organization need to demonstrate that change.

Donor solicitation is a lot like dating.  First you get to know a person.  What are their interests?  How could their interest connect with the company’s interests?  If both of the parties (i.e. the individual and the company) interests can connect in a positive way you start a courtship with the donor.  Throughout the courtship you educate them about the company, find common interests, and get the donor to connect in a personal way.  From their comes the commitment (i.e. the proposal).  The asking for the funds from the donor and how their investment will be used.  Looking at solicitation like dating makes it a little less scary because it fits on a level that everyone can relate to in society.  The thing to remember is that money isn’t as scary to talk about it if you can find a common ground.

The Inner Workings of a Non-Profit Dance Comapny

There are two looks of a dance company. The dream-like state that the audience sees on stage, and then there is a reality to it. Being apart of the dance world since I was a child and understanding all aspects of the business side is important to running a dance company.

First you have the mission of the company. The message that the company is driven on. It should only be a few sentences long, and should be the basis of the company’s story. If a reader can’t figure out what your company is about based off the mission statement you need a new one. Next you have the artistic vision of the choreographer. There needs to be a way to present his/ her vision to not only to the general public through marketing, but to current and potential donors.

This brings me to the administrative offices. First you have the marketing team. The marketing team is what makes the company look good visually. For the marketing team you need photos shoots to happen at least once a year. This will allow new works to be photographed, new dancers to be highlighted, and old works that are coming out of retirement back into the current repertoire to be photographed with new casting. Next you have the development team. The development team writes the grants, researches foundations and government funding, does solicitations to individual donors, courts donors for major gifts, organizes and manages capital campaigns, and is the go to person for managing and maintaining relationships with the donors. A good development team is key to having a successful dance company because they are the ones bringing in the funds to keep the artistic product moving forward to new opportunities.

Since we are talking about money you need an excellent finance person who can be sure to monitor all areas of the company so overspending is not happening. Obviously, there is that old saying “it takes money to make money” but in a nonprofit it is vital to be breaking even. It becomes increasing difficult if the company gets into a financial hole to get out of it because not only can any one see your financial numbers if you are in the negative for multiple years, it will be difficult to convince a donor they are not giving to a black hole or that you are unable to handle your funding positively.

Finally, you have the management and executive staffing like the company manager. This person is equally important to artistic side as well as the administrative side because they are like a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth playing the in-between to presenters, lawyers, publicists, dancers, teachers, travel companies, record and publishing labels, and of course the executive and artistic director to be sure that the company is on the same page. It is vital that this person can work well under pressure, multitask, and understand the importance of what is a priority.

The next time you go see a dance company remember that all the people that work behind the scenes are just as important as the choreographers and the dancers; and without them, the inner working of the company would fall apart.