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Conversations on Choreography

Published on
Jul 2, 2021
Written by
Emily Bartosiewicz
Published by
Edited by
Lannii Layke

A choreographer’s work is often very global, with festivals and commissioned work happening all across the world. Given this challenging year of stay-at-home orders and next-to-no travel, it’s impressive to see just how resilient and creative choreographers have been. I had the pleasure of speaking with Charlie, Ethan, and Justin, three finalists that will be competing in the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition (CICC), who shared their creative processes and experiences, as well as changes they would like to see within the dance industry. Only 10 finalists were chosen out of a pool of 300 applicants for this international competition which will take place on July 8 - 10 via Zoom (accessible here).

Charlie Skuy, originally from Toronto and now working as a dancer for the Nederlands Dans Theatre, will be presenting his piece ORO as part of the competition. Charlie first discovered dance through his childhood in theatre where he was urged to pursue dancing more seriously. He started his training at the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre and later trained at Canada’s National Ballet School.

Having trained at Canada’s National Ballet School, Elite Danceworx, and The Juilliard School, Ethan Colangelo quickly excelled at finding his own creative voice. Today, Ethan is based primarily in New York but also works for LA-based company BODYTRAFFIC. He has participated in a number of choreography festivals around the world, including the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveur. Ethan’s work, Recurrence, will be performed at the upcoming CICC.

Florida-born Justin Rapaport studied in a performing arts high school in Miami and was later accepted into The Juilliard School where he continued his training in New York City, allowing him the opportunity to work on a number of new works and collaborations. Justin was later offered a contract with Canada’s own Ballet BC, where he currently works. His piece Passing By will be presented as part of the CICC.

When did you first start choreographing?

Charlie (C): Whenever I had music playing and I was by myself, I had a very vivid and powerful ability to imagine the space of the stage and being able to zone into this space where I could envision bodies moving, in shapes and forms. Eventually, I realized that what I was doing was “choreographing”. I could see dance, so I continued to carve out this place in my brain where I would create, whenever I could. I made my first piece, a duet, at a choreographic workshop at school and realized I loved the choreographic language and the compositional responsibility of it.

Ethan (E): While training at Elite Danceworx, I was exposed to many different choreographers and this started piquing my interest in choreographing. Later when I went to Juilliard, I got to explore this more as the school has these student workshops four times a year, with allocated space and rehearsal times to collaborate and create. I’ll be honest, as a dancer, I don’t really like being told what to do. I like telling people what to do and collaborating with them. Eventually, I started submitting my work for different choreography festivals. I did anything I could to get my work out there.

Justin (J): At Juilliard, I had many opportunities to explore choreographing. We had four showcases a year for student choreographic works, where we were able to create anything we wanted, and composition classes to learn the different styles and processes of choreographing. There was one showcase which I was a part of called, “Choreographers and Composers” where six third year dance students were paired together with six composer students and they were given the opportunity to create an entire piece and musical score from scratch. After that, I became enamoured with choreographing.

“When I think about it, there is this feeling that there is always more. I can never catch up to the questions I’m asking.”  
– Charlie Skuy

How would you define your relationship to choreography today?

C: I think my relationship with choreography is becoming much more universal; as I grow to understand that it can easily exist beyond the stage - it’s endless. But it’s also daunting because I have no idea where it might go. When I think about it, there is this feeling that there is always more. I can never catch up to the questions I’m asking. In school, I was simply curious about my body and physicality. Whereas now, my questions go even beyond those basics, questions that are more intrinsic. The absolute lack of understanding about what we’re doing is truly where this all lies. That’s what choreography is – an attempt to answer this question.

E: What I’m most interested in right now is becoming more of a multifaceted creator. I want to learn more about visual arts and theatre. I feel confident now in my background as a dancer, but I would like to refine my voice from a dramaturgical perspective. There are different types of art, different facets, that I’d like to integrate into my own work. Some of my favourite choreographers in the world have not even danced before. It’s easy to get sucked into the “pure dance” aspect, but lose the theatrical aspect of it.

J: As a choreographer, I think I’m very open. I love collaborating with artists and presenting new ideas, but also seeing what the people I work with have to offer. At first, I was really nitpicky about creating every step in my head, but now I see how professional dancers work. You might curate every single moment, and then they bring in some spontaneous change, and it gives birth to a moment you could have never thought of. It’s the magic that exists in the rehearsal space. So I would say I have a collaborative and open identity as a choreographer.

“The Hora, or Oro, is a celebratory circle dance originating in the Balkans. Here, the map of the dance acts as an imprinted frame. As sacred and religious places around the world have become grounds for violence and destruction, Oro becomes a nameless, stateless place that reflects this fragility within traditional sacredness.”

How do you feel your identity as a choreographer differs from your identity as a dancer?

C: I have a very different experience when I dance than when I choreograph. My relationship as a dancer is a lot more difficult, needing a lot more acceptance and permission from myself. I’m very hard on myself and don’t always have the most positive experiences. When I am creating, I have somehow given myself absolute permission, and a healthy amount of value in my work. It’s a different kind of conversation – it’s not about being good or bad, but about being true.

E: In a lot of ways, what I value and am interested in as a dancer aligns with what I’m interested in making. I love being in the creative process where I have a lot of agency or the ability to improvise – this is what excites me. So honestly, these two identities are quite intertwined. I like to be as involved in the dance making as possible, even if I am the dancer and not the choreographer. I like to have a collaborative voice, regardless of my role.

J: I’m not really sure if I have a strong identity yet as a choreographer. As a performer, I think my identity is very calm, grounded, and steady. I think I’m able to provide spontaneity, yet efficiency in knowing when I need to push harder.

There are only 10 finalists chosen for the CICC - big congratulations! How did you first find out about the competition and how did it feel being named as a finalist?

C: In the last year, I was doing more research on choreographic festivals. I first heard about a competition in Rotterdam specifically for duets. Then somebody told me about this competition in Copenhagen. So I submitted my piece and let myself forget about it, because I like to let myself forget about things I look forward to, and then I received the email one morning with the good news.

E: I had mentors earlier on who had previously won the competition. Looking into it more, I went to Copenhagen for the competition in 2018 and then this year I also submitted. I’m happy to return to it in this virtual setting. I really like the community. The way they organize this competition is really special, with a diverse and talented group of creators. My favourite part isn’t actually seeing my own work, but actually seeing what everyone else is doing.

J: I first heard about the competition a couple of years ago at Juilliard. One of my classmates there created something and submitted it and was named a finalist. A few of my colleagues submitted for other festivals in Europe and it inspired me to submit for the CICC. I was in my morning ballet class and got my email and it was a nice, amazing surprise- and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.

In your own work, what are some sources of inspiration?

C: It changes very quickly. I’m really inspired by people that are utterly free and silly and just don’t care. People who live in the “anti-” of dance: that stretch and elastify and dismantle the pillar elements of dance. I value choreographers who aren’t focused on the effectiveness of their work but rather the honesty of it. I’m also inspired by surrealism and suspended realities on stage, and some filmmakers, such as Stanley Kubrick, and more recently, David Lynch.

E: I’m really inspired by film, foreign language films especially. I don’t typically make work that’s very narrative driven, but I’ll often come in with conceptual ideas that will drive the work. Music also really inspires me. Books too. However, the biggest aspect that gets me excited, and drives the work, are honestly the people in front of me. I very much like to have an aesthetic, but I always adapt it to the person in the space.

J: My big inspirations would probably be Jamar Roberts, Resident Choreographer of Alvin Ailey, also from my dance studio in Miami. Another person would be Crystal Pite. I first saw her work Tempus Replica in 2012 and couldn’t leave my seat after the show – I was speechless. I’m lucky to be working with her often in Ballet BC. My creative process varies, comes naturally, with sweeping, low forms of movement and exploring how it can be redirected. I also find a lot of inspiration in Rodin sculptures. These bodies are sculpted into these finite objects but in so many ways, despite being still, they are so animated.

Passing By, Justin Rapaport - Photo by: @iiiiportraits - Evan Rapaport & Rae Srivastiva

What can you tell us about your work being performed by the CICC?

C: When making ORO, I worked with the music first, a traditional Balkan celebratory song, which I heard a lot growing up at all of these Jewish celebrations. I wanted to present a sort of universal, but unidentified, sacred space on stage. Another word for oro is hora, which is a circular, celebratory dance. I wanted to make that circularity be an actual shape on stage, creating a visual framework for the sacred grounds. However, I also wanted to think about what sacred places or ceremonial grounds mean in our world and that in fact they aren’t all as safe as we expect them to be. Often, they encounter violence and struggle. And at the time I made this, many important religious and sacred grounds were being destroyed – violence in synagogues and on sacred lands of Indigenous people in Canada.

E: For Recurrence, a lot of the underlying concepts were working with relationships. Not a specific relationship, but rather questioning why people do the worst things to the people they love the most. It’s this interesting dichotomy that we shift to have this comfortability where we do these horrible things, that we would never do to a stranger, but we would so easily do to a loved one. In addition to the two dancers, Jayme Lawson, an incredibly talented actress I know from Juilliard, collaborated with me on a piece of text. She recorded the passage and the composer connected it with the music.

J: Passing By is a duet performed by two men. There was a lot of workshopping and collaborating of ideas, looking into the music to find something ambient, and bridging the movement with the music. The opening has a clear diagonal where the two men continuously bump into each other. Like when you’re walking down a busy street and sometimes you pass by the same people every day without realizing it, as you go through your daily routine. The idea is to open up your tunnel vision and actually see what you pass by everyday. There wasn’t necessarily a strong narrative, but it all morphed and created a vague narrative which can give everyone who watches both their own personal experience, but also something universal.

What moment of your career (thus far) do you take most pride in?

C: Quite recently, I made a piece that disrupts the elements of most pieces I’ve worked on before and uses a vastly different creative process. Typically, I start by using my own body to compose and create work, whereas this time I used ballet exercises and then restructured them to be wildly different from their elementary form. The highlights for me in my career are always the ones that make me want to keep cracking at it. Those that leave me unsatisfied and wanting more. My goal is to keep creating faster than I can understand.

E: Going to Copenhagen when I was 19 was a crazy, beautiful experience. I felt very nervous, but very excited, and there was a small aspect of pride. Also, the duet that I made for the competition which I worked on with these dancers in BC and we were able to create and produce the whole thing in spite of the pandemic. I was really proud of the three of us for coming together during these really tough circumstances and still making it happen. This was an immense highlight.

J: My acceptance call into Juilliard was a very exciting moment for me and then later, our graduating senior showcase where we’re able to choose a solo to perform. I chose a Crystal Pite solo, A Picture of You Falling, which required a lot of strings to be pulled, but I actually did get to rehearse with her once, which was an incredible experience. It was my first time meeting and working with her – she had an invigorating energy.

“Often dancers will work through it, push through it, but now I am learning that it’s okay to be injured, to be hurt, and you can tell whoever you’re working with how you’re doing, both physically and mentally.”
– Justin Rapaport

What are the lessons you have learned when dealing with failure?

C: For myself, I disappoint myself when I become too concerned with what people will think of my work and allow it to inform my decisions in my work. The audience reaction is so dependent on the time, the society, and the spaces we live in – it’s fleeting and about much more than if we like the piece or not. All choices are a reflection of the choreographer, of who they are in the world, what they might be experiencing. Because of that, I put a lot of pressure on myself - I’m always questioning my work and its value and if it’s a necessary perspective. But then I need to remind myself that the work that I appreciate the most is always coming from choreographers who don’t care. They just create honest art, not worrying if it’s politically savvy or societally poignant.

E: I can be very self-deprecating. I just love it and am so passionate about what I do that I feel everything so intensely. I’m trying to find a way (it’s a lesson in progress) to separate myself from the process. I can really spend hours fixated, being a perfectionist, and this can sometimes interrupt the process. So the lesson is to be a bit kinder to yourself. I have to remind myself that at the end of the day, it’s just dance. I’ve also made so many pieces that I realize now weren’t successful, in terms of effectively communicating what I wanted to say, but the more that I made, the more I learned from each piece.

J: Moments of injury are hard. Dealing with it in a professional space is challenging. Often dancers will work through it, push through it, but now I am learning that it’s okay to be injured, to be hurt, and you can tell whoever you’re working with how you’re doing, both physically and mentally. I’m learning it’s okay to be vulnerable, acknowledging that we love what we do, but it also can be really hard and kick your butt. Honour whatever capacity you have for that day of working. People will be open and accepting of that.

Recurrence, Ethan Colangelo

What are some things that you’d like to see change within the dance world and how do you feel choreography can be an agent for this change?

C: I would like to see different artists celebrated. I really want the understanding of what dance and choreography is to change and expand. I think this is mainly about the bodies we use in our work. A lot of choices come unconsciously for the choreographer: the bodies they’re using, gender, heteronormativity, aesthetics, and composition. When these choices are automatic, I’d like us to push past and use a much broader spectrum of people and stories told.

E: I think there’s a really exciting movement happening in terms of opening up and providing opportunities for people who are often marginalized or oppressed, such as People of Colour, Trans people, non-binary people. It’s exciting to see the push for these voices that are often silenced. It’s the beauty of the diverse world that we live in. Dance is typically very Euro-centric, very white, so people have difficulty watching dance because they can’t always relate to the people on stage, so they disassociate. I think this transition will allow more people to connect with the art form.  

J: I feel like it’s starting to change already. I think what I was saying earlier about acknowledging how we all are on a given day, is some change I appreciate seeing. We’re open to being more flexible and more vulnerable, and honest to the capacity we have. And that this too can create good, honest work. It’s important to have an open room, an open environment, so that everyone is comfortable. This transition I feel is happening as more and more dancers are becoming choreographers.

“Dance is typically very Euro-centric, very white, so people have difficulty watching dance because they can’t always relate to the people on stage, so they disassociate.”
– Ethan Colangelo

Finally, do you have any last words to pass on to aspiring future choreographers?

C: I would say, it’s just dance. Don’t worry so much. Celebrate and trust the language of the questions you can’t understand – that’s where everything is.

E: Make as much work as possible, not in a capitalist sense to get money, but more in the sense that any chance you get the opportunity to create, you should take. The more you make, the more you learn. It’s a meditative practice of digging deeper and learning more about yourself too.

J: Be open and observe. Look around you and see what’s happening. Absorb what other people are doing. Ask yourself why something has drawn you in. Allow yourself to grow. Take opportunities to create whenever you can, regardless of what it is.

To watch the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition you can register below:

Thursday July 8th - 19:00 CEST (1 PM EST) 5 Finalists


Friday July 9th - 19:00 CEST (1 PM EST) 5 Finalists


Saturday July 10th - 19:00 CEST (1 PM EST) Gala and Award Ceremony