Shoot the choreographer

Two dance companies turn autocracy on its head.

IN SOME WAYS my notes sound like they come from an economics lecture rather than from interviews about a couple of dance companies: "Transition to owner operation," "dynamics of employer/employee relationship," "the workers controlling the means of production" . . . these ideas don't usually come into play in a discussion of aesthetics. But they are central to the way two local groups, D-9 Dance Collective and Rockhopper Dance, have organized themselves. And that has a direct influence on the kind of dance they do.

The traditional dance company structure, regardless of the style performed, is like a monarchy. The artistic director, who is often also the chief choreographer, is the king. Whether you look at a long-running company or a group assembled for a single performance, one individual usually makes most of the decisions. They hire and fire the dancers, choose and cast the repertory, and, in smaller ensembles, they often supervise the promotion and technical work as well. This is particularly true of modern dance, where the model is the visionary choreographer who is developing a signature style and leading a faithful group of dancers. The choreographer chooses, the dancers are chosen. This is not a pleasant lot for dancers: In Dancemaker, the recent documentary film about choreographer Paul Taylor, there is an illustrative sequence in which Taylor fires a dancer because she doesn't "interest" him any longer. In dance, as in pre-democratic nations, kings tend to be capricious.

In D-9 and Rockhopper, these roles are frequently reversed. Members of the group choose themselves and the work they do. Although this kind of management means "lots and lots of meetings," according to Jana Hill of Rockhopper, "your career is too short to work in an unhappy environment." The structure subverts the tradition of the dancer waiting to be asked, auditioning hopefully for the choreographer, wishing for an opportunity and longing for a chance.

In Rockhopper, all the members are choreographers as well as dancers. Occasionally they perform work by an outside choreographer, but for the most part they create their own repertory. With this kind of rotating leadership, Hill says, company members all feel free to suggest ideas in rehearsal and don't seem as ego-driven as the artists for whom they've slaved in traditional environments.

D-9 takes a converse path—the company does not perform any choreography by a company member. Instead the members look outside for their repertory, either locally or nationally, auditioning choreographers. Although many local dancers work as freelancers, moving from one artist to another, they usually don't initiate a project. Here, that convention is set on its head. D-9 dancer Sara Jinks feels "like an employer" when the group hires a choreographer.

But what does this mean when the audience gets into the theater? At first blush, it doesn't seem to make much difference—you still see a group of dancers performing something made by an individual. The biggest distinction may be in the way the whole program hangs together. Since it isn't the product of a singular artistic vision, these concerts often feel more eclectic.

THAT POTENTIAL MIGHT not always be fulfilled, however. One of the choreographer's jobs through a rehearsal process is to maintain his or her specific stamp on the movement. Several D-9 members say that one of the disadvantages of their situation is that they can only afford a limited amount of time with a choreographer. After the choreographer leaves, the dancers are on their own, and it can be a challenge to keep all the details of the work in place. As a result, audiences probably see a different interpretation of the dance than they would if it were performed by the choreographer's own dancers.

But these difficulties are minimal compared to the opportunities this structure gives to members of both companies. For Diana Cardiff of D-9, "it was an offer I couldn't refuse," a chance "to work with amazing people." One of the biggest motivations for the group is a desire to "dance for people that you might otherwise never dance for"—to work with a wider variety of choreographers. For Michelle Miller, a D-9 founder who came to Seattle from New York, the collective was a way to "make the city work for me."

Both companies are performing locally in September, and while on the surface the concerts will seem much like other dance events, the path they took to the theater lies far from the usual road.

D-9 Dance Collective in West Works, On the Boards/Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance, 9/10-12. Rockhopper Dance in On the Side, Seattle Mime Theater, 9/16-18, 24-25.

Read our picks for fall's best dance.

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