By Diane Claytor
I still remember when my (now adult) daughter and her pre-teen friends would “choreograph” dances in our family room. All their moves mimicked the words in whatever tune they were dancing to; a song that included a reference to a roller coaster had the girls bending up and down; they were “climbing through a window” when dancing to Melissa Ethridge’s “Come to My Window”.
I know what they were doing was as close to choreography as a PB&J sandwich is to gourmet cooking.
According to Wikipedia, choreography “is the art of designing sequences of movements in which motion, form, or both are specified;” it may also refer to the design itself. The word choreography literally means “dance-writing” from the Greek words for circular dance and writing.
The term “choreography” was first used as a credit for George Balanchine in 1936 in the Broadway show On Your Toes. Prior to this, stage and movie credits used “ensembles staged by,” “dances staged by,” or simply “dances by” to denote the choreographer. There are more than 200 ballet choreographers listed on the Wikipedia site and, of course, those are only the “well known” ones.
Every dance has its choreographer – the person who has “put it all together.”
Last month, Diablo Ballet appointed Robert Dekkers to be the Company’s Resident Choreographer. “This is such a huge honor,” Dekkers said. “Knowing that Lauren (Jonas, Diablo Ballet Artistic Director) believes in my work means so much to me.”
Of course, Dekkers is no stranger to either Diablo Ballet or choreography.
Dancing since he was five years old, Dekkers, originally from Atlanta, is starting his third season with Diablo Ballet. He trained at the Atlanta Ballet School and Gwinnett Ballet Theater and began dancing professionally with Ballet Arizona in Phoenix right after graduating from high school.
Growing up with a mother who taught piano and an aunt who was a member of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, music has always been important to Dekkers. He played the cello as a child, listened to classical music and enjoyed the opera. “I know I had opportunities that other kids my age never had,” he said.
During his six years dancing with Ballet Arizona, Dekkers also had the opportunity to choreograph several pieces. But that talent, too, began much earlier.
When he was 16, he told the director of his ballet school that he wanted to choreograph. “I don’t know what gave me the gumption to say that to her,” he commented. “But she was so incredible and gave me the opportunity to choreograph my peers.” The piece he choreographed was entered into a festival, won an award and garnered him an invitation to attend a choreography workshop on full scholarship. And that was just the first of many choreographic opportunities he had, even as a student. “I was actually getting paid to choreograph before I became a professional dancer,” Dekkers noted.
Ballet Arizona was a classical company and rarely presented new works. Dekkers was interested in honing his choreographing skills and began working with Arizona’s Novaballet, a contemporary ballet company, where he served as Resident Choreographer. Even still, he felt he wasn’t being exposed to enough new works. “I knew I needed to grow as a choreographer and it didn’t seem to be happening in Arizona,” he said. So he flew to San Francisco and auditioned for ODC Dance, a modern dance company. “Mind you,” he reported, “I’m not a modern dancer, didn’t really know much about modern dance but I can move.” And apparently his movements were good enough because he was invited to join the company and relocated to San Francisco.
As a modern company, the process at ODC Dance was completely different than with the classical ballet works Dekkers had been both performing and choreographing. “They were all about exploring ideas and themes; it wasn’t so much about technique, line, shape, formation, but really more about the human aspect of it. It broadened my perspective to a whole new way of looking at things. My experience there was really great. But I realized that I also love ballet and the lines, technique, and aesthetics of ballet dancers.”
It appears that Dekkers now has the best of all dance worlds. He’s dancing in the more classical ballet pieces with Diablo Ballet; in 2009 he founded Post:Ballet, a company that “incorporates modern aesthetics with classically based dance;” he teaches at ODC as well as at Contra Costa Ballet, Berkeley Ballet and Marin Ballet. And now he’s taking on the title of Resident Choreographer for Diablo Ballet, a role that will enable him to choreograph one or more ballets per season.
Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director Jonas said, “I am really excited to have Robert as our resident choreographer because he is certainly one to watch. I believe within years he will be a real force in the dance world; he already is in the SF Bay Area. It’s always been my mission to nurture choreography from within the Company and I believe this is a wonderful contribution to the vision of Diablo Ballet.”
Since joining Diablo Ballet in 2011, Dekkers has choreographed three pieces for the Company, including last season’s highly acclaimed The Web Ballet – Flight of the Dodo. Using social media and various options and limitations, Dekkers was tasked with developing a ballet from 132 suggestions made by Twitter users around the world. In two weeks, he created Flight of the Dodo, a 10-minute tribute to the extinct bird set to a Vivaldi concerto.
“Doing the Twitter Ballet was great,” Dekkers exclaimed. “It’s the process that’s so exciting to me. I didn’t know what the piece was going to be about until two weeks before the actual performance. And we got people engaged and involved, not to mention that it pushed me to do something I would never have done. I would never have made a ballet about dodo birds to Vivaldi.” Huffingtonpost.com said the [web] “ballet overall is a work of mad genius.”
Dekkers acknowledged that taking risks is important. “My works might not become lasting legacies and that’s ok. I learn from each one and the experience is great.” Dekkers refers to his choreographic style as being very collaborative. “I’m all about the process,” he explains. “That’s what’s interesting to me. The product always happens – it’s how it all comes together that I find the most exciting.”
He talks with his dancers before developing a new work. “I don’t just give them steps,” Dekkers said. “I talk about ideas first, maybe create a base phrase, a movement and I ask them to play with it. Giving the dancers direction and some guidelines allows them to help me create something totally new. Just by creating a few gestures, we can manipulate them and expound upon them and develop an entire piece. It always ends up being something more than I ever could have imagined on my own. There’s something really rewarding about owning what you do and knowing that you’ve invested not only your physical side but your thoughts and creative input to the work as well. I find this really rewarding, both as a dancer and as a choreographer.”
What Comes First – the Chicken or the Egg?
I’ve often wondered…when choreographing a piece, does the choreographer find the music first and create the dance around the music or does the music get chosen after the dance has been developed? In Dekkers’ case, he’s done it both ways.
The first piece Dekkers developed for Diablo Ballet was in May 2012. “Lauren [Jonas] came to me and said she wanted an upbeat number for the entire company to close the show.” With these limitations in mind, Dekkers started looking for an appropriate score. He found some “happy, fun music by Pogo and then began creating Happy Ending. I had to come up with something that would truly be a happy ending, and I felt very challenged by this,” he said.
At other times, Dekkers said, he comes up with an idea and then finds music to enable the dancers to communicate the concept. He once created a piece based on the idea that people are both like tiny grains of sand and huge cosmos of energy. “I found Phillip Glass music that had a very cosmic sound to it but was also very human. I felt it was a great fit for the concept I was trying to get across.”
Dekkers explained that he doesn’t typically do story ballets but he does always begin with a concept. “Many times I draw upon a real experience,” he said. “That’s the great thing about art in general – someone’s experience can be shared and understood by different people in different ways whereas if I gave details about my feelings, perhaps you could commiserate with me but it might not touch you in the same way as something more abstract,” he continued.
This week, Dekkers is beginning the process for creating a new piece that will premiere at Diablo Ballet’s 20th Anniversary Celebration performance in March. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting addition to the program,” he said. A future blog posting will describe how he’s going about this and give you a preview of what the outcome will be.
Dekkers described himself as the kind of person who, when he listens to music, “I close my eyes and just see things. I’m always transcribing music into dance in my mind, so actually bringing my ideas and visions to life is incredibly rewarding.”
Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.