New Dances and the Power of Mistake | Student Blog

Friday, Nov 08, 2019
Noah Wang
Admissions Blog
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Dance students rehearsing in a studio

In the fall semester, every grade of Juilliard dancers starts a new creative journey.

Four choreographers are invited to create new works, one for each class, culminating in our December concert: New Dances. It’s an exciting time for our class in particular, as we are creating and dancing together for the last time at Juilliard. This year, the seniors are working with Stephen Petronio, a well-established choreographer who founded his own company in New York 35 years ago. Influenced by dance legends Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown as well as visual artists Robert Raushchenberg and Cindy Sherman, Petronio has a movement language can be best described as an ecstatic release of energy through the lines, curves, and geometry of the human body.

Our class began the process at the end of September. For the first few weeks of rehearsals, we accumulated a large body of movement material. Some of it was made prior by Stephen and his assistant, Nic, and some of it was collaborative with us. While we enjoyed the challenge and detail of this material, we became a little antsy because we didn’t know what was going to come of all of this work. We were mixing paints, creating a color palette, and testing different brush strokes, but our large canvas remained blank.

A dancer in a studio
Photography by Alexander Sargent (@sargent_images)

Soon enough, however, Stephen’s intentions for the piece began to unfold (he admits that he had completely restructured the piece the minute he met us). Although he challenges us to move in a very specific form, the process of actually composing the piece in the space has been collaborative and spontaneous. Inspired by nature and human behavior on the street, he has us perform the movement together, allowing us to enter, exit, and move about the space as we please. He then has us repeat these spontaneous “events”— which we can sometimes hardly remember—until they become more refined. What struck me most about this method was how much he enjoys mistakes: in one instance, I forgot to enter the space, so I ran on hastily to catch up with everyone else. When I remembered my entrance the second time, Stephen asked me, “Why didn’t you run on like before? I liked that!” His philosophy and way of working has empowered me to make bolder choices in rehearsals, shrugging off any judgment of ”right’‘or ”wrong.” He has taught me the beauty and power of mistake.

Dancers in a studio
Photography by Alexander Sargent (@sargent_images)

The piece is titled #PrayerForNow (“The hashtag saves a step for the audience,” Stephen explains). He came in with this title already determined, and it has served as a consistent theme throughout the process. Stephen recognizes that our class is in a very unique, sometimes frightening period, both in our personal lives as well as in the larger scope of the world. In response, he turns to the movement and the human form as a beacon of light. #PrayerForNow is a snapshot of the present, and as a fourth-year dancer, I'm finding that it serves a reminder to remain in this beautiful, fleeting moment. “I know you’re leaving each other after these four years,” he told us, “so I wanted to give you a moment of connection: to each other, to space, and to the world.” Above all else, Stephen stresses to us how the movement is just a vehicle to connect with others. I hope this connection resonates with the audience as much as it has resonated with us.

Dancers in a studio
Photography by Alexander Sargent (@sargent_images)

What I love most about New Dances every year is that it creates room for an open dialogue between us, the developing student-artists, and the choreographer, a driven individual with a unique set of artistic values. Stephen is opening his world to us just as much as we are opening our world to him, and that is an exchange that we all cherish deeply. In other creative processes that I have experienced, the timeline has felt rushed— everyone in the room seems to be striving for an end product that they can be proud of, only to leave it behind in favor of the next project. But New Dances provides each choreographer and group of dancers with space, time, and endless possibilities. As a result, I have found the rehearsal process to be the most enriching part of New Dances, and the performance is just a culminating celebration of it.

Dancers in a studio
Photography by Alexander Sargent (@sargent_images)
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As the class of 2020 embarks into #prayerfornow, our final creative journey together, we are more conscious than ever of how lucky we are to be here with Stephen, Nic, and each other in this moment. We are soaking up every last drop before it ends.

College applications for fall 2020 arenow open.