Student Blog: Choreographing for Traverse City Dance Project

September 6, 2019

two dancers looking away with serious faces

Jakevis Thomason (BFA '20) and Rachel Walton (BFA '19) perform with Traverse City Dance Project | Photo by sskettering photography

Traverse City Dance Project is a dance company in Traverse City, Michigan that acts, “as a creative laboratory, providing artists with a focused opportunity to create and share choreography within the vibrant Traverse City community.” The company is under the artistic direction of Jennifer Lott, who is also a professor at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, and Brent Whitney.

The company consists of a variety of professional dancers and choreographers from around the world. They are peers and connections the directors made during their training and the development of their company. All of the dancers who are a part of the company are older and have more professional experience than me. So, when I was awarded the opportunity to choreograph a piece on the company as part of their “Pairings Choreographic Residency,” I was really nervous.

However, the residency was amazing and the dancers (which included USC Kaufman alumni Rachel Walton and Juan Posada Penagos) were respectful and ready to dive into my choreographic process.

three dancers holding hands in a park

Jakevis Thomason (BFA ’20), Rachel Walton (BFA ’19) and Juan Posada Penagos (BFA ’19) | Photo by sskettering photography

The choreographic process

With only four weeks to choreograph, clean, stage and perform a 15-minute piece, involving seven dancers and live music, we started moving quickly. I also had to take into account that I was learning a duo choreographed by Professor Lott. Additionally, the dancers had other pieces to learn at the same time. So, I needed to find a balance with being efficient, but also not cramming the dancers’ brains with too much movement information in each rehearsal.

I had about two hours every day during the first week to teach phrases, develop theme and motifs and arrange formations. By the end of that time, we ended up with a rough draft, nearly finishing the whole 15 minutes.

During the second week, priority went to the pieces that needed to be choreographed and learned by the directors and guest choreographers. As a result, I only had an hour-and-a-half on specific days to work on my piece. I decided to use this time to work on certain sections, answer any questions, figure out what I liked and what I needed to change. I also went through the piece explaining how moves should be executed and embodied.

The piece was in great shape by the end of the second week. I felt very happy with the progress we all made from Day One.

Then, I had to temporarily leave Michigan for the third week. I had another teaching and choreography commitment elsewhere that I couldn’t reschedule. However, before I left, I had the dancers try on the costumes that I designed and painted myself. Additionally, I wrote out lighting designs and cues that I wanted for the piece.

Applying finishing touches

Near the end of my leave of absence, I mentally prepared myself to head back to Traverse City. I knew as soon as I got back that I only had one day before we moved to the theater to work with the live musician. Ian Chang, the live musician who composed and played the music for my piece, was the best drummer I’ve ever seen. He is a part of the band Son Lux.

Coming back to Michigan for Week Four, I came right off the plane and went into rehearsals with Ian. The piece was so much better with the live music component, and I was happy with how smooth the rehearsal went with Ian.

We moved to the theater for the next two days to rehearse on the stage, add lighting, go over notes and make any last-minute changes.

Premiering the piece

Before we knew it, it was already show day and time to share what we had been creating for the beautiful city of Traverse City, Michigan. The lights, costumes, dancers and music worked great together to bring my vision to life. The finished product of my piece was more than satisfying to me.

After the shows I received some really good feedback from the audience, both for my performance in Professor Lott’s duo and on my piece. People seemed to like the staging and live music the most, which were my favorite parts as well.

Next stop: New Jersey

It was sad that this journey came to a close, but so satisfying to know I accomplished something I was initially so nervous about doing. Now, the directors and dancers are taking the company to perform in New Jersey, where my piece will make its debut at the Music Mountain Theatre from Sept. 6-8, 2019.

by Jakevis Thomason