… the Festival has become a scene where a richly woven tapestry of creativity comes together — different voices, different inspirations, different presentations, different visions.
What happens when competition and creativity take the stage together? That depends, and it depends most of all on the people who are doing the creating — what they’re trying to make, and what they’re trying to share. In the United States, competition and creativity are on stage together quite often, at least in the early years of a dance career. Not only is a lot of studio dance built around competion, but the very process of admission to schools and companies is, inevitably, competitive.
Later in most dance careers, it’s less common, but there are nevertheless some immensely respected institutions that bring creative choreography together in the context of a competition. For the past twenty-one years, the McCallum Theatre’s Palm Desert Choreography Festival has been among the most respected, and not just with good reason, but with one good reason after another. Because of its high standards of both professionalism and community, the Festival has become a scene where a richly woven tapestry of creativity comes together — different voices, different inspirations, different presentations, different visions. Perhaps less obvious to the Festival’s audience is all of the challenges that are embodied in the dance they see.
Choreography is always a challenging art; its success always requires the co-ordination of all kinds of moving parts, well beyond the movement that ends up on stage. But in self-produced projects like those that make it to the finals of the Palm Desert Choreography Festival, there are even more issues to resolve, even more dynamics to synthesize. Manuel Vignoulle has an impressive history of finding his way through all of those challenges, all the while continuing to discover new ways for his deeply sourced creativity to transcend them. We asked Manuel about the challenges of independent production, and about his appreciation for the Palm Desert Choreography Festival. Here’s what he told us:
I wanted to explore the peaceful strength of men …
Johnny Nevin: The McCallum Theatre’s Palm Desert Choreography Festival is as successful as it is prestigious; in a March 2019 article, Dance Magazine says that nearly forty thousand people have been in that audience over the festival’s twenty year history. Yet it’s quite an undertaking for a choreographer to even aspire to; you have to create the work, bring together the cast, and travel to California to perform. It’s also a unique event in that it’s a highly artistic program, but in the context of a competition. After winning the grand prize there two years in a row, what were some of the reasons that you decided to return again this year?
Manuel Vignoulle: As a native of France, I wasn’t raised in a competitive cultural environment. Therefore, I have never been much into competition, exept for competition with myself. It was when I realized that competitions were important in establishing my work here in the U.S. that I started applying to them. I love the McCallum Theatre’s Palm Desert Competition for their professionalism, for their kindness, for the beautiful theatre, for the community and the relationships I have built over the years. Obviously, the place is emotionally charged for me, because my work was officially recognized for the first time there in November 2017. That was a big deal for me, and it still gives me the strength to move forward in the down moments.
I always challenge myself, and that was why I applied to the competition a third time. I’m one of three choreographers who have won the competion twice over the past twenty-one years, but none of us has done it three times, so I thought, why not at least give it a shot? As long as I present something I am proud of, something I am committed to wholeheartedly — as I am with Spiritual Guide — I am honored and delighted to be back. The work is a duet, and I am willing to give myself to it fully in order to have a blast on stage with my partner —the rest is out of my hands, the cherry on the cake. I cannot control the outcome, so God’s will.
The first year I presented a male-female duet that emphasizes the strength and vulnerability of both sexes. The second year, I showcased a very slow paced and intricate trio. For this third year, I wanted to present a different color, another aspect of my work. Spiritual Guide is a male duet, and it’s more challenging physically, more acrobatic and technical. I wanted to explore the peaceful strength of men, the spiritual warrior that supports us when facing adversity and all of the daily challenges we encounter — this spiritual guide that is always pushing us to move forward and thrive in all our endeavors.
Usually, I work with people who inspire me, or anyone in whom I detect a potential I want to see blossom.
Johnny: Because much of the work of independent choreographers is on commission from an established company, casting a piece is often limited to choices from within the performers at that company. But for independent, self-produced projects, you have the added creative challenge of finding the right dancers for the work. What are some of the factors that you think are most important in this decision — and how do you balance those factors when you are actually making a new work?
Manuel: I love to be commissioned, because then I don’t have to make the schedule work for everyone, I don’t have to deal with logistics. I just show up and start being playful and creative with the talented artists that are in front of me. I have the luxury to essentially focus on the creation and try to bring out the best in the artists I am collaborating with.
When it’s a personal project, I have to take care of everything: money, studio space, planning, and most importantly finding the right collaborators for that specific project. Usually, I work with people who inspire me, or anyone in whom I detect a potential I want to see blossom. It’s as if I were seeing through the person to their own unknown potential, and I work as tirelessly as I can until I see that concretely in the studio.
It is always difficult to find the right artists for your cast. Especially if the piece has been created on other people, like right now with Spiritual Guide. It is not only about the physicality, the technicality and the movement quality of the dancer, but also — and maybe most importantly — about their spirit, their state of mind and their capacity for personal investigation and exploration into the work. I originally created Spiritual Guide, which is a duet, with Matteo Fiorani. But this year, he had a show with his company on the day of the competition. I had no other choice but to find someone else.
… competition is always such a wonderful opportunity to showcase your work, to develop more connections with the dance community, and to attract more opportunities …
After three weeks of unsuccessful and intense research for a great and available dancer that would be a perfect fit, I was ready to withdraw from the competition. I didn’t want to present something I wouldn’t be totally proud of, especially coming back for the third time.
Sometimes, it’s hard to know when it’s time to let it go and when to persevere. It can be tricky to read life’s signs. But competition is always such a wonderful opportunity to showcase your work, to develop more connections with the dance community, and to attract more opportunities, so I didn’t want to give up too easily.
I asked the Palm Desert Choreography Competition founders to give me twenty-four hours before I officially withdrew. Suddenly, I thought of a wonderful dancer I had already worked with years ago, Alexander Anderson, who had just finished working with Nederlands Dance Theatre. He was coming back to New York. We only had two weeks to get ready but It was a challenge that we were both excited to take on. We are currently rehearsing every day in the studio and are doing our best to present a pristine work this weekend.
Overall, I am grateful to have another chance to perform and showcase my work at the McCallum Theatre’s Palm Desert Choreography Festival. I am constantly learning about my art, and about how primal, and how elemental, the relationships we create with people are, because that’s what I really remember when it’s over.
I am constantly learning about my art, and about how primal, and how elemental, the relationships we create with people are …
on Saturday, November 9, 2019 at 7:00pm Featuring Professional Companies (for which tickets are available online from The McCallum Theatre)
and on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at 4:00pm Featuring Pre-Professional Companies (for which tickets are available online from The McCallum Theatre).
Both concerts take place at The McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert, CA 92260. You can reach the Box Office at (760) 340-2787
or Toll Free at (866) 889-2787
PHOTOS (from top): Matteo Fiorani and Manuel Vignoulle performing Manuel Vignoulle’s “Spiritual Guide” (Photo by Stephen McCloskey) • Matteo Fiorani and Manuel Vignoulle performing Manuel Vignoulle’s “Spiritual Guide” (Photo by Eric Polizer) • Matteo Fiorani and Manuel Vignoulle performing Manuel Vignoulle’s “Spiritual Guide” (Photo by Eric Polizer) • Matteo Fiorani and Manuel Vignoulle performing Manuel Vignoulle’s “Spiritual Guide” (Photo by Stephen McCloskey) • Matteo Fiorani and Manuel Vignoulle performing Manuel Vignoulle’s “Spiritual Guide” (Photo by Eric Polizer)