Nurturing artistic identity and redefining success – in conversation with Vladimir Angelov
Inspiring creativity in our young artists is an important aspect of the learning we offer at the School. We’re lucky to have a dynamic range of guest speakers visit the School to pass on their knowledge and experience to our students, giving them useful tools and ideas to take on their journeys. Last week, we welcomed Vladimir Angelov to Upper School to deliver a talk to our students on his life, career, and newly published textbook on choreography – YOU, THE CHOREOGRAPHER, Creating and Crafting Dance, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, and New York (2023).
Vladimir Angelov was born in Bulgaria and began dancing at the National Ballet School in Sofia before moving to the United States to pursue his choreographic career. He shared that:
I was born in Bulgaria, but I am ‘Made in America.’ I immigrated as a young man as I wanted to experience the United States’ democracy of dance. Before this, I graduated from the National Ballet School in Bulgaria and danced for a couple of years on an apprenticeship in one of the modern ballet companies. When I came to the US in the 1990s, I focused intensively on learning how to choreograph, which resulted in a great career as a professional choreographer for around 25 years.
Alongside his dance training, Vladimir studied philosophy as a college degree. He spoke to us about why he chose this subject and how it connects to dance:
The main reason I wanted to study philosophy was because I experienced bullying when I was a teenager. People told me flat that dancers are not smart, which hurt because those are very emotionally fragile years.
My parents were both intellectuals: my father was a director of a corporation, and my mother was a college professor of literature. When I told them I wanted to dance and study philosophy, they welcomed the idea but told me it would be hard because I was a full-time ballet artist and would have to study a lot. I thought, ‘That’s fine!’ And it was very difficult but such a great experience.
The intellectual and analytical perspective of philosophy became essential for me because choreography focuses mainly on physical expression. It’s good to learn not just how to operate the body but also the mind. I also enjoyed gaining skills in written and verbal communication. This really helped me to craft the book I published this year. I could encapsulate important concepts of physical thinking into easy-to-understand written descriptions, charts, and diagrams.
After retiring from his elaborate dance and choreographic career, Vladimir became the Founding, Artistic, and Executive Director of the International Choreographers’ Organization and Networking Services (Dance ICONS, Inc.):
ICONS is a digital channel and network that distributes news, resources, and opportunities for choreographers. Our distribution includes global information about workshops, artistic residencies, funding, festival open calls, and all sorts of valuable opportunities for the international choreographic community. We have a wide network of volunteers worldwide who send us monthly information about what’s happening where they are. Our information exchange platform analyses and compiles what’s happening within the industry. Also, we work to educate young choreographers by holding artistic talks, and I often host masterclasses or talks with young people myself.
As an expert in choreographic practice, Vladimir has written numerous articles and essays on various dance subjects. Recently, he published his book: YOU, THE CHOREOGRAPHER, Creating and Crafting Dance.
My book is written in three parts: The first part defines the art of choreography. Twyla Tharp is an American choreographer and was one of my mentors in the 90s when I arrived in the US. She used to say, “If you want to think outside of the box, first of all, you need a box. Then, you must know the box and have the courage to play with the box.” Therefore, the book’s first part is ‘What is the box?’
The second part is “What is the entry point?” for the choreographer that answers the question, ‘How do I start working? Do I start with the music, with the images? Do I just improvise in the studio? How do I come up with moves?’ There are many traditional tools to help with this, as well as new devices and innovative techniques that can be useful – all described in the book.
The third final part of the book focuses on how to craft the physical material before it becomes dance and as it becomes dance. This question is: “What is YOUR approach to creating a dance? Well… There is no right or wrong approach. Just create! Some dance works will end up less satisfying, and others will be more satisfying. But then… ‘satisfying’ for whose norms? Is it about what is ‘good dance for the artist’ or ‘good dance for the audience’? And who decides what ‘good dance’ is?
We asked Vladimir about the stages of developing unique creativity in choreography:
It is a long journey! Everything starts with a ‘creative personality,’ for instance, as a person solves simple daily problems, the choreographer takes the journey forward. The choreographer then begins gathering knowledge, experiences, and observations through ongoing creative practices. With consecutive immersion in daily creativity and with the accumulated work, a choreographer develops a ‘choreographic individuality,’ which shapes and reshapes by preferred artistic content. Working habits and confidence are forming gradually. Finally, the so-called ‘artistic identity’ emerges, where the choreographer ‘speaks’ through the work, and the work ‘speaks’ about itself to the audience.
Vladimir was keen to find out about how our students find choreography:
Choreography is an intimate journey, both artistic and personal! I want to ask young choreographers questions and learn what the difficulties are. There’s a lot of creative power, and every choreographer is unique and different. When starting out, one might ‘borrow ideas’ and copy other choreographers, which is normal. It takes time for an ’artistic identity’ to emerge. It can take years or decades to work out one’s strengths and weaknesses and decide how to use them.
It was fascinating to hear Vladimir’s insights, and our students enjoyed learning from him during his talk. He offered us a lovely analogy on the meaning of success in conclusion:
Success has nothing to do with the number of commissions, money made, or popularity. For example, I like to tell a story about Leonardo Da Vinci. When he was alive, he was commissioned to paint ‘The Last Supper.’ He completed the work on time and was paid very well for it. It’s a classic! But what artwork of his is considered one of the greatest paintings in art history? It is the Mona Lisa!
Painting a portrait usually takes between eight and 16 hours to finish. Leonardo Da Vinci took 16 years to paint the Mona Lisa and never completed it because he died. The painting was a secret experimental canvas; Leonardo was testing the bounds of nature in the background of a portrait: the lines of a smile and the mountains. He kept working and reworking. The goal was not to finish the portrait soon but to resolve a puzzle. He never wanted to display this piece to the world because he was unsure if he got it right. The greatest painting of Leonardo’s work was never meant to be shown! It is not important when choreographers wonder, ‘Is my work good? or ‘Am I doing it right?’.
You can spend your life worrying about your Mona Lisa and never show it, but it might be your biggest success, and you wouldn’t know.