SAN DIEGO — "You can formulate ideas about a dance in your mind," said choreographer Mieczyslaw (Misha) Morawski, "but the mind is not enough. You need bodies to create dances."
Providing trained dancers to serve as instruments for developing choreographic conceptions-- and a professional concert setting for showcasing those creations--is the idea behind the California Ballet Choreographers' Concert series, now in its fourth year.
In past summers, visiting choreographers such as Melissa Hayden, a former Balanchine ballerina, and Stuart Sebastian, director of the Dayton Ballet, have provided classroom instruction to a wide range of students.
This summer, the workshops are doing something different. Those whose work will be performed have worked independently, learning more by doing than by formal instruction. Company director Maxine Mahon has kept a knowing eye on the workshop sessions, but her role has been more as critic than coach, students said.
"Everyone has had free reign," said Kathy Auten, contributing choreographer and organizer of the concert scheduled for tonight at San Diego City College Theater. "Last year, we had Stuart Sebastian, and he did many rap sessions explaining what you should think about when you choreograph. But this year, we're more or less on our own.
"The dancers selected the music and the costumes and chose their favorite styles. This year we have more young choreographers than ever, too. Some are only 12 or 13. And the only restrictions they had were to keep their pieces under five minutes."
Much of the groundwork for this summer's session had been laid during Saturday workshops at the studio during the year. And, as Mahon described it, "they probably learned more than they realized before they got started choreographing on their own. We've talked about developing themes and characters. But in the end, they have to do things themselves to really learn the craft."
Regarding the number of teen-agers in the program, Auten observed that "since Maya Culbertson (who made her choreographic debut at the age of 11) did really well last year, she's pulled in other kids this year. Now we have several younger dancers in the workshop."
For Mahon, the number of very young choreographers is "a good sign. It means that dancers are getting interested in choreography at a much younger age. And the longer they work at it, the better they become. It also makes them more educated dancers, and they gain a greater respect for the things choreographers have to deal with.
"It may also possibly give them a new reason to continue (their training). They may find choreography is a way to satisfy their artistic desires."
Auten, who wears many hats for the Cal Ballet (including teacher, ballet mistress and administrator), is among the 10 choreographers whose works will be seen during the weekend concert. She began choreographing in 1984 and has done several projects professionally since then, including the Cal Ballet Sea World concert this summer.
"I have two pieces in this concert," Auten said during a short break from the fast-paced rehearsals. "One is a romantic ballet using piano pieces by Chopin. I wanted it to be like 'Dances at a Gathering' (a masterwork by New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins). When I saw the piece a while ago, it made a very big impression on me."
Auten had to make do without a proposed pas de deux for her version, titled "Dances for a Summer Evening," for practical reasons.
"I didn't have any boys to work with this time," she said. "Kevin Engle (a company soloist) is doing the dream ballet in 'Oklahoma!' this weekend (for Starlight), and the rest of the boys are dancing in 'Oklahoma!' also. It's disappointing, but you have to learn to work around it."
Auten will enlist the aid of a guest pianist, Peter Gach, to provide the accompaniment to "Dances for a Summer Evening" and, true to tradition, Gach will perform the piece on stage.
For her second entry, "Charleston Rag," Auten will use the driving music of Eubie Blake and disperse her dancers in the dapper style personified by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Morawski, a seasoned professional, will be another featured choreographer. But first-time choreographers will be much in evidence in this year's annual potpourri.
Janna Johnson, a 13-year-old student at the Cal Ballet School, is one of the fledglings who will take her first crack at choreography Saturday night. Her "La Belle Helina," set to the music of Offenbach, is a classical ballet that she said incorporates "the things I like a lot," which include complex corps work and a flashy solo.
Rehearsing her dancers, Janna joined soloist Stacy Aw, 15, "to show her the steps."
Although Janna admits "it's hard to choreograph," she believes she has what it takes to make a statement of her own.
"I just believe in myself," she said. "It takes a lot of belief in yourself to ignore the comments from others and just do what you want."
Mahon has made the choreography workshops her pet project, but she has no illusions about the immediate results, she said.
"It's very rewarding," she said. "I know most of these kids will probably never become choreographers, but they learn more from this experience than from a lot of dance classes. It gives them another perspective. And who's to say we won't have another Balanchine 20 years down the line?"