Although the concept has seemingly become more common in recent years, the idea of a choreographer in residence as a separate role from artistic director isn’t new. There have been many successful partnerships through the years: Michel Fokine was choreographer in residence at the Ballets Russes in 1909, Antony Tudor was resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s, and Val Caniparoli was resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet in the 1980s.
The naming of a choreographer in residence usually formalizes what is already a successful artistic collaboration. A choreographer in residence (also known as: resident choreographer, or artist in residence) is hired by the ballet company, with the express purpose of creating a new work each year (or so) for that company. The arrangement is not binding: choreographers are free to create work for other companies as well. But in naming a choreographer in residence, the company invests in the choreographer, and the choreographer commits to a longer-term relationship with that specific company.
Dance companies usually select resident choreographers based on the quality of their work (and how well it compliments existing repertory) and their understanding of the company’s artistic needs and priorities. Often—as with Yuri Possokhov at SF Ballet, and Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck at New York City Ballet—the resident choreographer is a current or recently retired dancer with that company and thus has a profound understanding of the repertory. Rarely, as was the case with Ratmansky with American Ballet Theatre, a choreographer is so well-known, popular, and talented that dance companies vie for the privilege of the association.
For a choreographer, the position offers reliable work, without the administrative pressures of running a company. And a kind of shorthand can develop between a choreographer and dancers who know and trust one another, enabling collaborations between the two to move faster and go deeper. Being named choreographer in residence can act as a seal of approval, attracting commissions from other companies as well: Yuri Possokhov has created more than a dozen works for SF Ballet since being named choreographer in residence in 2006, and he has also created ballets for The Bolshoi Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet, among many others.
For a company, investing in the work of an artist who understands the company’s mission and artistic goals ideally results in compelling new repertory. As the relationship continues, audiences get to know the style of the resident choreographer and are curious to see what’s next. Audience members who have seen and enjoyed Possokhov’s Magrittomania, Firebird, or Swimmer will have some sense of what to expect from the newest Possokhov premiere. And both Possokhov and SF Ballet benefit from audiences who keep coming back for more of a choreographer they admire and enjoy.