Dance, for choreographer Christie Zimmerman, is about sharing stories.
“Dance is this universal language—the idea of using bodies in motion to communicate things is something everyone can understand and grasp,” says Zimmerman, an assistant professor of dance and this year’s Outstanding Creative Endeavor awardee.
Dance has been part of Zimmerman’s life since she was 3 years old and a friend of her mother’s started a dance studio.
I’m a person who values discipline and structure, and dance at that young age instilled it in me, but I also think it’s one of the reasons I responded so well to it. There are very clear rules about what you should be doing and how you should be doing it,” Zimmerman explains. “As I got older and time became a more precious resource, every time I had to make a decision about how to use my time it was always ‘I’d rather focus on dance and continue doing that.’”
By the time she was a teenager, Zimmerman was dancing six days a week as part of a youth ballet company and a competition group. It was then that Zimmerman began choreographing, starting with short routines for herself and her peers.
“For so many dancers, you’ll find performance is the emphasis or the focus, which is obviously important—you need people who want to do that. But I have always been more comfortable in the choreographer role,” Zimmerman says. “I admire those who perform, but it’s just not what interests me. For me it’s about solving the challenges from the choreographic perspective rather than being in it.”
“High Challenge, Low Threat”
Zimmerman’s goal is to help her students be all they can be. She pushes them to do more within the safe environment of the classroom, a philosophy she calls “high challenge, low threat.”
“It’s this idea of trying to push the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with and what you know you can achieve physically, artistically, and intellectually. It’s discovery, too—learning new things your body can do. It’s about new ways your brain can interpret information. That’s something dancers do inherently,” she says. “You gather information—you hear things, you see things, you hear music, and then you take all of that and pour it into your brain and process it, and then it comes out of your body in these really cool ways.”
Zimmerman expects the same from herself. “I constantly want to try to be doing the same thing I ask of my students—expanding what I think is possible physically, creatively, and artistically. If I wrote an autobiography, I’d call it Work in Progress,” she jokes.
‘Valley of Four Dolls, Parts 43 A, B, and C’
Zimmerman has always had a strong attachment to music, and as she listened to one of her favorite artists, Mika, an idea for a project began to form.
“His music is infectious, and it has a very narrative sense to it. My project started as listening to and really enjoying his music but also recognizing characters and stories in his music. And I started thinking, ‘How could I take these characters that he’s sort of introducing and create a through-line or a storyline that goes with it?’”
To explore this, Zimmerman was awarded an ASPiRE Junior Faculty Creative Arts Grant to research and create an evening-length piece, Valley of Four Dolls, Parts 43 A, B, and C.
For the first phase, Zimmerman spent three weeks in New York seeing shows and conducting research at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She explored three choreographers known for elements that she wanted to incorporate in her project: Matthew Bourne’s retelling of classic narrative, Susan Stroman’s dance pieces that can be viewed in sections or as a whole, and Twyla Tharp’s use of the songbook of one artist to create a story.
Armed with this background information, Zimmerman and her students started the creative phase by examining Mika’s songs.
“The story starts by introducing this family, but the songs have such a whimsical, fun nature to them that my idea was that it was actually a family of dolls,” Zimmerman says. “I worked with a group of dancers that summer, and we spent a lot of time talking about who each of these characters is, what their relationship is to each other, and exploring what all the possibilities were in terms of storyline. We set up this device that it’s a girl who has this family of dolls, so we create this idea of fantasy, kind of eliminating the rules of reality a little bit.”
The piece debuted at Muncie Civic Theatre that November. “That was the first time we put it in front of an audience, and that’s always terrifying,” Zimmerman says. “I had never done anything quite this large that I had total creative control over. I mean, I’ve worked on musicals and such, and those are big, but you have a team of collaborators. This was just the dancers and me.”
After that first performance, Zimmerman and her students collected feedback and refined the piece.
“That’s one of the reasons I think Valley of the Four Dolls was so pivotal for me—because I had that luxury of time and spreading it out and allowing it to become these different things,” Zimmerman says. “Nobody does their best work right out of the gate.”
The next spring, they started showing sections of the work at various festivals under the name z3movement project, an entity Zimmerman created to promote and explain her work.
The Need for Marketing
Zimmerman says that dancers often resist talking about their work as a marketable product. However, she found that treating it in such a way brought recognition to the most notable dance companies.
“In a lot of my research I found that the people who were most successful in having their work shown were people who had very clear identities, very clear thoughts about what they were trying to say artistically, and very clear visual branding strategies,” Zimmerman says. “The people who are showing their work, and showing it regularly, are people who are really good at that aspect of it—making it visible, making it sexy, making it interesting.”
Zimmerman had a hard time distilling the physical movement form of her work into writing. “How do you capture the essence of what it is you do in words on a piece of paper and a few pictures?” she asks. But she found that once she had done it, more opportunities opened for her and her students.
“Having that structure, that model, made sending applications out to different things much more efficient,” she says. “Part of forming that entity was about how I can start to think about my work as something that I can—and I hate saying this but—market it in this way. Kind of a box to give to people to say, ‘This is what I’m all about, these are the people that I’m working with. Want to play with us?’”
Since project-based entities are becoming popular in the dance world, Zimmerman wants to give her students a chance to experience them.
“So much of the work that our students will be doing, particularly immediately after they graduate, I almost call guerilla style. You have to go out and find the opportunities, and once you get the opportunity, figure out what you’re going to do. So I think it’s good for them to see that and experience that but at the same time know they have a little bit of time before they have to step out and do it on their own. High challenge, low threat,” she says with a smile.
Resources at Ball State
Coming to Ball State has given Zimmerman a chance to experience more. “I’ve shown and produced more work since I’ve been at the university than I did in all of my time in New York,” she says. “Part of that is that the struggle for resources is so real. It’s so consuming that it gets in the way of being able to really focus on the creative part of it.”
“From a choreographer’s perspective, the two most important resources that you need are space and bodies—and the university has both of those,” Zimmerman says. “Being able to use the bodies and work in the space to create these things has allowed me to take these students to places like Becket, Massachusetts, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, Michigan—all these opportunities for them to get their foot out of Muncie.”
Her success at Ball State and with her students has led to Zimmerman’s appointment as coordinator of the dance program.
Zimmerman and other choreographers in the Department of Theatre and Dance are now working on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker—but not as most people have seen it before.
“Each choreographer is responsible for certain sections. Some pieces will be modern, some will be classical, some will be humorous,” Zimmerman says. “My contribution is the party scene and we’re doing it in the Fosse style, so it’s very musical theatre as well. It’s pretty fun. It’s a little PG-13. But that’s Fosse.”
Zimmerman says that working at Ball State has been very rewarding.
“I’ve had a lot of input and investment into how the program is growing and changing. That’s really exciting. And I like to think I bring a certain something to Muncie that maybe it didn’t have before I got here.”