Today I am joined by special guest, Caleb Teicher and we are going to talk about what it is to build a tap company from scratch. Caleb Teicher first received critical and audience acclaim when, at 17, he won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Individual Performance for his work in Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards' Shared Evening. From there, he continued as a member of Dorrance Dance while dancing in The Chase Brock Experience, The Bang Group, West Side Story (Int'l Tour), and other dance/theater projects. Caleb Teicher & Company (CT&Co), founded in 2015, seeks to expand the capacity of America’s rich music and dance traditions through innovative choreography, performance, and contextualization. Utilizing Tap Dance, Vernacular Jazz, Lindy Hop, and a mix of other dance styles born and bred in America, the company’s work represents a unique style of theatricality, humor, emotional expression, and aesthetic exploration. With CT&Co, Teicher’s artistic reach has expanded to commissions from Works & Process at the Guggenheim, New York City Center, The Joyce Theater, several engagements with symphony orchestras (including the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center), and many national and international touring engagements with the company’s repertoire. CT&Co’s work has been featured by The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR Music, Vogue, Interview Magazine, Cultured Magazine, Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, and other publications. His collaboration with Conrad Tao, More Forever, recently made the "Best of Dance 2018" list for The New York Times .Caleb continues to engage with dance communities as an instructor at international Tap and Jazz Dance festivals and also spends his time as a director/choreographer for interdisciplinary work.
Caleb and I go back to our teenage years when we were hanging out at the same tap festivals! Check out these two teenagers hanging out backstage:
HM: Caleb can you explain your style and approach to tap dance as a choreographer and company director? (
CT: I think we are a mix of the people that we’ve learned from the and experiences we’ve had. My tap mentor, David Rider, was a one-man show, the only teacher at the studio, with his own style and very informed by Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, the Condos Brothers and also Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Eleanor Powell. My training felt very informed by the lineage and history using tap footage and quizzes. David was also a student of tap dance, continuing to take class every week with Jason Samuels Smith, Michelle Dorrance, Ayodele Casel and Jared Grimes. Training with David gave me a great survey of the whole tap dance world. After moving to New York, I started dancing with Michelle Dorrance, who then referred me to Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Cartier Williams. These years of being a tap dancer’s tap dancer also inspired me to explore Appalachian clogging and flat footing by dialoguing with other percussive dancers not in the tap dance scene: Nick Gareiss, Matthew Olwell and Emily Oleson, Becky Hill, Ellie Grace, Ira Bernstein. Interstecting with the swing dance, Lindy Hop, vernacular Jazz world has really been my greatest recent inspiration. They feel and hear music the same way that we do as tap dancers, they just do not intend to make sound. The ideas of movement and flow, musicality and interpretation have inspired my tap dancing in a way that makes me feel like I understand tap dancing on another level from spending time in these other forms.
CT: When you are around others who are doing excellent work, it makes you want to do excellent work.
HM: You’ve mentioned being a “tap dancer’s tap dancer” and the people and companies you’ve worked with. How did these experiences influence how you choose to run your company?
CT: Most of us think of those we admire the most and use them as our models as we move forward and plan. The ideas of precedence and role models work across the board. My experience with Dorrance Dance was my greatest example for how to make work and how to assemble the people and bring it to people. I learned a lot working for Chase Brock, a Broadway and Contemporary Theater dance choreographer. I admire the way that he organized his rehearsals, put together Dropbox links of rehearsal videos so we could review, they way he charted out his dances, the way he structured rehearsal so everyone’s time was being used, and the way he meticulously cleaned and cared for his dances. He was my role model. My experience as his associate choreographer on a number of musicals, sitting next to him as he made the work was an invaluable lesson, similar to a mentorship. If you are interested in doing something you don’t know how to do yet, it is worth it to find someone you admire who does know and ask to shadow them.
HM: What does a typical CT&CO rehearsal look like?
CT: It depends on the piece.
HM: How often do you find yourself in need of bringing in new dancers and what is your process for finding that person?
CT: Every year, 1-2 dancers decide they would like to do something else, and I do not try to keep anyone in the company based on obligation. (I do not offer enough work to give everyone a year’s worth of pay and understand the people I work with should try to work with everyone else as well.) How I find new dancers is a mix of dancers I have previous knowledge of either from social media, working together in another company, auditions, a “hunch. I believe in rewarding people for their great work. The goal is to keep dancers over a long period of time so that they can be more comfortable with you and you with them, to find more in common artistically.
HM: When you do hold an audition, what is your process like? What are you looking for?
CT: Our auditions have been for pretty specific needs. I know what piece and what role the dancers would be doing and taught a sample of that work. In the world we live in now, you need to be able to learn and feel comfortable with the material quickly. A lot of time in class it’s about grasping to the steps, but when it comes to learning things quickly for a company, it’s about learning to grasp the steps quickly and learning the intention behind it from my perspective but also from yours. In 2017 when I ran an audition, we taught 2 excerpts of choreography with a cut in the middle. The first piece of choreography was slightly easier and the second was wicked fast and hard and was more survival of the most capable. Those chosen understood the intention of the work. In 2019 I was looking for a couple of dancers for a couple of different pieces, so I taught a piece that was more technically demanding and a really slow soft shoe, which was really telling. It was important to me to see that the dancers could work in different ways, especially if you are going to sustain a non-tap dance audience’s attention for a 60-90 minute performance.
HM: When you do bring in a new dancer, do you have a trial period?
CT: It is very infrequent that I have worked with someone and thought, “this isn’t the right fit,” after just one show. I have a pretty good intuition about finding dancers to work for the company, but it’s also on the dancers to know that this company is a good fit for them. Sometimes it depends on what the season holds, if we need to have an understudy, if we can get them onstage towards the end of the season, if I am folding a dancer into an existing piece or creating a new work with a new perspective.
HM: It sounds like if you trust your intuition as a director, your ability to know yourself, the work, and the expectations that you have for dancers so that you have the ability to clearly cast, then folding in a new dancer is not such a hard process.
CT: A goal for me is to be able to judge myself and my life correctly. That sense of judgement is really important to be able to say, “I know myself and I know my work and I know what’s needed.” Maybe this seems like a stretch, but it’s still possible and within the “Margin of Success.” There are steps that you go for knowing that you can do them and there are those that seem like a reach. A big goal is learning to judge the work correctly and make theoretical decisions that play out in real life successfully.
HM: I am a firm believer that success is a combination of hard work and luck! The hard work lays the foundation, but often it’s that one stroke of luck that changes the game. Is there a moment you can look back on that really helped to launch things for you?
CT: I think there are thousands of moments of luck over my lifetime. The first being reconnecting with Michelle Dorrance in 2010 when I moved to New York. Meeting Chase Brock was luck, growing up in the place in the US that I did where there was a plethora of quality tap dance instruction (about 2 hours north of NYC, the homeland of Brenda Bufalino, Michele Ribble, David Rider, and Kendrick Jones). It was a stroke of luck that I took drum lessons as a child, which is probably the thing that set me up best to learn tap dance quickly and easily. Not to be cheesy, but continuing to live a healthy and happy life on a regular basis is a stroke of life every day!
HM: Let’s talk about the work that goes into running a company outside of the studio. The emails, the phone calls, the press kits, the days that you wonder, “am I an office administrator or am I a dance company director?”
CT: I danced for other companies and worked as an associate choreographer for other people and I tried to keep my eyes and ears open, but I don’t think I was fully aware that, I’m a small business owner! In terms of “adulting,” I’d say that for every engagement that we have, there are probably 300 emails and 2 dozen phone calls, the advancing of technical information, the arranging of travel, the setting up of rehearsals, getting the dancers availability, budgeting for the project… a seemingly endless amount of work, but I enjoy it! I feel like this is my chance to put something together that can be a positive experience for other people. It’s not often that we get to create the world that we want to live in, but with my decisions about rehearsal space, travel, what gigs we do, what pieces we perform I get to create a world that I want to live in and invite others to live in with me. I’m grateful that I paid attention in statistics, that I’m decent at computers, and that I studied writing and communicating. I learned a lot by making mistakes and trying to learn from those mistakes as quickly as possible.
HM: The truth is you are your business, your art is your business. A lot of people dread the administrative work, but I enjoy it because it’s mine! It’s what it takes to get my stuff off the ground.
CT: There are 2 ways to survive:
I’m pretty sure everyone I know, even the fanciest people like Regina Spektor, still have to email. No one is immune from handling their own business, even if you can have a business manager, executive director, company manager. It still requires you to be buttoned up. I understand why people end up hating it because it cuts into your time to be an artist. Just in the last half year I’ve found a balance and a company manager who helps me with the email hustle and it’s been game changing, allowing me to return to personal practice and choreography that I had to set aside while I set up shop.
HM: Delegation is the secret key to work/life balance, but with delegation, comes the necessity to learn to manage another person, which is a whole other administrative hat.
HM: You have some upcoming performances: Regina Spektor on Broadway, the New Victory Theatre in New York City, Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, the White Bird Theatre in Portland, Oregon among others. Let’s talk about where gigs come from. How do you book work?
CT: The trajectory of CT&Co seems quite clear and I can describe it as this... we did our first presentation of choreography in 2015 as part of the American Tap Dance Foundation’s Rhythm in Motion Showcase, a showcase of new tap dance choreography with 12-15 choreographers and we did 10 minutes of choreography, the most I had ever presented. It went well and the piece felt like it was worth performing for several other engagements and a couple things came up that summer. One was performing this piece again at another ATDF event, the other was Hillary-Marie asking me to present 20 minutes of choreography at the Jersey Tap Fest. Part of me thought I could do this 10 minute piece and then present a solo or another piece, but another part of me thought, I can make this 10 minute piece a 20 minute piece. Then suddenly, that summer we went from a 10 minute piece to a 20 minute piece of choreography. With that video and the few shout-outs and reviews that we received I was able to convince other people that that piece was worth presenting, and that it might be worth putting me on the bill with something that I hadn’t created yet. These opportunities were presented in showcases where we were part of a large bill of companies or choreographers. In 2016 we did our first shared bill where we were one of 3 companies and that felt super special, it felt like we were narrowing in on having our own show. As we built up more pieces, we cobbled them together into an hour-long concert and the first evening we did was for Works & Process at the Guggenheim. After seeing five of my shows over the course of 18 months, I got an email saying they had the opportunity to present a company in Spain that summer, and would I like to be that company! I nearly passed out and was so excited. I put together 3 pieces, 20 minutes, 25 minutes and 15 minutes for an hour’s worth of dancing. That evening became known as our “rep concert.” Once we had a video of that and felt confident in it, other people were interested in giving us the opportunity to present work. Some of it was me sending a message to others that I know saying that I have work to present, could you provide the space. They weren’t fully cold calls, alot of them were organizations or festivals that I had been involved in as a student or faculty member and I asked them to present my work because they already knew me. It was about taking a gamble on someone they had seen in a different capacity and giving them a slightly bigger opportunity. For example, I was a student at Jacob’s Pillow and had performed many times with Dorrance Dance, Chase Brock’s Company and David Parker’s Company, so when I applied to the Inside Out Stage Program, they gave me an opportunity. It’s about asking people who already have good experiences with you to trust you a little bit as you’re getting yourself off the ground. Now gigs are happening more frequently because more people have seen our work and talk about our work and tell others that they like our work. Things are flowing a little more easily but I still send emails, follow up with theatres and work at finding the work and letting the work find you.
HM: There you have it. Gigs lead to gigs! If you show up and give 200% in your artistry and humanity, you’re more likely to be receiving other opportunities.
HM: What is your favorite performance that you have done with the company to date?
CT: I always love performing, “Meet Ella”
HM: What is the craziest gig that you have ever done?
CT: We performed outside and a marching band when by during the performance!
HM: What is the worst piece of advice that you have ever received from someone about running your company?
CT: Don’t pay your dancers!
HM: What is your definition of a choreographer?
CT: I try to provide an opportunity for people to express themselves through their bodies. I give them a step, they give me everything else.
HM: What advice to you have for someone who is considering starting a dance company?
CT: Find people to share the experience with you. Eveything is better with friends.
HM: What advice do you have for someone who is currently running a dance company?
CT: Do the things that you are most excited about doing, not what you think others want you to do. It is too much work to do something that is not truly your passion.
HM: Where can our listeners connect with you?
CT: I, like most Millenials, am an Instagram-focused Social Media person.
HM: If you have the opportunity to see Caleb, seize that moment! You will undoubtedly be energized. If you haven’t already, subscribe to the Podcast and you will receive notifications when new episodes that go live, including my Bonus Episodes that do not get promoted through email or social media!