Kristy Nilsson

This week we interviewed choreographer Kristy Nilsson to learn more about her choreographic process. Dig in to discover her story! Enjoy!

Image © Scott Nilsson Photographer


Kristy Nilsson performed with Atlanta Ballet & Charleston Ballet Theatre, & trained under principal dancers from ABT, Kirov Ballet, National Ballet of Canada & Martha Graham. She was a Dance Pedagogy Honors student at University of Oklahoma and graduated Cum Laude from Houston’s High School for the Performing & Visual Arts. In addition to the classics, Kristy was selected to dance contemporary works by Trey McIntyre, John McFall, Ben Stevenson, Daniel Pelzig and Jill Bahr.  Kristy Nilsson has choreographed more than 100 concert works (including 8  full-length/narrative ba llets), performed by more than 25 companies in 11 states in the U.S. & Canada. Ms. Nilsson creates new librettos, selects and edits the scores, and frequently designs costumes and scenery for her choreographic works. Ms. Nilsson is a full-time ballet & modern dance instructor  – having taught more than 5,000 year-round students, and hundreds more at summer intensives and master classes. Kristy is happily married to dance photographer, Scott Nilsson, a former dancer. They love living and working together in Atlanta.



I have always been a person who loves to create. As a child, I loved to draw and I never stopped – I still draw my costume designs and occasionally do graphic design for small dance companies. I write poetry, I write terrible songs, I write children’s stories… It’s not so much that I have a lot of talents, as that I have a lot of ideas that I want to try out, whether they work or not. Though I have dallied in other art areas, I have been very focused on choreography since I was thirteen. I took every choreography course I could during high school, chose my university based on that and even changed majors in college to study it. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to choreograph works on 25 different pre-professional and professional dance companies and had works performed in over 20 states in the United States and Canada. I hope that my work has a positive, enriching impact on others, including the audience, the dancers and the many other people involved in putting up a show.


Photo by Richard Calmes

As a choreographer, people have said my work is like Sir Frederick Ashton, Twyla Tharp and Jiri Kylian got mixed together; I think it’s a fairly accurate (though overly flattering) description. I’m a ballet choreographer who strives to be innovative, but I often say that, “I never gave up on pretty.” I aspire to choreograph works that are creative in movement vocabulary, while keeping the emphasis on the narrative and still giving audiences the joy of sharing in the dancers’ grace and the beauty of movement.

My process often starts very differently from work to work, because my inspirations vary greatly, but generally, once I start working, I get into my usual “groove.” Often, inspirations include a story that I want to bring to the stage (I have choreographed eight narrative ballets, generally 70 to 90 minutes in length.) Other inspirations could be a beautiful piece of music, a movement concept I want to explore, a contemporary issue in modern life I want to address, a series of images taken by my photographer husband, a moving piece of poetry, or even a complex costume that I’d love to see danced in.

Once I select the concept, my process includes many hours of music selection and editing. While I usually stay with one composer, I often use music from several compositions. My husband says I am a frustrated composer because I’m notorious for rearranging the music – in a full-length piece, I might rearrange hundreds of musical phrases, through digital editing, as well as changing the order of the movements in the score. I change the music because it is the emotional soundtrack of the ballet: it creates the atmosphere of each moment in the piece. To achieve a certain feeling at any given time in order to communicate an idea, I sculpt the music as the foundation for the storyline and movements. Petipa had the benefit of brilliant partnerships with Tchaikovsky and other composers, to whom he requested (for each of his ballets), “I need four bars in 4/4 of allegro, followed by a 16 bar adagio in 3/4,” (or such) and they composed exactly what he needed – magnificently. Today, absent having a composer, we can re-compose music to meet our choreographic needs!

After the music is ready, I start developing movement vocabulary. In a movie, they create a character through the words the actor speaks, how his voice sounds and his actions; in a ballet, a dancer only communicates to the audience through movement, so I strive to make each character move in his or her own unique, expressive way. Every dancer on stage gets their own movement vocabulary.

Then I begin the actual choreography. Musicality is extremely important to me. I hope to create steps that look as though they could have made the sounds that are heard in the music. I also want emotions to be at the heart of every dance. Sometimes I turn the music on and improvise by “acting” without much dance. Not pantomime: I mean actually falling to the floor, crying, and banging on the ground – or whatever the scene calls for… to music. Then I incorporate the acting moments or gestures that I like into the movement vocabulary I have already prepared.

I do not like to work on Sundays, because that is my only day off each week, so I choreograph during my lunch breaks between the dance classes that I teach. That means, many days I only have one hour a day to choreograph, so I must be self-disciplined to use my time effectively. I am never without my choreography notebook (typing doesn’t work well because I draw so many stick-figure diagrams!). My students are so used to seeing me carry notebooks, that some have taken to buying me new ones when I fill them up!

Whenever I get choreographer’s block, I usually head to the park. Walking around a lake or hiking outside tends to move my brain somewhere else and that gets me un-stuck. I almost always find the solutions to my biggest choreographic problems at the creek!


Photo by Richard Calmes

Dancers affect my work a great deal. It is very inspirational to have beautiful artists to choreograph on; the more familiar I am with a dancer, the more I choose specific steps for him or her. If I don’t know them, (because I am coming in from out of town) I often ask the director which dancers are the strongest turners, jumpers, partners, and who has the highest extensions, then I plan based on that information.

When I am in rehearsal with dancers, I tend to ask how the transitions between steps are working and if the partnering feels fluid. If not, we work it out together. With partnering, I have a reputation for launching myself at the men and expecting them to read my mind… A man I was choreographing on once received a phone call from a guy I’d choreographed on before: he said, “I just wanted to warn you: at some point, Kristy is going to go flying through the air and yell for you to catch her.” The dancer’s response? “She’s already done that.” I truly enjoy integrating the dancers into the creation process. It’s so much fun to “play together,” as we dancers say, and I wish I could spend more time creating collaboratively, too!

I love to work the steps out with actual dancers during the rehearsals, but this is almost always impossible because rehearsal time is so limited. When I travel out of town to set a new ballet, I usually only have five days to teach an entire cast of dancers up to 90 minutes of choreography. In theory, that SHOULD take 90 hours, but we never have that much time in only 5 days , so I have to be very well-prepared before my first rehearsal – I always have every step ready and written in one of my ever-present notebooks.


The foundation of my training is in ballet, but I studied several days a week for years in modern dance, including Limon, Graham, Horton, and Post-modern. I feel learning different dance techniques is like learning new languages. I took years of Spanish, but English is my first language; now, even though I can speak in Spanish, I still usually think in English. Since ballet is my first language, I can “speak” modern, but I still usually think in ballet. I choreograph modern dance influenced turns, but I still think of them in terms of “en de hors” or “en de dans” and when I’m planning a dance, we may be bare-footed, but I still have a “pas de deux” instead of a “duet.”

As a performer, my favorite thing to dance was essentially modern dance en pointe, so that’s what I like to create for others to dance and watch.

Before I took ballet, I started out in musical theatre, so I enjoy using that knowledge to create characters and widen my use of movement. (Bob Fosse makes his way into my works once in a while). I also had a smattering of other dance training: Asian dance, East Indian dance, Flamenco, Character Dance, European Folk dance, and I even coached gymnasts for a while. I recently choreographed a full-length ballet that took place in Ancient China, and did another set in Ancient Arabia, so a few of those other dance forms came in handy there. It is important to me that cultural dances within my ballets are significantly influenced by the ethnic dances of the region. I also did a piece for Dance Canvas about the flirtations between an inner city guy and a uptown girl, so I used hip-hop as a jumping point for the man’s movements. Outside of those literal uses of other dance forms, I enjoy taking inspirations from all styles of dance. I feel that being comfortable moving in many different styles encourages a choreographer to improvise in a variety of ways, and that is how new movements are born.


Thanks, Kristy, for letting us into your choreographic world!

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