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By Kina Poon
Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk give ballet a whole new image.
When Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk take the stage, the collective gasp by the audience is audible. What is it about these two electric dancers, whose movements eat up space, all crazy limbs and sultry slink? Many feel they are remarkable for their height, which, admittedly, is powerful (Jacoby is 5'11" and Pronk is 6'2"). But it’s their lush quality of movement, not only their amazing extensions, that renders them hypnotizing. Jacoby’s steely strength and Pronk’s fluid hyper-flexiblity defy the usual gender norms of a ballet partnership. They possess a brimming, almost menacing, energy, and the sense that they are daring each other is palpable. It is their unique quality that gave them the courage to do what few dancers dare to even dream about—try their luck at making it on their own, sans company.
The pair made their debut as Jacoby & Pronk at the 2008 Dance Salad Festival in Houston with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s One, a duet that takes advantage of both their physicality and their chemistry. Their explosive bravura belies years of high-level training. Jacoby studied at the San Francisco Ballet School and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle. At 17 she returned to San Francisco to dance with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Drew credits her confidence and creativity to her early years with King, to “the freedom that he gives to the artist.”
However, four years later she left the company to try her luck at freelance work. “I wanted to work with more than one choreographer,” she says. “But while choreographers were eager to hire me for their companies, repertory companies weren’t.” Finding herself with fewer freelance prospects than she hoped, she accepted an offer to join Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where Pronk had been dancing for a year.
The pair laughingly recalls their first impressions of each other. “I felt very much judged by her,” Pronk remembers. “She looked kind of cold, not very friendly.” But, he thought, “Wow, that girl is tall and she can turn!” Jacoby adds, “I think we both thought the other was cold. But his body and talent blew me away.”
Pronk honed said talent at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, Netherlands, which led him to the Prix de Lausanne competition. There he caught the eye of Rudi van Dantzig, former director of the Dutch National Ballet, who set up his audition for the company. Pronk never thought of himself as a classical dancer—from his start as a competitive Michael Jackson imitator at age 8 through his 10-year career with DNB. The company’s artistic director Wayne Eagling pushed him from the beginning, giving him featured roles at age 17. “I never had the dream of doing the prince,” says Pronk. “I wanted the contemporary parts.” After learning about Complexions from a friend, he sent a video to co-directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson. Pronk had seen the latter perform with Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet. Two weeks later, he got a call and moved to New York.
Jacoby and Pronk were paired together right away. “The first time we performed, the chemistry was so strong I almost forgot my steps,” remembers Pronk—and from there, the idea for Jacoby & Pronk was born. Sitting on a bed in a hotel room in Poland, on their first international tour, “it started as kind of a joke: ‘We should just get together and do our own thing and make it happen,’ and we were laughing. But,” Pronk’s voice turning serious, “it’s really what I wanted to do.”
Both dancers love their newfound independence. But running the whole show on their own is not as easy as it looks. Without a manager or a board, it’s up to them to reach out to presenters and find like-minded artists to collaborate with. “We’d prefer to just dance and not have to worry about all that stuff. But,” Jacoby admits, “it’s so rewarding when we get a gig, because nobody did it for us.”
They have danced two seasons with Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses, currently a pickup company ideal for freelancers, where they perform both in group pieces and in works from their own rep. In March, they were thrilled that the company commissioned a piece for them by Lightfoot/León, a choreographic duo famous in Europe but relatively unknown in the United States.
The pair is also under contract with DNB as guest artists, with whom they performed Nita Liem’s Swan Lake Bijlmermeer II, a fusion of ballerinas and B-boys, earlier this year. They hope that these stints with companies will lead to more opportunities for Jacoby & Pronk. “As freelancers, we have to deal with feast or famine,” says Jacoby. “Sometimes there will be no work, sometimes too much, and we’ll have to turn things down.”
They’ve already worked with a wide range of artists. Both Pronk and Jacoby heap praise on the European choreographer Leo Mujic, whom they worked with earlier this year on B Sonata. “He really pushed us beyond what we thought we could do,” says Jacoby. “We don’t want to end up just doing what we’re good at,” adds Pronk.
And when a piece is finished, the dancers must coach themselves. “As freelancers, we don’t get a lot of feedback from people,” says Jacoby. Mujic’s expert eye proved to be artistically stimulating, even “changing our connection, our dancing,” says Pronk, partially because Mujic, at 6'3", understands the challenges of being a tall dancer. Mujic’s B Sonata was performed in April at TITAS’ Command Performance in Dallas, Texas.
Bring Me Back, choreographed by Mia Michaels, best-known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance, also premiered at TITAS’ Command Performance. The pair shone brightly in the grasping, syncopated movement that is Michaels’ trademark. “This piece was very real,” says Charles Santos, the show’s producer and the man behind the collaboration. “When we rehearsed it at the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts, the students started crying. They said that Drew and Rubi were so committed and beautiful all you could do, being that close, was cry. Several people came up to me at the gala with a similar reaction. They could really connect to the emotion and longing in the dancing.”
In rehearsal with Mia Michaels for her new work, Bring Me Back. Photo by Marty Sohl.
The partnership sparked Michaels’ creative energy. “The whole process of this piece got Mia to recommit herself to concert dance,” says Santos. “From the moment she played the Sigur Rós song, it was a complete lovefest. Mia and her assistant would be going through some movement phrases and would just start laughing, because Drew and Rubi’s facility is so off-the-charts.” Drew and Rubi are in talks to perform the work on SYTYCD’s fifth season.
They find the European public to be more sophisticated, more at ease with the kind of neoclassical work that they perform. Pronk suggests it’s because choreographers like Kylián and Forsythe have been around longer in Europe; Jacoby cites government sponsorship. They will tour Europe in 2010 with the Russell Maliphant company performing Maliphant’s Broken Fall, which he originally made on Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz William Trevitt and Michael Nunn. The choreographer will reset the piece on Jacoby, Pronk, and Cuban dancer Alexander Varona.
But it’s the American public that the pair hopes to win over. “We want to squeeze the artistic side of concert dance into the commercial world and make dance more accessible,” says Jacoby. “Performing in an opera house—that’s fine and there’s good work in that. But we have to figure out what another route could be.” So You Think You Can Dance may be a start.
Like many dance companies, Jacoby & Pronk rely on technology to market themselves to a wider audience. Their website displays videos, like the trailer for the Alvin Booth film of the duo, which was funded by a Princess Grace special grant (Jacoby was a Princess Grace Awardee in 2005), splashy photos in addition to dance images (some of these shoots are the result of connections Jacoby has through her artist husband), and of course, their international schedule. They use Facebook as a potential hook-up for new choreographers and presenters, and Twitter their latest happenings. They hope to keep pushing boundaries. “Rubi and I want to fuse technology, art, fashion, music, and dance to create something completely new,” says Jacoby.
Their individual approaches to warming up are very different: Jacoby warms up for an hour and a half, while Pronk prefers his own, shorter warm-up right before rehearsal starts. But they do agree that the next choreographer on their wish list is Canada’s Crystal Pite (see “Quick Q & A,” May 2008).
The dancers still take what they can get, even if it isn’t performing with each other. For example, this past May, Pronk was guesting as Romeo in Italy while Jacoby was scheduled to work with modern choreographer Isira Makuloluwe in Amsterdam before being sidelined by an injury. As individuals, Pronk and Jacoby are also at different stages in their careers—Pronk is more seasoned, while Jacoby aspires to perform on Broadway at some point.
They will continue to navigate this uncharted territory together—with a little luck and more than a little gumption. “We don’t have any idea how much money we’re going to make next year, or where we’re going to be in December,” says Jacoby. “I think that freaks most people out, but I really enjoy it,” exclaims Pronk. “I’ve been for 10 years in a company, knowing exactly what I was going to do next year, the next three years. So I think this is really exciting. It keeps you on the edge.”
Kina Poon is an assistant editor at Dance Magazine.
Inset photos from top: Photo by Marty Sohl; Perfoming Bring Me Back at TITAS' Command Performance. Photos by Sharen Bradford.
WHERE TO SEE DREW & RUBI: Gala of International Ballet Stars: Cincinnati, OH, Aug. 15. With Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company: Vail, CO, Aug. 6–7; Chicago, Sept. 24–27; NYC, Oct. 5–11; London, Oct. 21–25. With the Russell Maliphant Company: Europe, 2010. With Quixotic Fusion: Kansas City, MO, and NYC, 2010.