The emerging choreographer is making waves.
Schreier rehearsing with Ballet Academy East. Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Schreier
Claudia Schreier has burst onto the ballet scene seemingly out of nowhere. She graduated from Harvard University with a passion for making ballets and, since winning the Breaking Glass Project in 2014, the freelance choreographer has been enjoying an accelerated and atypical career trajectory. She is the latest recipient of the Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, which she will start in the spring. In the meantime, audiences can sample her latest visually layered, neoclassical work on August 8 in the Vail International Dance Festival’s NOW: Premieres evening, among big names such as Matthew Neenan, Lil Buck and Jodi Melnick.
Congratulations on receiving a commission from Vail! How did that happen?
I met Damian Woetzel in 2006 at Harvard, when he was at the Kennedy School and his wife, Heather Watts, was my dance professor. Heather came to a dress rehearsal of some of my early choreography and told Damian about it. I’ve been close with them since. Last year, I helped out with the program book for the festival. So when he told me he wanted me to do something in Vail this summer I thought, Okay, I can take over the program book. My jaw dropped when he said he was thinking of a duet or something larger.
What are you creating for the premiere?
Right now I am rehearsing with four dancers, three of whom Damian has invited as guest artists (Joseph Gordon, Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro of New York City Ballet) and Da’ Von Doane (Dance Theatre of Harlem), whom I’ve worked with before. The quartet will be eight minutes, with two movements danced to two different piano concertos from Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke.
What does it feel like to be featured on such a celebrated evening?
Everything feels new and exciting for me and I don’t want to lose that feeling. After winning Breaking Glass, suddenly my work, which originally was just a passion project I couldn’t let go of, turned into something bigger than I could have ever envisioned. There is a certain pressure as a ballet choreographer because there is such a push towards new movement, and always the question of “How are you going to transform the face of dance?” But I don’t think I should try to answer that right now. I just want to make my kind of ballet.
How will you use your NYU fellowship next spring?
I will have the rare opportunity of a lab where the only expectation is an informal studio showing, so I left the proposal open-ended. But I do feel strongly in having an end goal, and I plan to commission new music from living composers, including Dutch composer Douwe Eisenga.
How are these new opportunities changing your life?
Since 2009, I’ve worked full-time at Alvin Ailey in the marketing department, and I will be leaving at the end of this year to take on the fellowship. It has required a lot of time management. I wake up very early and choreograph before going in to the office. As soon as I leave, I’m running to rehearsal. I’ve used all my vacation days to do commissions and present work. When I got this fellowship the decision was made for me—it states I am not allowed to work anywhere else—otherwise I would have probably tried.
How will you pay your bills?
I will have a $35,000 stipend, and will be using some of it to pay the dancers and musicians. After that, I have a small amount saved, but I’m just taking a giant leap. I have these panic moments, because it has been a long time since I have lived paycheck to paycheck, but it is immediately followed by the euphoria of getting to do what I want to do.
Recently, the ballet world seems to be owning up to the fact that it's got a female choreographer problem. Some companies have started devoting entire evenings to works by women, while others are incorporating female choreography into their regular seasons more slowly but steadily. For example, next year, Crystal Pite will be the first woman to create for The Royal Ballet since 1999. And premiere-factory New York City Ballet is breaking its five-year dry spell for females by commissioning Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and principal Lauren Lovette to make new works for next season.
These may be small steps, but we like where they're heading. The trick now—after years of not particularly encouraging female talent—is finding women choreographers who have the chops to truly intrigue and delight ballet audiences. Two young names have popped out of the crowd.
Over in London, 19-year-old Charlotte Edmonds is living out a choreographer's fantasy of a dream career. Although she was "assessed out" of The Royal Ballet School at age 16 due to her body type, during her time there she won the Kenneth MacMillan Senior Choreographic Competition twice in a row, catching the eye of Royal artistic director Kevin O'Hare. While studying composition at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, she received her first professional commission when she was still only 16. And as soon as she graduated, O'Hare offered her a year-long apprenticeship under resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. It must have been successful, because it's just been extended another 12 months.
The styles in her work vary pretty widely, from classical to street. Out of the clips we've seen, we're most intrigued by her contemporary vocabulary in this work for the Dutch National Ballet junior company. She uses groupings of bodies to paint elegant images on the stage, with swift shifts of momentum that grab your attention. In a recent profile in the London Evening Standard, Edmonds says, "I like those still, static moments where there’s structured architecture that just disintegrates into fluid movement."
This November, she'll be sharing a Royal Ballet program with rising choreographer Robert Binet, who's also been mentored by McGregor. A huge feat not only for a woman, but for one so young! It's obvious that, although the school kicked her out, the company is placing its bets on her talent, grooming her for bigger things to come.
Although she doesn't have one major institution backing her like Edmonds does, Claudia Schreier is slowly building up a network of major supporters.
In 2015, she won the Breaking Glass Project's competition for female choreographers, then put together a full-evening program of her work performed by dancers from NYCB, American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Last month, she won the Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship at New York University's Center for Ballet and Arts. And this summer, she'll be featured in the NOW: Premieres program at Vail, sharing the stage with the likes of Lil Buck, Jodi Melnick, Matthew Neenan and Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Reiner.
It may seem like a swift rise out of nowhere for a 20-something who's been doing the freelance hustle since graduating from Harvard in 2008. But it's unsurprising: Audiences are drawn to the way she infuses a neoclassical base with gooey contemporary vocabulary and a driving musicality.
We will be keeping an eye on these ladies, and wish them both the best of luck—the ballet world needs more bright young talents like them.