10 Minutes with Claudia Schreier

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.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021