Inside Daniil Simkin's New Guggenheim Project

August 27, 2017

Late one Friday night, Daniil Simkin and Cassandra Trenary are running a new duet inside the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed rotunda in New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Trenary drops her weight back into Simkin’s arms and lets him slide her, spinning, into the ground. They clasp hands like children to pull each other close, an intimate moment that lasts for a breath before it slips away, lost in a cascade of slippery, detailed movement.

Alejandro Cerrudo (top) directing Simkin and Trenary. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Viewed from several stories up, Alejandro Cerrudo’s gliding, seamless partnering becomes otherworldly. The dancers stir vaporous clouds or cast multi-hued shadows which battle each other for primacy—depending on what effect the video team is experimenting with at the moment.

The two American Ballet Theatre dancers, alongside Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Ana Lopez and Andrew Murdock, are at work on Falls the Shadow, set to premiere September 4-5. (Brett Conway has stepped in for Murdock, who appears in these rehearsal images.) The site-specific piece, which will feature costumes designed for the project by Dior, was commissioned by Works & Process at the Guggenheim as part of its new Rotunda Projects initiative.

Jim Lafferty

Though Simkin’s project is the second to premiere since the program was announced last summer (Michelle Dorrance performed the inaugural work in February), in some ways it’s the original: Simkin and his father, Dmitrij, helped spark the push for new dance works created in and for the rotunda when they asked about 3-D–mapping at the Guggenheim.

The idea is for video designed by the elder Simkin to be projected onto the floor and the ramp that spirals up the edges of the space, reacting in real-time to the dancers and amplifying their movement to fill the massive seven-story structure as the audience looks down from above. Though Cerrudo had not previously worked with multimedia, the choreographer leapt at the chance to work with the ABT star and was intrigued by the possibilities presented by this particular project in which video and dance “have reason for coexisting together and enhancing each other.”

Alejandro Cerrduo. Photo by Jim Lafferty

The projections add another layer of complexity to an already intricate set of logistics. Though Cerrudo and the dancers have created substantial movement material in studios both in New York and Chicago, rehearsals in the rotunda are vital to making the marriage of the choreography, projections and space work. But these are entirely contingent upon the museum’s opening hours, after-hour events and load-in/striking schedule for exhibitions—in other words, limited. They enter the museum at 6 pm so the marley and video projectors can be set up; the dancers get into the space around 7 pm, and Cerrudo spends the following five hours switching between working with the dancers on the floor and watching from above, conferring with Dmitrij on new projection designs.

At work on the real-time projections. Photo by Jim Lafferty

The peculiar acoustics of the space make communication between the floor and the ramp challenging; there’s an additional lag caused by the security caveat that Cerrudo must be accompanied by a staff member every time he ascends the ramp. By 11 pm, the dancers are mostly marking while the video staff races against the clock to tweak designs. When midnight rolls around, everything has to be reset so the museum can open the next morning.

“It’s quite draining,” Daniil says matter-of-factly. “You need sort of a different energy than our usual days, when we have class in the mornings, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system. But we’re making it work!”

Daniil Simkin and cast. Photo by Jim Lafferty

“This is the first time that I’m rehearsing in socks! Which I’m very happy about,” he adds. “You have a different traction, you’ve got to get into the ground a bit more, be more in tune with your core in a different sense than in ballet.”

Schedules being what they are, the creative trio have much left to do entering their final block of rehearsals in late August. “There’s still a lot to figure out, and many things could drastically change,” Cerrudo says. “I don’t set things one day and it stays like that until the premiere. I change—and change my mind—a lot. We’re discovering an atmosphere, a world, that we’re creating.”

Cassandra Ternary. Photo by Jim Lafferty