Dancer Voices

What This DM Editor Learned From Choreographing on ABT Dancers

Kelsey Grills in rehearsal for ABT Incubator. Photo by JJ Geiger, courtesy ABT Incubator.

"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.

ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.



Auditioning for a panel of pros

I don't think I've ever been at an audition where the panel seemed genuinely happy to be there. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

At the audition, David came into the room where I waited anxiously with the seven other selected choreographers and gave us the warmest welcome. One by one we performed a short excerpt of our work and spoke to the panel, including Jessica Lang, Lar Lubovich, Judy Hussie-Taylor and Kevin McKenzie, about our inspiration and goals for the workshop. I don't think I've ever seen a panel so genuinely happy to be there—a testament, I quickly learned, to ABT's welcoming company culture.

I couldn't have asked for a more relaxed, inviting and open environment. Even though I was invited to the second round based on video footage sent in, I wasn't sure how they would react in person to my movement. But I made a promise to myself to be authentic to the work I intended to create—which wasn't exactly ballet.

I applied to ABT Incubator because I had a choreographic itch I hadn't been able to scratch. A friend introduced me to Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, and it resonated with me on a level so profound I knew the only way I would be able to grapple with it fully would be to explore it through movement. I was specifically interested in the theme of re-education presented in the play: how people are constantly remembering and reconstructing important moments in their lives.

Entering the unknown

It was important for me to let my dancers know their thoughts and opinions were valued in the creative process. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

I've spent the past five years alone in the dance studios of New York City choreographing on myself. In that time I've had a lot of internal conversations, exploring my own body and the ways that feel the most natural for me to move. So when given a group of ABT dancers—Erica Lall, Kiely Groenewegen, Luis Ribagorda and Virginia Lensi—to choreograph on, it felt like a bit of a culture shock.

My process is collaborative, a culmination of task-based exercises I've collected from working with other dancemakers that I feel most authentically generate movement. I wrote quotes from Eurydice on note cards and asked the dancers to interpret them; some chose to develop abstract phrases while other took a more literal approach. Later on, I asked them to write a letter to someone they love and someone they can't love (something Orpheus does for Eurydice throughout Ruhl's play), then asked them to interpret one through movement. At first, these tasks seemed foreign to them. But throughout the entire process we kept a dialogue going and went into each rehearsal with an open mind. They all expressed early on in the workshop that they weren't used to working collaboratively. But they were excited about the opportunity to bring their own ideas to rehearsal.

Every day, I brought Eurydice, The Sentient Archive (a wonderful collection of essays on bodies, performance and memory) and Florence Welch's Useless Magic (just for fun) and encouraged the dancers to refer back to those books if they ever felt removed from the work we were doing. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked to take the books home.

Pushing through self-doubt

I went into this process with the intention of bringing out the humanity in dance. Photo of Erica Lall by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

Gabrielle Lamb (the other freelance choreographer invited to the program) and I were at a bit of a disadvantage from the beginning because we had to spend half of the two week workshop getting to know our dancers and their movement styles. The other three choreographers were ABT dancers (Duncan Lyle, Sung Woo Han and James Whiteside) creating on people they knew well.

Halfway through the process, I started doubting myself. Was I using the dancers to their fullest potential? Were they being challenged? After a panicked call to fellow dancer/choreographer Rena Butler, I was reminded of what David had said from the very beginning: The purpose of this program is to explore and question. The exchange is between myself and my dancers, and how we can learn from one another. The viewers at the end of this would only be there to witness that exchange.

Finding a groove

Photo of Kiely Groenewegen in rehearsal by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

After I let go of that doubt, things seemed to really click for us in rehearsal, and I started to feel like it truly was a collaboration of ideas. The dancers were excited more and more each day, and eager to reconstruct the movement in different ways based on the task at hand. When I finally gave them choreography, they approached it with humanity, which was my goal from the beginning.

I was also being wildly inspired by the resources that David and the ABT Incubator team provided. I took class with the company each morning and attended events that they arranged for us, like a rehearsal of Sasha Waltz & Guests at BAM, a performance from Lucinda Childs and a tour of Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done at MoMA.

Reaching a vision

David Hallberg and Kelsey Grills at the ABT Incubator showing. Photo by JJ Geiger, Courtesy ABT Incubator.

At the end of the workshop we had a showing where each choreographer presented their work to an intimate audience that included donors, ABT staff and noted choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky and Okwui Okpokwasili. Though it felt like the other choreographers' work was presented with a sense of completion, I went into this process with no intention of creating a fully-realized piece.

After each piece David invited the choreographer onto the floor to speak about their experience. He opened our conversation by asking, "How vulnerable do you feel right now?" To which I replied, "Well, this is a very accomplished group of people I'm looking at."

The biggest takeaway for me from this entire experience was my dancers. They invested themselves fearlessly in the whole process—as a choreographer, what more could you ask for? You want to be able to ask the artists you are working with to push themselves and go beyond what they think they can give, but that can only happen when it's a safe and open environment. Ultimately, that synergy is the only way I can be completely open as well.

The Conversation
News
Valdes and Alonso. Photo by Nancy Reyes, courtesy BNC

Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.

Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by Ahmad Odeh/Unsplash

I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.

—Scared, San Francisco, CA

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
It's not about what you have, but how you use. Photo by Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.

Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."

While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB

It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.

When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Instructor Judine Somerville leads a musical theater class. Photo by Rachel Papo

On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.

"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Brooklyn Studios for Dance founder Pepper Fajans illustrates the cold temperatures inside the studio. Screenshot via Vimeo.

Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.

Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.

So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Anika Huizinga via Unsplash

As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.

But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:

Keep reading... Show less
News
The International Association of Blacks in Dance's annual audition for ballet dancers of color. Photo by E. Mesiyah McGinnis, Courtesy IABD

A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.

"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Nashiville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling went through executive coaching to be come a better leader. Photo by Anthony Matula, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.

But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."

The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.

Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)

Keep reading... Show less
News
Credits with photos below.

For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.

Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.

Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:

Keep reading... Show less
Irina Dvorovenko with Tony Yazbeck in The Beast in the Jungle. Photo by Carol Rosegg, Courtesy Sam Rudy Media Relations.

Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.

If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance & Science
Amar Odeh/Unsplash

Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.

That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Photos via Polunin's Instagram

If you follow Sergei Polunin on Instagram, you've probably noticed that lately something has been...off.

Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Rami Malek performing as Freddie Mercury. Still from Bohemian Rhapsody, via foxmovies.com

Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.

In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Umi Akiyoshi Photography, Courtesy Sidra Bell Dance New York

Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."

Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Courtesy Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.

Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
When you spend most of your day at the theater, it's challenging to find time to date. Photo by rawpixel/Unsplash.

My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?

—Loveless, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, Courtesy DM Archives.

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

Keep reading... Show less
News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox