This Choreographer Is Bringing Ballet's "Negative Space" to the Stage & Screen

July 21, 2020

Madeline Hollander is redefining the language of ballet one unconventional venue at a time. From museums to art institutes to parks and other outdoor venues, she creates original choreography inspired by her cultural observations—often ones that she makes in the ballet studio.

Growing up, she trained under Yvonne Mounsey at the heralded Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. After earning her BA at Barnard College, she performed with Angel Corella’s company in Spain for two years. Now, having recently worked as a choreographer and movement consultant on two movies for renowned filmmaker Jordan Peele, Hollander is returning to the stage with a new production for The Shed.

Here, she takes us inside her creative process, and shares why she still takes ballet class almost every day.

A line of people in construction helmets and green vests adjust their headlamps.

Hollander’s work for the Whitney Museum of American Art: Ouroboros: Gs

Charles Roussel, Courtesy Hollander

On being a misfit:

I never really fit in with other dancers, even growing up. At every summer program I would always find museums and random learning opportunities during breaks. I was constantly trying to get a greater understanding of all that I was observing around me.”

What drives her:

“My medium is movement. It doesn’t matter what form that takes—cars on the streets, office chairs, lights, human bodies or a video—I am always looking at it with the eye of the choreographer.”

Combining anthropology and ballet:

“At Barnard, studying cultural anthropology and behavioral patterns while dancing ballet was a way for me to see ideas for choreography. I would look at the social dynamics of a class and the relationships demonstrated. Even in a company structure, I always felt that I was an anthropologist within that realm.

“I did my thesis project on the evolution of human gesture and how our gestural vocabulary changes constantly due to different types of technology and interface design. I choreographed an ongoing work called “Gesture Archive” in which I add gestures that are specifically relevant to contemporary culture.”

With filmmaker Jordan Peele during shooting

Ian Cooper, courtesy Hollander

How ballet class informs her work:

“I still take class at Steps on Broadway regularly. I think the rigor and repetition of class is something that crosses over to all of my works. It’s about ballet being a vocabulary from which you can build movement. If you take a movement that is very beautiful and you do something subtle to it, it can all of a sudden become disgusting or scary. It’s a little épaulement or bend of the knee that transforms it into a shadow of what it would traditionally be.

“I find the negative space in ballet class so interesting—all the in-between things you see all the time, the weird cracking and stretching, the little tics and primate habits. Everyone has their own vocabulary of twitches that they dance between exercises without even realizing it.”

Her latest project: 

“I’m currently creating a work for The Shed that will allow audiences to see dancers from a variety of companies marking steps to ballets that they will be performing full-out later on. All dancers will be onstage at once and each individual’s expressive habits will dictate the structure.”

On making the impossible, possible: 

“In ballet, we watch people try things over and over again until what would be perceived as impossible becomes a reality. This drive is very significant in my work; taking the idea for a piece that seems unfathomable and then just going for it and making it work.”