What Melanie Hamrick Learned From Collaborating on A Ballet With Boyfriend Mick Jagger
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
"Yesterday I was like, Can I add one more song?" she says. (The full piece recently premiered in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre; the YAGP performance will be a slightly shortened version.) Hamrick originally planned to cut "Sympathy for the Devil," but on Monday changed her mind and called YAGP's artistic director Larissa Saveliev to ask if she could swap out "You Can't Always Get What You Want" instead. "Just now I called her again and asked if I can just do the full program," she says. "So don't be surprised if you come on Thursday and see 'Always.' "
Jagger helped Hamrick curate the songs, and added an orchestral score behind the rock classics to lend them a custom ballet feel.
While the Russian premiere included a mix of Mariinsky dancers and current and former New York City Ballet members—along with Hamrick herself, who had to fill in for an injured performer at the last minute—the New York version will feature ABT dancers Herman Cornejo, Thomas Forster, Calvin Royal III, Skylar Brandt, Christine Shevchenko and Sung Woo Han, and NYCB principal Daniel Ulbricht, the only dancer to perform in both shows.
Most of the New York cast competed at YAGP as students, as did Hamrick's co-choreographer, Joanna DeFelice: "I wanted people who appreciate the competition and love it as much as I do," says Hamrick.
What She Learned From Her First Choreographic Experience
"I was questioning constantly at the beginning. I was trying to be too perfect," she says. "I didn't feel like it was my place to tell these incredible artists what to do."
Especially at the Mariinsky, Hamrick says, she was overwhelmed by the history of the institution. "I was like, I can't believe I'm in this building. To be a guest and to also demand what I need for my piece...it was hard at first to make those requests, but slowly I managed to get out of that."
"I learned that it's not about doing something that's already been done," she says. "It's about making something new."
The Adorable Story of How Port Rouge Got Its Name
"I've been listening to this music for so many years, and sometimes you have the lyrics a little off," she says. "So 'red door' is a joke between Mick and I about some of the lyrics I had wrong...you can probably guess which ones." ("I see a red door and I want it painted black.")
On Coming Back to Choreographing
Around 10 years ago, Hamrick applied for an ABT choreographic initiative (an early precursor to what was launched last year as the ABT Incubator.) She presented a "wacky" idea, and didn't make the cut. "I was like, 'I'm never choreographing again!' " she says.
But when she talked to ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie about her Rolling Stones idea more recently, he was encouraging, and told her he was glad that she was taking another stab at choreography.
"I was never super into choreographing because I was too unsure of myself and I cared too much what people thought," she says. "This helped me to be like, it's okay. Do you, and if people like it, that's okay. Now I find myself listening to music and thinking, this would be really cool to dance to! I love that I'm already looking for new things."
The Choreographers Who Inspired Her
Though this was Hamrick's first time choreographing, she's had years of experience working with world-class choreographers at ABT. "I looked to Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky," she says. "They know what they want, and you know their look when you see it. I don't think I have a style yet, but they gave me confidence to try to find one."
Her Hopes for the Piece
"I want the piece to keep growing. I have a whole list of songs I want to add to it," she says. "I wasn't setting out to make the best new ballet the world has even seen. I'm setting out to make people smile and enjoy themselves, to shut off their brains for eight minutes and come away feeling good."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.