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."
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.