Style Meets Substance: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

March 25, 2012

It’s 3:00 in the afternoon in Madrid and the air in the rehearsal studio of Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza is dense with concentration. Sixteen dancers are rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s In Transit, in preparation for its January premiere. The dance is filled with rapid crossings, encounters, and occasional collisions. One lone woman sits quietly on a bench center stage, observing the nonstop commotion around her. When the others exit she begins a legato, emotional solo resonant of the isolation of the individual in the midst of a crowd.

There is no obvious narrative in Lopez Ochoa’s work, but one of her trademarks is the ability to suggest powerful emotions through “abstract” movement. This strength has taken her from company to company, from Rotterdam to Seattle. At 38 the prolific Belgian-Colombian choreographer is making a vital impact on contemporary ballet.

Trained at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp, Lopez Ochoa’s 12 years as a performer included 7 as a soloist with Rotterdam’s Scapino Ballet. She had her first experience composing dances at 11 and spent the rest of her student years on the lookout for available studio space in which to keep exploring. In 2003 she embarked on a career as a freelance choreographer and hasn’t stopped since. “When I’m working with the dancers I try to get in touch with that 11-year-old state of mind where you create your own rules.”

With more than 30 works completed since her acclaimed duet Before After for the Dutch National Ballet in 2002, Lopez Ochoa is in demand worldwide. She has been commissioned by large companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, the Scapino Ballet, and the Royal Ballet of Flanders. She is equally at home with smaller groups such as Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, Seattle’s Whim W’Him, and Philadelphia’s BalletX, in addition to her full-length projects with theater-dance collective De Fantasten in Holland, where she has lived for the past 18 years.

This month Ballet Hispanico will perform three of her pieces in their New York City season. “I love her work,” says artistic director Eduardo Vilaro. “The sense of humor it brings to dark topics is refreshing.” He says his dancers “adore working with her. She brings something out in them which is a kind of dance theater aesthetic.” Their season at the Joyce includes Lopez Ochoa’s sexy, leggy duet, Locked Up Laura; her zany satire, Mad’moiselle; and Nube Blanco, the first piece in which she explored her Latina heritage. (Her father is Colombian and her mother Belgian.)

American Ballet Theatre star Daniil Simkin, a regular on the international gala circuit, asked Lopez Ochoa if he could perform her La Pluie, which he’d seen on YouTube. “There’s a certain sensuality and a certain serenity in the choreography,” says Simkin. “Her style I would call more European. It’s classical but contemporary. There’s a freedom to the movement.” About the working process he says, “She has a lot of energy in the studio and you can kind of bounce off each other if the chemistry is right.” He appreciates the feedback he gets from her. “She is very positive, but at the same time she sees what is good and what is bad. She has a good eye. She also knows you cannot expect everything immediately, so she’s very patient. She accepts change, she accepts suggestion. Work is very important to her; we’re on the same wavelength.”

Reminiscing about her early work, the choreographer says: “My first pieces were very simple duets that I presented at the annual Scapino Ballet workshop. They were so different from what the other dancers were doing that they seemed odd and childish to me.” She credits the director Ed Wubbe for encouraging her. “He is so good to young choreographers. He saw that I was passionate and had talent, and gave me my first opportunity to make a 10-minute duet on a big stage, with real dancers, rehearsal time, costumes, and lighting. I hope one day I can provide this kind of support to young dancemakers.”

Coming back to the current work, she says, “In Transit is inspired by airports because I’m always traveling. There are thousands of planes taking off and landing at Schiphol airport. How do they do it? It’s amazing how chaos can be so well organized!” she laughs. “I love to choreograph chaos and find patterns within.” One of the stories in In Transit is something she experienced in a New York airport. “In the waiting area a woman was crying softly while a customs agent and someone from the airline took her passport and gave her papers and a ticket,” recounts the choreographer. “She was alone and desolate. I was close enough to hear that she wasn’t going to be allowed into the U.S. I imagined her arriving, full of hope, and I wondered what might be awaiting her back home.”

She continues: “We were both in the same space at the same time but our experiences were very different. That was what made me think, I have to make a piece about all these individuals, coming and going, surrounded by masses of people, but ultimately alone. During In Transit the dancers interact but they don’t connect.”

The piece takes advantage of the CND dancers’ mastery of the fluid, grounded, contemporary ballet vocabulary that was a company trademark during Nacho Duato’s 20 years at the helm. But, whereas Duato’s phrases were choreographed closely to the music, Lopez Ochoa leaves more space for the performers to influence what is going on. The new director, José Carlos Martínez, a former étoile with the Paris Opéra Ballet, is pleased with the work. “The dancers’ energy and power hold your attention throughout the entire piece,” he says. “I like the way Annabelle breaks the group into smaller, more intimate duets and trios that provide moments of calm in the midst of such high-powered action.”

Lopez Ochoa has a great capacity for homing in on the dancers’ abilities in all kinds of contexts. “I think it’s because I love to adapt. Choreography is a constant search. Having a lot of questions and searching for the answers is what makes you creative,” she says.

That search springs up from many directions. With interests ranging from Pergolesi to Rufus Wainwright, Buddhism to quantum physics, Lopez Ochoa reels off a long list of her influences: “the freedom of jazz music, the sharpness of hip hop moves, the visionary dance theater of Pina Bausch, Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s eye for detail, video artist Bill Viola for his take on time, the work of fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Viktor & Rolf—not for their fashion statements but for how they think out of the box each time. I admire them for that, because with each work I also try to expand my limits!”

What does she look for in a dancer? “Young dancers want to be perfect and that stops them from showing their uniqueness,” says the choreographer. “Older dancers are at ease with themselves. You see beautiful freedom of movement.” She continues, “I never look for perfection, just generosity. When dancers lose themselves in the movement I feel humbled. I’ve learned that every dancer has a jewel and it’s up to me to find that jewel, polish it and let it shine.”

Laura Kumin is a writer, presenter, and teacher in Madrid. She directs the Certamen Coreográfico de Madrid, a national platform for contemporary dance.

European vs. American

Having worked with dancers on both sides of the pond, Lopez Ochoa tells us what differences she’s observed.

“I think that in the U.S. most companies don’t have the luxury of an extended creation period. Dancers are trained to pick up movements faster, so the adrenaline curve of a creative process is steeper than in Europe. This doesn’t mean that the result is necessarily better, simply that the vibration is higher in an American dance studio. I think there’s also an awareness among American dancers that their contracts can be terminated at the end of each season, versus their European colleagues, who often enjoy the security of more stable contracts. All dancers hate injuries and find them frustrating, but American dancers are die-hards and seem to take them in stride more than dancers in European companies.”