Lately, when Daniil Simkin hasn't been performing with American Ballet Theatre or flying off to dance in international galas, he's been putting together his own project: INTENSIO. “I miss European contemporary dance," explains Simkin, who grew up in Germany. “This is an outlet for me and my colleagues to experience that and approach the ever-looming question: Where is ballet going?" The evening-long performance features new works by Jorma Elo, Alexander Ekman, Gregory Dolbashian and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, created on a group of ABT dancers and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal's Céline Cassone. Each piece merges dance and technology, with innovations like real-time video projections. After its world premiere at Jacob's Pillow this summer, INTENSIO will tour to Houston and Buenos Aires in November, and New York City in January.
Caffeine and productivity
Simkin starts his day with coffee and his iPhone. “I'm not a functional human being without a cup of java," he says, “and I just can't get enough of those endorphins from the notifications from my phone's home screen." Breakfast is usually yogurt with trail mix while checking e-mails and shopping online (typically hunting on eBay for deals on clothing from designers like Rick Owen). As one of the biggest techies in the ballet world, Simkin has set up his iPhone 6 Plus to control the temperature and lights of his apartment. “You can argue that my phone is my alter ego," he says. “All it needs is to grow legs and it'll soon be dancing!"
Simkin starts each morning online, often shopping on eBay.
When time is tight, Simkin gives himself his own barre before rehearsal.
Before going to rehearse for INTENSIO, Simkin warms up by taking class with other company members at ABT or by giving himself his own barre. ABT provides its dancers with 36 weeks of work each year, so Simkin schedules all INTENSIO rehearsals and tours during his 16 weeks of off time. “It's a win-win situation," he says. “We get to stay in shape and do new, exciting work."
Rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's new work with Cassandra Trenary.
Experimenting with Alexandre Hammoudi and Blaine Hoven.
Rehearsal at DANY Studios
To Simkin, the best part of rehearsals is seeing how each choreographer's approach develops. He likens learning new choreography to learning a new language. “The more you speak it, the more fluent you become and the more enjoyable the piece becomes," he says.
Filming rehearsals helps Simkin remember what they've done. He also likes to share clips with his 47,000 followers on Instagram. But he never uses the videos to judge the merit of works in progress. “Something that looks good on video in slow motion but might not look good onstage."
Simkin with Calvin Royal III.
Simkin prefers a light lunch such as salad or sushi, and during their break he often plays delivery boy. “Annabelle might request a Red Bull, somebody else wants a banana. I get myself a cookie or a coffee."
Simkin considers it a luxury when he gets to be at home alone in the evenings. “I just want to play my computer games," he admits. He has a projector and surround-sound system and plans to get a PS4 to play games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III. He also winds down by reading, typically working on two books at once—one fiction and one nonfiction. (He's read all of Haruki Murakami and recently finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.)
But first, Simkin usually attends fundraising dinners or grabs food in his Brooklyn neighborhood with non-dance friends. “I like getting to learn about different ways of thinking," Simkin says of socializing with people in different fields. After spending every day surrounded by dance artists, “outside company stimulates my imagination."
Ballet stars are diving into creative projects on the side.
Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar before an Ashley Bouder Project performance. Photo by Dan Freeman, Courtesty Freeman.
Although he was hard at work this spring creating a new piece for Boston Ballet and performing with the company, principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio somehow made time for even more dance. This summer, his new choreographic side project, Cirio Collective, will premiere in Massachusetts. With help from his sister and fellow principal Lia Cirio, he has been working on videos for the new website, talking to costume designers and searching for music.
Cirio is among a pack of entrepreneurial ballet dancers looking to branch out at the peak of their careers. Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective, Daniil Simkin’s INTENSIO, Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet and Ashley Bouder’s Ashley Bouder Project are other budding examples. And though dancers forming pickup companies isn’t exactly a new notion, past iterations have mostly been summer layoff projects that combined well-known repertoire and big international stages. These talents represent a new breed of do-it-all artists who prize small-scale projects and artistic collaboration. And the DIY culture of the digital age makes it easier than ever for star dancers to give voice to their artistic visions and connect with curious fans.
Bouder, who doesn’t choreograph but directs Ashley Boulder Project, felt an urgency to experiment before it was too late. “I am over 30 and I don’t know when my technical ability will drop out,” she says. “There are a lot of things I want to do before that happens.” A large part of her vision is connecting with audiences in areas where dance is underserved, like the rural Midwest, with discussions and workshops. Currently, she’s fundraising for a dance film, and is focused on showcasing female choreographers, most recently Andrea Schermoly and Adriana Pierce.
For Cirio, forming his own troupe has allowed him to experiment with his choreography in a small, intimate setting. Though he’s thankful for his opportunities to make dances for Boston Ballet, he had a desire to create without the pressures of the big stage. “It’s not about trying to please a director or the artistic staff,” says Cirio, who hopes to expand the troupe’s vision to include other choreographers and non-dance artists. “It is just about us getting in the studio and sharing our ideas.”