American Ballet Theatre's Choreography Workshop Takes a Leap Forward

Classic Arts Features   American Ballet Theatre's Choreography Workshop Takes a Leap Forward
 
The ABT Incubator, which started last fall, aims to cultivate new choreographers with fresh ideas.
ABT Incubator

Last fall, a group of five choreographers and ABT dancers embarked upon an experiment, a lab for the development of new work: ABT Incubator. Its instigator was Principal Dancer David Hallberg. For an artist with a demanding career, one might ask: why take on such an enterprise? The answer seems two-fold. First, Hallberg, mindful of ABT’s stature in the dance world, felt ABT Incubator could offer creative support to a new generation of choreographers. Second, the workshop could also serve to recalibrate an essential aspect of ABT’s core mission: to extend the great repertoire of classical dancing.

Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s Artistic Director, describes the aims of the initiative: “ABT Incubator is important to us not only to discover future creative talent, but to encourage dancers to take the leap of creating for the sake of broadening their perspective on the art form. For emerging choreographers, it is an opportunity to work with some of the best dancers in the world and to stretch them beyond their comfort zones.”

<i>ABT Incubator</i> audition panel
ABT Incubator audition panel Emily Northrop

The inaugural group of five choreographers were chosen from a pool of more than 70 applicants by a panel that included McKenzie, Hallberg, ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky, Danspace executive director Judy Hussie-Taylor and choreographers Jessica Lang and Lar Lubovitch. The results: three choreographers from ABT—dancers James Whiteside, Duncan Lyle and Sung Woo Han—as well as Gabrielle Lamb, director of Pigeonwing Dance, a contemporary dance company based in New York City, and Kelsey Grills, an independent choreographer.

The two-week workshop took place at the Company’s Manhattan studios, where the choreographers developed dance pieces made of three, four, or five dancers. The music included a string quartet by Franz Schubert, chamber music by film composer Bernard Herrmann and techno by contemporary Korean composer Dong Kyun Kim. The resulting works revealed the distinct artistic imaginations as well as the diverse experiences of the dance makers. “A structure of two weeks of rehearsal and a private showing gave the creators a balance of creative freedom but also gave them some pressure,” said Hallberg. “And while part of the mission statement for ABT Incubator is to take pressure off of a finished product, the reality is that choreographers and dancers put pressure on themselves,” he added.

Observing workshop rehearsals, one could not help but be impressed by the dancers’ avidity and the riveting focus of the choreographers, as he or she made corrections, changed steps, or offered adjustments to smooth out combinations or sharpen a narrative arc. The dancers adapted enthusiastically to diverse styles. Works varied in scale: some could be imagined for the opera house stage, others seem intended for a smaller performance space. The atmosphere in the studios exuded mutual respect, a sense of humor—and discovery—and energy, lots of it.

Hallberg stressed to the participants that Incubator was about process, rather than finished product. Whiteside explained his approach, which began with his choice of Schubert’s Quartet in D Minor, Death and the Maiden. The dancer said, “I feel the second movement lends itself well to dance, especially its series of variations and strong contrasts in mood.” Whiteside, who has choreographed in many styles including ballet, modern, hip-hop and vogue, says he has bursts of creativity during which he transcribes ideas either in a notebook or the notes application of his phone. He said, “When I received the go-ahead to make the piece for Incubator, I was in my kitchen. I set up my phone camera to record and choreographed the whole dance in my pajamas and mostly in one go, then wrote it all down.”

For ABT Incubator, Whiteside made the ballet—entitled City of Women, for dancers Isabella Boylston, Gillian Murphy, and Catherine Hurlin—in three two-hour rehearsals. Because he was performing in a dance-theater piece at The Joyce Theater that coincided with part of the ABT Incubator schedule, fellow dancer Blaine Hoven rehearsed the ballet in some sessions, after which Whiteside returned for two more days of rehearsal, and the workshop performance. Whiteside says, “It was a compact creation and rehearsal period, but I thought appropriate for ABT Incubator. Things were kept fresh. The whole point of Incubator is to explore and try.”

Rachel Richardson and Zimmi Coker in rehearsal with choreographer Gabrielle Lamb
Rachel Richardson and Zimmi Coker in rehearsal with choreographer Gabrielle Lamb JJ Geiger

As with James Whiteside, music was a point of departure for Gabrielle Lamb, who had recently discovered the elegiac song cycle Landfall by Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet. Although Lamb had planned to use the music for another work, given the opportunity ABT Incubator offered, she could not resist the chance to use it. For the dancers, the music suggested a new sound universe, which Lamb believed would offer a fresh perspective.

In turn, the cast of four women offered distinct potential. Lamb said, “My group was made of some of the newest Company members, which had advantages. Young corps members have fewer opportunities to be seen as individuals and to contribute to a process.” She explained, “The piece developed organically out of the time I spent with the dancers. Once the ABT Incubator started, I spent a lot of time outside rehearsal planning and structuring the work. On Post-it notes, I wrote the names of ideas, groupings, or sections, then shuffled and rearranged them along possible timelines.” She added, “The dancers informed every choice and helped generate some of the material. It was gratifying to see their discipline and investment.”

As befits a new initiative, Hallberg looks forward to next stages in ABT Incubator’s development, which he stresses should “evolve organically.” Key to that process is continuity but also something novice choreographers or those in early stages of a career need, but rarely have: coaching. Just as developing artists in other creative fields—be they directors, actors, composers, classical musicians—benefit from an experienced eye or ear, a budding choreographer can profit from a mentor who can suggest what to edit or abandon, where to push, even a phrase over which to linger.

And as with any enterprise, a program as ambitious as ABT Incubator requires funding. The Howard Hughes Corporation, a real estate company with holdings across the United States, provided lead support for ABT Incubator’s inaugural edition. Cristina Carlson, head of communications and public relations of the Hughes Corporation, sees a synergy with ABT Incubator, in particular. Carlson says, “Arts and culture form a vibrant part of our communities, residential or commercial, where value is placed on innovation. ABT Incubator provided a wonderful opportunity to support the creative process by which ABT is giving choreographers and dancers the space to expand their creative boundaries.”

If dance exists in time and space, choreographers need both — and dancers. ABT Incubator provides all three. Jerome Robbins, one of ABT’s most noted early choreographers, joined Ballet Theatre at age 21, shortly after the troupe was established. Four years later in 1944, he created the enduring Fancy Free for the Company. About those with the compelling need to make dance, Robbins later said, “When I see a choreographer emerge, it is because he has had enough with the way it was done and wants to say something else.”

Mario Mercado writes on dance, music, art and architecture.


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