The past few years have been particularly busy for Keerati Jinakunwiphat, whose parallel careers as a dancer and choreographer essentially launched simultaneously. Shortly after graduating from SUNY Purchase with a BFA in dance in 2016, she became an apprentice with A.I.M by Kyle Abraham, joining the company full-time in 2018 and creating her first major commission, Big Rings, for her colleagues there a year later.
While continuing to dance with A.I.M, she has since made works for companies nationwide, including PARA.MAR Dance Theater, Houston Contemporary Dance Company, Whim W’Him, New Victory Dance, and more. Though scheduling remains a challenge for the artist, she intends to continue pursuing both performing and dance-making; “I genuinely enjoy doing both at the same time, as crazy as it is,” she says. “It’s part of my complexity.”
Complexity, balance, duality: these concepts lie at the core of Jinakunwiphat’s work, including her latest commission for New York City Ballet. Born in Chicago, IL, Jinakunwiphat credits her Thai family’s support for her various endeavors as essential to where she is today. “I started moving when I was three,” she says, and though she recalls enjoying the competitive rigors of figure skating and gymnastics, it was the sense of community and company lifestyle that led to her focusing on dance. While choreography was not a significant part of her studies at SUNY Purchase, she describes the mentorship of Doug Varone as pivotal to her development. “I think the biggest takeaway from that was feeling like I could create from instinct and intuition, which made me realize that there’s already so much existing within me.”
These origins are legible throughout Jinakunwiphat’s body of work, from which a vocabulary has begun to emerge that presents her own experiences and identity in dialogue with the individuality of the performers. Her movement toys with the borders between masculine/feminine; the individual/the group; classical/contemporary; Thai/American; strength/vulnerability.
“With each project that comes my way, I just have to go inward and see where I’m at,” she says. “That’s the only way I can make honest, authentic work. It has to come from assessing myself as a human, and my life.”
Jinakunwiphat’s working relationship with NYCB began back in 2018, when she assisted Kyle Abraham with The Runaway, his boundary-pushing commission for the Company’s Fall Fashion Gala.
“I love ballet as a dance artist, so it was fun to be immersed in that world,” she says of the experience. It afforded her a compelling introduction to the Company and its dancers, some of whom will be performing in her own commission this winter.
All the more reason she jumped on the opportunity to take part in the 2021 Fall Session of the New York Choreographic Institute (NYCI), an affiliated organization of NYCB that provides choreographers with School of American Ballet or Company dancers, studio space, and two weeks to generate a piece for a workshop-style presentation. Jinakunwiphat’s piece, titled Impeccable Quake and set to a composition of the same name by the Pulitzer Prize winning composer and multi-instrumentalist Du Yun, would eventually serve as the jumping off point for her new work this winter.
“I was so drawn to the title of Impeccable Quake,” says Jinakunwiphat. “It was relevant to me—this phoenix rising from the ashes, this idea of newfound freedom, rebirth. Where I was in my life, I was feeling like I was stepping into myself again, and stepping more into myself, and peeling off layers.” Her world premiere will also be set to two pieces by Du Yun: an excerpt from Run in a Graveyard, and Air Glow, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2019.
The commission also marks a significant milestone for the Company, as its first to be created by an Asian American woman. Du Yun is also the first Asian female composer whose work will enter NYCB’s repertory.
“None of this could exist without those who paved the way before me,” says Jinakunwiphat, who acknowledges feeling a degree of pressure. “I’d rather lean into the honor of it, because then I feel like I can continue being myself without letting in any doubts—we don’t have time for that.”
In another first for NYCB, Jinakunwiphat—along with choreographer Alysa Pires, whose commission will premiere in the spring—was provided with an added period of experimentation and development through the NYCI last summer. In addition to the creative space to work through ideas and footwork, some of which lie outside the bounds of the classical ballet vernacular, this gave the choreographer more time to communicate her voice to the Company.
"Creating or curating a space to make people feel comfortable and like themselves,” she says. “I’ve had great experiences being here with the dancers, and I feel like they’re hungry for it, too. I don’t mind pushing people a little bit, or pulling it out of them. Because, again, it’s already there.”
Though she initially received the commission more than a year ago, the dancer/choreographer is still processing the impending premiere. “I’ve been digesting it,” says Jinakunwiphat. “Still am, even though I’m in the studios at this point. I just have to do what I do. It got me this far.”
Keerati Jinakunwiphat's work will be presented as part of New York City Ballet's 21st Century Choreography, February 1 to 11.