“So how many drinks have you had now?” The petite Wendy Seyb questions her group of dancers during a rehearsal of her new piece at the National Choreographers Initiative program. “Three.” The group responds, sans one young dancer who quietly adds, “I’ve actually had four.” A few chuckles circulate the room before Seyb replies, “Perfect!”
No, the dancers aren’t being given actual alcoholic drinks, but they are being asked to do quite a bit of character acting in Seyb’s new work. It’s comedic dance set to classical music–one scene obviously taking place in a bar–and it’s clear to see that the ensemble of classically trained ballet dancers are enjoying every bit of their unconventional roles.
“Part of what I love about dance is getting to be expressive,” Sacramento Ballet dancer Alexandra Cunningham shares. “And in Wendy’s piece there’s a lot of acting. I have to ask myself how do I not mime, how do I not dance, how do I just be natural? It’s difficult, but I’ve found that through her rehearsals I’ve gotten more comfortable with exploring how to convey a feeling without being given any specific steps.”
Seyb works her way around her cast, asking several what their motivation is, explaining what the term “straight man” means to others, and peppering the comedy with anchors of ballet movements. Upon speaking to her earlier, I learned that this is Seyb’s first time working with professional ballet dancers, and she feels as though she is remembering a language from her childhood. Giving up the ballet scene in her teens, Seyb’s more inspired by the work of Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins than Petipa or Massine, but story-telling has always been the base of her choreography. In the space of the NCI program, she is looking to better understand the full range of her style–from pedestrian story-telling to full blown ballet, she’s discovering just how wide the spectrum of her movements can be.
Just a few doors down, Darrell Grand Moultrie is challenging his group of pointe-shoe-clad dancers with quick athletic movements set to syncopated piano rhythms. He’s on his feet working closely with one dancer at a time, giving them intricate steps set off by brief moments of quiet stillness. “Give us that moment to sink our teeth into a little bit.” Moultrie instructs. With just a few choice directions, he is able to clarify his vision to his dancers, and they in turn are able to tackle the choreography with a new level of precision.
“I love this process,” Moultrie divulges. “I enjoy the challenge as an artistic manipulator–which is basically what a choreographer is–of getting dancers to open up to me, to trust me, and to dance with a sense of abandonment like they did when they were 7 years old. I want them to be able to come out on stage and not be afraid of anything and, in just three weeks, I want to be able to get them artistically engaged. I like that challenge.”
The National Choreographer’s Initiative certainly presents that challenge in an unusual way. The brainchild of award winning choreographer, artistic director, and Associate Professor of Dance, Molly Lynch, NCI is an annual three-week program that brings four choreographers to Southern California to produce new work. They are given all the essentials: 18 dancers–hand-picked from ballet companies across the country–beautiful studio space at the University of California Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, performance space at Irvine’s Barclay Theater, and free reign to create any piece they want. What’s more, all the usual pressures choreographers face when commissioned to make new works are removed; they don’t have to worry about premieres, ticket sales, or investors; they don’t even have to finish! At the end of the three-week period, their pieces are shown at the Barclay and followed by a question and answer session moderated by Lynch. The ultimate result is a workshop in which choreographers, at all stages of their careers, are able to try out new ideas, think about their own artistic processes, and get immediate audience feedback.
Moultrie describes it as “a choreographer’s fantasy, you just can’t beat this and it’s so rare!” A sentiment that seemed to be unanimous amongst all four choreographers as they finished up the second week of this year’s program. Participating for the second time, choreographer Melissa Barak shares that it’s “the environment and atmosphere of the place that sets a creative tone.” She finds NCI unique in the way that she’s able to mount a new piece on capable dancers and showcase it on a beautiful stage, complete with professional lighting. For her, the goal of a performance is still a driving factor. “You get to walk out of here having made a piece that challenged you – Something you can take elsewhere and embellish on. It’s an awesome three weeks of being immersed in a creative dynamic.”
Barak, who cites Christopher Wheeldon and Pina Bausch as inspirations, chose to create a piece that is essentially classical pas de duex work from beginning to end. She admits she is used to choreographing for groups and she wanted to step outside her comfort zone by choreographing partner work between four couples. While they sometimes move as a group, they consistently remain in their partnerships. And of course, in this quartet of partnerships, the dancers have only known each other a few weeks–adding a whole new element to the challenge. But they seem to take it in stride. Like the true pros they are, they seem to have learned quickly to trust one another and not hold back.
Choreographer Thang Dao also challenges his dancers with partner work, but that of a more contemporary style. He describes his piece as a series of sketches and has been fighting the urge to pressure himself into finishing it. “I keep telling myself, I’m here to investigate,” Dao says. Perhaps the most modern-influenced piece, he challenges his dancers with off-balanced partnering and fluid movements that defy the regimented placement of the classics. He encourages his dancers to not just mimic the moves but show the sensation of the movement.
Dao, a Californian native transplanted to New York, continues to play with different music selections and observes how that changes the feeling of the piece. He is truly seizing the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and allows the dancers to inspire him as well. “I never want to resort to something I’ve seen before. With this program we’re able to play and explore–I wish there was more of that out there. It’s exercising creativity, and is a true representation of the artistic process.”
Now in it’s ninth year, NCI continues to flourish under Molly Lynch’s watchful eye. She selects the choreographers and dancers each year from hundreds of applicants vying for a spot. Never having advertised the program, it’s grown each year purely on word of mouth. Indeed, nearly all the dancers I spoke to in the current program confessed that they had originally heard about it from a fellow dancer. “It’s a great chance to see what other dancers are doing, get inspired, think differently, and build confidence as a dancer,” explained dancer Amanda Diehl-Hulen of Louisville Ballet, participating for the first time this year. While James Fuller of Ballet Austin says he’s taking part for the second time because “it’s a good opportunity to think about process, learn different approaches to choreography, and be an integral part of that process.”
The dancers joke about NCI being somewhat like a Summer Ballet Program for professionals. Most stay together in the dorms on the University of California, Irvine’s campus. They take class each morning and then rehearse all day and seem to be sharing a wonderfully positive period of self-growth–as artists, as dancers, and as friends! Preston Swovlin of Nevada Ballet Theater adds that he enjoys getting to know dancers from other companies as it gives him new perspective on company life. “We all come from our own little worlds and it’s interesting to compare notes and see how similar all our experiences are. We can all relate to each other in that way.”
Lynch explains that her initial idea for NCI was inspired by a program she saw when she was working in arts management with the South Coast Repertory Theater. She describes how playwrights would submit new scripts which were then read by actors in the theater. They were informal, round-table readings, scripts in hands, and no production value, but an audience was invited to observe and give feedback at the end. From that, the writers were able to go back and revise their work before actually producing it. “I thought why can’t this same concept be implemented in dance, particularly ballet?”
Having worked as a dancer, choreographer, director, and arts manager in the non-profit sector for years, Lynch is able to look at all aspects of the program and knows how to make it successful. She began formulating her concept for a choreography lab during her time as artistic director for Ballet Pacifica, and, over the years, the concept has percolated until it became the NCI. Inspired by the vision and collaborative nature of the Diaghilev period, Lynch sees the value and creativity in putting the right elements together to make something interesting. She provides all the tools to allow artists to work and she trusts in her decisions. “I’m like a curator of sorts,” Lynch says, “And I find it very satisfying.”
As for the future of the program, Lynch is careful about how much she wants to expand it. While she does want to recognize it’s longevity and celebrate the 10th anniversary next year, she is cautious about adding more performances and losing the focus, which is keeping it about the process of choreographing new works, studying that process, and helping it flourish. It needs to remain a workshop.
“I’m pretty happy with what we’re doing right now,” says Lynch. “And I’m really happy with the bonus of it–that 20 of the works that were started here have gone out and been fully finished, premiered, and performed other places all over the world. I’m pretty proud of that.”
The final showing and Q&A session for this year’s National Choreographers Initiative is set to take place this coming Saturday, July 28th at the Barclay Theater in Irvine. Tickets are nearly sold out as the program has become something the Southern Californian public looks forward to each year and, after viewing just a snippet of the rehearsals, I can see why the shows draw such a crowd. The choreography feels fresh, unpretentious, and interesting and the dancers look strong, capable, and engaging. It’s educational, thought provoking, and interactive; in short, it’s the kind of program I think audiences are hungry for on the west coast. So take some initiative and go see it.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the NCI Website