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National Dance Day (which happened on July 27th)  is meant to be a day in which we celebrate the art of movement, and each year, it seems to me that the celebration gets bigger and better. In downtown Los Angeles, producer Nigel Lythgoe and director Adam Shankman had teamed up with The Music Center and mobilized thousands to gather in Grand Park and dance to support the Dizzy Feet Foundation. Across the country, people were taking part in similar events – all targeted at the simple goal of getting people up and dancing.

As a big supporter of the Music Center this event would be something I normally would attend, but I have begun my own tradition for National Dance Day. For the second year in a row, I battled insane traffic down the 405 freeway to get to Irvine’s Barclay Theater. The final performance of this year’s National Choreographer’s Initiative program was showing after all, and I can think of no better way to celebrate dance than by watching new works emerge from this innovative choreography lab.

Last year’s informal showing blew me away, and somewhat restored my excitement for new work being done in classical ballet. So I was excited to see what this year’s crop of four choreographers had to show after three weeks of intense rehearsal and experimentation in the studio. This also marked the 10th year for the program, quite a feat for award-winning choreographer, artistic director, and UCI associate professor Molly Lynch. And to celebrate, the dancers performed a highlights show just two weeks prior, recreating some of the favorite pieces to come out of the program over the past decade.

For the Initiative, choreographers have 3 weeks, 16 dancers plucked from ballet companies all over the nation (8 men, 8 women), and no restrictions for what they create. Thematic, music, style – it’s an anything-goes dance lab in which artists are challenged to push their own boundaries and delight in the freedom to create whatever they want. The pieces don’t even need to be finished for the informal showing at the end. It is a brilliant program that takes the focus off the product and zeros in on the process of creating dance.

I was delighted to see some of my favorite dancers from last year’s program were back this summer, such as Alessa Rogers, Isha Lloyd, Preston Swovelin and Grigori Arakelyan, just to name a few. I can see why dancers flock back to the program. Not only is it a paid gig for the off-season, but it’s also the chance to be a part of new choreographic works, while having the opportunity to mix and mingle with dancers from all over the country.

The dancers were all exceptional both technically and theatrically. It was clear they were giving their all in each piece and enjoying every second of it. Without the pretentions of costumes, sets, or even the use of the curtain, there is nothing to distract from the dynamic movements of each dancer. Perhaps that’s what I enjoy most about NCI…It really is just about the dance. Going along with the intentions of the program, I once again am not reviewing the performance, but rather I offer up my reactions to the works and the ways in which they moved me.

National Choreographers Initiative

Photo by Dave Friedman

The evening began with works from Susan McCullough.She explained that in the first week of the program, she choreographed 9 minutes of a piece before deciding that she was was falling into her old choreographic habits and needed to try something different. That is, after all, what this program is for, so we were treated to a two minute excerpt of that untitled piece. Set to the music of Eric Whitacre, and structured with three, simultaneously dancing couples, I found it engrossingly beautiful and wished I could see more.

Her completed piece, entitled Migrations was danced to Max Richter’s “November.” This was the 3rd piece of dance I’ve seen this year set to that music and frankly, I’m a bit sick of it. Nevertheless, Migrations featured beautiful partnering work and a gorgeous fluidity from the dancers – classical pirouettes often evolving into contracted stances and body rolls. But the focus was blurred. As all the dancers occupied the stage each moving with different choreography, it became difficult to see the purpose through the layers. During the Q&A after the performance, McCullough shared that she wasn’t quite pleased with the layering either. It was a really interesting comment reminding us what a privilege it is to be included in the process of a still developing work.

NCI 2013

Photo by Dave Friedman

This was followed by two works from David Fernandez, Follia: Theme + Variations and Cotton Candy Tumbleweed. As the names may suggest, these two works couldn’t be more different from one another. The first, being a very classical work set to the baroque music of Francessco Geminani, was bright and lively. It was intricate and technical, bringing the strings and harps of the music alive in the movement. It included several male solos, which made for a refreshing take on the classical theme and variations style, one in particular was danced with incredible precision by Roberto Cisneros.

Cotton Candy Tumbleweed on the other hand was a brilliant comedy ballet about “Aurora, a sleepless cutie,” danced with adorable charm by Amanda Diehl, and the hilarious surreal characters she meets in her restless dreams. AJ Adams stood out in hilarity as the “Hipster Unicorn,” as did Alexandra Cunningham as his right hand gal “Tumble Bee.” The movements in this piece were strange, and delightfully original. Well, that is except for one homage to Pina Bausch, which was perfectly fitting for the style and zany narrative of the piece. I loved this piece and can’t wait to see it again someday. Viewing it immediately after Theme + Variations also served as a testament to Fernandez’s incredible versatility and original concepts.

NCI 2013

Photo by Dave Friedman

Next we were treated to a piece from Petr Zaradnicek that explored the concepts of breaking out of old world cultures and finding one’s place amongst new people and cultural landscapes. Entitled Elsewhere We Go, this narrative work followed dancer Shira Lanyi in her struggle to break free from the conventions that literally boxed her in, portrayed by a group of straight-faced dancers with arms in middle fifth, unremitting to her flashes of rebellious moves differing to their own. She escapes with fellow dancer Rex Wheeler, only to encounter another group of dancers with free movements and a much more grounded style. She is smitten with the new group, but Wheeler is not. Thus begins an exploration of being torn between the two sides and the two styles of movement. It was a very interesting subject matter, based quite closely on Zaradnicek’s own experiences as he divulged before the piece. The use of character defining movement was exceptionally done and once again, the dancers performed with the technique and performance quality far beyond what one would expect in such a short span of rehearsal.

NCI 2013

Photo by Dave Friedman

Finally, the evening closed with two short pieces from LA based choreographer Kitty McNamee entitled Transit and Traces. Movements from the first spilled over into the second and in truth they could have been classified as one piece set to different music. That was the intention of the work, as McNamee explained: to experiment with the ways music can color the same movements in different ways. And it certainly can. It was a gorgeous display of the dancers lines and was an unusual change in musical tone.

NCI 2013

Photo by Dave Friedman

All in all, this year’s National Choreographer’s Initiative reminded me once again that there is a vibrant and exciting world of new choreography just waiting to be explored. It is crucial that programs like this exists if only to remind us of the choreographic process and it’s value. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but in Molly Lynch’s National Choreographer’s Initiative, compelling works can be built in just three weeks.

Written by Heather Toner

Heather Toner

Heather danced with the Mandalone Company, Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet Austin and the California Contemporary Ballet before hanging up her pointe shoes to explore other ventures where eating was more encouraged and her hair need not be in a bun. She has an english degree from UCLA, and is the manager of social media and promotions for The Music Center; Los Angeles’ premier center for the performing arts. When not blogging, tweeting and instagramming about her passion for the arts, Heather enjoys making short films, all kinds of crafting and discovering new artists in the City of Angels.