(photo of Xiomara Reyes, taken from ABT website).
Sunday evening I attended another Works & Process event at the Guggenheim. These programs are so fantastic — they’re designed to kind of make the average person an insider, to give you a behind-the-scenes view of how art or cultural programming is created. Anyway, this one was on female choreographers and American Ballet Theater. Unbenownst to me (and most I think), ABT in conjunction with Altria has set up the Women’s Choreography Project, whose mission is to encourage more young women to venture into choreography — an excellent aim given that there are so startlingly and inscrutably few female choreographers, at least in ballet.
The women participants whose work we saw were: Gemma Bond, Misty Copeland, Nicole Graniero, Elizabeth Mertz, and Xiomara Reyes — all ABT ballerinas, and all, except Xiomara and Misty, members of the corps de ballet. (Xiomara is a principal and Misty a soloist.) It’s not a given or a demand of course that these ballerinas will necessarily become choreographers, but the program, led by Stephen Pier, exists for them to explore their talents, ultimately decide whether choreography is for them. It will be interesting to see, if programs like these proliferate, if it leads to more women dancemakers.
Anyway, it was really interesting watching Pier work with the women, but, to be honest, a bit confusing. At the beginning, Pier defined choreography for the audience as the movement of bodies through time and space. “That’s all,” he said. Then, he had Gemma Bond demonstrate a phrase she’d been working on. She walked to the middle of the stage, smiling bashfully, and did a short, abstract lyrical segment. Then, Pier told her to focus on the back wall, to look at the shape of three windows, the lights coming through them, their geometry, and some writing on the wall underneath them (which I think was something like a dedication to whoever funded the auditorium, in small letters).
Bond used her hand to shield her eyes from the stage lights, and squinted up toward the windows. We all turned around, followed her gaze to the back of the room. She then laughed, shrugged her shoulders, and gamely re-performed the phrase. “It’s the same thing,” said the woman next to me. But I didn’t think it was. I thought she used the stage a little more; the pattern was now more horizontal than vertical, which went along with the three, horizontally aligned windows. She did exactly what was asked of her, I thought. Then Pier asked her, “well, what are you going to do with that red light coming out from the middle window?” She looked back at the windows, focused for a moment on the middle one, then, seemingly concentrating hard, repeated the phrase again. This time it was the same horizontal pattern as before, but now she stepped forward in the middle, kind of punctuating the movement with a little dot, making both vertical and horizontal use of the stage. “Now, that’s different,” said the lady next to me. I agreed, but thought this difference was far more subtle than the last.
It was really interesting, but I think we were all intrigued because we knew exactly what was going on, what the choreographer was using to guide her. If we didn’t, I think it would just have been three slightly different patterns with no real meaning.
Pier then gave the women a pair of opposites to work with: fast and slow, light and dark, sharp and soft. All chose sharp and soft, except for renegade Misty, who chose freedom and constraint — which wasn’t one of Pier’s categories! (At one point, he asked each what they found hardest about the project and Misty said it was keeping within the rules. I love her!) Anyway, I looked deeply at the dances, trying hard to concentrate, to see the contrasts, but couldn’t always find them.
But as I was watching this, I was thinking of what I’d seen earlier in the day — the rehearsal footage of Alvin Ailey choreographing on his dancer Donna Wood Sanders, which I wrote about here. How he told her, you’re a prisoner, you can’t escape, you’re struggling, trying, let me see that. And this dance, Masekela Langage, about a group of people living under systematized racial oppression, was obviously very close to his heart.
I realize Pier was only giving these women exercises, that he wasn’t saying this was all there was to choreography. At least I hope that’s what he meant. He had said choreography was only about the movement of bodies through time and space. Is that all? I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Ailey’s world was so different from that of a lot of contemporary ballet, where it’s all about geometric patterns, interesting shapes, use of space, use of different rhythms, and not so much about creating something from the heart. I mean, literary writers and artists have to create because they have something to tell the world, something they find deeply meaningful. Although this was obviously only a glimpse into their process, I didn’t get the sense that these women were being encouraged to explore their visions of the world and learn to make movement that emanates from that place. It makes me wonder how most contemporary choreographers work — if they’re just thinking of light and shadow and abstract oppositions and geometry; if they’re not concerned with trying to tell us something.
Anyway, I have to say Xiomara (photo up top) completely blew me away with her work. She danced a lyrical balletic piece, but it had a kind of hippy-ness to it, a kind of swaying Gyspy-like, Latin feel. She danced with so much emotion. Her facial expressions almost reminded me of a flamenco dancer’s. I’ve never seen her dance like that before. I feel like perhaps she’s someone who’s better at dancing her own work than classical ballet. And perhaps she’d be good at creating work for other contemporary ballet dancers like her. Maybe she’ll be our next female ballet choreographer?
They also showed pieces by women who’ve choreographed for ABT: Lauri Stallings (whose Citizen I wrote about here) and Aszure Barton, whose work I’d never seen before and really loved. ABT II (the studio company, comprised of teenaged dancers) performed her Barbara, a sweet ballet that didn’t really have one single linear narrative, but had a lot of little subplots involving cutely intriguing characters.
On an endnote, Irlan Silva (above, from the studio company) — whoa! Methinks he is going to be in the main company soon…