Fully committed to continuing its 20-year history of supporting the cultivation and development of an international roster of promising choreographers, the New York Choreographic Institute reimagined its 2020 Fall Session by launching a two-week bubble residency at Vineyard Arts Project in Martha’s Vineyard. Three NYCB dancers—Eliza Blutt, Preston Chamblee, and Claire Kretzschmar—were selected from previous participants in the Company’s First Steps introductory choreography program to join 19 of their colleagues in a shared studio and living space, strictly adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols, to create new works. These were then each made into an original film directed by fellow NYCB dancers Peter Walker and Emily Kikta of KW Creative.
“These new dance films are the culmination of a tremendous, joyful effort by the dancers of our company, and they embody the creative resilience of our art,” says NYCI Artistic Director and NYCB Principal Dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring. For the artists involved, this unique period of safe, productive collaboration represented a unique and unforgettable opportunity to reunite and create in an unprecedented time; we spoke with many of them about the experience.
“My choreographic journey started with New York City Ballet's First Steps program, which gives NYCB dancers a chance to choreograph on their colleagues and try it out, to see if it's for them,” says Chamblee. His work, “A Passing through the Gray,” is set to The Radial Conservatory’s “Sweep,” whose pensive opening piano erupts into an emotive crescendo, an expressive trajectory that corresponds with Chamblee’s choreography. “The music for my piece, I completely stumbled upon by accident,” he says. “I was talking with my therapist about my anxiety about the piece, and how I felt, in a way, artistically stifled by this project, especially with COVID happening. So we started talking about how the mind works through stressful situations and what different parts of the brain do when one has anxiety and stress or trauma… I took that and ran with it in a way that's less [about] anatomy and science and more like, ‘How does that work? What region of the mind and subconscious has this type of reaction when something happens, like COVID?’ That has been my main fuel for this whole process.
“I wanted my dancers to all be vastly different and each have their own style that they could bring to my movement,” he continues. The work features Principal Dancers Joseph Gordon and Amar Ramasar, and Corps de Ballet Members India Bradley and Alexa Maxwell. “In the piece, they all have different poses that they highlight throughout. We have Joe's movement, which is more structured; Alexa is more about musicality and it's fluid; Amar’s is very emotional; and India Bradley's is about vision and perception. I've really enjoyed working with all of them and finding how far I could push my style of choreography and blend it with how they work as dancers.”
“I found the ballet Preston created to be especially relevant to the time we are living in today,” says Ramasar. “He explained that each dancer represents a specific area or emotion of the brain. While a single feeling plays a central part for a moment, all need to work in harmony for sanity. I represented the perception of touch with a focus on those around me, which resulted in angst. Having experienced much angst and worry about others' perceptions of me, the role hit very close to home.”
“The music Preston chose has so many dimensions, and I think it worked perfectly with his ballet concept,” adds Maxwell. “Of course, any time a part in a new ballet is choreographed on you, it always holds a special place in your heart, and that couldn't be more true for this piece. … We usually work together for hours in the studio and leave until the next day. At the Vineyard, the studios were part of the houses we were living in, along with the choreographers and other fantastic dancers. The intimate setting and ‘bubble’ we created only enhanced the respect, love, dedication, and fun we all have together. After watching all three new works, I can see those feelings come through in each piece.”
Ramasar echoes these sentiments: “I had the honor of participating in the first Choreographic Institute back in 2000,” he says. “While last year's experience was significantly different, the joy I get from creating a new ballet with artists I admire and respect remains the same, if not more so. One of the key differences was our surroundings. Being in the beautiful Martha's Vineyard studios seemed to provide us all with a sense of calm. … Another huge difference: we were all dancing again, together in a studio, after an eight-month hiatus due to COVID.
The amount of excitement I felt to be dancing with my colleagues was overwhelming. Living together for two weeks in a necessary bubble gave us the time to tighten our already close bonds.
“This whole process has been everything to me,” says Chamblee. “It's kind of brought me back to life. I feel that there's this pressure on the arts to stay alive in this time, so to come here and work with my friends and colleagues, and to be in this space and be able to just take class and be with other people, it's reminded me of the love that I have for the art of dance and how important it is for our society, with everything that's going on.
“It feels like the world is on fire,” he adds. “And by doing this, I see this image in my head of a fire extinguisher, like, ‘Breathe. Everything's going to be okay.’ It's this coolant on my soul. I think that it's so important, that we all need it, that we all deserve to feel this coolant from the art of dance and to be able to take our minds out of all of the chaos that's happening right now—to be able to sit down, breathe, and watch a ballet, listen to music, reflect on beautiful paintings and drawings, sculptures, all of it. We need it now more than ever.”
“I grew up at SAB for 11 years, so that is a huge part of my foundation in technique when I'm dancing, and my inspiration when it comes to choreography,” says Eliza Blutt. “I went to so many performances and saw the movements that we're known for in New York City Ballet. I think I've been able to create a medley of that as well as what I see on social media nowadays, because that's really our main outlet right now.” Her work, “On Certainty and Doubt,” is performed by Corps de Ballet Members Christina Clark, Uma Deming, Kennard Henson, and Mimi Staker, and Apprentice Savannah Durham. The ballet’s three movements, titled “Miss Mass Media,” “Miss Paranoia,” and “The All Nighters,” explore contemporary behaviors, obsessions, and interactions in distinct yet interrelated ways.
“I think that COVID and quarantining have really highlighted self-reflection, but also interpersonal relationships more than ever,” says Blutt. “Coming here and seeing each other for the first time, there's inevitable social anxiety—you haven't been so aware of your actions being observed in so long. I tried to incorporate that element of anxiety into the piece as much as I could...
I incorporated even those elements of anxiety that I resent a lot of the time, but which are so pivotal to our personalities and to our relationships with each other.
“To me, Eliza’s piece is, stylistically, an astute homage to different eras of dance,” says Clark. “She derived inspiration from genres ranging from Fosse to viral TikTok dances while still remaining rooted in classical ballet technique. While each of the sections is different in terms of music, dance vocabulary, and mood, the overarching theme of the piece, in Eliza’s eyes, was the role that media plays in our lives. During the pandemic, the world has moved online and many of the effects of social media, both positive and negative, have crystallized. In that way, the piece is aware of the times it was created in.”
“Living in the same space as everyone, as well as working with them, made for a very different yet exciting experience,” adds Blutt. “We would leave the studio and all be on the same level, in the same community, helping each other, going over to cook every night. So it was almost like we had to let go of our positions even more than we normally would, and it made for a really incredible environment, with everyone feeling like we were all on the same page. The dancers could say to me, for example, ‘Oh, do you mind if I keep my beard?’ And I'm like, ‘Of course, we're all working together. I want everyone to be represented exactly how they are.’”
“I have seen two of [Eliza’s] previous [choreographed] pieces,” says Clark. “Watching these works, I was very impressed by the originality and musicality of her choreography. What I couldn’t have anticipated from just watching them, however, was how positive the creation process would be and how fun her choreography would be to dance. Her choreography and choreographic process is very perceptive and intelligent; she has an ability to understand what makes each dancer special and seamlessly incorporate that into the steps she creates. Overall, getting to work with someone who I admire so much as a dancer, cherish so much as a friend, and respect so much as an emerging choreographer was a highlight of this past year and of my career.”
“It was a really great experience seeing [Eliza] at the front of the room and being able to bring her creative movement ideas to life,” agrees Henson. “What I took away from working with Eliza is that anything is possible when creating a new work. She is not afraid to try new things.
“The entire Martha’s Vineyard experience was one to remember,” continues Henson. “The joy in the air throughout the entire trip was exactly what you’d expect after not being able to do what you love [and spending] a long time away from it. I could not have been more thankful for that time.” The experience was similarly sparked with gratitude for Clark: “To be able to be back in a studio with some of my colleagues and living with them as well was incredible, so I hope that those who watch these pieces enjoy them as much as we enjoyed making them.”
“It has been exciting during this season, with the New York City Ballet digital streams; people from around the world have watched them and said, ‘Wow, this is amazing to see these works that we could never see,’” says Claire Kretzschmar. “Just because our larger organization and our larger theaters are unable to operate, I don't think that should stop us from creating and engaging on smaller scales. I think that there'll be many beautiful things to come out of engaging in a very intimate setting with the people around us and with our craft.”
The title of Kretzschmar’s work for the NYCI’s virtual Fall Session, “Rachmaninoff Suite,” refers to the ballet’s score, which served as the initial stimulus for the choreography. “[This piece is] inspired by the piece of music, Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Chopin, and the idea of mystery. As I was listening to the music, I was realizing that there's such a deep moodiness to the music and at the same time, there's great intimacy in each of the variations. So I wanted to tap into both the mystery that's inside the depths of each dancer's soul, but also the mystery of the world that surrounds us.” The film features Principal Dancer Russell Janzen, Soloist Emilie Gerrity, and Corps de Ballet Members Miriam Miller, Gretchen Smith, and Andres Zuniga.
“I had seen videos of Claire’s work, but had never danced for her before,” says Janzen. “I’m a big fan of Claire’s tiny garage performances that she’s been doing during the pandemic—there’s a lot of humor and imagination in the dances she does for these showings, so I was excited to see what she would make. Claire can be incredibly goofy and chatty outside the studio, but in the studio she is always focused and engaged. … We were all coming into the studio in different places emotionally and physically, and Claire did a wonderful job accommodating and challenging all of us.”
“Having spent so much time with [Claire] in the studio as peers, [I had some] knowledge as to her work practices and ethics,” adds Smith. “It’s always so fascinating to work with choreographers who are still dancing—you get a window into their brains in a completely different way. Claire is particular, in the best way; works with set intentions and emotions; and is as patient and generous as you would expect her to be.
She is pure honesty and enthusiasm as an artist—she is no different as a choreographer.
“I walked away daily from this piece feeling the rawness, theatricality, and mystery,” Smith continues. “Claire gave us nuggets of her intention, but wanted so much for our own artistry and choices to be one with her choreography. And it happened so organically. Her movement just fit, even after all of that time away.”
“Claire really wanted us to convey a sense of mystery in this dance, and I think that shows in the choreography,” adds Janzen. “My takeaway from the piece, though, was the brilliance of my colleagues. Claire highlighted everyone’s strengths—everyone danced beautifully—and I loved getting to watch everyone again.”
“The ballet means a lot to me because it felt like a breath of fresh air in the middle of a time of uncertainty,” says Zuniga. “I went from dancing alone in my living room to a studio full of dancers who were all rehearsing and creating. Life felt somewhat normal for a second. When it comes to the actual piece, I remember Claire talking about how she felt like we were just out on grass, dancing in the sun, and the setting at Martha’s Vineyard helped a lot! It really was just that, five dancers moving to beautiful classical music, picturing an open field in the summer.
“The bubble residency was a great idea,” Zuniga continues. “It was a way of bringing together dancers in a studio in a very safe way… Because we couldn’t break the bubble, we were only interacting with each other. It brought an extra layer of community and mutual appreciation to the ballet being made.”
“Taking part in this residency bubble was incredibly special,” agrees Smith. “With this global pandemic, to have the opportunity to safely create new works, there was a renewed sense of urgency and presence. With that said, it felt like coming home. It was as if little time had passed; our worlds as colleagues had differed so much during those beginning months, [but] we came together with one purpose and one love for our art.”
“The opportunity to have the residency and be a part of this project truly gave me the feeling like, ‘This is why I love to dance,’” says Gerrity. “It gave me a new appreciation for being a dancer and an artist. I am so impressed that Adrian Danchig-Waring got this incredible group of people together to re-inspire us during such a dark time. I think it was important for each and every one of us. And getting to work with Claire was very special.
“It came at the perfect time, when I had been second guessing everything,” she adds. “Who am I without dance? Is this still what I want to be doing? Will I be able to dance again? The feelings and joy I got out of the experience are what keep me working hard to get back on the stage.”