Twenty years after its founding, the New York Choreographic Institute launched its first virtual initiative in June 2020 with Summer Session, a program intended to engage choreographers and dancers amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. Institute Director Adrian Danchig-Waring, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, selected three choreographers from applicants to the Institute's 2020-21 sessions for a six-day intensive, assigning each a pair of Company dancers who’d been quarantining together and could safely partner for the duration. The dancers were provided with a tripod and steadicam and the choreographers were given free rein to produce an original work with editing support from the Institute when needed. In preparation for the digital premieres of these dance films, each of the choreographers spoke with Danchig-Waring about their backgrounds, the process of creating these pieces, the inspirations behind the films, and more. We also caught up with some of the dancers included in the films for their reflections on the process.
“I wanted to be a choreographer more than a dancer, actually, when I was younger. But of course, you need to be a dancer to really know how to create steps and shapes and so on. So I've just followed that natural path.” Born and raised in Chicago, IL, Houston Thomas began studying at the School of American Ballet at the age of 16 before moving to Germany to join the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, where he has been dancing for seven years and has achieved the rank of second soloist. “I’m also very lucky, getting the two sides of dancing in America, but also dancing in Europe. It can be two very separate worlds in a way. … I think that's the one thing that I really try to put forward in my work and even in my dancing, that there's always an idea behind something, that it’s not just for the sake of doing it or for the sake of moving. It comes from a place, it comes from an emotion, possibly a story.”
This same dual-location is true of Thomas’ film, An Afternoon of Angelic Voices, in that he collaborated with NYCB dancers Mimi Staker and Sebastian Villarini-Velez over Zoom, working from his home in Dresden while they performed and recorded themselves in New York City. These quarantine conditions became part of the “story” Thomas would tell with the film. “When I was offered this opportunity, my mind started to go crazy with ideas… I got inspired by the idea of two dancers, as in Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun, and this kind of enclosure—this idea of an intimate relationship between two dancers and the audience looking into this personal experience between those two dancers. So that was the initial idea.”
And when it came to the filming itself, social distancing played into Thomas’ decisions on that front as well. “I'm very interested in the “fourth wall” and how the audience member is an active player—not just sitting there watching, but also active in what's happening. How can we change the perspective of the audience, how can I trick the audience? How can I force them to see something that possibly they don't want to see? I think as dancers, we are magicians and we allow the audience to see what we want them to see, if it's emotion, if it's the shapes that we're creating with our bodies, we allow that, not them.
“I wanted to study or use this idea of surveillance—when you look at surveillance [footage] from a store it's very static. It has one angle. And if a person leaves that angle, that's all you really get to see. And that’s also playing with this idea of a fourth wall. I thought it would be interesting to put the camera in different places in the room and to see how that would influence the eye, and how that would influence the choreography, and what story that might tell. So I just used these two different angles to try to play with what should be allowed to be seen at different moments and what I wanted the person watching the video to see—manipulation, if that's what we want to call it.”
“The piece encapsulates the enigma of what goes through the mind of an artist that has been caged and kept away from practicing their craft,” says NYCB Soloist Sebastian Villarini-Velez, one of the two dancers who collaborated with Thomas on Angelic Voices. “I’ve felt a sense of anxiety within the quiet and stillness of social distancing which can be seen in the video in the most beautiful ways. The movement quality of the steps, while minimalist at times, evoked the stresses of confinement during the peak of the pandemic.
“Houston and I were classmates at SAB so I already knew him as a person,” Villarini-Velez continues. “As a choreographer I remember seeing a piece he did for a Choreographic Workshop at SAB. He was also very articulate about how he wanted the video to look. He sent us some things that inspired the aesthetic and I was immediately enraptured with the images. Houston mentioned that he felt comfortable since we share the same dance vocabulary. The steps made me feel comfortable and familiar, while dancing in such a small space.
This work was probably one of the most personal things I’ve ever done as a dancer.”
“Have you ever had one of those dreams, where you’re so hot and sweaty and things are surreal, and reality doesn't make sense?” Sarah Foster-Sproull, Choreographer in Residence at the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company and Artistic Director of Foster Group Dance, collaborated from New Zealand with NYCB dancers Eliza Blutt and India Bradley on her piece, Fever Dream. “Part of what I wanted to do with this film was to create a surreal landscape for the women to exist within… With the changing of the locations, the playing between the tensions of falling from one scene into the next scene, that is emulating the idea of a feverish dream, where you're in the midst of one thing and then the next thing happens and you just sort of roll with it. And there's a sense of complicity about the women in the film. It's not like they're fighting against the shifting narratives or locations, they’re just absolutely complicit with that sort of feverish, surreal landscape.”
Fever Dream combines choreography, complex editing with mirror effects and quick cuts, an original score composed by Foster-Sproull’s frequent collaborator Eden Mulholland, and words in neon colors transposed over the visual compositions. Blutt and Bradley mirror, blend into, and separate from one another throughout. “With Eliza and India, specifically, they’re such dear friends to each other, and thinking about that relationship and giving energy and time to drawing these two human beings together, ultimately became the most important thing—beyond technique, beyond virtuosity, beyond notions of demonstrating skill. It became more important to demonstrate two people together in close proximity, using touch at a time when touch has become a political act.”
“Dancing with India is always fun, no matter the setting and circumstance, so being able to dance around my family’s home with her was something we are very familiar with doing,” says Blutt. “I admired Sarah’s goal of incorporating India and my personalities into the video project. She always asked us how we liked to spend our time and what different hobbies and collections excite us, and she alluded to them through the video. After spending a week over Zoom with her, we grew to admire her so much, not only as a creator but also as a human. She is incredibly warm and engaging and it really facilitated the project, despite being on other sides of the world from each other.”
For Foster-Sproull, the generosity the process included toward the dancers is part and partial to wielding a more firm hand with the audience. “My desire for choreographic control that I exhibit in the studio with notes, with constant redevelopments of content, that control is being exerted in this film through trying to build intensity and tension through the speed of the cutting or the shifting of the angles, and to never letting the eye settle and rest,” Foster-Sproull says of the piece. “What I enjoy about watching other dance films is the space to look at the craft of the mover and the choreography. But here I'm trying to do something different. I'm trying to create tensions through speed-cutting and shift of color tone, and tessellating the body and merging layers of the body together, and trying to merge two women together and then out again, so that the mind doesn't rest—like in a fever dream, I suppose.”
For NYCB Corps de Ballet Member Christopher Grant, the distance between himself and the completed film, Moon, was much less physical than that of Foster-Sproull and Thomas. Born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, and quarantining in New York City, Grant was also working with colleagues in the Company with whom he was already well acquainted—fellow Corps Members Andres Zuniga and Emma Von Enck. So rather than wrestling with the technical challenges of Zoom, unpredictable WiFi, and non-studio spaces, Grant’s journey was very local, and mostly internal. “I've been dancing since I was six years old; to get to this point, which is a complete left turn, in a way, because I never thought that I would actually be choreographing at all, I thought I'd just be a performer... I think as you get older, especially in our craft as ballet dancers, things can get very structured and very personal and trying to be this perfect thing, and I realized, at least for me, it doesn't work, because of the way my mind works. Anytime I hear music or any time I see something on the street, I get inspired immediately, and then my mind sort of falls into this rabbit hole of ideas and thoughts and, what would I do here?
“At the time I was just creating what felt good to me,” Grant says. “I think because we were all in that position where we couldn't really connect the way we used to, it seeped into the choreography. During the quarantine I got off social media. I deleted everything. I was just home. And I was spending time thinking a lot, which we don't really get time to do because we're always around people. We're always doing something, we're always just busy. This was the first time in my life where I had to be by myself. And I think once I got rid of the Facebook, the Snapchat, the Instagram, all that stuff, I felt super happy, even though I was alone. I felt super happy because even the smallest things, like someone just randomly calling me, gave me so much joy. When I created this, the section where they're sitting apart with a tree in between them, that was symbolizing our distance, but at the same time that we're still together, in a way.”
Zuniga’s interpretation of Moon’s bifurcated structure aligns with Grant’s inspirations; “To me, the first half reminds me of how hectic life can get sometimes. You can get so caught up with everything going on in the world and be so over-stimulated that it is very easy to burn yourself out, mentally, emotionally and physically. The second movement was shot outside and we are wearing white, so it almost feels like a version of heaven. It is quite literally a breath of fresh air, and the movement is less ballet and more human. It truly feels like we are making up the steps as we go.
“I admire both Emma and Chris as dancers so I knew right away that the process was gonna be very gratifying,” Zuniga adds. “Emma is always a pleasure to watch and I love every time I get to dance with her. We have a very similar approach to ballet so I found myself often on the same wavelength as her. I had never worked with Chris as a choreographer but was excited the second we started because he has a very unique point of view and a very creative mind. He pushed us to try more modern-inspired moves and I really felt like he helped me grow as a dancer in such a short amount of time.”
For Grant, the experience of working with his longtime colleagues in this new capacity was similarly rewarding. “For the first half, it was a breeze, because they're technically perfect. Their lines are beautiful. The way they carry themselves is insane. So when I was giving them all the more classical stuff, the moving and the feeling and the touching of the skin, they sort of received it a little hesitantly… And when I had them just dance in the grass and run around, I had little clips of them just playing. I was like, just play, don't think about classical this or classical that, or ballet this or dance at all. Just think about when you were a child playing in the park with your family and you're running around the trees or you're playing tag, or you're doing that natural stuff. Once they got into that, I could see the joy in their faces and their eyes and they made it look good. I'm very happy about it.
“And that's the stuff that I like to choreograph. I want it to be very familiar. I want you to feel comfortable. I want it to be so human that you forget about what's going on outside, who you hate, who you this and that, it's more like, wow, this reminds me of a childhood memory, or this reminds me of the love I have for my parents or the love I have for someone in my family or a friend. It all boils down to love.”