Inspired by his affection for the American Museum of Natural History, Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals transports dancers and audience members alike to the museum's storied halls, where a young boy hides out overnight, and dreams. We encounter the boy's friends, family members, and teachers, recognizable despite their fantastical transformations into a vibrant menagerie of beasts and birds, the species of which emerge from the familiar Camille Saint-Saëns score. Bringing this whimsical tale and its playful cast of characters to life demands the artistry and expertise of all the dancers onstage, including those who may be brand new to this experience: the children.
Associate Children's Repertory Director Arch Higgins plays a key role in readying these young performers for their journey to the "museum." Beginning with summer courses at the age of 12, Higgins brings a wealth of first-person experience in the School of American Ballet's rehearsal studios to his current role, in addition to his 21 years as a dancer with the Company. Before retiring from performances in 2010, he originated the role of the Baboon in Carnival; now, he coaches the children who dance the ballet's lead role. As NYCB prepares to revive the piece after more than a decade's absence, Higgins is hard at work preparing the students for the stage. We caught up with him between rehearsals to learn more about his experiences with this singular, magical work, onstage and off.
Please tell us a little bit about your background as a dancer and performing with the Company.
I attended an NYCB performance as a child and had an immediate connection. Something clicked. The distinctive style, musicality, and aesthetic felt like something I had been waiting for. Fortunately, years later I joined the Company and danced there for 21 years after training at the School of American Ballet (SAB).
How did you come to be the Associate Children’s Repertory Director? What drew you to this role?
I had been teaching at SAB for a few years after retiring from dancing and Peter Martins suggested I work with the children for Company performances. I wasn’t sure it would be a good fit at the time but I am grateful that he had this idea. It has become more fulfilling with each year that passes. It’s been 11 years.
Can you describe what your role entails, in general? What might people be surprised to learn about your work?
Alongside [Children's Repertory Director] Dena Abergel, I set all choreography on children for NYCB performances. Balanchine created such rich and sophisticated work for children. Going beyond the classroom and learning in this way is an invaluable part of their training both as a dancer and a focused young person. Many times we are surprised by the growth and improvement of the students throughout the rehearsal process. The success stories of students struggling behaviorally or technically during rehearsals, then excelling onstage, are moments of pride, knowing that they will carry this confidence with them wherever their individual paths may lead.
What has surprised you or been particularly exciting for you since taking on this role?
It is impactful for me to see my students from 8 to 19 years old as seasoned performers with the Company as well as other companies throughout the world. It doesn’t feel like 11 years ago that one of my little ones danced on the same stage they now do as adults. There’s an important link between what they achieved then and where they are now—they learn artistry early on in their dancing lives. I am thrilled to be a part of that continuity.
Did you envision yourself working with children prior to this position?
When I first started as Associate Children’s Repertory Director I was teaching many of the SAB levels that are eligible to perform with NYCB. Ballet lessons are very different than performance preparation. After my first Nutcracker, I saw what it really takes to put children onstage. [For Nutcracker performances,] we spend three-plus months casting, rehearsing, and performing. It’s a big commitment for all involved. Seeing what unfolded during those months, the happiness it brought the children, seeing them go from something rough around the edges and unformed to something fully realized: I knew then that this position would prove to be rewarding.
You were one of the original cast members of Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals. Please share what you remember about the creation of this ballet.
Chris joined the company in 1993 and retired in 2000. We danced together quite often and became friends immediately. My first impression of him was his boundless energy and great sense of humor; all of us in that generation were charmed and found his spirit infectious. His inventiveness stretched beyond ballet and choreography. I remember a birthday card he made for me with his clever writing and drawings—that artistic side and wit always bubbling away.
Chris first choreographed on me after he had retired from dancing; Carousel (A Dance), from 2002, was the first work of his that I danced before doing Carnival the following year. Such different ballets and proof of his versatility. I think they were stepping stones for him in regards to storytelling and his future work on Broadway. I remember him telling me he was going to choreograph something on me without giving any details; I assumed it would be a somewhat traditional ballet. To my surprise, I found out I was going to be a Baboon! Chris has a certain kind of creativity where he sees something in a dancer that they don’t necessarily see in themselves—a different aspect of their movement, something unusual that hasn’t yet been tapped into. Through storytelling and good humor, we found a way to convey this lumbering curmudgeon character type: a piano teacher. I remember hearing an audible reaction from the audience when I suddenly appeared from behind the prop piano onstage. Moving with arm stilts was a new experience and I think it helped me loosen up a bit and use my upper body in a way that was more free. I enjoyed doing a bit of acting while interacting with a young SAB student (one that a few years later I would teach).
Carnival felt experimental because it was so different from the repertory I was dancing at that time. It felt good to have that freedom. I was always striving for perfection as ballet dancers often do, so I was grateful to let go a bit. When Carnival first premiered, there was a piece in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times—a full fold-out cover page photo. This was before camera phones, so I could not snap a photo when I saw stacks and stacks of my baboon face peeking out from a newsstand on the NYC streets. It was a fantastic moment in time.
Carnival of the Animals hasn’t been performed at NYCB since 2013, so it will be new to a lot of the cast. How has the rehearsal process gone so far?
I’d imagine the entire cast will be new. 11 years ago, I worked with one of my 11-year-old students who has now become a professional dancer in Miami. This time around, I’m working with three of my students, ages 9 to 12. We have just now started rehearsing the role of Oliver alone to give them a sense of the sequence and story before we rehearse with Company members. We are looking for an exuberant and natural portrayal of this young boy. I am looking forward to seeing their personalities open up and the development of their acting.
What is on the horizon for the remainder of the season?
Alexei Ratmansky has decided to use one boy for his new work set, in part, to music by Gustav Mahler, and this looks to be a very interesting premiere on February 15th. In May, Wheeldon’s Scènes de Ballet will be performed right before Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—all of these wonderful ballets with substantial dancing for children. This is very unique to NYCB. In other cities around the country, I often see children used as an extension of the scenery on the stage, moving a bit, but not challenged very much. George Balanchine must have had respect for the children. He trusted them with his creative process. It seems to me that he treated them as adults. I didn’t have the fortune of working directly with Balanchine, but knowing what he created on these young people and the care he demonstrated towards them has been an inspiration and served as a guide.
The journey with these young hearts brings me much satisfaction. Our mutual accomplishments remind me why I love my work.
Performance photos © Paul Kolnik. Rehearsal photos by Malik Winslow © New York City Ballet.