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Running to the Edge

Studio Visit with Amy Hall Garner


This spring, New York City Ballet concludes its 75th Anniversary Season with a look to the future—of the Company, the repertory, and the art form itself. In addition to foundational works from George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, boundary-pushing ballets by Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky and former Artist in Residence Christopher Wheeldon, and generation defining pieces from Resident Choreographer Justin Peck, the programming will feature a world premiere from an artist new to the NYCB stage: Amy Hall Garner.

In recent years, Garner has created works on some of the nation's premier companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, BalletX, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Miami City Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. She's choreographed for theater, reimagined The Nutcracker, danced with the Radio City Rockettes, and coached Beyoncé. Having trained at the School of American Ballet and graduated from The Juilliard School, this commission for NYCB represents a welcome return to the Lincoln Center campus. We caught up with her between rehearsals to learn more about her background, choreographic voice, and forthcoming debut on the Company's stage.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to choreography.

My foundation is in ballet. I started training privately in Huntsville, Alabama, with a teacher who took me under her wing around the age of three, until I was in about fifth or sixth grade, and I also went to a ballet school. I danced in The Nutcracker beginning when I was four years old, all the way up until I was 17—from a little sheep, which is Marzipan in the Balanchine version, all the way up to Sugar Plum. I also studied jazz, tap, and a little bit of contemporary—they called it “lyrical” then. After my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I attended summer courses at the School of American Ballet; by the time I graduated, I was very familiar with the Rose building—60 Lincoln Center was like home. I knew I didn't want to be in a ballet company, that wasn't for me. I loved my ballet training but I wanted to move differently. So I applied and was accepted to Juilliard. While I was there, composition class was required during freshman and sophomore years, and I kept going through my junior and senior years, including creating a senior production. Benjamin Harkarvy, the director, was a champion of young voices in choreography. A lot of us who were in that choreographic bubble during those years are still choreographing to this day.

I never saw myself as a choreographer; at that time, it was just something that I liked to do. Of course, when I was growing up, I made dances all the time—you push the coffee table out of the way and start moving, and you have your imaginary dance classes where you're teaching people. I did all those things. But it was never something that I thought that I would do full time. I knew I was going to be a dancer—that's what I had trained for, that's what I wanted to do.

When it came time for me to graduate from Juilliard, there was a show on Broadway called Fosse. I’d studied ballet, but also jazz and tap, so I thought, “That's me. That's what I want to do.” The timing was divine: they had a national tour that was about to go out on the road. I auditioned, and I did that first national tour for two years. I never went back to concert dance—I stayed in the commercial world, doing Broadway shows and gigging here and there. That’s essentially my career as a dancer.

Then, my best friend, choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, was getting a lot of work and needed an assistant, so I agreed to do it. He told me, “You have a choreographic voice. I think you should do this.” His generosity and guidance have been very instrumental in guiding me in the pivotal moments of my choreographic journey. I came back into the concert world through choreography, setting ballets on different regional companies when he got commissions, if he couldn't be there. I got back into the mode of being in the front of the room and not being a dancer. In a way, I was already laying the groundwork all along, without realizing it.

That trajectory—dancing on Broadway, being a musician, training in ballet—parallels interestingly with George Balanchine's and Jerome Robbins’ careers. Balanchine played piano and read music, and choreographed for theater and the silver screen; Robbins moved fluidly between Broadway, film, and ballet.

I've choreographed theater, so I know that it's a very different beast from ballet. You're working with actors who move rather than dancers who are trained in that language. You're serving the story rather than your artistic need, in a way. It's nice to be in this situation where I can create a work based on what I feel and what I want to say at this particular time. If you asked me to do this next year, I might create something completely different.

What’s your creative process like?

Sometimes, I've created works with a story; this last year I made a work based on a novel, but that was brought to me. Normally, when I get an opportunity, it starts with the music. I know what I want to say, and the music has to fit—that gives me my blueprint, and I can feel my way through from there. Music is definitely my foundation. I might go against it, but at least I have that to stand upon, regardless of what I do with it.

I don't have a full picture of the finished piece when I come into the studio, but I have a full understanding of the feeling that I want the piece to have and how I want to make the dancers look. I used to come in with phrases written down in a notebook, and put those on the dancers; some of them would look great doing it, and some wouldn’t look right. Now I begin with the dancers who are in the room at that moment. That serves me better.

I always have ideas in my mind, but I don't have all the answers, and I kind of like that. It makes it fresh for me. I get inspired by the way the dancers move, and I like to explore together. Once we have a certain amount of material or we get to a certain point, the pieces start speaking to me. I already know what I want to say; it's just discovering, how can I say it? And who will say it?

You’ve worked with such a range of performers—it must require some flexibility.

You have to give yourself a little grace as you get going with a new work. The beginning is always challenging, but it's challenging for the right reasons. You’re working through all the good things that need to happen for the piece to start coming alive. Sometimes that takes time. Sometimes I start with the middle; or, I might start from the beginning and work through to the end. It begins with who’s in the room with me, and that dictates the process, so it’s never exactly the same. All that remains the same is that I always know my music, what I want to say, and the feeling of the piece.

In addition to working with world-class professional companies, you’ve choreographed for students, taught at NYU, and even created a piece intended for a young audience—2022’s Rita Finds Home. Can you talk a little bit about how you see teaching and these experiences informing your work?

It’s all the same to me in terms of my approach. I come in wanting the highest level of excellence from professional dancers, all the way to students who have just started in dance. I require that, but I have fun with it. You can do different things with more established and seasoned dancers than you can with students, but sometimes students are more open to change, and vice versa.

I love the energy of the students that I work with, they’re so wide-eyed and eager. The process of having a piece created on them is usually new—nine times out of ten they’ve only danced previously-created works. When I'm at the front of the room, I try to teach them life lessons within the artform that they'll carry with them when they take the next step into an apprenticeship or a company.

When we made Rita Finds Home at The Joffrey Ballet, we had five weeks in the summer with 13 pre-professional students. It’s been staged on several different dancers, at Miami City Ballet and Joffrey, but in my mind, those 13 dancers are Rita Finds Home. We were in the trenches together. That's an education for young people, before they get into a company or wherever they might be going in their careers.

And, I always taught. I used to teach on Saturday mornings before I did two Broadway shows. The kids were five, six, up to nine years old, and I would teach them acting and basic movement. That still informs me when I'm in the studio to this day—how to speak to dancers, how to work with different personalities. All of those experiences had to happen, and prepared me to be doing this work right now.

How would you describe your choreographic voice?

What I require from dancers is to be musical, to have technical proficiency, to be confident and self-aware, to love what they do, and to honor each and every moment when they're in the studio or onstage. It isn’t just the performance, it's also the process—my only time with them is in the studio. It’s theirs once it goes onstage.

The word “joy” appears a lot when people describe my work. I like to get the full experience and to honor the dancer. When I go to the theater, I like to be lifted, so I try to keep that in the back of my mind. I love dark and serious pieces, but I also love creating something that has some fantasy, that's whimsical and has beauty. I think that's important too.

Can you share how this commission with NYCB came about?

This has been one of the dreams, to do a piece on New York City Ballet. It’s a wonderful company with wonderful dancers. When Wendy called, I immediately said "Yes," and here we are, almost a year and a half later.

I’m curious how the various styles of dance you’ve worked within come together in this upcoming commission—did you consider it strictly ballet going in, or do other approaches come into play?

This is a chance for me to dig into the classical vocabulary and my musicality, and to try to move ballet forward, so to speak. I want to make sure that I live up to the music, and challenge the dancers and myself as an artist. I’m paying homage to the Company and the dancers, and the Balanchine within my own background and vocabulary.

I'd love to hear more about the thinking behind the work and the pieces of music you’ve chosen?

There are five different pieces of music. I knew I wanted to have a suite of music; or, I knew what I wanted to say, and that I needed five different voices to say it. I started with the first composition, which is "Run to the Edge" by Jonathan Dove. When I heard that piece I thought, “This is the tone, this is where I want the piece to live.” Then I had to find music that complimented that piece and also took the journey where I wanted to take it. I listen to a lot of different pieces of music—sometimes it's very therapeutic for me to listen when it's dark and everybody's gone to sleep. I just sit and listen to the music blasting in my ears.

I want this piece to bring light to people. I want it to have the elegance, refinement, and beauty that ballet can—and then push that envelope. I can't really process it until it's done. Right now, we're in the creative vortex—a good place to be. It’s a living, breathing thing.


Rehearsal photos © Erin Baiano

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