A full 23 years from its founding in Spring 2000, the New York Choreographic Institute continues to present vibrant, challenging new voices in choreography that contribute to the multivalent developments of the art form. For the 2023 Spring Session, the Institute united international choreographers, composers who studied at The Juilliard School, and students of the School of American Ballet to develop three strikingly unique works. Following a concentrated period of collaboration, creation, and rehearsal, these works were presented, then filmed for audiences beyond the studio walls. The resulting pieces can be seen below, accompanied by reflections on the process from the choreographers and composers.
"Into Pale is a peek into the world of a sensation-based approach to the classical idiom," shares choreographer Kirsten Wicklund. "I spent a lot of time working with the dancers through guided improvisations to allow them to explore their bodies and movement in new ways. I invited them to connect to how movements feel from the inside out, before classical form unfolds. The creation of the score was a collaborative process between Shelbie Rassler and myself. I proposed images, writings and other impetus and she replied with sound samples to eventually uncover the audio world of the work."
Rassler describes that collaboration in more detail: "Working with Kirsten on this project was a truly unique and fulfilling experience. At the start of the process, Kirsten and I shared ideas over Zoom calls, as well as clips of our previous work to get a feel for each other’s artistic styles. Kirsten created a music-inspiration playlist and mood boards filled to the brim with helpful references, including images, writing prompts, colors, concepts, and more. It was so helpful to see the world Kirsten was building in her imagination through these tangible puzzle pieces, and it helped me create a sound world for her choreography to explore.
"When writing the score, I often found myself improvising new musical ideas while watching the videos of Kirsten’s previous work, trying to fully immerse myself in her creative style," Rassler continues. "We sent material and feedback back and forth for a few weeks until we arrived at the final draft of the musical demo, for which I then recorded the electronics and piano, and am grateful for the phenomenal string players who joined us in the studio to record their parts. I had such a wonderful time writing and recording the music for Into Pale and collaborating with Kirsten, and I was so thrilled to see it all come together at the NYCI showings."
"It was a pleasure to see these young artists so hungry to move in new and bold ways," Wicklund adds, regarding the SAB students who performed the work. "They were open and willing to explore moving from my proposed intentions. The piece itself addresses themes of proximity, and a trajectory from a rusted and decayed world, towards a water world with healing properties. The work has an abstract narrative with sensation and physical timings at the root of its approach.
"My time at the NYCI Spring Session was creatively rich and valuable for me as a maker," she says. "It was a true honor to have been working in the community of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet—its deep history was felt."
"My process for Ammonite began with a vague idea of exploring spirals through the ballet vocabulary," says choreographer Gabrielle Lamb. "I shared some of my movement research with composer Hannah Ishizaki, who created a score that spiraled in a Fibonacci-like structure. Her entire piece unfolded outwards from a single piano note, with ideas recurring periodically on different timescales. Listening to the score again and again, I recalled a piece of video art by the artist Aki Inomata, who recast the shape of an excavated ammonite fossil in transparent resin and arranged an aquarium encounter with a modern-day octopus. (The ammonite is an extinct, spiral-shelled ancestor of the octopus and chambered nautilus.) I watched, mesmerized, as the octopus swam towards the center of the spiral. The delicate clarity of Hannah's music was a perfect soundtrack for this otherworldly creature using its fluid, hyper-articulated tentacles to explore the transparent shell."
"We shared previous work with each other in the beginning stages, commenting on what we might like to share in this collaboration," adds Ishizaki. "The music starts from a single note and spirals outwards, almost as if the listener and the musical material is on a journey from the inside of an ammonite to the world outside. Once the material leaves the shell, the music is free and flowing, continuing to spiral outwards, without a shell to maintain its course."
"This, I realized, was what I wanted to explore with the SAB dancers," Lamb continues. "We searched for a new mobility of the spine and ribs that could exist within the formal structure of the classical ballet port de bras. Pointe shoes also provided an interesting shell or container, within which we looked for a boneless quality of articulation. This kind of choreographic research is only possible with dancers who have arrived at a such a high classical level that the form has become second nature."
For Shane Urton, the creative process began with a written piece that inspired the project to come. "I came across an excerpt of Gary Provost’s text on a social media post," he shares. "The short text is instructional by nature yet musical. I see many parallels to choreographing and composing within the text’s content. Because of this I was curious to use it as a primer for the audience. I see it as something that prepares the audience to view—both the dance and Yangfan’s score—with an active sensitivity. I use my voice to narrate the text as part of the audio track before Yangfan’s composition erupts into space. Knowing that I would create primarily with the balletic vocabulary, I wanted to see how the two, ballet and spoken text, would interact. How could we indicate the musicality of the spoken text just as we do with music? This has been seen in contemporary dance spaces but not so much within a ballet-centric space."
"Shane shared the text of the piece with me at the beginning of our collaboration, and we started brainstorming ideas for the music," recalls composer Yangfan Xu. "I was inspired by all the different possibilities we talked about, and I was motivated to create a sound world that travels and transcends the music itself all the way to dance, poetic literature, imagination, and memories. The music portion is titled 'Jungle Sway' because of its swinging vibe and timbre, reminding me of the jungle and nature. It’s in three sections: the first is mysterious and dangerous; the second section features a solo harp and is a dream-like fantasy; and the last section suddenly shifts to a futuristic world in which I envisioned a perpetual machine. Our collaboration is a great success because the dance, music, and text all speak to each other and are coherent. For example, within the musical phrases, rhythmic and metric divisions correspond to the long-short combined phrase structure of the poem. And this idea gets picked up by Shane in the choreography as well."
"I was challenged to find choreographic solutions that represented the music in line with the phrase: 'see the music, hear the dance,'" says Urton. "In order to do this, I strive to find ways of sneaking in and out of the balletic language. With the dancers of SAB, I leaned first into their strengths and skill sets before I found space to smuggle in a choreographic choice that doesn’t normally derive from the balletic toolkit. Then I could expand the creative toolkit in service of inhabiting the time and space of the music."
About the Artists
Kirsten Wicklund (she/her) was born in British Columbia, Canada. She trained at Pacific Dance Arts, Goh Ballet Academy, and Modus Operandi Contemporary Training Program and received scholarships to train at American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and Banff Centre for the Performing Arts. She is a recipient of the Mary Day Artistry Award at YAGP in NYC and was the only Canadian to place in the Top 12 Women in 2008. She received the 2020 Choreographic award at YAGP and her recent work Overcast was selected as a finalist for the International Choreographic Competition Hannover in 2021.
Kirsten has danced with The Washington Ballet Company, Alonzo King’s choreographic workshop, Lunge Dance Collective, Ballet BC, and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. From 2014-2021, Kirsten danced as a full-time artist at Ballet BC under the direction of Emily Molnar, CM and most recently under Medhi Walerski. Kirsten currently dances at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp, Belgium as a Demi-Soloist (since 2021) where she is performing works by Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Pina Bausch, Sharon Eyal, Jan Martins, and Crystal Pite.
As an independent creator, she has choreographed works for Dances for a Small Stage, the Dance Deck Series, Arts Umbrella, Goh Ballet, Lamondance, Dancing on the Edge Festival, The UBC Choir, Josh Beamish’s MOVETHECOMPANY, Ballet BC, Dutch National Ballet, and Ballet Kelowna. In 2023-24, she is commissioned to create works for the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company (Holland) as well as for Ballet Edmonton (Canada).
Shelbie Rassler, recently named Truthspaper’s “Young Woman of the Year,” is an award-winning composer, conductor, performer and co-founder of Jenkins & Rassler, LLC. She won a CBS Sunny Award for her viral production of “What the World Needs Now,” featured on CNN’s Fourth of July Special, and produced music for the Emmy-Nominated 2021 Presidential Inauguration Concert and a recent Broadway Records release. Shelbie has helped raise millions of dollars for meaningful fundraisers, in large part as the Music Video Producer of the hit show “Stars in the House,” as well as Stacey Abrams’s “Rock the Runoff” Concert (Music Producer), and the Broward Health Foundation (Composer/Producer).
A proud Juilliard Career Advancement Fellow, Rassler has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Forbes Magazine, NPR and many other global media outlets. She has held residencies at the Vail Dance Festival (Music Associate '22, Music Director '23), the pianoSonoma Music Festival (Composer-in-Residence ‘22 and ‘23), the New York City Ballet Choreographic Institute (Composer), University of Kansas (Composer-in-Residence), University of Colorado Denver (Artist-in-Residence, currently arranging the institution’s new Alma Mater), and The Juilliard School (Guest Artist). Shelbie has written new works and arrangements for artists and ensembles such as Yo-Yo Ma, the New World Symphony, Brooklyn Rider, and Decoda (Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble-in-Residence), and her work can be found on several Netflix shows, Amazon Prime, HBO Max ads and various television commercials.
Gabrielle Lamb, winner of a Princess Grace Award for Choreography, is based in NYC, where she directs Pigeonwing Dance. A native of Savannah, GA, she trained at the Boston Ballet School and was a longtime soloist at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. In 2009, she was invited by Christopher Wheeldon to join his company Morphoses in NYC. Dance Magazine described her as "a dancer of stunning clarity who illuminates the smallest details—qualities she brings to the dances she makes, too."
Her work has been presented by the American Ballet Theatre Incubator, the MIT Museum, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Whim W'Him, BalletX, Sacramento Ballet, Ballet Austin, Ballet Memphis, Jacob’s Pillow, Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, and Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center. She has won fellowships and competitions at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Milwaukee Ballet, the Banff Centre, and NY City Center, as well as the S&R Foundation's Washington Award. In 2020, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Hannah Ishizaki is a composer and sound artist based in New York City. Her music seeks to foster connections between musicians and the audience through the explorations of the physicality of music performance. Hannah finds inspiration in the process of composition, leading her to experiment with a wide range of instruments and sound generating methods—from acoustic instruments in an orchestra to digital sensors to rocks and zippers. Immersed in the world of collaboration, Hannah has worked with dancers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists, to connect the seemingly unconnected and create innovative and multidisciplinary projects.
Recently, Hannah was named one of five winners of National Sawdust’s 2023 Hildegard Commission, supported by the Onassis Foundation and the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Additionally, she has completed several residencies, including a residency in the Henriquez (“The Boat”) Studio at Banff, where she researched and conceptualized an evening-length work for the sounds of dance, and a 3 month-long residency by the Stiftung für Kunst und Musik, Dresden. During her time in Dresden, she completed a String Octet that premiered at the closing concert of the 30th anniversary season of the Moritzburg Festival.
Shane Urton, originally from North Carolina, began his career in Chicago at the Joffrey Ballet in 2009. Since 2014, he has performed internationally with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Norwegian National Ballet, and currently with Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (formerly known as Royal Ballet of Flanders). Performing a diverse range of repertoire, including works by Balanchine, Bausch, Forsythe, Kylian, Naharin, Pite, Ekman, and Cherkaoui, has contributed to Shane’s choreographic practice.
He placed second in Dance Open America’s Emerging Choreographers 2021 and was a top ten finalist for BalletX’s Choreographic Fellowship and the Kseij Dance Company Choreographer call. His works have been hired for events such as Xynteo’s XChange Norway, BUDA kunstcentrum, Ballet Gala Geraardsbergen, and Junior Ballet Antwerp. His work has also been featured on Canvas TV’s Toots Sessies and on Klara Radio’s app in collaboration with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA). Shane initiated a site-specific dance collaboration with the Munch Museum in Oslo. He often works with a balletic toolkit, although he infuses the choreographic material with values and influences from a broader range of artistic expression.
Yangfan Xu holds a deep passion and love for cats. Whenever she hears a string player glissando in the upper registers, she can’t help but think of a cat's meow. In addition to her feline obsession, Yangfan is a Chinese-born US-based composer who comes from a musical family in Lanzhou with a spoiled cat who eats better than everyone else. Yangfan is the winner of the Society for New Music's 2021 Israel/Pellman Award. She won the 2021 New Juilliard Ensemble (NJE) Composition Competition, and her commissioned work Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas premiered at the Lincoln Center in a concert by NJE in 2022.
Her music has been enjoyed by audiences in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Paris, and others. Her compositions have been performed by professional groups such as Friction Quartet, Choral Chameleon, Keyed Kontraptions, and Ravel Virtual Studios. Her music will be performed by the Sydney Contemporary Orchestra in Australia in 2023. She received a bachelors degree in composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, studying with Mason Bates. Yangfan studied musicology at the high school affiliated with the Central Conservatory of Music in China and earned her masters degree in composition at the Juilliard School, studying under Robert Beaser. She is a current DMA student at the New England Conservatory of Music with studio teacher Kati Agócs.