A Freelance Dancer's Summer Dream - National Choreographers Initiative

My beautiful cast of dancers for NCI 2014
I just finished a wildly intense 3-week program with the National Choreographers Initiative. Yesterday, my long-time friend who danced in my new ballet, Jackie McConnell (also whom I met as a teen at the Houston Ballet summer intensive 13 or so years ago), sent me a text message expressing joy and sadness. My response to her was, "I love when I leave a gig and I feel sad. It means that something beautiful has happened." Well, something beautiful did happen and 4 choreographers, 16 dancers, and a dance laboratory setting created by director Molly Lynch was all it took to create a magical and rewarding program that takes place in, of all times of the year, the summer.

Jackie McConnell in Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)
The sun and heat are up outside while the AC is on inside and people just want to live on a towel by the beach collecting seashells. Summertime is a great time for humanity, but it is a really poor time for the dance community (read about the "summer slow-down" here). It makes sense. Why would people want to buy tickets to sit in a dark, cool theatre when they could be lounging by the pool or watching an outdoor screening of some 90's movie? This can present a problem for freelance dance artists and company members across the country. While many dancers spend their summer teaching at summer intensives or recovering their bodies, most don't have a chance to extend their reach as an artist until the first leaves start falling come September. But all of this changed a little over a decade ago when Molly established her program that selects "4 choreographers of note" to create new works on campus at the studios of the University of California - Irvine.

UC-Irvine Dance Department studios
It was three weeks ago today that I arrived at this same location where I experienced what I often call the most inspiring summer of my childhood. Thirteen years ago, I attended the 2nd annual American Ballet Theatre - Orange County summer intensive on the exact same campus that NCI is held. I felt very nostalgic and hopeful about being back in these studios where my career-trajectory changed back in 2001. When I was a kid, I arrived knowing that I would be attending Houston Ballet Academy's year-round program. But by the time I left, I had begged my mom to let me attend an audition for the School of American Ballet. In the end, I went to the Kirov Academy of Ballet, but that decision was an integral part of what set me on my path to get where I am today. This time, I didn't arrive in Orange County a student, but one of the 4 choreographers selected out of over 60 applicants for this prestigious workshop. I was proud, honored, and quite nervous.

After arriving, we choreographers watched the dancers (who ranged from young newbies to seasoned professionals) take class, auditioned them in our style, selected our cast, and held our first short rehearsals. There were sixteen beautiful dancers who work as freelancers and/or dance with companies like Sacramento Ballet, Richmond Ballet, Ballet Austin, Texas Ballet Theater, Momix, Festival Ballet Providence, Company C Contemporary Ballet, and Nashville Ballet. But for the next 3 weeks, they would all function as freelancers working as one company. I was lucky enough to be invited to choreograph or dance for this program. But since you can only do one, I chose to choreograph because of the prestige and relative challenge of obtaining this opportunity. If I had not been selected as a choreographer, I definitely would have loved to work as a dancer.

The schedule for NCI is quite intense. Class starts every day at 10 am. Following the warmup, there are two 3-hour blocks of rehearsals, where dancers are split into two separate casts to work with two different choreographers. After the first few hours of rehearsal, there is a 45-minute lunch followed by the next 3-hour block with the other two choreographers.

NCI 2014 Choreographers - Me, Garrett, Gabrielle, & Philip
Every season, Molly selects four diferent choreographers to create works. So, the program can be a very different experience from year to year. One summer dancers may be asked to work with only neo-classical choreographers, when the next year most could be extremely contemporary. This year, we had a very diverse mix of choreographers for the program. Philip Neal; former NYC Ballet Principal, Gabrielle Lamb; former Morphoses & Les Grands Ballet Canadiens soloist, and Garrett Smith; Norwegian National Ballet dancer, were the other choreographers that joined me in creating new pieces. The wide range of dance that each of us  asked the dancers to adapt to and perform were about as different as you could imagine. The dancers definitely stepped up to the challenge.

In total, the dancers spent about 6-hours each day partaking in the creation of our new works. One special aspect of the NCI program is that there is no pressure on choreographers to finish their product, to present a fully-realized concept, or to create a perfect piece for reviewers to critique. The intention of this program is to give the choreographers a chance to explore something new or challenge themselves to reach out of their comfort zone. After the final performance, there are no reviews. This can present a unique experience for dancers as well, since they often get to experience choreographers testing new styles, unconventional processes, and less explored techniques on them. With the intensity of the program, the close collaboration, and the reduced pressure, the dancers easily bond with most choreographers throughout the experience.

Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)
Beyond the studio, the dancers spend a lot of time together while living in dormitories down the block from the studios. Most dancers have fond memories of special bonds with peers during summer intensives. Once we become adults, we don't often have this type of co-op experience. By the time you hit about 24 years old, you really start to enjoy your own privacy. But the dancers expressed throughout their time at the dorms the deep sense of bonding that takes place when you work and live in close quarters with one another. Making dinners together, going to Disneyland and the beach together, and enjoying some time away from normal life to focus only on dance for a period of time can be very special. And to make matters better, you can even have a glass or two of wine without fear that you are going to be kicked out and sent home if the chaperone catches you imbibing. All-around, the dancers expressed plenty of enjoyment with most aspects of the Initative.

The Irvine Barclay Theater
At the end of the 3-week program, there is a public showing of the 4 creations at the beautiful 750-seat Irvine Barclay Theater. With 11 years of the community supporting this program, the show almost always sells out to a very highly engaged audience. There is no budget for costuming, the curtain never comes down, and the choreographers don't bow at the end of their piece. But instead, they offer a stellar lighting designer (Monique L'Heureux), a choreographer introduction before each piece, and a Q&A with the choreographers following the program. The audience leaves feeling like they took part in an integral piece of the future of dance, the dancers leave with a sense of accomplishment, and the choreographers leave with a sense of renewed exploration. In the end, inspiration is the common thread.

Looking at the list of choreographers that have gone through the NCI program is like reading a Who's Who of accomplished dance-makers. Val Caniparoli (international choreographer), Edwaard Liang (BalletMet director), Amy Seiwert (Smuin resident choreographer, Imagery founder/director), Olivier Wevers (founder/director of Whim W'him), Melissa Barak (Barak Ballet founder/director), amongst many other names have all taken part in the program. For the dancers, this program isn't just a chance to stretch themselves as artists. It is a chance to make connections with choreographers who are often at the beginning of what can become very accomplished careers. To establish that type of connection early on in their career can be one of the most valuable networking opportunities for any dancer and can change the way they approach their work.

Distinct Perceptions (Photo: Dave Friedman)

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