Dance choreography is high maintenance. Whereas a musician might keep his guitar close to his nightstand, or a painter might designate a corner of their home for their canvases, dance choreographers need more. The process requires ceiling-to-floor mirrors, expansive space, fancy floors, music rights, and most essential of all: specially trained bodies and minds that are willing to yield to an individual’s vision.

Dance choreography is high maintenance

Founded in 2004, the National Choreographers Initiative (NCI) provides opportunities for choreographers to experiment and create new works with professional dancers from around the country. In the summer (which is typically the off-season for professional dancers), selected choreographers and dancers participate in an intense three-week rehearsal process at the University of California, Irvine. Their daily agenda is rigorous: ballet class for an hour-and-half, quick lunch break, followed by six hours of rehearsal split between two choreographers. During this time, choreographers and dancers alike are housed in the freshman campus dorms: eating, sleeping, and icing their bodies together. Their efforts culminate in a final public performance and feedback session, where the new works are showcased and discussed with the audience. This offers the audience a unique experience of being able to delve into the choreographer’s intentions and process. While the show is usually presented at the Irvine Barclay Theater, an unforeseen equipment failure moved this year’s show to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts less than two weeks before the performance.

ballet dancer Maggie Rupp jumping in a studio rehearsal
Maggie Rupp (Sacramento Ballet) in rehearsal for the 2018 National Choreographers Initiative − Photo: Jazley Faith

On July 28th, 2018, NCI Discovery celebrated National Dance Day with five new works from four choreographers featuring sixteen dancers, giving audience members an intimate glimpse into the choreographic process. 

Kevin Jenkins, a San Diego native who is currently on faculty at Boston Ballet School, opened the show with a quick and light-hearted piece, titled “Fortissimo.” The title translates from Italian to ‘very loud,’ and is common vocabulary for musicians to describe a style of playing an instrument. He prefaced the sampling of his work by expressing his intentions of creating something fun and explosive, in contrast to darker, popular choreography.  His work was a petit allegro dream, showcasing the dancers at play, in sherbet colored-costumes to Mozart. Jenkins, who began his dance career with jazz and hip hop, notably utilized specific wrist flicks, neck bobbles, and nuanced shimmies to accent the music, garnering chuckles from the audience. 

David Justin, formerly a principal dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and soloist with San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet, shared that he aspires to bring the drama of theater to dance. His untitled piece combined opera, ballet, and storytelling—except that he didn’t tell you what story he was telling. His piece cast four couples, a minor costume change, multiple transitions, and several lighting cues. Groupings of dancers switched often, creating visually engaging scenes and shifting possible story lines: it could be a love triangle, or could be siblings—or maybe the dancers aren’t representing human elements at all. 

dance is often interpreted to be very literal—which is not always the choreographers’ intention

After the piece, one disgruntled audience member begged Justin for “a hint” of the stories featured in the work, since no title had been decided yet. Gracious and amused, Justin and his fellow choreographers responded, “What would you title it?” 

Each of the choreographers agreed that because the show featured ‘works-in-progress,’ that there were no right answers. Justin noted that because dance requires an audience, and because there are people on stage, dance is often interpreted to be very literal—which is not always the choreographers’ intention. The panel reitereated that dance is capable of being abstract, or possibly having no meaning at all. The discussion made it evident that each artists’ process was very unique, and that the outcome, was never intended or expected to be a particular, fixed product.

David Justin sitting at his computer, laughing, in the rehearsal studio
Choreographer David Justin in rehearsal for the 2018 National Choreographers Initiative − Photo: Jazley Faith

Ilya Kozadayev, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, but currently ballet faculty at the University of North Carolina’s arts school, employed choreographic methods that were notably different. Additionally, Kozadayev challenged himself to produce two very different works within the short span of the program. His first piece, also untitled, was a neo-classical ballet piece with white pancake tutus and pointe shoes. Its movement was extremely athletic and grand, with several formations, levels, and bold ballet movement. The dancing pulled a visceral reaction from viewers, as people leaned forward during the piece, letting go of their breath at its conclusion.

His second piece, titled “If You Forget Me,” was based on a poem by Pablo Neruda. After the show, Kozadayev revealed that he had given the dancers words from the poem to interpret, and create a gesture from. With the dancers’ movements, he built longer and bigger phrases of dance. In drastic contrast to his first piece, the dancers wore black blazers and socks, moving in a contemporary style to a spoken word performance of the poem, with a simple Beethoven and Strauss piano track. The group work and partnering set against low back light created a large visual impact, particularly with the pronounced shapes of the shoulders from costume. The blazers served as pedestrian shells that contrasted, yet highlighted, the dancers’ intricate movement and articulate technique. Emotions ran high after Kozadayev’s second piece, earning a few standing ovations, while others dabbed at the corner of their eyes.  

NCI acknowledges the sweaty, the messy, the incomplete—but still beautiful—process of dance choreography

The final work of the evening was, Mariana Oliveira’s “Broken Wings” which appeared to be the most complete of the works. In her self-professed “awkwardness” and wavering voice, she shared that her choreography process includes writing the dance steps down in a “script” months before stepping into the studio. The framework of the world she created was based on Greek mythology’s ill-fated tale of Icarus and the sun, re-imagining the story as “a romance that could not happen.” The movement itself beckoned notions of freedom and flight, as the dancers turned into flecks of light, reaching and yearning up towards the light from the shadows. In the semi-darkness, the dancers spiraled in and out of orbit around a struggling and passionate pas de deux of falling lifts, until the final descent to the ground.

The National Choreographers Initiative celebrates dance-in-development. While dance has become more visible through popular culture and social media, NCI acknowledges the sweaty, the messy, the incomplete—but still beautiful—process of dance choreography. The program serves a reminder that behind the polished, fluffy pictures on Instagram and Facebook feeds, there are people who simply enjoy playing with movement and creating worlds for everyone to enjoy.

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