Devin Alberda choreographs for Columbia Ballet Collaborative

Devin Alberda talks about choreographing his first dance for Columbia Ballet Collaborative

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Time Out New York: So for your ballet—
Devin Alberda:
It’s not quite a ballet. We’re halfway done with it, we’ve only had two rehearsals.

Time Out New York: Okay, it’s a dance.
Devin Alberda:
It’s a dance. And it’s a short dance, and it’s to a piece by Anna Meredith called “Nautilus.” She’s a young Scottish composer and the resident at National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and this piece was one of the random shout-outs that Pitchfork gives in its year-end list. She was mentioned two years ago on its top 100 tracks of the year, which was how I discovered her, and I’ve listened to her stuff ever since she did this awesome piece for the National Youth Orchestra called “HandsFree.” It was just brushing, clapping, snapping and beat-boxing. No score. I think there was a conductor helping with a countdown clock. It was all memorized, and it was almost a dance. So this is from her electronic EP. It’s synthesized, but the predominant sound is a horn in most of the compositions; they start with a big orbit and then they tighten up at the end. This is fun, because it has these blaring horns and a recurring ascending horn; I love Sisyphus and the idea that ballet is incredibly Sisyphean. Life is, right? But I think we feel it more strongly for the incredible bodily pain we endure in search of that beauty. It happens a few times, and she adds different sounds and then it all plays together rhythmically and it spins out with this wobbly electronic sound before tightening up; then there’s a little beat drop, and it all comes together. I thought that could be something I could explore some ideas with, and then it occurred to me that I could have my little wordplay with Sissy Fists. I was very pleased, and now I’m absolutely terrified that the name is going to overshadow the work, which could be okay because I just need to do it. I need to make the dance. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to evoke it without being too literal. I was like, so, do I get them rocks?

Time Out New York: No! 
Devin Alberda:
[Laughs] Now I have a dancer combat crawling in something—I have to figure out what I’m going to do. I showed it to Anthony [Huxley, a NYCB member and Alberda’s boyfriend] and he was like, “I don’t know about that combat crawl.”

Time Out New York: Who are you working with?
Devin Alberda:
Columbia used to have a lot more professional dancers. I’m very pleased with my cast; they’re so game and so busy, but they love doing stuff. Likolani [Brown, a NYCB member] was going to do it, and I was so excited: ace in the hole. I thought, I’m definitely going to have somebody who’s going to make it look the way I want it to. She has tendonosis. She’s been dancing on it for, like, a year. These girls, let me tell you, nothing but respect for all of them. My measly older-male corps troubles can’t compare to the girls.

Time Out New York: How many dancers are you working with?
Devin Alberda:
It’s just three now. Rebecca Green, John Poppe and Taylor Minich. I’m finding three to be a less cumbersome number. Justin said to keep it down around two to four. And four actually presented too many challenges: Are they all going to do the same thing, is it always going to be symmetrical? I think three is allowing me to do some different things and I’m not displeased by what’s happened so far. It’s a challenge to work with more amateurs. I find that really exciting too. I mean it’s a double-edged sword: They’re much hungrier and much more excited to be doing the process because it’s not the day-to-day grind, but they don’t have that finishing and experience. But they’ve all been really fun to work with. It’s very difficult to judge a ballet while it’s being made, but watching it turn into this lumpy clay version of itself that I’m going to get to now mold and make a little more clear is really exciting. I never considered the way it would look from this side. I want to start participating in the conversation.

Time Out New York: It’s a good challenge for you not to be able to work with super-professional dancers, because you have to make them look good—it’s your job to do that, even if they don’t have that finishing, right? 

Devin Alberda:
Yes. I’m really scared, because I definitely have a propensity for artistic projects. I take pictures of myself; I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. It’s like Cindy Sherman film stills, if she only played herself. But I am not the best at working with people. So this is something new for me and figuring out the social skills necessary—there are great contrasts between the different choreographers I work with. Justin and Ratmansky are dreams. Like dreams. They come into the studio and you want to fall into their hands and be their putty, and they inspire such confidence and make you feel so valued and validated. Ratmansky came in for like an hour and a half with [Concerto] DSCH. It must have been spring season and it was the best experience. Just him bringing it back to what he wants it to be. I love seeing control. I became obsessed with Episodes this past season. Obsessed. It’s my favorite now. I couldn’t get enough of it. All I want to do is watch it. My gosh, that ballet is just in-cred-i-ble.

Time Out New York: Why do you feel such a connection with Kanye West?
Devin Alberda:
It’s terrible. It’s only in the worst ways. He’s at that point where you change from caring about nothing to caring about everything too much. You pretend to care about nothing because you have to—he is so certain that the world is a meritocracy and that realness, dopeness should be rewarded and everyone needs to recognize that clearly he is the greatest rap artist who ever lived. Nowhere is he near the best rapper. He’s a terrible rapper. But he’s funny, and he makes it work. With that voice, what’s he going to do? He has the worst timbre. It isn’t a good instrument. But he has that vision.

I’ve been watching the rough edits of the City Ballet show for AOL [city.ballet.], and one thing that keeps getting repeated is Peter saying, “They cast themselves.” So it’s a very objectivist, bootstraps mentality where you do it yourself. It’s so self-determined, but it’s this terrifying wasteland that you are slogging through trying to live the American dream. I think that it’s really hard to navigate that as an artist and watching Kanye come up against the world the way he does—and it’s mostly imagined. I think, for me, it’s mostly imagined too. Now, as I soften in my dancer middle age—and at 27, I do feel so middle-aged. That’s really getting up there. I do want to start joining the civil conversation and figuring out how to better integrate myself into the community. Midseason Devin is a basket case, but I think that’s the case with most dancers. Trying to temper that and find my bearings and realize that the season will end and you will continue to be a dancer and an artist even when you’re not dancing way too much every day is something new for me.

Time Out New York: You really do dance a lot at NYCB.
Devin Alberda:
I do. Our household is difficult. I talk to Megan and Andy [Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette, principal dancers in NYCB who are married] about this too, because they’ve had similar experiences. Anthony is, like, never on and I’m always on and we’re both miz—miserable—in trying to negotiate that. I’m like, “I’m so tired, I have to dance everything,” and he’s like, “Don’t complain.” I can’t imagine not dating a dancer. If you’re going to turn this into what you do, you have to have someone to share it with. I don’t think I could ever date a non-dancer, because then I could pretend that the sun shined out of my ass, because they would—which would be so fun. But it’s really fun having someone who knows the form so well. I know it’s not super. It’s realness. That’s why it’s so fun watching artists care that much and watching an artist like Kanye be so willing to alienate the world because he believes so strongly in what he’s doing. I just can’t believe he keeps getting better. Yeezus is basically perfection. You didn’t think he could go anywhere better than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and thank God he had the whole fallout with Taylor Swift, because he needed it. That’s something I’m learning too: If you’re going to be vocal and have opinions, you are going to make people not like you. And very few people know me. I’m not the most socially well integrated of the dancers you’ll ever meet. I very much like going home and watching movies. It’s my favorite thing to do. Film is my go-to. But as a pop-culture enthusiast, trying to figure out how I take the sensibilities that I’ve learned from these other forms I enjoy and infusing them into this form—that is supposed to be dying, that doesn’t have enough people focusing on it and working in it­—will be really fun for me. I hope it shines through. I hope there is this idea that I’m interested in things outside of ballet while still trying to hew closely to the legacy of Balanchine, which is visualizing music.


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