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David Hallberg on ABT’s Innovation Initiative

By Gia Kourlas
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Choreographic workshops have become the fashion at ballet companies, but they’re not a mindless trend. Finding choreographic talent and keeping dancers challenged is serious business. American Ballet Theatre, in a new partnership with the Arts Initiative at Columbia University, unveils five works-in-process produced as part of its Innovation Initiative at the Miller Theatre on November 16. The culmination of a two-week choreographic workshop, the project—started by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie and principal David Hallberg—features five choreographers. Gemma Bond, Claire Davison and Daniel Mantei are company members; two others, Jillian Peña and Pam Tanowitz, come from the downtown dance world world. Unlike the New York Choreographic Institute at New York City Ballet, which keeps its performances private, ABT is letting us in on the experiment. Here, Hallberg talks about the initiative.

Why is this project so important to you? Why did you start it?
I think the main reason is that I felt like when works were commissioned at ABT, it was obviously for theaters that we inhabit, the Met and the Koch. So work had to sell tickets, it had to be polished and the whole nine yards, and I wanted, essentially, to create a platform that gave room to test and explore and to not have to worry about the things that a big ballet company has to worry about in terms of new work. I proposed the idea to Kevin, and he loved it. It has served as a platform and not just for dancers in the company. This year, I’m bringing in outside choreographers; it’s serving as a platform for process-based work. There’s a showing at the end, but there isn’t that pressure of creating that audience-loving piece. [Laughs]

Why did you think of Pam and Jillian?
I thought of a lot of people, but Pam and Jillian I’ve respected and watched their work; they’ve homed their craft for years, and they question the aesthetics of dance. The thing is, it may work and it may completely not work, but what’s important to me is to take those dance-makers, especially in New York, and give them the talent of American Ballet Theatre. The dancers of ABT are so at the top of the classical ballet field and, if anything, it poses an amazing challenge for both of them: for the dancers and for Pam and Jillian.

What are the parameters? Do they have a set amount of time? Can they use whatever music they want?  
They can use whatever music they want. Nothing can be live because we can’t afford it. They have two weeks to experiment, to create what they want to create for the showing at the end of those two weeks. It’s very bare-bones. No commissioned costumes. It’s really just about the exploration and the questions—not just those that the choreographers pose to the dancers, but vice versa.

Did you dictate which dancers they could use?
It’s purely voluntary for the dancers, and Kevin and I sat down and weighed in on who would fit best with whom. 

Have you been watching rehearsals?
I have.

What has struck you?
Jillian wanted the mirrors completely covered. She sat the dancers down for an hour before they even moved and just got to know them and wanted to know about personal experiences. Pam had a very specific idea in mind and music as well; I wasn’t in for the first couple of hours, but I think she moved straight into movement. This is Claire’s first time creating anything. She had a compelling idea and concept. She’s probably scared to death, but she’s creating on her colleagues, so there is that level of comfort. Daniel surprised me. He choreographed for the first Innovation Initiative and his movement was very restrained and specific and minimal—it was Merce-ish [Cunningham], and Kevin and I were like, Wow, where is this voice coming from? It’s clearly coming from him. He didn’t really cite any influences, so we wanted to really just cultivate his vision and Gemma as well. She has choreographed for the Innovation Initiative [in the past too], and she’s gone on to choreograph for New York Theater Ballet. She is another voice that Kevin has been really adamant about giving opportunity to.

What is Claire working on?
She’s using a Piaf song and the movement is relaxed, maybe a little Twyla-ish [Tharp]. I say that with caution, because I don’t want to define her movement before it’s defined. It’s so hard to sit in a rehearsal for 45 minutes and [sum it up]. Especially at the beginning of the process. I’m sure she will be given challenges and question everything and change everything.

I didn’t think about this before, but you have almost all women. Is that intentional?
It wasn’t. And there are predominantly women [dancers] in the workshop. I wouldn’t try and make it intentional; I just have always enjoyed watching Pam and Jillian's work and if ABT can give them this platform, it’s so exciting. It poses a challenge for the dancers, because in ballet we’re spoon fed choreography, and I don’t necessarily say that as a negative thing, but Alexei Ratmansky has his vision, and Chris Wheeldon has his vision. There are famous collaborations, Wendy Whelan being the most obvious one where she is putting her own voice into Chris’s choreography or Alexei’s, but rarely are we looked at from the person creating the piece and told, “I want to see some improvisation.” It’s challenging, too, when you’re used to the ballet-world rehearsal and performance process. When it’s shaken up.

Do you want to change the mentality of the dancers as well?
I’m not personally partaking in the workshop, but from personal experience when I’ve done my most growing as an artist is when I’m in an uncomfortable position. When I was first getting to know the Bolshoi theater and company and 205 dancers knew me and I didn’t know them, that’s when I grew so much because it was an uncomfortable experience. It wasn’t easy, and I feel like there are other examples in my career where I’ve grown like that as well. It’s not that I want to change the mentality, but I want to challenge the mentality. It’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just different, and I’ve always fantasized about something like this or having other New York choreographers come in and create for ABT. This make completely fail, but that’s not the point. The point is to just try it.

What have you learned from the past iterations of the project?
It started as an in-house choreographic workshop. It’s important for me to balance it with other voices as well, especially in the New York dance world. But it’s been a challenge to keep it going. I think one really positive thing is that we paired up with Columbia to give us some sustainability and support. I think it really goes well with the process of Columbia as an institution questioning and theorizing and experimenting.  

And there are so many dancers in its  general studies department. Columbia Ballet Collaborative was started because there were so many former ballet dancers enrolled.
Yeah. They have such amazing minds there, like Lynn Garafola [Ed. note: the dance historian and writer is a professor of dance at Barnard college]. I just want to grow from this. I envision in the next couple of years, symposiums, discussions. 

I have to admit, I’m not entirely clear about the Columbia connection as far as building audiences. 
First and foremost, we needed a venue that worked: the Miller. I think Melissa Smey has set herself apart from the unbelievably competitive musical world in New York. She commissions new works, she explores things that bigger institutions don’t explore, and I’ve always looked at what she’s done at the Miller with interest. It’s very interesting programming and a little bit risky, and risky is so hard in this day and age. So I think in terms of a partnership, Miller really lines up with the vision of Innovation Initiative. People think, Jillian Peña and American Ballet Theatre? They’re parallel worlds. It’s just fascinating to see what the dialogue will be and to see how the dancers respond to it.

The Innovation Initiative is at the Miller Theatre on Nov 16 at 3pm ($15).

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