Brian Reeder talks about Picnic, his spooky new dance for Ballet Next that stars Michele Wiles and is inspired by Peter Weir's 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. Brian Reeder's new ballet features Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard, who are the directors of Ballet Next. Picnic is at the Joyce Theater through October 28.
Brian Reeder likes to creep himself out. In Picnic, his new work for Ballet Next, he takes inspiration from the 1975 Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which a group of schoolgirls disappear during a 1900 outing. The atmospheric movie, directed by Peter Weir, clicks with Reeder’s dark side. In conjunction with Ballet Next’s season at the Joyce Theater, Reeder unveils the trippy piece, which features performances by the group’s artistic directors, Michele Wiles and Charles Askegard. For Reeder, who was a member of New York City Ballet, William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt and American Ballet Theatre, the aesthetic of classical dance is important above all else. Translation? Don’t expect yet another ballet in socks.
Time Out New York: Did you have the idea to make Picnic before Ballet Next approached you?
Brian Reeder: In a sense, yes. I have my purple book full of ideas that are waiting to be born. When Michele first came to me, she wanted a duet—that’s where it started. She changed her mind and said, “Let’s make it a piece for women,” and I loved that idea. Then at one point, it morphed into, “Why don’t you involve Charles?” So before Charles came back into the picture, I was thinking, What’s a good idea to go with the all-female cast? I’ve always been a fan of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and thought it might make an interesting point to start with in a piece. This seemed like the right moment to explore it. I work with different-level companies—juniors and students—but these would be more adult dancers, and I knew I wanted that for this piece, even though it’s sort of a schoolgirl idea. It’s a little darker. Michele loved the idea of Picnic and as it grew, I decided I wanted a gentleman in there to show another idea of something off to the side—a little bit of the danger.
Time Out New York: Why does this piece call for more experienced dancers?
Brian Reeder: If a younger dancer were to approach it, it might get too sweet too fast, or even too dark too fast. It’s hard to say this, because they’re in Victorian costumes and they look a little frilly, almost girly. But it is a representation of that time. The piece is also dealing with repression, of dressing a certain way, and I just felt it needed a slightly older person to understand that underneath that frill and that lace, they were itching to get out. You need a little more season to understand why you want to peel away those layers. When I made Tea & Temptation for the Studio Company, they performed it well, but I always wanted to see that piece on slightly more mature dancers because it would have given it a different layer. It had to do with relationships and the push and pull between classes; I took the opportunity to explore it, because that was the canvas I was given. And they were good, but it would have been fun to push it a little bit more.
Time Out New York: How old were you when you saw the film? I saw it when I was probably too young, and it kind of terrified me.
Brian Reeder: I know. Have you seen it recently? It’s a little stagnant, but I still love it for that reason. You have to have patience. Nothing jumps out at you, but that’s why I loved it and that’s also why I thought it would be great for a dance—it’s not blood and gore. I told the dancers to watch it and after they did, they kind of got more of what I was saying: It’s what you can’t see that is supposed to cause a little bit of this irritation and this mystery. After they saw it, they said, “It’s not scary, but it is kind of creepy.” That’s the point. How old was I? I think I was 16. I’m a big cinema freak. I had moved to New York, and there used to be this great theater near the School of American Ballet that would play Hitchcock, so I would see all these films that weren’t necessarily recent releases.
Time Out New York: Are you following a narrative?
Brian Reeder: There’s a narrative, but it’s not explicit. None of the women have names. It’s 101 degrees; there are poisonous snakes and lizards, and you have lace up to your neck and are wearing white gloves, and probably the first thing that you would want to do is to run around with no clothes on. It’s that hot. But they were forbidden to do so. There is all this repressed desire and all these girl crushes. They knew they were forbidden to explore that, just as they were forbidden to take off their white gloves until they got far enough outside of town. In the film, when these women disappear, do they disappear on their own? Was it a chance to escape, or did something really happen to them? The first couple of times I watched the film, I thought it was real. It feels real because it’s not so black-and-white—there’s no answer. You never find out what happened, and I also like that.
Time Out New York: What has it been like to work with this company?
Brian Reeder: Usually, I go somewhere and I’m lucky if I get three weeks to make a repertory piece. A lot of times, you make it and you leave and this stuff comes to you—but the next time you see them, it’s the tech-dress right before the show. The nice thing about this process, which has been unique and wonderful, is that we did do that little black-box showing, and I saw right away what I liked and what I didn’t like. This time frame has been wonderful. I had more time to chew on it and spit things out that I didn’t like. I can change things. I know from working with Bill Forsythe that what you saw at the first premiere was not what you saw in season number three. It did shift, it did change. The nice thing about dance is that you can change it.
Time Out New York: What did you like about the dance and not like after the showing?
Brian Reeder: I loved having those [ABT] women—Kristi Boone, Misty Copeland. These are gorgeous dancers, but the time frame that I had to work in was pretty quick, so I had to trust a lot of their input. They all had a different take on it, and it made the ballet eclectic in a way that I didn’t want it to be. I always felt like Michele, who I had the most time to work with, really understood it. It’s a good piece for her. The strength that the piece needs is coming from her and she’s giving it back, but now we have other dancers, and I’ve spent more time with them. I feel like we’re all on the same page. They’re younger, and I think that’s good, too. Not junior company, but younger. I was able to lay down my guidelines of what I wanted them to explore, and some of it was tricky. There are moments when they have to kiss, and it took a long time to get the right feel for that. It had to have the right weight. It couldn’t be pervy, it couldn’t be silly and details—as far as angles—matter. I think I’m going to play with the hazer in creating a little bit of atmosphere, but the problem with the black box was that there wasn’t a curtain and it became an SNL skit. [The fog] kept squirting out. I wanted to scream, “Stop! Stop!” My hope is that if we explore that, I’ll see how it lays before the curtain goes up. [Sighs] That drove me crazy. Then they started it up again for the final moment. It was horrible.
Time Out New York: But what you were setting up was really interesting.
Brian Reeder: There’s something to it. I feel good about this piece. I think I also took time to explore vocabulary. I love the third movement, which is just a dance for two women, and they kick it out of the ballpark. I wanted to balance it: There’s the soft, the hard, the fast and the slow. This third movement is a really punchy, almost competitive dance. I’ve always had a good relationship with women. The female spirit and me is a good thing. When Michele first said, “Do a piece for all women,” I was like, Yay. The pom-poms come out. If someone said, “Do a piece for all men,” I think my shoulders would invert, and I would freak out. I love choreographing for women and I love the pointe shoe. In this piece, I’m exploring contrasts—that underneath the layers, these women have the same desires that women have today. They just weren’t allowed to explore them. After the showing, someone asked, “Why was she itching?” That, to me, is the agitation and irritation of, I don’t want to be in this dress. I want to be running around with my shoes off and my hair down. Or what I feel for her is more than just a girl crush, but I can’t do this. Because they’re in this other setting, you see that they start to let their hair down. It’s a moral tale, because then they get in trouble. They disappear. What happened? [Laughs] I would hate for it to be seen as precious. In the third section, there’s a competitive spirit between them as well as an attraction. You see that in the way they dance. It’s playful and competitive, but also there’s a little bit of sexiness. I think it’s creepy and sad, but it’s also beautiful and almost romantic. And it’s not Charles who brings on the romance; it’s the romance among the women.
Time Out New York: How did you rethink Charles’s part?
Brian Reeder: He doesn’t walk around so heavily in the beginning. I still feel like he has to be established earlier in the scene, but I do it really quickly. I also created a whole new beginning: Is this Michele remembering what she thinks happened? Or is it happening now? It opens where she’s sitting exactly where it ends, so it’s almost like a flashback. There’s a later moment when Charles comes back in, and it gets a little darker. My first and fourth movements are the darker movements. Charles’s presence, to me, is not death; he’s not all in black anymore. I’m influenced by Robbins, but I didn’t want it to be like when death comes onstage—Adam Lüders’s part in In Memory Of.… So he’s more pedestrian-looking now. To me, he represents a male energy; it is something that breaks up their kiki, their moment together. I want the piece to have its mystery. Obviously, I like darker themes like in Gotcha! and Staged Fright. I don’t know if it’s because I expose myself to film and theater, but I do have this inclination toward females. In Tea & Temptation, there was one strong female; in [Lost Language of the] Flight Attendant, there was one strong female. I realize I’m dealing with a strong female within this, too. I also keep going back to the idea that what you see is not what it always is. I know there was a little bit of that mystery in Gotcha! and Staged Fright and even in Tea & Temptation: The people who you thought were in control weren’t.
Time Out New York: Did you spend a lot of time obsessing over the corps de ballet when you were dancing?
Brian Reeder: Oh, yeah, yeah. [Laughs] To me, that’s where the steps were. When I was at City Ballet, I don’t know if I just drank too much Kool-Aid, but, for me, “ballet is woman,” in the way that the Balanchine bible states it. So when I look at his steps, it was the steps that were done on the women that got me fired up. That definitely made an impact. And working with Bill—it was good for me to not make things so gender-specific. I got to throw it all up and redigest it. But then everyone always thought this was weird: I go to ABT. Why would you do that after City Ballet and working with William Forsythe? Again, the fantasy was always to be a part of the pageantry of those full-lengths. Something about them held my interest, and it was the female corps de ballet. One of my favorite things in the world is [La] Bayadère, Act II when it’s done well. As a man who’s seen a lot, from the good to the bad to the ugly—my bun is in, but my bun is out.
Time Out New York: So you’re a bunhead with an open mind?
Brian Reeder: I’ll see a piece where someone smears peanut butter on her vagina and sings Christmas carols backwards, and if it’s done well, my mind will stay open to it. I don’t shut down. I’m not all about the white tutu. I wear my bun proudly, but I can take it off.
Time Out New York: What is your approach to ballet?
Brian Reeder: I’m not trying to reinvent dance. This is my tenth anniversary. My work, to me, is contemporary because I am. I don’t hide that my backbone is ballet. In a piece like this, my hope is that I’m also trying to add something new, and the new can only be what’s new about me. It’s part of my imagination that hasn’t been exposed to the public eye, so maybe that’s the little edge. I like costumes. I like to explore steps and the pointe shoe. Maybe my work has that little weird, dark, Brian twist—a little sarcasm that maybe hasn’t been attached to the step. This is the way I want to see people move and dance, and that’s why I choreograph the way I do.
Time Out New York: How did you discover ballet in the first place?
Brian Reeder: I didn’t start until I was 12 or 13, but I was dancing before that without a vocabulary. It was Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, it was PBS specials. I come from a family of wrestlers and deer hunters; I was the freak, and I wore my freak flag rather proudly without realizing I was even doing it because there was nothing to compare it to. I would be the kid outside twirling a stick and pretending it was a baton. I was dancing around the living room, in essence already improv-ing long before knowing any Forsythe theologies. I was mimicking everything I saw on TV, whether it was Gene Kelly or disco. I couldn’t wait for Dance Fever or for the opening of the Donny and Marie Show when the ice skaters would do their thing. I would run home. Carol Burnett’s variety hour was high art for me. Then, eventually, what happens is someone says, “You need to get that guy to class. And it should be ballet.” They were right. It was an hour-and-a-half drive every night, but someone said, “Don’t go to the local hula-fire Mrs. McWeegle School of Dance.” Marcia’s school [Marcia Dale Weary of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet] was luckily close enough…and people were right. She knew her thing. Once I became a part of that machine, it was clear that with Marcia, it was all about ballet. Then it became more about ballet for me, too, because I began to see that what was aesthetically appealing was an elegance and a sophistication. Being someone who has always been visually stimulated, the line of ballet was highly pleasing to me. But I never knew that until I became a part of it. I never knew that’s why I liked watching Fred Astaire.
Time Out New York: Did you have to audition for her school?
Brian Reeder: No. If you’re a boy…back then, they took you. I’ll always thank my mom, because there was one moment where I was sick of the hour-and-a-half drive and doing homework in the car. I was being a brat that day. She just said, “Look, buddy, I paid for the classes so you’re getting in the car. If by the end of where we’re paid up to, you don’t want to do it, you don’t do it.” Of course, I went and I didn’t quit. My hot little head cooled down. The reason I didn’t want to go that night had nothing to do with hating ballet. It could have ended, and it would have been so sad. Things like that happen when people get hotheaded. You have a bad day or a bad week?
Time Out New York: It’s probably good to remember now.
Brian Reeder: Oh my gosh, yeah. As a so-called freelance choreographer, it’s like, Why do I persist with this? But I don’t want to make the doughnuts yet. I have good years and bad years.
Time Out New York: How is this year going?
Brian Reeder: This fall has been really good. I just did something with Company C. Charlie [Anderson, the San Francisco group’s director] and I were dancers in NYCB together. I really respect what he’s done; it was a nice group of dancers to work with. Again, I did my thing and I think it was a little weird for people out there. They were like, This is ballet! I always say, “But you take ballet every day!” It’s a kooky, dark piece. I have a dinner table onstage. Everything goes wrong and people end up dead again. [Laughs] I danced the work of [Antony] Tudor at ABT, but I never got to work with him. When I look at his work and his so-called psychological ballets, obviously there’s a little bit of that influence where I like to explore these short screenplays; in 20 minutes, what can you get out with the vocabulary of your steps and also tell a little tale? For me, steps can be enough. I think it started long before I was in the Balanchine camp—but people are so wrong when they’re like, “It’s the steps and the music.” If you can’t see the drama within the Balanchine ballets, I don’t know what you’re seeing. I like a little more costume. It’s not so abstract in that way. I’ll give you a period or a decade where this dance moment is happening. And there was Jerry [Robbins], of course. He was musical-theater and dance and created communities onstage. Dances at a Gathering is a folktale.
Time Out New York: How long were you at SAB?
Brian Reeder: I was a good four years with Marcia. I came here at 16. I actually went to ABT’s summer intensive in the early ’80s. Pat Wilde knew there was no longer going to be a fall session at ABT, so she set up, for a handful of us, a chance to be seen by SAB and they took us. That was back in the fall of ’82. At SAB, I did three workshops and when I was 19, I became an apprentice. I was there for five years and I was exposed to Bill’s company and the work he did on Joffrey. Eventually, he worked with City Ballet, but I actually wasn’t in his piece China Dogs. It crushed my heart because I already was a fan; then, when his company came to City Center, I auditioned and that didn’t work out. I was getting upset. People in the company said, “Look, what you need to do is get a ticket, come to Frankfurt and stay for two weeks and fall on your butt,” and I did and that’s what he wanted to see. I would do his stuff and fall on my ass and he’d laugh. He saw that I wasn’t afraid to get dirty and to find a different way.
Time Out New York: Were you still in NYCB when you did that?
Brian Reeder: Yeah. I had to be! He let me know he was interested. It happened during the Robbins Festival, and Jerry liked me and used me and toward my last year at City Ballet, he pushed me into a lot of nice meaty roles. But I knew I was going off to work with Bill. I didn’t make it a secret. I always got along with Jerry. You hear the horror stories, but to me he knew what he wanted his work to look like. He had a vision, and he made sure you understood that: “No baby, that’s not good enough. Pull your shit together.” I respected that.
Time Out New York: It’s so great that you got to work with him.
Brian Reeder: Oh my God. It’s one of the best things—working with him and Bill were both dreamy situations. And Jerry didn’t want me to go. The last night of his festival, he pulled me aside and said, “Things could happen for you here now. What happened this season, I would like to keep going in that direction.” It felt good to hear that. Jerry told me, “Don’t go—I’m going to use you, baby.” I just told him, “I hear what you’re saying, but it’s not about you.” I didn’t have a problem with City Ballet, and I didn’t have a problem with him—it’s just that I had a vision to do something else. And I think he understood that. I did see him when I came back. Frankfurt was three years. I call those my dog years because there was so much information, it felt like 21 years. When I came back, I remember going to Alvin Ailey and Jerry was working with them. I saw him in the elevator and he totally remembered me and it was really sweet—he always said, “Baby.” [Laughs] But he said, “Do you need me to do something for you, baby?” I think he was telling me, if I wanted to go back to City Ballet, he was going to make it happen. I didn’t take him up on it; I wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to use somebody in that way. It’s a little bit of that weird Pennsylvania upbringing. Make it happen for yourself. I was like, whatever happens next, I have to make happen on my own. What if other people didn’t want me back? I had some floating time. I auditioned for Carousel and there were a bunch of ABT guys there, and they were like, “You should come to ABT.” I always knew that would be something I wanted to explore, but I thought, Would they want me after all this neoclassical and avant-garde? Am I a little too twisted and torqued? But they took me. I got in there in ’94 and that was a nine-year career. Without my knowing, it rounded me off—I got exposed to the Tudor, the Ashton, the Twyla. I danced pieces by Paul Taylor and Mark Morris. I did all these things and it was perfect. It was my university of dance.
Ballet Next is at the Joyce Theater through Oct 28.