Devin Alberda choreographs for Columbia Ballet Collaborative

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

Devin Alberda rehearsing with the Colombia Ballet Collaborative

Devin Alberda rehearsing with the Colombia Ballet Collaborative Photograph: Jena Cumbo

In the spirit of Justin Peck, NYCB has a new corps member looking to choreograph. Devin Alberda was selected for the New York Choreographic Institute's spring session; but in the meantime he's tackling more modest ventures, setting a new work—Sissy Fists—on the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which will premiere at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center on Nov 22. As he navigates the choreographic process, Alberda talks about his role models—Balanchine, Peck, Ratmansky and Kanye West.

When Devin Alberda learned that he was selected for the New York Choreographic Institute’s spring session, he had a bout of panic. One, he had never choreographed before; two, this wasn’t a casual venture. For the spring initiative of the New York City Ballet–affiliated institute, each prospective choreographer must collaborate with a composer. Alberda, an NYCB dancer, took the advice of his choreographer-colleague Justin Peck: first make a dance for the student-run Columbia Ballet Collaborative. Alberda, whose silky dancing and hilarious tweets have made him a standout of NYCB’s corps de ballet, will finish at Fordham this summer with an English degree and a minor in women’s studies. Choreographing is his new challenge; so far, he has a great title: Sissy Fists.

Time Out New York: Why did you start dancing?
Devin Alberda:
My sister danced, so I went: It’s the tried-and-true story of the younger brother. I started because she did, and I was very young: four. Have you ever heard of Dancing Wheels? My mom’s in a wheelchair and she wanted to do this workshop. My sister and I had just been doing Dolly Dinkle ballet. We did a Dancing Wheels workshop and Dennis Nahat [cofounder of Cleveland Ballet] came and said, “You have to come to the school of Cleveland Ballet.” So that’s when I actually started getting more serious about it. I was schooled in able-bodied dancing and sit-down dancing and it was just very politically correct from the beginning.

Time Out New York: Tell me about that!
Devin Alberda:
It was interesting. You could explore movement; there was choreography too. My favorite picture of my mother and me was taken there. I’m sitting on her lap in the wheelchair. I used to love playing in my mom’s wheelchair—wheelies and all that fun stuff. It was actually a really interesting place to start, and it’s kind of jarring to find yourself in such a physically demanding career at New York City Ballet—you could never have a wheelchair dancer there, ever. So trying to negotiate that—and even beyond, in terms of able-bodied dancing. City Ballet is a pinnacle of physicality and places such a demand on the human body that I can’t even begin to reconcile it. We would have women in electric wheelchairs just joysticking around, and it was great fun. Kitty Lunn [artistic director of Infinity Dance Theater, a company that features dancers with and without disabilities] still takes up at Steps, and I knew her from when I was really young. My mother volunteered for their nonprofit offshoot, so I would hang around their offices too. It was a fun way to get into everything, but it’s really strange to consider from the heights of Balanchine and the rigors it requires—allowing for an openness and a more inclusive view of dancing is something I have trouble wrapping my head around. My favorite scene in Melancholia is when Kirsten Dunst is in the library and looks at all the modern monographs, and she decides that these should not be on the front of the bookcases, and she goes out and gets the more beautiful, figurative Renaissance classical paintings and that’s one of the things I struggle with. I find modernism and postmodernism and all of these newer things so intellectually stimulating, but at the end of the day when I am going to watch dance, I want to see the most beautiful encapsulation of the human form and movement that is possible. And I don’t know what to do with that. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: I hear you. You just have to get to the point where you like extremes.
Devin Alberda:
I love extremes. There’s no room for the middle. Kanye is doing really well for me right now. He’s a guidepost. I’m reading Morrissey’s autobiography too, and he’s going to be fantastic for me. It’s a mess of a book. You know how it was published in Penguin Classics? It’s so fun to be carrying around this new little memoir that has the Penguin Classic look to it. He’s just a disaster, but he writes so beautifully and he hates human beings and loves animals. The Smiths just broke up, and I’m only halfway through it.

Time Out New York: When you started getting into classical ballet, did you like it or did you feel you were put there because of your ability?
Devin Alberda:
Dennis was super obsessed with my feet, so that was one of the only things I remember. It was actually a really traumatizing experience. The first day I came to the school of the Cleveland Ballet, he brought me through the studios and showed my feet to people, like to the company dancers and stuff. That was a really weird experience for sure, especially given my upbringing and my having been told that everyone has different abilities. [Laughs] This was the only thing I had to show them, that I had these pretty feet. And the whole time I was there, I was second to my best friend who was the more favored male dancer. It was a very interesting experience; he danced with [Ballet] San Jose for a little while. It was just the two of us who made it all the way through until the school closed, and that was unfortunate. Then I went to a little strip-mall jazz studio for two or three years. I had decided I hated the rigors of ballet at 12. I remember my first routine in jazz class. It was to this awful Christian electronic band called Raze. I loved this song “All Around the World,” and I just had the best time. So around 13, 14, all of the teachers at the studio were born-again, evangelical Christians. I dragged my parents to the craziest Bible-thumping rock church. Oh my God! Anti-abortion, anti-gay. I was raised in a Church of Christ, so there are people in the church that are like, “Well, I’m not sure I’m going to go so far as to say that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, but He was a great guy.” [Laughs] Going from that to there was such an extreme. But I rediscovered my love of dancing there, and I had a really great time with the jazz and the tap. The tap was the best part. Did you get to see Savion [Glover] this summer at the Joyce?

Time Out New York: Yes.
Devin Alberda:
My tap teacher from the jazz studio was in it: Sara Savelli. I love her. She’s one of my favorite people, and she only taught at our studio for a year or two: a competition-jazz studio usually has someone who can do a flap and a shuffle, but has no rooting in tap technique, and tap technique is as complex and crazy as ballet. Most people just pretend like you slap on a tap shoe and make some noise, and can get in a Broadway line and do fine.

Time Out New York: You need to dance Slaughter on Tenth Avenue!
Devin Alberda:
I would love to. They would never have me do that. Peter [Martins] doesn’t see me in more modern—even Balanchine’s more modern ballets—and contemporary work.

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