Conversations | Miro Magloire

Words by Candice Thompson

Miro Magloire and I have been colleagues and friends almost since our meeting in 2005 and for many years, I designed costumes for his New Chamber Ballet premieres. While I have not seen the company perform in a couple years, I have had the privilege of intimately following the trajectory of his choreographic journey and unique experiments for the better part of a decade: from abstract neo-classicism to a new sort of dramatic, story ballet to intricate partnering between women wearing pointe shoes, all set to live chamber music. Therefore, when I stumbled upon Alexei Ratmansky’s jarring and quite frankly, offensive, Facebook post about the role of gender in ballet (past, present, and future), I thought of tagging Magloire as someone whose work just so happened to stand in complete defiance of this limited viewpoint. Yet since I happen to Magloire well, I knew that he would probably not want to wade into such a negative mess, so I abstained. Instead, I thought to capture him for a longer conversation about his current work, the company’s recent tour to Germany, his upcoming show, and well, yes, the Ratmansky debacle too.

{ DIYdancer }, Candice Thompson: You know, you were the first person I thought of when I saw that Facebook post from Ratmansky. Did you see it? I am so curious about your thoughts on the matter since the women in your company seem very adept at partnering each other and still maintain exquisite lines…

Miro Magoire: I have mixed feelings. He has gotten a lot of backlash for this, in my opinion rightfully so. This whole episode highlights the difficulties we have in an art form that so heavily relies on tradition, not to get suffocated by its unpleasant side effects. It’s one thing to have a traditional taste, and I get anyone who wants to make that the basis of their creative work because it’s such a rich ground. Not just choreographers — dancers, ballet masters, anyone. But the minute this turns into declaring one way of doing things as the only right one, it gets silly. And there’s another thing. If you are in a position of extreme influence — say one of the five most famous personalities in the ballet world — anything you say is heard by the entire field. At that point, your reach goes beyond your circle of friends. What you say matters, and how you say it matters. How do your words ring to someone with a different life experience or ideas, especially if she or he is influenced by you, or worse yet, depends on you for their livelihood? Is what you’re saying important, true, and well-informed? That definitely wasn’t the case here. And that’s harmful, especially in a field that so easily falls back on silly, outdated and untrue stereotypes. But one could also see it all from a different angle: I feel incredibly lucky that I am part of the ballet world at this precise moment in history. Think about it: it’s one of the few forms of artistic expression that has gender aspects built in from the get-go – and gender norms are experiencing a major review in our society right now. What could possibly be a more fascinating place to be in?

CT: So why are the women in your company partnering each other? Because it seems to me that you began doing this long before this past election and the more recent outcries for gender equality.

MM: Initially New Chamber Ballet moved away from having men because to this day there are far fewer men than women in ballet. As a result, male dancers in the freelance world are constantly in demand, and this leads to an imbalance when it comes to availability and reliability. Out of respect for the women in the company, it felt unfair for them to be so committed when the men weren’t. The choice was pragmatic and didn’t have political or aesthetic connotations.

CT: I would argue that the decision was political, to be so equitable in decisions of employment…

MM: Of course, anything you do with a real intention becomes political in someone else’s context. But to me at the time, I wasn’t thinking ‘these women’ but rather ‘these people’ need to have their time and commitment to the project respected. It didn’t have a connection to the sexism issues we find ourselves talking about these days.

CT: I could connect it for you…

MM: I am sure you could. (laughter) But honestly, the choice was practical and then it became aesthetic. I adore pointe work, just like Ratmansky does. I’ve become more comfortable choreographing on pointe than without. Nowadays, even if I had men, I would probably want them to be proficient at pointe work. (There goes another gender cliché!) At the same time, I was also interested in partnering. Instead of bringing in a male guest artist, I went back to my roots in modern dance, where women were partnering each other since at least the 1960’s. I knew they could do it, it was only a matter of getting my dancers comfortable with it. I started by throwing little things into ballets here and there. Our resident choreographer Constantine Baecher did the same. In his pieces for us he pushed them to partner in a contact improv way. In the end, after three years of gradually increasing the intricacy, the dancers became very skilled at it. Nowadays, any partnering idea I may have, I can realize it with them. The great thing is that when you have two women in pointe shoes, their partnering roles are not pre-distributed: who partners whom can change every five counts. It is the same situation when Troy Schumacher or Justin Peck do it with two men, as they lately have. Everything feels quicker, the dynamic changes back and forth every couple of seconds. The physicality, and the resulting story, can take you down a new path.

CT: What kinds of discoveries are you making? Do you now find them relating to the current debate on gender in the public sphere?

MM: I’m not sure. What I know is that the company is built on the idea of investigation. We created this place where we can find something that interests us and do it or reject it. With this approach it takes longer to build an identity and to reach an audience, and also to address certain topics. It just happens that right now the gender issue is in the news, while we have been working on female partnering for a few years already. I don’t know if the current media presence of the gender debate will make our work more visible or not, but that was not the point.

CT: New Chamber Ballet was just on tour in Germany performing to the work of a female composer…tell me about that commission.

MM: A year ago I was approached by a board member of a foundation managing the estate of a composer who had just passed away: Ursula Mamlok. She was born in Germany in the 1920’s to Jewish parents, and by the time she was a teenager she had decided to be a composer. But her family was chased out of the country by the Nazis and ended up in Ecuador, where a life as a composer didn’t seem to be an option. Ursula wrote letters to musicians she knew, one of which got her a scholarship at the Mannes School in New York. So she came here, by herself, at 17, and eventually settled here and established herself as one of the few female composers of her generation. Ten years ago her husband died, and she decided to move back to Berlin. She was always strong-willed and decisive in her action but the chamber music she created is delicate and crystalline, a very interesting contrast. So we picked a selection of her music and created an evening of dances to it, called “Stray Bird” (a reference to one of her work titles, but also to her own migratory life.) We performed it here in New York and in Germany. I invited two guest choreographers, Rebecca Walden and Mara Driscoll, to create part of the evening. It’s an interesting story: they choreograph together. It began at New Chamber Ballet’s choreographic workshops. For these workshops I invite choreographers I know, who cover a range of expertise, and we go into a studio with dancers and experiment together. We create little snippets of choreography and show them to each other and talk about them. Then we go back to work, but this time on someone else’s snippet, which we alter or add on to and then show it again.

CT: So it is like that Surrealist game, exquisite corpse?

MM: Yes, except in this case, you see what came before and you can decide to continue in that direction or radically change course. The benefit is that you work on something without having an ownership feeling, and you also don’t feel the need to question the validity of the initial idea, since it’s not yours. It frees you up to be in the moment and open for new ideas. Plus, it is wonderful to be in the room with a group of colleagues – we choreographers don’t often get to talk shop and see each other work. Mara and Rebecca really enjoyed this shared working process, and took it into the real world and are now working jointly on commissions. So I asked them to create a section of “Stray Bird”. It’s not a narrative work, but the idea of loss, the topic of migration, a new home and roots, informs it throughout. It premiered at a mansion owned by the German government, on 5thth Ave across from the Met museum; one of these old 19thth century homes with the wood details and the small rooms and the feeling of closeness. We had a real chamber atmosphere, performing in the round. By the way, now we are performing in the round for all of our performances.

CT: Was that another practical-turned-aesthetic choice?

MM: At the City Center studios where we normally perform, they installed a temporary storage space where we used to set up our stage area. When I was looking for another direction for us to play to, none made sense so I thought about the middle. Immediately after trying it, I knew it was something we had to do and that it would change everything. I brought the idea to the dancers at dress rehearsal, acknowledging that it would force them to adjust everything they were about to do and of course, we only had three hours to try and do it. Though they all said it was disorienting, they were game and now we are in the process of adapting all our repertory to the round.

CT: There are a lot of works in your repertory…

MM: Some take ten minutes to adapt, some take days, and some are impossible to perform in the round. What has been wonderful for me is to realize how much choreographic language comes from facing to or away from the audience. In the round, whenever you face someone you’re also facing away from someone on the opposite side. The piece has to work both ways, and that’s an interesting challenge. The movement becomes more three-dimensional, and so do the dancers’ bodies. And the costumes. For most of my choreographic career, I have been involved in taking a language that was 200 hundred years old and breaking open the rules. Now, since we started in the round, I am formulating new rules instead of breaking old ones.

CT: This way you never have to retire.

MM: Luckily!

Enjoy Magloire’s discoveries this weekend, as New Chamber Ballet performs their second program of the season, featuring five ballets (two premieres) with live music from J.S. Bach to Reiko Fueting.

An Evening with New Chamber Ballet
Nov 3rd & 4th, 8 p.m.
City Center Studio 5
Click here for tickets.

Tilting / Leaning | Photos courtesy of New Chamber Ballet featuring Sarah Atkins, Traci Finch, Amber Neff

Mandragore | Photos by Adam Jason featuring Traci Finch, Amber Neff

Gravity | Photos courtesy of New Chamber Ballet featuring Elizabeth Brown, Traci Finch, Amber Neff

Stray Bird | Photos by Arnaud Falchier featuring Sarah Atkins, Elizabeth Brown, Kristine Butler, Traci Finch, Amber Neff

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