How To Incubate: A Round Table with ABT’s Newest Choreographers

This past November, American Ballet Theater hosted the inaugural ABT INCUBATOR workshop. Directed by principal dancer David Hallberg — a dance icon with a passion for fashion, art, and curation — this two-week choreographic lab awarded five choreographers studio space, dancers, and a stipend. We caught up with Hallberg and the artists to find out what this opportunity yielded for their process, work and careers.

David Hallberg: ABT INCUBATOR is a facilitator. Simple. I’ve been witness to many creators, both inside of ABT and outside, that have needed time, space and dancers; the winning combo to explore. We offered these three necessities to 5 creators who were chosen by a paneled jury. We looked for originality in idea and voice and ideally someone that could offer the dancers at ABT a push in a different direction. There was no need for a ‘final’ product (my aim at taking the pressure off)… I quickly learned the drive of any creator is the pressure they put on themselves to create something of value. That was beyond my control as a director but I also recognized and accepted this self-induced pressure. In its future, INCUBATOR will bloom naturally, moving to collaboration of cross mediums as an example, but first and most importantly, it facilitates creation. A simple offering to aide complex ideas.

Were you given a cast to begin or did you have to audition dancers?

Kelsey Grills: I watched company class with Gabrielle, but that didn’t really tell me too much about their movement style/capabilities.

Gabrielle Lamb: It was actually my first time casting solely from a ballet class.  Normally I’d teach a contemporary class/audition OR a director just tells me “These are your dancers. Use them all.”  It was an interesting challenge, trying to find clues in their classical work as to who might be suitable for, and interested in, a different kind of vocabulary.  

{Black and white photos by JJ Geiger, audition photos by Emily Northrop.}

Grills: I knew I wanted four dancers so I just told David whoever he thought would be best for me based on the movement he saw in my audition. There was a lot of back and forth about who was available and who made the most sense, but ultimately I am very happy with the group I ended up with. And based on the performances, any of the dancers in the Incubator would have been exciting to work with.

Lamb: David and I also went back and forth a lot, but I was confident that I’d get a great cast.  

For ABT dancers, what was it like to choose amongst and choreograph on your colleagues?

Duncan Lyle: What was most important to me was having dancers who could act and dancers who were comfortable enough with each other to be emotionally vulnerable so I requested dancers accordingly. I loved creating on my colleagues. Personalities inspire me to create movement. Creating dance for a person’s personality is much easier for me when it is someone I know.

James Whiteside: I asked the dancers I wanted to work with personally. There was no audition and I knew who I wanted right away. Originally, I wanted more dancers, but I was thrilled with the three that agreed to be in the piece. I wanted to make something that made them feel exceptional and special.

Sung Woo Han: It was Met season, so while everyone was busy, I asked the friends who fit the image of my work.Throughout my life in a ballet company, I’ve never difficulty choosing a dancer as long as I am able to identify the movements that they can and can’t do.

Was any part of the process intimidating?

Grills: The workshop environment was super warm and accommodating for us, so none of that time felt intimidating for me. I also didn’t really know any of my dancers so we spent a good amount of time just getting to know one another. But, I will say I felt extremely exposed at the showing. I saw a lot of faces that were either very accomplished choreographers, or friends, or members of the ABT company and that was certainly intimidating.

Lamb: I was a little intimidated by the live audition [in order to be selected for the  incubator] in front of the panel which included Kevin MacKenzie, Lar Lubovitch, Clinton Luckett, Jessica Lang, and Judy Hussie-Taylor.  

Whiteside: I also found that audition jarring. There was a long row of established choreographers and figures in dance. The tone of the room felt slightly dark and I don’t believe it had the energy that a creative process would benefit from. I found it difficult to answer questions that I had no answers for. Auditions, just like interviews for a corporate job, are hard.  I’m happy to have come out of this one with an exceptional opportunity to create something that I could be proud of.

Lamb: As Kelsey mentioned, David did a great job of welcoming everyone and creating a warm atmosphere.  Happily the two dancers I brought from my company didn’t seem intimidated, and they danced their very best.  When it came my turn to speak to the panel, I felt very nervous standing there in front of all of them seated at their table. None of the remarks I’d prepared seemed appropriate, so I just babbled for while. Happily, the process of working with the dancers was way less intimidating than that.

Lyle: What is always most intimidating to me is expressing my idea to my dancers. I always feel very silly and in the past have always left it until the end of the process to tell the dancers what the piece is about. But I knew that for this piece, we would have to explore a lot of nuances, motivations and interpretations along the way and I couldn’t leave it until the end. So I bought all the dancers a copy of the play we were working from and asked them to read it, telling them which characters they were each dancing. At the beginning of the second week, we sat down for about an hour and talked about how we interpreted the characters’ actions and motivations and what we thought actually happened. Having a text to actually give to the dancers helped me find this part less intimidating than it has been in the past, but it was still intimidating…

How did the actual process compare to your expectations?

Whiteside: Bella, Gillian, and Catherine are my friends. I felt pressure to make something that they wouldn’t hate me for. The most important thing for me was to make a dance they wanted to dance. I wanted them to feel strong and sexy. I told them that they each represented a different quality: Courage. Wisdom. And Power. The process was pure joy.

Grills: I tried not to have any expectations. I was excited about working with other dancers (because I’m usually working solo) but I also knew it was going to be a challenge having to communicate my ideas to other people, with the hopes that they would invest themselves in the work and be willing to explore different methods of generating choreography.

Lyle: The process completely exceeded all of my expectations. First of all, I could never have anticipated the extent to which the dancers would commit themselves to the process — their exploration of their characters, their work on their acting and their suggestions all very much impressed me. Also, I realized in the second week how valuable it was for us to be able to focus all of our energies on just one thing. Usually at ABT our focus is divided, having to learn several different ballets at once, and possibly rehearsing up to six different ballets in one day. It was so nice to be able to really sit with just one thing. It felt like we were able to fully steep.

Lamb: I agree with Duncan about being able to focus on one thing. Just as dancers at ABT have to divide their attention a lot, when I’m working in NYC, I often have shorter rehearsals and juggle several projects at once. I expected maybe 2 hours a day, so it was great to have 4-5 hours a day with the dancers, in a big studio, where I also had pre-rehearsal prep time.  That luxury of extra studio space never happens for me in NY.

I was also concerned going into the project about whether the dancers would be willing to commit to a movement style and creative process that was so different from what they are used to. I was actually happy to work with some of the company’s newest members. Young corps members have fewer opportunities to be seen as individuals and to contribute to a process; so they are willing to approach intimidating new tasks more readily than a very senior dancer might be.  For example, sometimes I had not even finished explaining an improv task, and Rachel Richardson was already throwing herself 100% into exploring it. Even with photographers and journalists in the room! I was impressed at how curious they seemed to be, and also by how quickly they could absorb and implement a lot of corrections.

Lyle: Gabrielle brings up a really important point here. Being created on is so essential to a dancer’s development. In a ballet company, a new work is a gamble; so to lessen the risk, usually the tried-and-tested dancers get the opportunity to participate in the new work. This process was so valuable to not only us as choreographers, but for these particular dancers too, many of whom haven’t had the opportunity to work intimately in a creative process.

What role did David play in the process?  

Lamb: David was very supportive and I was surprised at how involved he was in the small details. I hadn’t expected him to be so concerned with casting, for example. That said, he was quite hands-off about expectations and took care to let us know that whatever amount we got done was enough. It’s great that he is supporting choreographers, as well as junior members of ABT.  We hear so much these days about abuse of privilege, and I think it’s important to notice when the opposite happens: a powerful person leveraging his status to create opportunities for others.

Grills: Yes, I echo Gabrielle here!

How did you manage to get it all done in two weeks? Or are the works still in progress?

Grills: I didn’t. I set an intention to workshop ideas I had been grappling with for so long, but by no means was a fully realized piece of work created.

Lamb: I would definitely say my work is still in progress. I treated it as a series of short sketches for what will eventually become a longer work.  The sections I created for the Incubator wouldn’t necessarily follow each other.

Lyle: I’m a planner and a scheduler. I planned out basically the whole two weeks before we began. With the score, I figure out the structure of the piece and break the music down into counts. This helped me see the arc of the piece and helped me work towards the goal. I always “see” the final product in my head before I start and work towards achieving that. Inevitably the result is always different from what I had imagined, but it still helps drive the direction the material takes.

Whiteside: I work fairly quickly, and I was fortunate to have Blaine Hoven assisting in coaching and rehearsing. He was instrumental to cleaning the piece and keeping it together.

What was the takeaway that will push your work forward or expanded you as an artist?

Lamb: Seeing a work for the first time in front an audience gives a choreographer a lot of new information. The music I chose has many very short tracks, and I worked on some brief sketches that wouldn’t necessarily follow each other in a longer work. On the last day of rehearsal I tried to create transitions between them, so that the work would look more like a continuous piece for the showing. But afterwards I wished that I had left them discontinuous, as David had suggested I might. That would have created an interesting dynamic with more room for viewers to use their imagination. An audience at this kind of event sometimes appreciates a wide-open window into the process. Next time I will embrace the unfinished-ness!

Grills: After the show, Okwui Okpokwasili told me when she watched my piece she saw humans and that is probably the biggest compliment I could have heard about the work. It’s really important to me as a choreographer to have the audience feel like they can relate to what is in front of them and that really validated everything I intended for this work. And I was so in awe of how fearlessly my collaborators entered into my creative process. I know it was challenging for them and at times maybe uncomfortable, but they have really made me optimistic about working with other people — and ballet dancers specifically — in the future.

Whiteside: I’ve learned to be courageous and zealous. The confidence that is required of a dancer is a similar confidence that is required of a choreographer. The power that one must relinquish to see a dance come to life is somewhat jarring, but it is part of the process. I was inspired by the wildness that my dancers brought to my steps, further proving my theory that a woman is not to be tamed.

Lyle: Editing is vital to my process (adjusting, simplifying, refining), but I tend to “pre-edit” (cut things before I have even created them). I got to a certain point in the piece and felt like that was enough and that it should end there, despite the fact that I had planned another section and another part of the story. I went back and forth but strongly felt as though I should cut (not even choreograph) the “unnecessary” section for a stronger product. However, I ultimately decided that this process was about growth, experimentation and had no pressure to deliver a product, therefore I choreographed the section that under any other circumstances I would have cut before even creating it.

Objectively, this section turned out to be one of the strongest sections and on a personal level, became my favourite part of the piece. Editing can always happen later, and going forward I am going to try and steer myself away from “pre-editing”.

Having had some space away from the piece brings new perspective, and there are some things that I would do differently. But now I feel more confident in my own abilities to choreograph, to tell a story and to communicate ideas with dancers.

Whiteside: I just want more. I love creating and making things. I knew that before, and this experience has only emboldened me. What’s next?

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