May 3, 2013

Company C Ballet Presents World Premiere of "Natoma" by David Van Ligon

I want to entertain the audience. Not make them feel as though 
they have to turn in a paper afterward. 

This is an exciting week for choreographer and dancer David Van Ligon. This weekend, the world premiere of his ballet Natoma (set to music by San Francisco composer/cellist Zoë Keating) is debuting as part of Company C Contemporary Ballet’s spring season.

Last March, Natoma was showcased as part of the Company C In-Studio Choreographic Workshop. Because it was so well received, the company decided that it should be a part of the 2013 season programming.

It requires a lot of work to transform a workshop effort into a main-stage production. For the past few months, David has been taking his Facebook followers on the journey with him, restructuring choreography, costume designs, and a totally new arena for him — lighting.

But even though he has been tremendously busy rehearsing his ballet, as well as his dancing assignments in the other ballets on the program, David took the time for an interview about the newest aspect of his career:

Dance Blitz: Are you finding that you need to make changes from the workshop performance in the studio to a full-blown stage presentation? If so, what type of things have you changed?

David Van Ligon: Definitely. In my opinion, I had to throw the piece together so quickly that there are sections needing more definition, more flavor. I am also adding a central pas de deux for Edilsa Armendariz, which should make a smoother transition from the first and what used to be the second movements. I remember last year working on what now is the third movement — I was still teaching some of the dancers the movement on the final day. I have made a lot of critical changes, so people who have watched Natoma online or who saw it live definitely will see a more polished ballet.

What attracted you to the music?

I first heard Zoë Keating’s music when I was performing with Nevada Ballet Theatre in its first Choreographers’ Showcase in partnership with Cirque de Soleil. Dancer/choreographer Krista Baker, who is still a member of NBT, used two of Keating’s pieces in her work. I instantly was hooked by her melodies and the percussive quality of the music. Listening to more of her music, I discovered she performs solo, layering each of the parts to create something truly original.

Impressed by that, and the fact that it’s hard to find 21st century classical or even neo-classical composers, I bought her entire collection. Keating’s music has a repetitive quality to it, much like Phillip Glass; but her music has a high degree of versatility, coupled with complete unpredictability.

The three movements I’ve chosen sound completely different from each other. The first movement has a lyrical quality, the second movement adagio has an unexpected sound, and then it’s an all-out fierce urgency in the third movement (the music that first inspired Natoma. I couldn’t help but dance to it, with the goal of enhancing the power in her music.

Keating’s music has inspired me so much, that immediately after finishing Natoma, I began working on another piece using four movements. Entitled Escape of the Last Bird, it’s now waiting in the wings. 

February 18, 2013

Diablo Ballet Crowdsources Ideas for a New Ballet

It’s Only a Tweet Away!

While most performing arts organizations are just learning that Twitter exists, the administration at Diablo Ballet is enjoying the success of its social media program.

Three Years Ago
A well respected, but previously low-key dance group, Diablo Ballet experienced difficulties in building and retaining their audience, mostly as the result of the economic downslide. This was the reality three years ago when Diablo Ballet Lauren Jonas and the newly appointed Director of Guest Services and Marketing Dan Meagher began their audience-building program. Their plan incorporated continuing their partnership with the typical media outlets while they explored the use of the new social media platforms. And the result of their efforts — the company has experienced major growth in both critical recognition and audience size. This year 95% of available tickets were sold as season subscriptions.

The company has used Twitter feeds and Facebook postings to spread the word. The postings aren’t merely announcements of programming (although that is a part of their message) — they also offer dance-related entertainment that engages dancers, dance fans, and those curious potential audience members who only have seen dance on television or in films. The most innovative, and controversial, project until this season occurred last year when Diablo Ballet asked its Twitter followers to volunteer for “live tweeting” during the company’s spring performances. Their Twitter and Facebook follower numbers increased, and articles concerning the company’s efforts (both positive and highly critical) appeared in print, including coverage in The Wall Street Journal.

Other ways of engaging the folks include silly daily Twitter postings like, “Happy Tuesday! Glissade your way out the door and get going on this dancin’ day!” and interactive bits asking things like “You know you’re a dancer when…” and “The best dance movie ever….” have met with tremendous response. Live YouTube chats and Twitter events also are giving people the opportunity to directly interact with dancers and choreographers.

As an innovator in the creative use of social media to both publicize and create projects, Dan sees the tool as a permanent vector for the performing arts. “I think the performing arts must use social media to engage and attract audiences,” says Dan. “Literally, it’s evolve or die. Using social media is a great way to show people why the arts are relevant in their lives. We use technology everyday. Why would you shut down a way of communicating to your audience?”

November 15, 2012

7 Questions with Choreographer Sean Kelly

Mayo Sugano and Robert Dekkers in rehearsal for A Swingin’ Holiday (Kelly).
Photo by Erika Johnson
Former classical ballet dancers often branch into teaching or choreography — or leave dance altogether. But whether it is because of the profound style differences, a preference for the classical form, or even a lack of awareness of the possibilities in the format, few make the transition to Broadway.
Choreographer Sean Kelly is one who successfully has made the move. After a successful ballet career, culminating in principal dancer and ballet master status at Houston Ballet, Kelly was hired by Twyla Tharp in 2003 to dance in Movin’ Out. He toured with the show for five years as dancer and resident choreographers.
After leaving Movin’ Out, he joined the first national tour of Billy Elliott as resident choreographer, where he modified Peter Darling’s choreography to showcase the abilities of the individual actors playing Billy.
In addition to his choreography projects, Kelly is a member of Rasta Thomas’s Bad Boys of Dance. Over time, his assignments with the company have included dancing and ballet master duties; most recently, he has added resident choreographer and associate director responsibilities.
California Literary Review: How did you make the transition to Broadway from a successful career in ballet? Did you have to re-tool your dancing technique to make this successful?
Sean Kelly: When I first started dancing, I studied at a studio in Marin that taught all styles of dance like jazz, modern, Latin American, and ballroom, along with some ballet. It was later, when I went to Marin Ballet, that I began to focus primarily on classical dance. I do think that the variety of my early training helped me be open to different styles and techniques. I also think that the diverse contemporary repertoire I had the pleasure to dance while at Houston Ballet and other classical companies helped me to be a versatile dancer.
So, when I did make the transition to Broadway, I felt that I was able to pick up the various styles quickly. My classical technique was helpful, and I became known as one of the Broadway people who could help other cast members technically, as well as stylistically, with choreographers’ works.
Also, the experience of having been a choreographer and ballet master encouraged people to offer me some wonderful opportunities. In addition to performing as a swing for Broadway and touring productions, I have mostly been a dance captain, resident director, or resident choreographer — or a combination thereof.

October 24, 2012

9 Questions with Artistic Director and Choreographer Bruce Steivel

Milos Marijan and Amanda McGovern rehearsing
Bruce Steivel’s Dracula — A Ballet to Die For
Photo by Lance Huntley

Internationally recognized choreographer and teacher Bruce Steivel has served as artistic director for Bern Stadt Theater in Switzerland, Hong Kong Ballet, Universal Ballet of Korea, and Nevada Ballet Theater, where he worked for over a decade.
As artistic director for Nevada Ballet Theatre, Steivel expanded the repertoire by adding thirty ballets — thirteen from visiting choreographers and seventeen of his own creation. His Nutcracker was a perennial favorite; also popular were his Peter Pan, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula, and Good Times. Several of his works are currently in the repertoire of five major dance companies.
Frequently sought after as a guest teacher, Steivel has taught at Nederland Dans Theater, Norwegian National Ballet, Hungarian National Ballet, National Ballet of Portugal, Berlin Stadstoper, Beijing Ballet, Shanghai Ballet, Bat-Dor of Israel, the National Institute of Istanbul, and many schools in Japan and the U.S.
For the past three years, he has been the artistic and conservatory director for Peninsula Ballet Theatre in San Mateo, California. In addition to his Peninsula assignment, in 2011, Steivel was appointed artistic director for the Serbian National Ballet in Belgrade, Serbia.
California Literary Review: You are now Artistic Director for two companies, one in the States and one in Europe. Other than personal economics, what do you see as a benefit to combining the two assignments?
Bruce Steivel: Being an Artistic Director of two companies an ocean apart is certainly an interesting assignment. I plan to incorporate the dancers from both countries into several productions. I already have brought one male dancer from San Mateo to perform with the company in Belgrade and intend to bring three dancers from Belgrade to San Mateo to perform this season. It will be an interesting cultural exchange and benefit both the dancers and the companies.
What is scheduled for Peninsula Ballet’s 2012–2013 season?
We are putting on my production of Dracula October 26–28, Nutcracker in December, and hopefully a spring Gala performance.
At Peninsula Ballet, will you host any guest choreographers or present new in-house work by the dancers?
At present, we are preparing a Young Choreographers Workshop to be held here in our studios. We presented the workshop this past year, and it was hugely successful. This year, we will enlarge the evening — nine new pieces will be performed. To accomplish this, we transform our large studio into a performing space, complete with bleacher seating and some minimal stage lighting.
Artistic Director and Choreographer
Bruce Steivel
Any plans for guest teaching/choreography during your off-seasons?
The only off-season teaching I am doing at present is in San Mateo with our summer intensive program. I have been asked to return to Athens, Greece, but unfortunately I have not had the time to fit it in. I did take two weeks off after the summer intensive to visit my daughter in Paris.

Serbia is coming off an old company system and moving to a new one. There are, obviously, challenges in making the transition. How do you see your role in effecting the change?
Being the new guy on the block it is going to be easier for me than if there had been a local Serbian artistic director trying to accomplish the same thing. The company has been under the influence of the “old” Soviet style of ballet company for many years. The Western way of working — at a faster pace — has been a shock to some of the dancers. However, on the whole, my way of working has been received well, and I am enjoying acceptance in the ballet studio.
What do you see are the Serbian National Ballet’s strengths?
The Serbian company has some strong and talented dancers. Their basic training is the excellent Vaganova method, the most common ballet technique taught in Russia. This training enables them to do most anything. The dancers have a strong feeling for the classics, but enjoy trying new things. It is a company hungry for change.
Are there plans for the Serbian National Ballet to tour?
There are several tours planned within the Balkans, and I am trying to secure a more lengthy tour to foreign ports of call. At this point in history, the cost of touring a ballet company is extremely difficult, as funds all over the world are being allocated to programs other than the arts.
How much opportunity do you have to showcase your own choreography for the Serbian National Ballet? You said you are going to present your popular ballet, Peter Pan, in Serbia. Why did you choose this for your first full-length for the company? How many companies now perform your Peter Pan?
I haven’t had much time to do new choreography, but I will be presenting Peter Pan this November. Currently, the Serbian repertoire is quite extensive and includes all the major classics and a few contemporary pieces. I hope that in the coming years I will be able to do something fresh — and also bring in new choreographers.
Serbia needs to bring the youth back to the theater, and it is our hope that the popular Peter Pan will do just that. It is not too demanding on the dancers and allows them to have fun. The ballet, additionally, provides parents the opportunity to bring their families to the theater, as this ballet is appropriate for all ages. Four U.S. companies have performed Peter Pan — and now, this year, Belgrade.
Will you add Nutcracker to the Serbian repertory?
There is a desire by the board of the theater to mount Nutcracker; however, Serbia is in a financial crisis at the moment, so I think it may be two years before we can produce anything of that size. The theater has enjoyed for many years the distinction of being a state company — the demands on funds were not a problem as new productions were paid for by the state. The theater now has to move into a more Western way of thinking — one where it is necessary to find sponsors for individual productions. We do have several American corporations in Belgrade, and the American Embassy has been extremely helpful with funding.
Dracula — A Ballet to Die For
Peninsula Ballet TheatreOctober 26 to 28, 2012
Fox Theatre
2215 Broadway Street
Redwood City, California
For tickets and information call 650.369.7770

[Originally published at California Literary Review, October 24, 2012.]

October 7, 2012

9 Questions with Choreographer Adam Hougland

John Speed Orr and Erin Yarbrough-Stewart rehearsing
Cold Virtues (Hougland). Photo by Keith Sutter.
Smuin Ballet, as part of its opening program for the 2012–2013 season, is presenting the West Coast premiere of Cold Virtues by the exciting young choreographer Adam Hougland. Popular with audience and critics alike, the work is set to Philip Glass’s haunting Violin Concerto and features fourteen dancers, whirling and leaping against a mesmerizing backdrop of spinning fans. The Louisville Courier-Journal described the ballet as “beautifully bleak, honest in unflinching fashion.”
Hougland currently is principal choreographer for the Louisville Ballet and the resident choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet. In addition, he has created original works for American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, the Limon Dance Company, and Washington Ballet, among others. Winner of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, Hougland was one of Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” for 2011.

California Literary Review: How would you describe your choreographic style?
Adam Hougland: I’m very inspired by music, so I would say that my work is musically driven, and as my dance background  is diverse, I tend to draw both from classical techniques as well as contemporary. I really like telling stories and making dances that are movement driven, first and foremost, but that also have a strong sense of theatricality.
Each choreographer has a dance vocabulary that is unique to him or her. Who do you cite as influences on yours? 
Martha Graham, Jiri Kylian, José Limon, Paul Taylor — also George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and Kenneth McMillian.
It seems that although your performance experience was mostly in the modern arena, ballet companies have performed more of your choreography than modern groups. What caused you to move in this direction?
There aren’t many modern dance repertory companies in the States. For the most part, ballet companies are where new work gets commissioned. And really, this whole thing about “ballet” or “modern” is so outdated. It’s all dance — period.
You chose the Philip Glass Violin Concerto for Cold Virtues. Did you use the complete work, or have you edited the music in any way? 
The whole thing!