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  • Jack Meyer

Choreographing Our Humanity

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

The Columbia Ballet Collaborative’s dynamic spring agenda.

By Jack Meyer

As the dancers wait in position, a single strike of the snare introduces the bass line. The notes thrum along unaccompanied till the sound of the drum taps propels the dancers’ shoulders into rotation and the music into motion. The choreographer, Danielle Diniz, watches three of her dancers through the mirror, demonstrating the outlines of her pieces’ motions while shouting out cues: “Look creepily at the audience.” Her instructions are in keeping with the piece’s dark subject matter, exploring three stages of grief. She has split the dancers into two groups for this rehearsal: Grievers and Death. The former group starts the dance by moving in jagged patterns, banging on the ground and snapping their heads in the audience’s direction. The latter group joins them slowly, approaching the dancers from behind before shadowing their movements for the remainder of the section.

This is all in preparation for a performance of five pieces put on by the Columbia Ballet Collaborative, a group that hasn’t taken long to establish a serious reputation in Columbia and New York’s dance scene. Founded in 2007 by five professional dancers enrolled at Columbia, the CBC produces one show each semester, featuring a mix of work by choreographers at and outside of Columbia. This semester, CBC has brought in four outside choreographers and one student for its show.

By targeting New York’s bustling community of up-and-coming choreographers, CBC has landed some big-name talent in the early stages of their careers. Past choreographers include the likes of Emily LeCrone, who has since received multiple commissions from the Guggenheim, and Justin Peck, who has gone on to become the resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet and landed work in major projects like Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake.

This potential to work with professional talent makes the Collaborative a coveted opportunity for members of Columbia’s dance community. As the group’s artistic director, Bridget Scanlon, pointed out, “We’ve been mentioned in the New York Times, we’ve been mentioned in Vanity Fair…we have an outside donor base besides our [allocated] funding from Columbia.” And anyone from Barnard, CC, GS, or SEAS can audition to be part of the troupe, giving those passionate about dance an opportunity for professional work while they pursue a college education.

“In professional companies,” Scanlon said, “there’s oftentimes a blatant disrespect for mental health or for people’s other commitments.” But because CBC consists of and is run by college students, she believes there’s a degree of understanding toward the dancers not always afforded at professional dance companies. With five professional dancers as founders, a selective application process, and an impressive list of both choreographers and dancers among its alumni, Scanlon believes this is the closest a Columbia student can get to a small professional dance company.

The opportunity extends beyond the dancers, though. Scanlon said the choreographers for this semester’s show represent new and innovative voices in the world of professional choreography, and CBC offers a platform to have free reign over their vision.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

“I’m working with pieces of a collection of music called “Murder Ballades” by Bryce Dessner,” Christina Clark, the student choreographer of CBC’s spring show, said. A dancer since the age of seven, Clark now splits her time between working as a student in the School of General Studies and as a dancer in the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet. The driving force behind her choreography for CBC has been Dessner’s music, which grabbed her attention for its dynamic quality. “Some of them are really slow, others of them are fast, they’re all pretty syncopated,” Clark said. The rhythm of the music also strays away from easily countable patterns like 4:4 or waltz time, something Clark sees as a positive challenge, pushing her to try choreography she wouldn’t normally consider in order to grapple with a less-than-steady beat.

Aside from the music, Clark’s ideas have been partially shaped by art forms outside of dance. Shortly after receiving the news that she’d be choreographing for CBC, Clark went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the sculptures and impressionist paintings on display made her reflect on connections between the images and movement. Describing one of the paintings that left an impression on her, Clark said, “it had a really large scale, and two figures who [were] holding shoulders and kind of running, but there was a lot of movement in the painting and I thought, ‘what an interesting position that they’re in,’ and ‘how can I sort of continue that into a choreographic phrase?’”

Another CBC choreographer seeking to encapsulate an image in movement is Alexandra Hutchinson. Her recent experiences working for L’Academie Americaine de Danse de Paris inspired her to create a piece that pays homage to the city and its culture. To do this, she plans on staging a ballet incorporating Parisian, romantic, abstract, and neoclassical elements.

The inspiration for her style has come both from her experiences in Paris and her late mentor, the prolific dancer and choreographer Violette Verdi. “She was one of George Balanchine’s muses,” Hutchinson said, mentioning her roles in some of his famous works like Emeralds and Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, “and there are some steps that are kind of classic Violette Verdi steps like Italian Pas de Chat, so I think that I’ll have like little shimmers of her sprinkled throughout the ballet.”

Not all the choreographers, however, have their artistic experiences rooted solely in the world of dance. Danielle Diniz finds that her background in theater inevitably finds its way into how she approaches choreography. “I always have to have a theme or a storyline involved in my work,” Diniz said, “I can’t make something from, for a lack of a better term, nothing.” As Diniz contemplates the grief that accompanies loss, her piece explores the concept through three women as they journey through three stages of grief.

Choreographer Gabe Stone Shayer also views dance as a means of addressing life’s common struggles. He’s imagined and reimagined the performance he’s now putting together for CBC countless times over the last several years, and while he doesn’t view it as having a strict overarching narrative, he said it can generally be understood to deal with “the aspects of human nature within a family dynamic.” Adolescence in particular, with its disorienting mix of conflicts, desires, and ultimately growth, has shaped Gabe’s ideas.

The music is instrumental to Gabe’s idea of the piece as well. “I’m always inspired by work that conveys emotion or makes me feel something and isn’t arbitrary in movement and dynamic,” Gabe said, “and I’m hoping to embody that idea: that the music is also driving the steps and is also driving the story.” In this case, that driving force is a composition from Arvo Pärt, “Fratres.”

Gabe intends to use two versions of the same piece, each distinct in its musical character but ultimately reconcilable in a way that suits a short ballet. “I chose it ‘cause I feel like the music tells the story, and I feel like when I first heard it when I was younger it definitely embodied and capsulized my experience [of adolescence], or my thoughts for this experience.”

While the ideas and influences behind each piece may vary dramatically, the choreographers share a youthful, ambitious voice and genuine excitement about Columbia’s dancers realizing their visions.


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