When internationally acclaimed visual artist Shantell Martin began her first-ever choreographic project, commissioned by Boston Ballet for the upcoming “ChoreograpHER” program March 3-13, one of her first tasks in the studio got the dancers down on the floor — not to stretch their limbs and flex their muscles, but to draw. “I wanted them [to understand] that a line you draw is similar to a line you make with dance and to create a common language we both could relate to,” Martin says. “Then things started to click.”
For audiences as well as the dancers, Martin’s new work steps purposefully out of the box of your typical ballet program, and that’s the point. Featuring five world premieres by five stylistically diverse creators from across disciplines, “ChoreograpHER” is the culmination of a multiyear initiative to amplify female artistic voices by developing choreographic skills and investing in new innovative works.
“It’s about identifying and cultivating talent,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “We’ve made a concerted effort to provide access at the early stages … creating the space for diverse voices and very different ways of approaching the art form of dance. This signifies open-mindedness to let ballet go where it wants to go. And this is just mile one.”
Three of the premieres infuse classical pointe work with contemporary influences. Superstar ballerina Tiler Peck brings the culture and legacy of New York City Ballet to her “Point of Departure,” inspired by the music of Caroline Shaw. It marks her first opportunity to choreograph on a major company. “My energy is so stressed as a principal dancer, I thought I’d never have time to choreograph,” she says, calling “ChoreograpHER” just the push she needed — it helped that early rehearsals could be held via Zoom during pandemic down time. “I like to map out movement on my own body, but as soon as I get in the room with the dancers, it becomes theirs, very much a collaboration, an ongoing conversation.”
Choreographer in residence at Atlanta Ballet Claudia Schreier has created more than 30 ballets for a range of companies and is known for fusing neoclassical ballet technique with the grounded physicality of modern dance. Her “Slipstream” for 18 dancers explores the concept of constant momentum. The pointe ballet is set to a score by Tanner Porter inspired by communities of bees. “So there’s a nod to nature, community, and different sides of the self,” Schreier says.
Lia Cirio, one of Boston Ballet’s most accomplished principal dancers, has been part of the “ChoreograpHER” project since the beginning, but this program marks the first time the company will perform her choreography on a main stage subscription series. (In addition to choreographing for the program, she also will perform in Peck’s and Schreier’s works.) Cirio says her “Chaptered in Fragments” for three women on pointe and four men “… is a bit of everything I love to dance. It’s neo-classical, with hints of Forsythe and Kylian influence, but with a quirkiness that I feel is very me.”
In contrast, Melissa Toogood shuns toe shoes for slippers and brings deep roots in American modern dance to her first major choreography. Rehearsal director and dancer with Pam Tanowitz Dance, Toogood performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and has taught Cunningham Technique around the world. Her sextet, set to a commissioned score by musician Jeff Klein, is titled “Butterflies Don’t Write Books,” a line from the Mary Oliver essay she was reading when she started the piece. “Because I’m new to choreography, I wanted to liberate myself from the final product and focus on the process of creating,” she says, exploring concepts of space, time, texture, and structure vs. spontaneity.
While each premiere is unique, it is Martin’s work that principal dancer Patrick Yocum says is “completely unlike anything we’ve done before. Her art is full of freedom and whimsy and spontaneity, so she encouraged that out of us,” he says. Set to the music of John Adams, Martin’s “Kites” is a metaphor for something uplifting, light, and playful, its string representing a kind of tether between past and present as well as a thread connecting movement sequences the dancers generated in response to the catalog of words, lines, and characters Martin uses in her visual art. “I had them move through what words feel like in different combinations, and collected those moments to piece together in different patterns,” she says.
Yocum, who also dances in Peck’s and Toogood’s choreography, says it’s very rare in the ballet world to see an evening of five premieres. For audiences, he says, it should be a fascinating sampler, and for the dancers, it has been both challenge and delight. “It’s so much fun to switch [rehearsals] during the day, so refreshing,” he says. “And it’s forced us out of a perspective we’re used to to learn something new and grow as artists. It’s about accepting the unexpected and making it your own.”
And for the choreographers, it’s a heartening commitment by Boston Ballet to increase opportunity, access, and visibility for women creators. Martin says, “This gives so much energy, inspiration, and innovation to the art form, and I think we could all do with more of that.”
BOSTON BALLET PRESENTS ChoreograpHER
World premieres by Lia Cirio, Shantell Martin, Tiler Peck, Claudia Schreier, and Melissa Toogood
March 3-13. Citizens Bank Opera House. www.bostonballet.org
This story has been updated to correct the title of Claudia Schreier’s piece.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.