One year ago, no one at the Joffrey Ballet saw a silver lining in the cloud that COVID-19 cast over its 10th anniversary season of “Winning Works” choreographic competition which was set to open at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art mid-March of 2020: not the four young choreographers of color who had been chosen from among dozens of applicants to receive a prestigious showcase for their work; not the Joffrey’s Trainee and Studio Company dancers, who had been rehearsing exciting new works for the highly-publicized public performances; not the Joffrey administration.
When shelter-in-place orders put an abrupt halt to the 2020 “Winning Works” and to public performances across the world for the foreseeable future, Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater decided to challenge fate with an alternate plan to retool “Winning Works” for a Spring, 2021 virtual production, come what may.
That meant asking the four choreographers to re-do their works without partnering of any kind, keeping social distancing, limiting the number of dancers on stage, wearing masks and using the Joffrey’s black box theater to re-stage their work for the camera.
The pieces would go back into rehearsal, beginning last fall, this time with the close collaborative partnering of the film crew from Chicago’s Bigfoot Productions. Lighting upgrades for the Arpino theater would give both the choreographers and the technical crews increased creative options.
Rather than simply filming each piece as if from a seat in a conventional theater, Bigfoot Productions took advantage of the unique capabilities of the camera to introduce creative use of point of view, vantage point, camera movement, range and focus. This opened up significant possibilities for the choreographers, as well as a new visual and visceral experience of dance performance for their virtual audiences, something traditional, live theater audiences are not privy to.
By treating the filmed adaptations of these works as legitimate artistic entities in their own rights, this year’s re-imagining of “Winning Works” is forging through a new artistic forum for dance performance.
“It’s been a learning process,” said José Carayol, director of the Joffrey Studio Company and Trainee program, in a recent phone conversation with See Chicago Dance. “It was challenging to meet the needs of the camera, (and) to find out what the choreographers needed to tell the story,” he said. In essence, the camera became their choreographic partner. “We had to determine what were the main points the choreography needed (to emphasize),” he said, stressing the crucial aspect of focus in telling the story through someone else’s eyes. In essence, “the choreographers had to learn to choreograph the camera. The intensity is so much more (on film).”
Manipulating viewpoint was a new experience for these choreographers, who had never before seen their work through another creator’s point of view. “The camera gets so close to the dancers’ eyes,” Carayol said, adding that the movement details and nuances the camera was able to capture contributed to the enhanced emotional impact of the choreography. “This isn’t going away,” said Carayol of the virtual production, seeing this as a very positive thing for the future of dance performance, even post-pandemic.
For Pablo Sanchez, recipient of the first Zak Lazar “Winning Works” Fellowship, being a “Winning Works” choreographer brings him full-circle, having performed as a Joffrey Academy Trainee in the inaugural season of “Winning Works” in 2011. His ballet, “¡Viva!” celebrates his Mexican heritage and his first dance training in an after-school dance program in his native Mexico beginning at the the age five. “¡Viva!,” for seven women and four men, is set to the music of Mexican composers, Manuel Poncé and José Pablo Moncayo.
Sanchez wanted to highlight the purpose of “Winning Works,” which showcases choreographers from under-represented cultures, with a focus on Mexican composers and Mexican dance forms, reflecting the joy and exuberance of Mexican folk dance. In his fourth season performing with Ballet Memphis, Sanchez characterizes his movement style as watery and fluid, his choreography “pleasing visually,” but not simplistic. Part one of “¡Viva!” is a ballet segment, set to Montoyo’s “Wapango.” Part two, a woman’s solo, is set to a commissioned score by Poncé. Joffrey dancer Temur Suluashvili designed the costumes. “It’s a ballet! Come experience the stars of tomorrow!” Sanchez enthused in a recent phone call, expressing high regard for the dancers. “We’re here because the school exists.”
New York-based Tsai Hsi Hung’s “Brushstrokes” is about artists interpreting their own borders and limitations: national, cultural, racial and emotional. Hung, who is both a dancer and visual artist, appears in “Brushstrokes” as a painter, using the white-papered stage space as a canvas to paint images of Chinese calligraphy. The dancers’ movement both initiates and is in response to her brushstrokes, creating both a visual and energy dialogue between them.
In addition to ensemble sequences, each of the three male and eight female dancers has his or her own solo. Tai chi and martial arts influence Tsai’s choreographic style, which is ballet-based contemporary dance. “The dancers are my paint!” she says. When asked what she learned from the dancers, Tsai said, “Passion!” in a phone call, her voice glowing with gratitude and reflecting how sometimes, in the throes of juggling multiple real-world career responsibilities, the electrifying passion of youth can wane. And what did they learn from Tsai? “A different cultural style,” she said, “more relaxed from ballet, like water, so they can move more deeply.”
“Art needs to be a celebration of life” Tsai added. “The imperative (is that) cultures from all over the world, many different countries, are represented." Even though we’re in a strict lock-down, she says, audiences need to remember that culture doesn’t die if dance is pushing boundaries. “Art and culture are there to bring society together. It’s always been that way, and it should always be that way.”
Brooklyn-based Chanel DaSilva’s “Borders” and Kansas native Durante Verzola’s “Ballet de Cour” complete the program.
The Winning Works Choreographic Competition was created to recognize talented and emerging ALAANA choreographers and to provide them with a platform to showcase their original and innovative work. The world premieres will stream at 7:00 p.m. on the following dates: Chanel DaSilva's B O R D E R S (March 25), Tsai Hsi Hung's Brushstroke (March 26), Durante Verzola's Ballet de Cour (April 8), Pablo Sanchez's ¡VIVA! (April 9). All performances are free and stream at www.joffrey.org/winningworks