Sixteen years ago, Molly Lynch saw a gap within the art of creating ballets and set about providing an arena for inspiring choreographers to create new works during a period of exploration and development. Lynch drew upon her 35 plus years of experience creating, producing and presenting dance, and by tapping into the wealth of professional connections that she formed while acting as Artistic Director of Ballet Pacifica (1988 to 2003). Under Lynch’s direction, Ballet Pacifica collaborated with numerous contemporary ballet choreographers, premiered more than forty new works and restaged classic ballets by renown choreographers George Balanchine, Antony Tudor and Choo San Goh. Lynch is currently a Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine.
Lynch is the founder and Artistic Director of the National Choreographers Initiative (NCI), a three-week workshop which takes place in the UCI dance studios and culminates with a one night only performance at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on July 27, 2019. I met with Lynch on the second day of the workshop to learn more about NCI’s history and the choreographers who were chosen for NCI 2019: Julia Feldman, Alan Hineline, Alex Ketley, and Tom Mattingly.
When asked what inspired her to create NCI, Lynch went back to when she worked at South Coast Repertory Theatre and its program called New Scripts Readings. “They do informal readings of scripts that aren’t maybe complete,” Lynch said. “and they have an audience that listens to it and provides feedback.” This development process triggered her to question why not do something like that with dance. “Instead, I always feel like in dance,” Lynch added. “you are commissioned to do a piece; you have to go do it and it has to work right away. You don’t get any laboratory exploration time.”
Lynch realized that the conditions were different for dance. A choreographer needs to have dancers to work with, a studio space and the creative time in the studio with those dancers. Lynch knew that she could accomplish those things using the accessibility to studio space that she had at the time. “I could give them the studio space and the time to explore, and then show the work, completed or not, to an audience to get feedback.” She said, adding that the performance could be done in an informal way.
At the start, Lynch was still working with Ballet Pacifica and wanted to use this new platform to become acquainted with new choreographers in order to develop new repertory for the company. When she left Ballet Pacifica, Lynch set out to find a way to provide the opportunity for choreographers to develop work without the pressure of making a new ballet for a company. Once the ballet is completed, the choreographers own the work and, if given the opportunity, free to restage it on a company.
“Sometimes they come in with an idea that they have for a commission down the road,” Lynch explained. “and they want extra time to work on that commissioned piece.”
Dancers are hired from all over the country to work with these four choreographers. They share rooms in a campus dormitory, they have most of their meals together and take class together. It gives the dancers a chance to network, discuss the ballets that they are working on and about the companies that they perform with during the rest of the year. The choreographers drive back and forth to the hotel together and spend time together during meals. All this helps to create a wonderful sense of community. Lynch smiled when she said that over the years she has begun to think of NCI as professional summer camp.
I asked Lynch where she finds the dancers and choreographers who come to NCI. She explained that it is primarily by word of mouth. She reads dance periodicals like Dance Magazine and reviews in the New York times to stay abreast of which new choreographers are receiving attention within the dance scene. Having worked with a great number of choreographers in the past, Lynch also reaches out to them for advice on who is out there. Because Lynch has developed such a wonderful program and reputation of professionalism, choreographers are now contacting her directly. “I get approximately sixty choreographers who apply each year.” She said, and this is without having to put out any special notices or advertisements. It also speaks to a greater need of this type of development/exploratory program to be offered elsewhere.
Modern dancers study composition in college and they have summer festivals such as Jacobs Pillow, Bates Dance Festival or the American Dance Festival where they can go for several weeks to take classes and to hone their creative talents. For those dancers and choreographers in Ballet, opportunities like those offered at NCI are scarce.
“Hopefully, it is word of mouth by people who have done the project, they have experienced it.” Lynch said. “They said, ‘Oh, so and so would be really great for this, this would be a good match for them, or they could really use this right now.’”
Lynch reaches out to artistic directors of mid-sized companies such as Kansas City Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Louisville Ballet or Austin Ballet to locate dancers who might want to be part of NCI. Dancers who have participated in NCI during prior summers return and/or tell others about the project. Lynch limits the time a dancer can attend to three years, however, stating that she does not want people to think of this simply as a summer job. Dancers must audition. This takes place at UCI each year in March, or a dancer can send a video if they cannot make the audition.
Dancers must be opened to working in different styles and have permission from the artistic director of the company that they are working with to attend. By contacting the directors, Lynch also gets a sense of how the dancer works in the studio and the different styles of choreography that she/he has performed.
A few choreographers, such as Melissa Barak, Ann Marie DeAngelo, and Peter Pucci have twice attended NCI. Lynch strives to have NCI be a pleasant experience for both the choreographers and the dancers. “I’m trying to create a nurturing, open environment.” She said. “This is not a competition. We’re not trying to make this into “So You Think You Can Dance” or anything like that” we both laughed.
Lynch is very active during the three weeks of NCI. She goes in and out of rehearsals, listens to what the dancers are saying and talks to the choreographers. She listens to what they say, helps provide anything that they might need, and offers feedback about the work. Lynch does not dictate that choreographers must create classical style works or dances performed on pointe, but she does only hire ballet dancers because those are the ones these choreographers will be working with in the professional world.
Julia Feldman was trained under the direction of Pamela Hayes and is now in her 9th season with the Sacramento Ballet where she became interested in choreographing through the company’s Beer and Ballet program. She has created works for this program for 12 seasons as well as the School of the Sacramento Ballet. Feldman attended NCI as a dancer and applied several times as a choreographer, so Lynch was able to watch how she grew and developed as an artist both as a contemporary ballet and neo-classical choreographer.
Alan Hineline was the Artistic Director of Ballet Philippines and is currently the director of artistic programming at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. He has works in the repertories of American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, Ballet de Monterrey, Pennsylvania Ballet, ProDanza Cuba and others. Lynch said that his work could be described as neo-classical in style.
Alex Ketley is a choreographer, filmmaker, and the director of Bay Area’s The Foundry, “a vehicle to explore the intersection of dance with mixed-media art, installation, and contemporary ways of devising performance”. His work and collaborations have been awarded three Isadora Duncan Awards. “His work is more modern and contemporary.” Lynch said. “And I think that it is interesting for the dancers to be working in that way and he (Ketley) is interested in working with ballet dancers and expanding his work.”
Based in Chicago, Tom Mattingly is a freelance choreographer, teacher and performer. He danced professionally with Richmond Ballet, Chautauqua Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, and Ballet West. He also has a strong background in Modern dance and performed in the Tony Award-winning musical An American in Paris. He has choreographed for several ballet companies and Lynch described Mattingly’s style as contemporary ballet.
As mentioned before, this will be a one performance only for the participants of NCI. “We are not trying to do a series of performances where the focus is on the performances.” Lynch said. The concert will be “somewhat informal”. The curtain will always be up, so the audience will see the dancers warming up. Lynch will ask each choreographer up onstage. She will introduce them, and they will explain to the audience a small part their creative process during the three weeks. This is followed by the performance of that choreographer’s work. Once all for works have been presented, the choreographers return to the stage for a Question & Answer session with the audience about the process and how everything works.
The Lighting Designer for this year’s NCI performance is Monique L’Heureux, who observes the finished ballets, talks to the choreographers and creates an atmosphere for each dance. There is a Costume Coordinator, Kaylynn Sutton, who Lynch lovingly describes as an organizer of practice clothes that NCI has amassed over the years. The music is provided by each choreographer and at the time of the interview, Lynch had no idea what music they were using. I stopped in for a few minutes of two rehearsals and Julia Feldman was seeing how a section worked with two different pieces of music.
Lynch wants the readers to know that each year of NCI is unique. If one attends the performance several years in a row, one would see totally different types of works choreographed by four different dance artists. Half of this year’s group of dancers are returning participants and half are new to the project.
“We never know what is going to be created during this three-week period,” Lynch said. “and that is what I think is exciting about it. You could come every single year to NCI and you would see something different every single year.”
It is a win-win situation for everyone. The choreographers get a chance to experiment, explore, and develop new work while also gaining experience at creating a ballet on dancers they do not know. The dancers work with a different choreographer who might see something in them that other choreographers have missed, and the opportunity to work alongside other dancers that they are unfamiliar with. Everyone involved grows and matures artistically over the three weeks.
“It’s not just the development of new choreography” Lynch said. “but it is also the interactions of dancers from other communities together, choreographers from different communities together, so it creates a kind of dance community.” Because the people are different each year, the results is also unique, making it very exciting for a very creative person such as Molly Lynch to be involved in.
The National Choreographers Initiative will perform July 27, 2019 at 8 PM in the Irvine Barclay Theatre located at 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine CA. Tickets are $45 general, $20 student. For information and to purchase tickets, click here (www.thebarclay.org) or call 949.854.4646.