Local Arts

Here’s how the Charlotte Ballet is showcasing new choreography talent

Nobody asks stage actors, “How come you never write a play?” Nobody tells classical musicians, “You should compose a symphony!” Yet dance fans often wonder when performers will morph into choreographers.

Maybe that’s because actors and musicians play into their 80s, while dancers usually give out halfway to that age. To stay in the world they’ve loved, they teach or make dances on other bodies instead of having dances made on theirs.

But how do you know if you’ve got the aptitude, perseverance and adaptability to earn a living with your head instead of your feet? People like Hope Muir guide and provoke and challenge you — and, if you’re lucky, feature you in events such as Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab May 16-18.

The company held choreographic workshops, often led by Charlotte Ballet II director Mark Diamond, before Muir became artistic director two years ago. Yet she developed the public component for this project: one day in 2018, three days this year, six days at the end of the 2019-20 season.

Sarah Hayes Harkins.jpg
Sarah Hayes Harkins, an 11-year Charlotte Ballet veteran, had a piece in last year’s Choreographic Lab. This year, she collaborated with Jared Oaks of Ballet West on a new piece that will be performed during Choreographic Lab May 16-18. Jeff Cravotta Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

Encouraging creativity

“This is a way to have creativity (constantly) in the building,” she says. “The sheer practice of grabbing other dancers when you’re tired and they’re tired and going into the studio to make something is healthy.

“There are so many things you can do as a choreographer: commercial work, ballet for children, pure ballet, pieces with a contemporary edge. It’s good for dancers to think about those.”

The word “lab” is short for “laboratory,” not “labyrinth.” But both apply.

First, it’s a testing ground where unfledged choreographers know it’s “safe to fail,” in Muir’s words. She shows work at the end of the year only if choreographers want the public to see it.

Second, she assigns tasks throughout the season that force dancemakers to do work, undo it, revise it, rethink it. They may end up exhausted, but they’ll be well-rounded.

Muir has them begin with a solo, then change the gender of the dancer. She’ll propose music choices, then require others. She might ask participants to reinterpret a piece of cinema. This year, she linked the lab to January’s Shakespeare-based Innovative Works, telling choreographers to integrate the text of a sonnet however they chose.

The final program, which offers pieces ranging from three minutes to 12, includes five choreographers who dance in CB’s first company — Juwan Alston, Chelsea Dumas, Sarah Hayes Harkins, James Kopecky and Maurice Mouzon Jr. — and Andrès Trezevant from Charlotte Ballet II. For the first time, people who don’t dance for CB will get in; Sarah Ingel is the company’s assistant stage manager and shoe manager, and Martha Connerton heads her own company in Kinetic Works.

You may be surprised to hear that Muir considers the first chore — making a short piece on one body — among the hardest she assigns.

“You have to have one person define the entire space of the stage, sometimes to music that’s highly complicated,” she says. “With more dancers, you can create patterns or have someone rest while someone else is in motion.”

Finding the words

Naturally, choreographers experiment by moving through steps themselves, learning what human muscles do in certain positions. Then comes another tough job: verbalizing the process for others.

“They don’t know how to explain work,” she says. “The most successful choreographers know how to communicate with dancers. So I make them speak about their work at each (internal) showing in front of the group.”

This all happens in the dancers’ spare time; the busy season allows no dedicated rehearsal periods for the lab. Dancemakers have to coax comrades to help them at lunch, at the end of a work day, even during an unpaid week off. When a dancer can’t show up for an ensemble rehearsal, the choreographer steps in to cover the role herself.

Jared Oaks.jpg
Jared Oaks, music director for Ballet West in Salt Lake City, is collaborating with Sarah Hayes Harkins on a piece included in Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab, May 16-18. Courtesy of Ballet West


Harkins, an 11-year company veteran who had a piece in last year’s lab, did that more than once in preparing “The Essence of Number.” It’s the largest and longest entry this year – eight dancers, 12 minutes – and will conclude each evening. The title comes from Arignote, one of Pythagoras’ students in ancient Greece and perhaps his daughter: “The eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth and the region in between.”

“Essence” was also born under the most unique circumstances. Harkins has never met the composer and started to design steps before she heard a note of his music.

Jared Oaks, music director for Ballet West in Salt Lake City, bonded with Muir at the 2018 National Choreographic Festival in Utah and offered to compose a piece for this year’s lab. (Muir says he both wrote the piano score and will play it live here for free.) He chose Harkins as a partner after watching videos of various dancers; he especially liked her reinterpretation of a filmed dance by Anna Pavlova.

“What made this process special was that I didn’t send the music to Sarah and say ‘Here you go,’ “ Oaks explains. “We discussed structure before I wrote anything, and then she’d send me combinations of steps.

“The collaboration was a discussion, rather than making suggestions to each other. What would it be like to have a dance phrase in (a count of) seven and a shorter phrase in the music, when usually it’s the other way around? Should this next variation be (counted) in two? I never worried about her understanding the music.”

Harkins had a tough time working initially in silence or to a metronome – “So much of my interpretation is based on music” – and sent Oaks video snippets of the results “to give him an idea of my movement quality.” He responded with a theme-and-variations score that uses all 12 pitches of the scale but treats them melodically.

Harkins let her imagination roam, putting some of “Essence” on pointe (“because I normally never do that”) but also asking her dancers to do contemporary things. The piece, like most in this lab, remains a work in progress until the last reasonable minute.

“Mark Diamond was watching last week, when I had Ben (Ingel) come in wearing flat shoes while other people danced on pointe,” Harkins says. “He told me it didn’t fit, and he was right. Then I asked myself, ‘But do I care?’ “

That’s how choreographers have to think. Harkins, who’s 29, hadn’t seriously considered becoming one but is now “giving myself that opportunity if I want it.” She’s applying for grants for emerging dancemakers and learning how to break ideas down verbally: “(At first), I just wanted people to watch me demonstrate and replicate what I do. But you have to look at every part of their bodies and describe what you want in detail.”

Upping the ante

Muir upped the ante this year by promising to include one lab choreographer in the 2020 Innovative Works concert, which is sold in the mainstage season ticket package.

“It’ll be a 15-minute work, and I’ll ask them to do a lot of homework and research,” she says. “But I would do that with (internationally known choreographer) Helen Pickett.”

Muir has never set one of her own works on Charlotte Ballet and doesn’t plan to, though she had “a small dalliance with choreography” as assistant artistic director of Scottish Ballet.

“I prefer the mentorship role,” she says. “There are better people than me to choreograph, and I want to find them and work with them. They might even come from this company.”

Choreographic Lab

When: May 16-18 at 7:30 p.m. A Brews and Ballet event on May 18 costs $25; it starts at 1 p.m. with a sampling of local beers on the lawn outside the venue – you get one free beer in a Charlotte Ballet cup – and includes an abbreviated 40-minute version of the lab performance inside at 2 p.m.

Where: McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, 701 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$50.

Details: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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