Molly Lynch, professor and chair of UC Irvine’s Department of Dance, has over 35 years experience creating, producing, and presenting dance. She is an artist. But she’s also a scientist of sorts, and proof of that is in the National Choreographer’s Initiative (NCI) which she founded in 2004 as a non-commissioned and non-competitive setting for creating new dance works.
For the past 16 years, Lynch has invited professional choreographers and dancers to Orange County to engage in a dance-making process that resembles the scientific method – ask questions, research, experiment, repeat.
“For these three weeks, the choreographers are given this lab environment to work,” said Lynch. “My hope is that (the choreographers) discover some things that work and some that don’t. If you are always doing the thing that you know will work, you aren’t pushing the limits of the art form. If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never go beyond what is comfortable.”
NCI is an exercise in failure as much as it is a breeding ground for inspired new works.
Take Julia Feldman’s piece, for example. At the top of week one, she planned to give one pair of dancers in her piece primarily gestural movements. One minute, hands and arms are flying in rhythm with the music, and the next, Feldman found herself defaulting to familiar patterns of technical steps and large movements.
“I finally made the dancers sit down so we could focus on keeping it small,” said Feldman, who has danced with the Sacramento Ballet for nine seasons. “We happened to grab the piano bench and now it’s in the piece as a prop. It kinda just happened.”
The spontaneity described by Feldman is a common thread throughout the works created at NCI, and it is one of the shared, motivating factors for choreographers when they decide to apply.
“We, as choreographers, don’t get the opportunity to work this way enough,” said choreographer Alan Hineline, director of artistic programming at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “It took me a minute to wrap my head around it because the premise behind the whole thing is different than most. We can come in and be selfishly creative.”
By removing the pressure of creating something for money, taking away time constraints, and encouraging works-in-progress over finished products, NCI does what is not possible for a lot of ballet companies during their regular season.
“It’s wonderful to have space and time to create something that is not predicated on building an actual piece,” said choreographer Alex Ketley, formerly a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet and director of The Foundry. “If you’re looking for true innovation, you need to create ideas that aren’t bracketed on success.”
Ketley, as of late, has been commissioning works for contemporary companies and so was especially intrigued by the opportunity to work with technically trained ballet dancers and test how their facilities responded to his particular movement vocabulary.
“It’s kind of like mixing paint. I’m just throwing things and seeing what sticks, so there are a lot of ideas rumbling around,” Ketley said.
The benefits of NCI are not limited to the choreographers. Dancers, on break from their regular postings at various ballet companies, not only have a summer gig, but they receive a chance to work with artists outside their usual community and explore movement and teaching styles that are different than what they are used to.
Being engaged in the creative process with the four choreographers is also motivational for a lot of the dancers. Feldman herself was an NCI dancer in 2015.
For Tom Mattingly, the inspirational experience of NCI as a dancer came second-hand but stuck with him all the same. In his first year at Richmond Ballet, Mattingly was cast in a piece that choreographer Val Caniparoli started during the second annual NCI.
This is Mattingly’s third year applying for NCI, and as Caniparoli showed is possible, he hopes that the work he creates here will be a launchpad for future commissioned opportunities.
His new movement is set on eight dancers — four men and four women — but Mattingly is feeling the inspiration and already envisioning it with more dancers, projections and costumes.
That is what NCI is about, Lynch said. The project provides a platform for choreographers to explore so that they, and ballet as an art form, are invigorated for the future.
Said Mattingly, “There is something freeing about being focused on creating what you want and not what you should because it is a safe bet. You might fail, but you might stumble onto something amazing.”
At the end of the three weeks, the choreographers will present their works-in-progress at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. During the evening’s performance the choreographers will speak about their work, and following the performance they will take questions from the audience.
Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.