We almost saw the end of National Choreographers Initiative (NCI), a crown jewel of the Orange County dance scene, and internationally respected as a program that supports the continued evolution and innovation of ballet. 

After a year of hiatus due to the pandemic, founder and artistic director Molly Lynch didn’t know if the organization, which is completely donor-supported, would survive another year of absence from the stage. But when planning for the event began, COVID cases were on the rise and vaccines were not widely available to all age groups. A 2021 event would be risky.

“I told my advisory council, ‘If we don’t give this a try this year, we’re done.’ We won’t muster the energy, the contacts. We won’t be able to keep the donors going. Thinking of that scenario is exactly the thing that made us say ‘we’ve got to try.’”  

Molly Lynch, National Choreographers Initiative Founder and Artistic Director

But saying “yes” was not without challenges. Lynch and her team faced new procedures and logistics that have never been a part of planning for NCI in the organization’s 18-year history, starting with a “return to campus plan” required by UC Irvine where the event is hosted. 

Lynch shared that she had to think through and note every step of the dancers’ stay in Orange County. From how the participants would travel to Irvine – driving instead of flying – down to which hallways and which specific bathrooms the designated cohorts could use while on campus.  

“I had a moment where I asked myself, ‘Am I crazy to be trying to do this, or what?’” Lynch said. “Rehearsals are nearly impossible if you are social distancing. Would it even be worth it?”

Dancers from the NCI 2019 perform an untitled piece by choreographer Tom Mattingly. Credit: Photo courtesy of NCI/Dave Friedman

But still, she pressed on.

“We knew (the experience) wasn’t going to be exactly like what it was previously, but we had to do the best we can do to get back to live rehearsals and performances,” she said. 

Putting Artists Back to Work

If NCI had gone dark for good, it would have been just one of many arts organizations forced to shut its doors in 2020 due to lack of funding from being inoperative. 

The arts and entertainment fields in California generated a greater percentage of unemployment claims last year than even the hospitality sector. Reopening guidelines written by Californians for the Arts reference a California Department of Labor report indicating that the arts, entertainment and recreation sector saw the largest percentage of job loss in the state, 40.3% from March 2020 to August 2020, compared to that of the leisure and hospitality sector which saw a job loss rate of 27%.

Dancers working on a new piece during a 2021 National Choreographers Institute workshop. Post from @ncidance on Instagram.

NCI choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska shared that she was out of work from March 2020 to January 2021 and her participation at NCI could not have come at a better time. 

“To be honest, I felt out of shape. My mind kind of slowed down a bit, because I was out of practice from the inaction of so many months,” Skarpetowska said. “There has been a lot of transition for dancers, choreographers, teachers. Their lives have stopped, in a way their identity stopped. We live and breathe this art form. It defines us as people. It’s who we are.”

Yet, desperate times forced many artists to retire or take up a new profession.

Dancers Who Don’t Dance

As studios closed, performances were canceled and tours were grounded, declining mental health became saddled with the more apparent economic challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“Dancers, when they are not dancing, they wonder if they exist, and that existential question, I think, is pervasive around the world …. How do we exist in this world that has changed so radically?” said Paula Thomson during a webinar presented in April 2020 by the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science.

Thomson, who is a professor and dance coordinator in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, spoke in a webinar series titled “Helping Dancers Help Themselves” about performing artists’ mental health and COVID-19. 

“Early on, (dancers) feel that urge to move, to dance, to express. That is also part of their identity so they form an attachment relationship with their own talent, not just with other people but with themselves as dancers,” Thomson said during the webinar. 

Thomson, who was interviewed later by phone, said the imminent return to the stage comes with risk but incredible joy.

“Being without that community for so long, when they actually come together –  dancers, other collaborators, an audience – coming back to this live connection is such a gift and it is deeply inherent to who we are as human beings,” she said. 

This collective feeling of loss felt by the dance community and anticipated joy was a great motivator for Lynch in pushing for the return of the National Choreographers Initiative. 

“I think we’ve proven to ourselves that people need the arts. They are enriching but also therapeutic. We need to have that in our lives,” Lynch said. “Isolating people is not healthy. This time has shown the importance of expression through movement and music.”

Investing in the Future of Dance

In the early 1990s, Lynch started this choreographic program to foster the creation of new dance works and as a way to build repertory for Ballet Pacifica, which she directed from 1988-2003. Over the years, NCI has grown into an important incubator of new ballet works, not just for Southern California, but across the country and world. 

NCI choreographer alumni have gone on to be artistic directors of ballet companies, including Amy Seiwert (NCI 2008) who took over as artistic director of Sacramento Ballet in 2018, and Ma Cong, who made his Broadway choreographic debut with “M. Butterfly” in 2016. He was recently named associate artistic director of Richmond Ballet. 

‘NCI Discovery’

When: 8 p.m. July 24

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: In-person general, $45; in-person student, $20; live-stream, $20.

Tickets: Purchase online at thebarclay.org or by phone at (949) 854-4646

This year, NCI takes on an additional significance by providing paid work for dancers and getting them back on stage.    

On Saturday, July 24, Orange County audiences will enjoy four works from up-and-coming choreographers and see a cast of professional dancers made of company members from Smuin Ballet and Sacramento Ballet. After the premiere at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the creators hope these works will find their way into the repertoire of dance companies around the world. 

“The NCI project is an important part of nurturing new works and keeping the art form moving forward,” said Irvine Barclay Theatre president Jerry Mandel. “The Barclay has been safely operating since our reopening on June 24th. While producing dance has its own set of unique challenges, (Lynch) and her team put together a sound approach to this year’s project that gave us confidence that we could move forward with this event.”

Navigating the pandemic through remote learning and partial ensembles has only served as a temporary solution. According to Lynch, the arts must nurture a revived sense of use and importance in order to survive past the pandemic. She is taking the first step, bringing the next generation of choreographers and dance leaders with her.

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

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