American Contemporary Ballet: When Dance Meets Design

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[dropcap]For[/dropcap] many, talking about ballet can feel like speaking in a foreign language. (Its mother tongue is French, after all). But choreographer and American Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director, Lincoln Jones, wants his audiences to be able to talk about ballet as easily as they would a film.

“Everybody in L.A. can speak critically about film,” says Jones. “They can usually talk about the script as separate from the acting, as separate from the editing, as separate from… maybe even the camera movements. And this I think makes for a very lively exchange. People are very invested in this art, and I want them to be able to do that with dance. I want them to have those same dialogues.”

To foster that kind of critical discussion and to build an audience for his fledgling ballet company, Jones and Associate Director/dancer Theresa Farrell started giving talks and demonstrations about ballet with just two dancers — Farrell and dancer Zsolt Banki.

The program morphed into the company’s annual “Dance + Design” series, which pairs live music, dance, and a lecture in an intimate setting — such as the company’s studio on the 32nd floor of THE BLOC skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles — to introduce, inform, and educate audiences on various ballet-related subjects.

Part grad-school seminar, part live performance, a “Dance + Design” event is akin to a TED Talk, but exclusively about ballet. Jones walks audiences through a subject — such as the language of George Balanchine’s ballets, the music of Tchaikovsky, or more recently, the structure of a ballet class. (These lectures are peppered with bits of wisdom, like “Dance is the spontaneous seed of everything that we do.”)

Yet Jones isn’t just a talking head. When his dancers jump into action to demonstrate a step or excerpt of choreography, he leaps in, too — something I observe when he leads audiences through a company ballet class at “Dance + Design’s” May session.

Like an expert sports commentator, Jones makes vocal corrections from the sidelines. “Imagine movements as sounds. Any little squiggle, imagine a scratch on the violin,” says Jones at one point, adding later, “Muddled choreography is like a stain on her dress, a smudge,” when one dancer takes too many extra steps into a vaulting leap.

Like a sculptor shaping clay, he’ll nudge a foot into a place or tilt a head just so. “Even when the ballet dancer is still, her body is full of motion,” says Jones as he adjusts a dancer’s limbs into place for an arabesque à terre.

Like a film director, he tells the audience when and where to look. “Watch their faces for stress,” says Jones, as the dancers perform a series of tricky multi-turn pirouettes across the floor. “Look at the face — happy to serious.”

Like a critic, he wants his audience to be informed. “My hope, at the end of the show, is to make 100 amateur ballet critics.”

Jones is tough on his dancers, he says, because he wants his audience to see ballerinas as he does — not as marionettes performing choreographed steps to a balletic narrative, but as musicians of movement with a vocabulary as rich and expressive as the scores to which they dance. For Jones, that means stripping away the aura of impermeable perfection that ballet typically exudes.

“Dancers are not acting. They’re really musicians. Their body is their instrument,” says Jones during the event.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons for putting essentially everyone in the same room with dancers,” he says a week later at a coffee shop in Culver City. “To not use theatrical lighting, to not use a big heavy red curtain, is to say this is not a fairy, this is Theresa Farrell,” he continues.

For all the exposure such a stripped-down presentation allows, the dancers don’t seem to mind.

“I like being presented not as an illusion,” says Farrell, reflecting on the company’s latest “Dance + Design” performance. “I did feel very exposed. The specific things he pointed out were things that I struggle with for real. But at the same time, I really had a rush from it… I feel a lot of energy that I feed off of from the audience. They can see every facial expression, for instance. You can see any little wobble. ”

It’s that kind of exhilaration from being so up close which, perhaps, inspires a flurry of questions at the end of the “Dance + Design” session by the audience — from the profound, “When does the technique start syncing? Does it become instinctual?” — to the candid, “Do you need to be double-jointed?”

In pulling the curtain back on ballet, Jones not only lets out some of the stuffy air from its rarefied world, but also gives audiences an enticing and sophisticated anchor on which to latch their curiosity.

“Imagine you’re in the 21st Century in Los Angeles, and you’re walking into an art form that has a four-hundred-or-more year history. That can be a disorienting thing,” he says, adding that his goal is to make the form as natural, and timeless, as possible.

“So it’s not disorienting,” he says, “And you can walk into it completely cold. And love it.”

DANCE+DESIGN II/MUSIC+DANCE:LA I; The Evolution of Ballet in Six Pas de Deux, June 16–19 at The BLOC.


Christina Campodonico

Christina Campodonico

Christina is an arts journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Argonaut, where she is a staff writer. She loves reading, writing and watching other people perform.