s its name suggests, Cincinnati Ballet’s annual Kaplan New Works Series program has always been about what’s new. But this year marks an even greater evolution of the annual showcase. In addition to presenting the requisite titular new works — most often world premieres of somewhat risky, contemporary-leaning choreography — more significant shifts are afoot.
This year, four of the five New Works choreographers are women, each of whom is creating a world premiere. The sole male choreographer is William Whitener, former Kansas City Ballet artistic director. Whitener will present the program’s most classical work, a duet set to piano music performed live by Marcus Kuchle, Cincinnati Opera’s director of artistic operations.
There’s also a venue change. Since its inception nearly a decade ago, one unique aspect of the annual season opener has been that the performances have always taken place in the intimate space of Cincinnati Ballet’s largest rehearsal room, the Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Studio, which seats just a little more than 250.
Certainly one of the series’ charms is the rare opportunity to see dancers at such close range flexing their muscles, breathing, sweating — or glowing, as dancers do. This year, for the first time, all performances will take place in the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Why the change?
For one, with 437 seats, it can accommodate more people. Also, the need to shift the ballet’s classes around the home studios during New Works performance dates had become an imposition.
“Eight of the 10 shows last year were sold out,” says Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan. “The Jarson-Kaplan Theater, which often hosts contemporary dance, still has that level of intimacy, so it seemed like the best all-around solution.”
The Ballet’s New Works is also evolving into more of a program that shines the spotlight on established and emerging female choreographers.
In addition to Morgan herself, there are two returning choreographers, both native Cincinnatians and School for Creative and Performing Arts grads: Cincinnati-based Heather Britt, presenting her sixth New Works piece, which will feature live music from the Vocal Arts Ensemble; and Amy Seiwert, founder/artistic director of the San Francisco-based contemporary ballet company Imagery. Seiwert will present a suite of dances set to three songs from Bluegrass singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.
According to Morgan, Seiwert possesses a strong sense of theater. “She tells a really good story,” Morgan says. “She’s really good at communicating a mood or an evolution of time or relationships.”
A focus Seiwert and Morgan share is the wish to address the significant underrepresentation of female choreographers in the dance world, particularly among ballet companies.
Seiwert did some research in 2012, and the statistics she reported are striking: In the 2012-13 season, of the 290 ballets presented nationally by major companies — defined by an operating budget of $5 million or more — only 25 works were choreographed by women.
“It’s such a pitiful percentage,” Seiwert says, speaking by phone from her Bay Area home.
Significantly, Morgan says she’s been prioritizing female choreographers in recent years, and it shows: In 2012, Cincinnati Ballet presented seven of those 25 works.
“The most ironic thing is, in spite of this art form really being dominated by women, and Balanchine saying ‘Ballet is woman,’ there are so few female choreographers and/or artistic directors,” Morgan says.
Seiwart doesn’t believe there’s any one reason why.
“Your ego definitely takes so many hits when you’re a girl,” she says. “There’s another theory that women are so focused on their dance careers that they’re not even going to take the time out to develop the craft of choreography.”
Still, Seiwert remains hopeful. “At least we keep shining light on it, and that’s a great thing that [Morgan] is doing,” she says.
Another choreographer on the rise — and new to New Works — is Jennifer Archibald, artistic director of her Arch Dance Company. Archibald recently choreographed a piece for Atlanta Ballet, her first-ever ballet company commission, after which Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director John McFall recommended her to Morgan. A graduate of the Alvin Ailey School, Archibald has been commissioned to create dance works for the New York Knicks City Dancers, Hip Hop stars Ludacris and Shaggy and musical theater and contemporary dance companies.
“[Ballet] is definitely a genre that I wanted to experience and experiment with to show my range and my aesthetics,” says Archibald, speaking by phone in Cincinnati.
Switching between styles isn’t new to Archibald. She has always been immersed in the world of Hip Hop culture and dance, even during her conservatory training. She says this gives her work a “ferociousness of movement.” When choreographing, she draws on her broad experience.
“A Hip Hop dancer doesn’t have the lines that a ballerina has,” she says. “You have to be able to adapt to the dancer given to you.”
She also studied authentic movement at an acting conservatory.
“Exploring the truth behind all of the gestures is what I want to achieve when I walk into the studio,” Archibald says. “It crosses over all of my aesthetics, whether I’m doing Hip Hop or a ballet or a contemporary work, at the end of the day, it’s the movement that’s coming out of my world, out of my body and it initially starts from an emotion.”
As for Archibald’s thoughts on the gender disparity among choreographers, she says it’s a tough question.
“I know that there’s not a lot of us out there, but I don’t think about it in like a competitive way; that’s not my drive,” she says. “I know it’s male-dominated. It’s just interesting how, when you’re in New York City and you’re talking to your other colleagues, we know it’s always men who are always getting booked. And I don’t know if it’s because people feel that their work is better than a woman’s.”
“In this business you’re never guaranteed,” Archibald continues. “You always have to rely on an artistic director who’s willing to be open and go against the norm, and when I met with [Morgan], I got this vibe from her that she wanted to introduce something new to the community.”
That’s the evolutionary spirit of New Works, indeed. Perhaps even revolutionary?
Cincinnati Ballet presents the KAPLAN NEW WORKS SERIES in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center Sept. 11-21. More info: 513-621-5282 or cballet.org.