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Movement Innovation with Molly Lynch

In 1991, Molly Lynch, who was then director of the Orange County-based Ballet Pacifica, launched an annual three-week workshop, Pacifica Choreographic Project, to provide the company with new works created for her dancers by four guest choreographers. Fast forward to 2004, when Lynch, who’d resigned from Ballet Pacifica the year before, founded the National Choreographic Initiative (NCI). Its mission, however, was essentially the same: to provide emerging and mid-career contemporary ballet choreographers a three-week laboratory to foster new works, with the workshopped dances then performed on stage for an audience.

And what a mission it’s been! Lynch, currently a Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts at UC Irvine, has overseen the thriving project that to date has hosted some 68 choreographers, with 30 to 35 of their works having gone on to be completed and premiered with other organizations, as well as making use of 145 dancers from 49 different companies.

Lynch, 66, explained that her initial desire in founding the project stemmed from her interest in Diaghilev and the way he developed the art form with his Ballets Russes. She also saw the benefit in modeling NCI after South Coast Repertory’s new play-reading series.

“This allows playwrights to be able to have plays read onstage, without being fully produced and commissioned,” she noted, “so they can make adjustments. I thought, “Why can’t we do that in dance, have a workshop situation where you can see what you’re working on, but not necessarily be focused on a finished product.”

This year’s participating choreographers are Emily Adams, Leiland Charles, Jennifer Hart and Gina Patterson, with their work culminating in a July 30 concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, which will also be livestreamed. With NCI’s budget between $130,000 to $140,000 (all from individual donors), the choreographers are given a fee, housing, ample rehearsal time and professional dancers—who are also paid—ensuring the choreographers a pressure-free environment to create any kind of dance they want.

Indeed, NCI, solely by dint of word-of-mouth, has grown into a kind of mini-brand, with the selection process, which began in January, easy enough: Applicants submit links to videos, a resume or CV and any press articles the choreographers might have received. “This year more than 100 choreographers applied,” said Lynch, “which was a very high number. In the past, maybe there were 50, but there’s been a shortage of opportunities because of Covid and people are wanting to get back into it.”

Lynch added that she’s looking for ballet-based choreographers, “which doesn’t mean they have to work on pointe, but are interested in using a ballet vocabulary in a classic or contemporary vein. Besides that, I’m open to choreographers who are relatively new in their careers and also mid-career choreographers that need an open forum, a new collaborative environment to be working in.

“A lot of times,” she continued, “choreographers will get into doing the same thing over and over again, because they have to produce a premiere. I’m not asking for a proposal. I want them to come with a blank piece of paper, to experiment, to try things out, to be inspired by the dancers in front of them—not to have to produce a fully structured piece. I tell them there’s no time limit and they don’t have to finish anything.”

Lynch acknowledged that a piece can be as short as five minutes or as long as 20 minutes, or could even be part of a commission the choreographer might be working on. In other words, she explained, “I try to leave it as an open book for them to experiment with and what they feel they need to be doing for the next phase of their careers.”

Leiland Charles. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Leiland Charles, who currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, and is in his sixth season dancing with BalletMet, is one of this year’s choreographers. Having graduated from the Juilliard School in 2014, he began making dances as a student and has since created works for Alberta Ballet and for his current company. He said that he learned about NCI through a BalletMet colleague.

“I love that Molly has been so open about the fact that for the choreographers, we can use this time to create what we like,” Charles elucidated, “and there’s no pressure to finish something for the showing. You can have your creative outlet and voice to do what you like. I’m humbled and grateful to be here, and to have these beautiful dancers at my disposal is such a gift. My goal is that, hopefully, the audience and the dancers will also get a positive experience out of this.”

Charles, 29, said that he’s choreographing a work for four women and four men that will clock in at about 15 minutes. His piece, “The Tide,” is set to music of Adrian Berenguer and was inspired by a memory he had of nearly drowning when he was in seventh grade.

“I started thinking of the dichotomy of water,” Charles recalled. “A pool or an ocean can be so calming, but it can also take out an entire civilization. There’s a beautifully calm element, but it could also be very disastrous.”

Metaphors aside, at NCI it’s all about process and Lynch is decidedly hands-on, doing, she made clear, “a little bit of everything. I try and let them move forward with what they’re thinking in terms of growth and development, but I’m there on site all the time to answer questions, to have conversations, to look at things.

“I don’t really put myself in a structured position. I try to leave it open so it’s more collaborative and fluid. I’m there and willing to listen, willing to watch, willing to ask questions. I think that’s more my area. I’m willing to support them and see that they have freedom, which is important for choreographers developing a new work.”

In rehearsal with Leiland Charles at NCI, 2022. Image courtesy of NCI

Having nearly 40 hours of rehearsal time is also a boon for the NCI choreographers, as well as working with dancers chosen by Lynch herself, with pre-conceived terpsichorean ideas, including those touching upon hot-button political issues, especially in these fraught times, a possibility—or not!

Explained Lynch: “Some have come with these types of ideas in the past, but I’m not selecting them based on what they think they want to do, although I wouldn’t be surprised and I’m supportive of that [kind of work]. It’s for us to see on July 30.”

Music can also be an integral part of dancemaking, with Lynch occasionally offering judicious suggestions to choreographers. “They might have something in mind, that they’ve got several different pieces of music and ask me, “What do you think?” I say, “Bring all of them and see what suits you when you get here,” because most of the time they’re not going to be super familiar with the dancers, so my attitude is, ‘Come with several ideas, several pieces of music and you can change afterwards.’”

Lynch added that she might see the choreographers working on something for three days and then throw it out, which is also fine. “I have had people work on two different ideas during the process and then show different ideas at the end. You never know.”

Gina Patterson, choreographer at NCI 2022. Image courtesy of the artist

Another choreographer in this year’s Initiative, who’d also been part of Pacifica Choreographic Project in 2003, is Gina Patterson. She did arrive with a specific idea in mind, a dance about Camille Claudel, a sculptor and mistress/muse of the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin. Unfortunately, Claudel’s story is a tragic one: Spending 30 years in a psychiatric hospital, she died in relative obscurity in 1943 at age 78.

“Mental health, of course,” said the choreographer, “is coming more into the forefront, and this gives us an opportunity to talk about her life and how we can relate to it. It’s an unending stream of rich content.”

And while Claudel gained recognition after her death, and has since been the subject of several biographies and films, as well as a 2011 work, “Rodin,” choreographed by Boris Eifman, founder and director of St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet, Patterson, 53, was more than game to tackle such a subject.

Patterson, a 2021 Bogliasco Fellow who lives in Jackson Hole, WY, with her husband Eric Midgley, spent time in Italy last fall doing research and development for her work, “Camille Unseen.” She said that being part of this year’s NCI is a great opportunity to continue creating the piece that was originally commissioned for Contemporary Dance Wyoming.

“In Italy, I spent a lot of time thinking, developing and imagining this full-scale work, and coming back to NCI was a great way for me to realize this. How do I take it off of the page and into the bodies and into the energy of the dancers? What does the container look like and how are we filling that with the intentions and aspects of her life?”

Patterson, hailed by Backstage Magazine as a dancemaker of “startling originality,” has created more than 100 choreographies, collaborating across disciplines and whose work appears in the repertory of more than 25 companies, including Voice Dance Company, Nashville Ballet and Richmond Ballet; she has also had her work presented internationally throughout Europe and in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. But being at NCI, where she’s working with six dancers, three men and three women, on what will probably be a 20-minute work, holds a special place in her heart.  

“A platform like this is invaluable for anybody at any stage. I feel like not having the pressure to have a final result opens so many possibilities. I’m grateful to Molly for this chance. I’m working on building the language first and the concept, which, however many years ago, when I did come here, I had the music, I had a phrase on count, but today, it’s almost the opposite approach.”

Patterson added that her process isn’t “so much about what I want to say, but being able to have conversations based on deep inquiry. The conversations in the studio have been really rich, and a work that happens in the studio can ripple out into society.

“There’s more awareness of ourselves through a dance process in creating art that can help a slow shift in our humanity,” Patterson noted. “That’s just a theory, but for me, I’m always pushing myself and just seeing what else there is, how to approach things better, it always starts with ourselves. If you have a bunch of people coming together with that kind of mentality, transformation can happen.”

Patterson, whose piece has music that incorporates Italian and French bell sounds recorded on location by her husband, also accentuated the notion that NCI is about community and sharing. “When I was talking with some of the dancers recently, I realized that I’m in a place to be able to be more spacious and generous in service to the dancers. When you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience, energy is put into constructing the dance, but I’m able to know now that I have that capability and can allow for the time to be about the coaching, to help them discover more, rather than just having to focus on the construction of the dance.”

Dancers taking class with NCI director Molly Lynch. Image courtesy of NCI

This sense of camaraderie is also key to NCI, and as the initiative approaches its two-decade anniversary, Lynch said that she’s “most proud of offering the opportunity to so many choreographers. The thing that came out of it that was not part of my initial goal, is that so many of these pieces are going on to be completed and performed by other companies.”

And one choreographer even went on to form her own troupe. Former New York City Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet dancer, Melissa Barak, who had choreographed works for both of those companies, formed L.A.-based Barak Ballet in 2013. Recalling that the native Angeleno participated in NCI in 2007 and 2012, Lynch said that Barak not only used work she developed during the project, but “she’s also used other choreographers from NCI, as well. I find that exciting.”

Optimism is another component of Lynch’s entrepreneurial arsenal. “My hope,” she gushed, “is that NCI gives choreographers an opportunity to expand their scope and that they will have something to sell to companies,” adding that she has no plans to step down in the future.

“For the next 20 years, 10 years or five years, I guess I feel like we’ve adapted through the pandemic and we’ll adapt through whatever comes next. It’s always different. Every year we bring in different choreographers and different dancers. The format is relatively set and the structure may be similar, although I’m willing to adapt if that needs to change, but it feels new and different every year because new and different people are collaborating.”