Each year, the Louisville Ballet gives its dancers a chance to step to the front of the rehearsal room as they create new works for the company’s Choreographers’ Showcase.
With the beginning of Robert Curran’s tenure as head of the company, the showcase has also featured a guest choreographer, a theme and a more rigorous application process that aims to bring out top-notch work from the emerging artists in the company.
This year’s theme is “narrative,” and each of the four pieces attempts to tell a story, stepping away from the more abstract aspects of some contemporary ballets. Insider spoke with three of the choreographers about their process and inspiration.
“This piece is inspired by my parents’ immigration story,” says Sanjay Saverimuttu. The dancer has been with the ballet since 2012, and this is his fourth time creating work for the showcase. For his narrative, Saverimuttu reached into his past and familial history. “Before the season started, I interviewed my parents — officially — to sort of find out more about that period of time, why they left their home in Sri Lanka.”
The story he found deals with the emotional pressure of coming to a new country while simultaneously becoming first-time parents; Saverimuttu’s mother was pregnant at the time of their immigration.
He says the resulting piece is meant to speak to all sorts of immigrants. “My parents’ immigration story isn’t the only story — it isn’t the only way people come to this country.”
He also suspects his parents’ story is worth further investigation. “There may be other pieces that come out of that,” he says. “There’s still stories there that are relevant to today even. There’s more to explore in the future.”
Justin Michael Hogan’s new narrative work centers around a T.S. Eliot poem and an all-but-forgotten ballet story.
“Robert (Curran) handed me a book with 200-plus ballet stories, and all of these stories were from 1950 or earlier,” recalls Hogan. This book included well-known tales like “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” but it also included others Hogan had never heard of before. He immersed himself in the book and gravitated to a story called “Harlequin in April.”
So he started researching this forgotten story and quickly discovered the program notes from the original staging of the ballet included quotes from “The Wasteland” — perhaps the most famous poem from Eliot.
“As my creative process began to unfold, ‘The Wasteland’ had a lot of unique parallels,” says Hogan.
He began working with Joanna L. Englert, an Eliot buff as well as the ballet’s associate development officer, and created a script from the poem that was then recorded by local actors Dara Jade Tiller and Jon O’Brien.
Meanwhile, Insider wasn’t able to speak with choreographer Roger Creel, but we got a peak at the program notes for the show, and it contained some hints about his piece titled “Know.” It poses the following questions: What happens when a woman chooses among lovers? What happens if her feelings change through time? And if she second guesses her choice?
Rounding out this year’s choreographers is guest choreographer Ben Needham-Wood. While the dancer began his professional career at Louisville Ballet, for the last four years he’s been dancing and choreographing in San Fransisco. But he’s glad to be back.
“As soon as I got off the plane, I was like, ‘I’m home!’ And now there’s a picture of Louisville Ballet in the terminal at the airport, so it’s even better,” he says.
Needham-Wood is perhaps expressing his Louisville love with the story his narrative is telling.
“This whole conversation started with Robert about a year and a half ago, and the idea was to create a work that was centered around (a) Kentucky Derby theme, with a narrative,” he says.
Needham-Wood began researching the Derby and talking with Curran about what makes the event so special.
“What stood out to me was that what really drew people to Derby were the stories of the horses and the jockeys, and that’s what draws them to bid on different horses and leads to that real strong connection,” he explains.
He wondered if you could connect people to the stories of the dancers in the company in same way. “So I wanted to explore, if I could interview the dancers, and find a way to let you hear their voices, hear what’s going on inside their heads and inside their hearts, while you see them dancing.”
We noticed a recurring theme during these interviews, as each choreographer talked about the research component of their creations. Turns out that isn’t a coincidence.
“When Robert came, he challenged all of us to really do more in the application process,” says Saverimuttu. “Before, we used to just write number of people, music and maybe a slight concept.”
Needham-Wood adds that the looser application process isn’t uncommon. “There’s a very familiar model a lot of companies work with, with a choreographic showcase … ‘Oh, whoever in the company wants to create, you’re welcome to.’”
The choreographers believe the process Curran put in place requires a much more in-depth description of the artists’ visions, as well as research into the concepts and historical precedents in the field of dance that might deepen or add to the creative vision. They all agree that the new, more strenuous process is yielding greater creative rewards.
“This is far and away the most ambitious piece I’ve created,” says Hogan.
The Louisville Ballet’s Choreographers’ Showcase runs Jan. 24-28. Tickets are $30. With limited intimate seating in the ballet’s studio — located at 315 E. Main St. — performances are selling out fast.