Prior to the premiere of the Alberta Ballet’s 2014 Up Close program, I had the opportunity to talk with Alexandrous Ballard. A balletmaster with company, Ballard is also an accomplished choreographer and created two pieces appearing on the Up Close program.
How did you end up with the Alberta Ballet?
I finished my performing career in Portland, Oregon with the Oregon Ballet Theatre. After going back to school & graduating, I was teaching a great deal, started a program for young men and was choreographing a lot for them. [This] eventually led to me forming my own dance company there. After the stock market/grand recession of 2008-09, most of the funding through the city and state that my company had been receiving was cut. So rather than disappear into the background and do amateur programs, I chose to shut the company… So, I sent my resume out and I got a bunch of people calling me back. I came up to Alberta and taught some classes and ran some rehearsals and they [Alberta Ballet] offered me the job. It was the closest actually to Portland of the jobs I had been offered. I took the Alberta Ballet job and this is my third year,
How did you get started as a choreographer?
In my previous company [Oregon Ballet Theatre] they used to have something called Moving Signatures where they would go into a smaller house of about 650 seats – [OBT’s] usual house is like the Jubilee Auditorium, which has about 2400 seats. For many years they would just bring in smaller contemporary choreographers, but at some point or another, they actually opened it up to dancers from the company who wanted to choreograph. So [we] made pieces, auditioned them for the Moving Signatures program and my piece was chosen. I did another piece for the company the following year, and a piece for the school and moved into choreography that way.
You have two pieces on the program for Alberta Ballet’s ‘Up Close’ program. How did the ‘Up Close’ program begin?
‘Up Close’ started because we were doing a major classical production, in this particular case, of Swan Lake. And like many of the big classical ballets, all of the largest set pieces and the majority of the dancing is done by women, which leaves the entire compliment of male dancers in the Alberta Ballet with very little to do during the day. So, Jean [Grand-Maitre]’s idea was originally that we do a studio show of the dancers using choreography by [principal dancer] Yukichi Hattori… It would be a way to keep the male dancers engaged and occupied for those long hours of rehearsal that really only required the women. So we did a work which was a collaboration between a dancer in the company, who wrote and performed music, and Yukichi Hattori, who both choreographed and performed in his (own) work. It was a tremendous success– we were completely sold out.
We’re doing [Giselle] this year and the second act has exactly one man and 36 women, so we decided to do another Up Close program. Should we ever come up against a year where we don’t have a big classical ballet that takes mostly women, it’s anyone’s guess whether we will continue to do the Up Close series because it does cost a great deal of money, and when you can only sell 75 to 200 seats, the figures don’t work out.
In Calgary, we actually perform in the Nat Christie Centre (Alberta Ballet Studios) in our main studio. We have a bleacher set up [for] about 75 to 80 people at a time in that space. The Timms Centre, where we will be up in Edmonton, will actually be a … more appealing space for all of us because it is an actual theatre.
Both Yukichi and I, as the choreographers, are taking great pains to make sure that that sense of being able to be onstage, to reach out and touch the performers…is maintained. Ballet is an art form that is usually seen over great distances … so when you put audience members right up within touching distance of the dancers, they see the profound athleticism and lot of the work that goes into it.
What pieces will be on the Up Close Program?
Each of us are doing one [new] work that was just made over the last 4 or 5 months, and then I am doing the Edmonton premiere of a work I did for One Yellow Rabbit. [It] is a duet for a man and a woman, but that woman, Reilley Bell, is the only girl in the entire program – she has to hang with 14 men!
So I have two pieces on the program, “Ruin/Time” and “The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe” and Yukichi has one piece titled “Temple”.
How much time did you have to create your new piece?
It was very limited, but that’s what we signed up for. There was never any illusion that we were going to get any long, sustained time to create. Yukichi and I started working all the way back in August, September when we were doing Madame Butterfly. I think we had one week where we actually had like three hours a day, but for the most part we had to put it together it bits and pieces, and drips and drabs – an hour here and then wait five days and an hour here and then wait ten days and an hour here – as we were doing we were doing our Fumbling Tour and Nutcracker. Which was quite frankly, very frustrating at times – it’s never easy to create, but it’s especially difficult to create when you don’t get to do it in a sustained and consistent fashion. [But] I think both pieces came out well.
The bigger and the better your name and your presence, the longer and more sustained the rehearsals that are made available to you. Which seems counterintuitive because you want to give the lesser of the choreographers some more time, but that’s not the way it works.
Were you given any budget for things like music, costumes and/or lighting?
When we were offered the opportunity to choreograph, the company was very clear [that] you are agreeing to do it with absolutely no budget, with music that is all in the public domain and with very little time. And if you don’t want to do that, don’t say yes. But I think both Yukichi and I felt that the chance the opportunity to choreograph [was worth it]. This is an amazing company – just fantastic dancers and the chance to work with them even in compromised circumstances is just tremendous.
Because I have costumes and things left over from my company, I was able to pull some stuff out of the warehouse that I have those stored in in Portland. I am doing very contemporary work – it’s not ballet ballet – so it’s basically the men are wearing nothing but booty shorts. And they’re naked otherwise – they have beautiful, beautiful bodies, so you want to show them off. Yukichi has made some informal costumes…
When you choreography, do you start with music, or a concept or a few steps or ???
Oh boy… well this is going to be different from choreographer to choreographer. I usually start out with a piece of music that I am familiar with or that I’ve heard and I have a vocabulary in mind. There is a generalized vocabulary which like ballet or modern, or you can use a very specific vocabulary which gives the work a look of it’s own. In my case, I used 3 different vocabularies, and … a whole series of movements which come out of my… training in many martial arts. So I used that as a movement generator for creating a series of male duets. I was interested in seeing if you could make two men dance together, and not have it be sexualized at all, so I used combat as a base for the movement.
How do you pick the dancers for your pieces?
It’s always from knowing them, and more importantly it’s from discovering them as you go. Very often, while I might have an initial idea or concept and some music… part of the joy of creating is discovering your dancers. [For “The Precise Nature of the Catastrophe”] there were [dancers] that I didn’t know very well, didn’t know what their capabilities were, didn’t know their personality. And in the process of making the piece, I really discovered who they are, what they’re doing and what they are capable of. And I really think if you’re a good choreographer and a good person, your works are about the people in them.
I was able to start to feed off the dancers, and it changed the direction of the piece entirely. Once the dancers’ voice started to become heard in the rehearsal process – if you are smart – you start to follow what they’re saying or you start to incorporate what they’re saying in your vision. I do a movement and then a dancer does it and their particular interpretation or physicality in doing it leads me in a completely different direction that I could not have thought of in my own way…it becomes something greater than you could figure out. And that’s very exciting. Good choreography is always a conversation in between the dancers and the choreographer. It’s never just the choreographer saying this is what you’ll do and this is how you’ll do it. It’s never that!
What do you find most challenging about choreography?
That really depends on the piece [and] on the circumstances. Sometimes you walk into a room and the piece almost makes itself… and then other times you have to fight for every teeny moment.
The most challenging thing about choreography for me, is that like any other art form it takes a great deal of practice, experimentation and repetition to become good. If you’re becoming a painter, you paint and paint and paint and paint, if you’re becoming a dancer you take class after class after class, if you’re becoming a musician you practice and practice and practice. [These are] out of the public eye and your success or failure (and inevitably failure – learning anything involves a great deal of failure) is not seen. When a musician practices … every missed note is only known to him or her. When a dancer screws up a step 15 times in a row, it’s only known by him or her & the teacher in the room. A painter can do a thousand terrible paintings in order to figure out how to do the masterpiece.
Choreography is different. Choreography, you have to do it [right] the first time – not many people will give you a second chance because you are spending dancers time, they’re spending costume money, they’re taking production time… and taking a risk that the audience will like it or not like it. If you go out there and do something which is not particularly successful, or not considered to be particularly successful it’s unlikely that you will get the chance to do it again.
You make a duet like I did, and if that duet had turned badly it wouldn’t have meant that I was a bad choreographer, just … that that particular experiment didn’t work out. A painter … can just throw [a bad] painting away. Same thing with a singer or musician or writer, but as a choreographer it’s out there … so you have to do it right the first time. So that means you are always compromising something.
In an ideal world, what would be the best way to develop choreographers?
Opportunity! You have to give people the opportunity to choreograph a lot. Most choreographers in Europe start out choreographing for their school or academy. If you do a bad piece for 10 students that is only seen by their parents, it’s just not that much of a disaster as doing a terrible piece that 3000 people see and that an entire season is dependent on to be a success.
So it’s just a matter of getting a situation where choreographers are allowed to practice and fail. Because any genuine learning process involves a certain amount of … not so much failure [making] a piece that you thought really would look good and then you see it on stage and think ‘OK, I don’t know what I was thinking!’ But now you’re a better choreographer because you’ll never make that mistake again.
If you look at the choreographic world, you’ll see a lot of people who became very notorious because they made one or two works and then you never hear of them. The expectation of them is that they are going to make a good work … and their 3rd work and their 4th work and their 5th work is not so good. And everyone gives up on them. In fact you have to engage and cultivate them in the same way you would cultivate a musician.
George Balanchine is considered one of the greatest choreographers ever [but] we really only [perform a fraction] of his works. What happened to those other works…[probably] they’re just not very good. But he just kept getting chances and chances and chances. If he turned out a bad piece everyone just went, well we’ll just wait and see what his next piece does. We consider Michael Jordan to be one of the best basketball players in history, but he missed more than half of his shots in his career!
As a choreographer, I’ve done works that I’ve looked and gone ‘Ooh! OK, not so good. But … at this point in my life and my career as a choreographer… I know what’s going to be, at the very least, engaging and entertaining. People may not like the music I choose, they may not like the movement vocabulary, but the work itself will be complete in the sense that the it will be a work that is engaging and entertaining … and thought provoking. But it took me years to be able to get to the point where I know I could do that. It just takes time. Maturity is really important in choreography.