When Saint Louis Ballet presents its Contemporary Series on May 10 and 11 at The Touhill Performing Arts Center, it will premiere brand new choreography by artistic director Gen Horiuchi, Dance St. Louis’ Michael Uthoff and Christopher d’Amboise. A renowned choreographer, former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet and former principal of New York City Ballet, d’Amboise says he was inspired by his previous work with Saint Louis Ballet, and created his work in conjunction with the troupe. He gave us insights into the process and the upcoming performance.
I understand this isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Saint Louis Ballet.
This is now my third time to do work with the company. The previous two pieces I had choreographed for other companies, and the artistic director here wanted to present them on his season; but the last time I was here, we talked about doing something new that was unique to Saint Louis Ballet. Gen and I have a similar sensibility—we were both in New York City Ballet. I find the dancers here not only talented as dancers, but interesting as individuals. I wanted to do a piece that brought out the personality of the dancers in a theatrical way. The piece that I’m working on is structured differently than most ballets—it’s still an abstract ballet, but it’s a series of vignettes about relationships, and each section features different dancers and their personalities.
Can you tell us some more about the piece you’re working on ?
It’s called Volatizing the Esters, which comes from the name of my wife’s blog. She’ a wine expert, and it’s the term for when wine connoisseurs swirl the wine to oxygenate it and release its darker aromas and complexities. That’s a great metaphor for this piece—it’s about stirring up the dancers and releasing the intoxicating complexities.
As I said, it centers around relationships, but not always relationships between two people. All of the music is Beethoven, and one section is set to Moonlight Sonata. It’s a solo for a man; and in the back there’s a wall, and behind the wall will be a shadow of another dancer moving exactly the same way that the lead solo man does. Bit by bit, the shadow begins to have another idea of what to do, and it begins to lead the man in a different direction. The dancer behind the wall represents one’s intuition and subconscious that now and again nudges you to change your ways—sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.
There is also a pas de deux between a man and woman, who are trying to hang on to each other as the environment literally tosses them around. They dance on a 20-foot by 20-foot swath of carpet, and as they dance others are spinning it around and rolling up the edges. The dancers are being tossed around in it, like in the movie where the tsunami hits the family and they try to stay together—that’s what this section looks like.
What do you like about being a freelance choreographer as opposed to being affiliated with a particular group?
I had been director of Pennsylvania Ballet for many years. In the American system, being a director of a major company and being creative at the same time is impossible because you spend so much of your time doing fundraising and management. I left so I could freelance as a choreographer, and take on projects that I really want. It gives me the opportunity to do different kinds of things every year.
When you’re directing a company, one of the advantages is that you can train the dancers over time to do the kind of work that you do. But as you get more experienced as a choreographer, you find interesting the challenge of making work that is exciting for you and for the dancers that you haven’t trained, who have different qualities than you would normally have used. It forces you to come up with new ways of creating work.
You’ve worked in both theater and ballet—how are the challenges they present different?
When you work with theater, it’s my belief that choreography should somehow further either the plot or the emotional development. Unless it’s an old-fashioned musical, you don’t have anything that is just a big dance number; it’s more integrated into storytelling process. You can’t just do a five-minute section just because it’s beautiful. You have to have an agenda within the story, which is an interesting challenge for me. I love that, but with ballet you can do a whole five-minute section that’s just nothing but beautiful. It’s like a tall glass of clear water on a hot day. I think that what we’re about to present falls somewhere between the two.