Tulsa Ballet asked choreographer Jodie Gates to create a new piece for this year’s “Creations in Studio K,” the groundbreaking series that has produced a crop of fresh ballets every May since 2008. Gates — founder and director of the Laguna Dance Festival and Vice Dean and Director of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance — has spent time with TB before, setting “In the middle, somewhat elevated” by her choreographic mentor, William Forsythe. I spoke with her in 2011 about staging that ballet, and I had the pleasure of sitting down with her again two weeks ago, on her last day of work in Tulsa, to talk about her new piece, “The Angle of Incidence,” which will premiere the first weekend in May at Studio K alongside new works by Ma Cong and Young Soon Hue Simon.
AC: Thank you for another chance to talk with you! I got to watch a little of your process of teaching “In the middle, somewhat elevated” to the dancers here a few years ago and I was very interested in the language you were using. I’d like to hear about the piece you’re making, about your process, about your influences, and I have a million questions … but start with this piece.
JG: So you know that I’ve been choreographing for about 12 years. It’s not that long, really. Something I always like to pride myself on is that I’ve persevered through all the other responsibilities I have in my life. It’s a form of creativity that once I left the stage really filled a void for me — working with dancers, a sense of community, being able to share language, vocabulary, and a sense of humanity together — so that’s been very pleasing for me. Even more so being a female neoclassical choreographer, that’s what I feel most proud of. There’s not many of us out there, and to be getting to work with dancers of this caliber, this is extraordinary. I feel incredibly blessed to be here, actually.
The piece I decided to do for the company is with five couples, five men, five women. It’s a Saint-Saens piece of music that consists of five movements (Cello and Orchestra Opus 16). The music is rather classical but the movement is not, it’s juxtaposition to the movement. It’s about 21 minutes long. I struggled with whether I wanted [the women] on pointe or not. I knew that Ma [Cong]’s piece was on pointe because I’d watched a rehearsal of his piece back in August when I was here setting “In the middle,” and I thought: diversity in the program! I don’t know what the other choreographer will be doing, but why don’t I take them off pointe? So that lends itself to more organic movement, they’re able to get more grounded, so we’ve been exploring. There’s a quickness in it. The movement that I tend to have established within my choreography is very circular and voluptuous, I suppose.
AC: Yes — in the clips I watched of your choreography I saw something I don’t often see in neoclassical work, which was epaulement, so much lush upper body. I see a lot of arms in choreography these days and a lot of legs, but not often that sort of across-the-body poetry, and I was very struck by that.
JG: Thank you!
AC: I remember you talking about epaulement when you were here staging the Forsythe piece. I don’t think the first thing people might think of when they think of Forsythe would be epaulement, but it makes all the difference in the piece.
JG: Absolutely, he’ll say it’s epaulement and hands, because the hands show you where to go. And that’s ballet at its best. So the exquisite part of being able to create a work here is that these dancers are so incredibly trained that Marcello has hand-picked and they all have a great sense of epaulement, so it’s already leaps and bounds above most other companies. So it makes that process a lot easier.
With this piece, I see a lot of it as a whirlwind, a tornado of sorts [laughs]…
AC: You’re in the right place!
JG: Yeah, it’s been on my mind! So there’s a sense of swirling, particularly in the last movement, a lot of it is very simple, a lot of it is just duet work, so it’s been fun to explore.
AC: Is there a tone to the piece, a color, a theme, any images you had in mind before you started? Is there something that you wanted to work out?
JG: Yes, it’s abstract but there is a ramp as a prop, it’s a rather large ramp, about 10 feet long, and another 5×5 platform on the top, about three feet high, so we’ll be using that quite a bit. It’s a descending and ascending sort of feeling. I’ll say, “I want you to run up or slide down or do a duet here but smaller, on the platform,” so we’re going to work that out in the next 24 hours. I want them to move it too, so how long does it take for the dancers to move the ramp? We’ll work that out too. So in my head it seems incredibly cool [laughs]. We’ll see! The pleasure is in imagining and inventing movement and the process, and you hope that the outcome is equally as thoughtful and entertaining and successful.
I think of the word “refracting” — this idea of when something goes in water, how it distorts the water — so you’ll see a lot of the movement has a lot of that circular counterpoint to it. It goes in and out of classicism. I’ll say to a dancer, “do your favorite jump, right over there!” So it pops like that too. I think it’s going to be entertaining, a nice gentle piece. There’s no narrative, not yet. It’s funny how when I look at it after it’s done I’ll say, oh yes, this was working something out, [maybe] a life moment for me but also for the dancers because they’re also in a place in their lives and you feel that energy every day.
Though I have a plan, when I come to work with companies I really like to work intuitively and feel them out too and empower them with the ability to help collaborate. For example, the first day I taught three phrases, phrase A B C. Pretty much motifs throughout the ballet. And I asked them to partner up and make a duet from those motifs. I gave them a few tasks to do and they came up with great material, a lot of which is the initiation for the duets. So it’s fun. They own it, like a piece of clothing, they wear it, it looks natural on them, and it also makes the process collaborative.
AC: Which is more fun than standing at the front of the room saying “I have all the ideas, I am here to pour them into your bodies”…
JG: Yeah! Last night I was working, it was the end of the day, I was a bit tired because I’ve been really going fast, creating a lot of material very very fast (in 9 days I’ll have done 22 minutes!), and I actually looked at the dancers and said, “I don’t have a clue. Help me out here.” And they did! “How about we try this?” I just had to be honest, I felt a little bit blocked. It was the first time, and of course it’s going to happen, and they were great.
AC: So they have been empowered with the confidence that they understand the piece well enough now, because they’ve been participating in it, to be able to intuit what might come next. That really comes through in performance, when the dancers are deeply invested in it personally.
JG: I think you’re absolutely right with that, but watching this last program with the Forsythe and Christopher Bruce and Alejandro [Cerrudo]’s piece they were equally deeply invested, so it’s partially because of them. I would have guessed that that [points to “Extremely Close” playing on a video screen near where we’re sitting] was choreographed on them. And that comes from their training, their diversity. They’re able to dig in deep, and it’s authentic. So I do commend that that’s already part of the culture here but it is true that when it’s your movement you see that it’s more organic.
The first movement in my piece is right now the strongest; it’s almost like it introduces the strengths of the couples right away. The piece starts with a shaft of light that goes up onto the ramp and already you don’t even have to speak about what that means because it’s going to mean something different for you than it does for me, but it’s certainly an ascension. So I asked two women to initially improvise a duet and I gave them three tasks: surfacing, avoidance, and contact through manipulation of each other’s limbs. These two women made a very interesting duet! And it happens to a very quiet drone in the music just to set up the piece, and they are ascending slowly to the ramp. And then the two men just follow quietly behind them, just walking, and the music starts and the ballet goes. The beginning of the piece is quite strong, or I feel like it could be if I really get it right, if I’m able to fix a few little things and tweak it, so I’m kind of right now processing through all five movements and finding the linchpins within each movement. There are highs and lows; it’s hard to keep everything as clear as I would like it.
AC: What’s your editing process like?
JG: Well, right now I can see that I have too much material and I hope I have enough time before I leave to edit away some of that. I can see where things are really working. I can see where I have a good idea and I have them moving really really fast, really fast, and I’m not sure yet because I haven’t stepped away from it to tell if it’s a bit too much. But I try to be very thoughtful about editing because I do know that it’s better to give less than more a lot of the time, but particularly in the fifth movement I’m working on now — where the music is huge, it’s robust, it’s orchestra — I’m struggling with just having somebody walking across the stage! I don’t know if that’s gonna happen! You might just see a lot of people running in circles and lifting and things going on because it’s hard for me to let that go. So I’m hoping to filter through that.
The good thing is I brought my assistant with me, her name is Jennifer Lott, and she and I have been working together very successfully as a team. I’ll set the phrase, and she’ll go and teach it to them as I go rehearse a duet. It’s like having four eyes, so as an editor too I’ll say to her, “does that look like it’s too much?” And it’s really helpful. It’s like having a dramaturge. And she stages my works too, so she’ll know this one, so it will have a life.
New creations are done every year here, which is so amazing, I so commend Marcello for that because it’s so key for choreographers like me to have the opportunity to work with these fine dancers and also for the dancers to have the opportunity to be created on and have a voice and get to know themselves better as artists.
AC: I’m curious about your thoughts on women in dance today. Is it like in the Renaissance where people would say, oh, there weren’t any women painters then, and you say, no, there were plenty of women painting, they were just keeping their paintings in their houses because there wasn’t a market for them. Is the same sort of thing happening with choreography?
JG: It’s funny, it makes me think of a piece I did in Berlin in 2008 or 2009 to Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn’s music. They were brother and sister; it’s a fascinating story, I’d love to do more of a narrative about them. What’s fascinating about her is that she was composing gorgeous music, but her brother had to produce it for her. We’ve come a long way since then. We’re seeing more of a trend of female choreographers, female directors. I think it’s difficult to be a woman coming from the ballet world and then become a choreographer. I think it’s changing because now there’s this hybrid dancer who does it all. With modern contemporary dance you start to explore movement a bit more rather than being told what to do as the ballerina. I think women are exploring within a piece they might be doing — like me creating a work here, for example, might be spawning some interest in some woman here. They see me, but I’m [asking them], “What do you think? Do you think that’s going to work here?”
AC: You’re giving them choreographic tools. They get to see every day how you do it.
JG: I was 35 when I left as a principal with Pennsylvania ballet. I had a beautiful job there, dancing all the roles I’d always wanted to dance when I was at the Joffrey but didn’t get the opportunity due to the difference in repertoire. I knew I needed to be mentored to choreograph. So I knew I either had to go back to college or … go to Frankfurt! [laughs] And I went to Bill [Forsythe] and asked if I could be there. First of all I wanted to dance that rep, but also I learned so much, I just needed tools. I would love to create workshops to teach simple compositional tools to dancers who haven’t had that in college. In college you take improv and comp, right, so I think there is something to that, but I think we’ll see more female choreographers. Neoclassical ballet choreographers, I should say. I hope we do see more of that. There’s probably only a few of us who do this type of work with ballet companies that are women at the moment, but I sense there’s a shift coming.
For me I feel as though it’s my responsibility. I have this great body of knowledge from dancing so many different people’s works. That all informs my own work. Obviously Bill is going to inspire me — critics say “it’s rather Forsythean” — but I’m so influenced by so many people whose work I’ve danced, whether it be Lar Lubovitch or Mark Morris’s musicality or Antony Tudor. I definitely know that all those steps are in my body somewhere even though I don’t dance anymore. It’s a part of my physical intellect. And in the meantime I’m trying to find just how do I move, how to transpose that on a group.
AC: I love that image of all the pieces that you’ve ever performed living in you. When these dancers are learning and rehearsing a piece for weeks and weeks on end and then they get it sort of charged into them with adrenalin in performance, it stays in the body…
JG: It’s like a shard for life!
AC: It’s like a war wound!
JG: It’s true! [laughs] You’re accumulating all of this stuff!
AC: And years after the fact you make a gesture and you think “that’s from Tudor!”
JG: So often I’ll do a step, be creating something, and I’ll go, wait a sec, what ballet is that from? I have to stop myself and I’ll ask, did anybody ever dance that? And sometimes they catch it and sometimes they just haven’t danced the role, but that step is in there, it’s probably from a preparation or a transition, and it works still. I don’t mind. We all are derivative. It’s hard to do something completely original and when I do see choreographers accomplish that and succeed in that it just pleases me so much. It’s rare. I’ve seen it a couple times. It’s beautiful. For me, I guess I so enjoy the process, I so love making movement, I love having that human exchange with fellow artists. I think that’s what drives me to continue to create new work.
And again, being a woman, a neoclassical choreographer, I feel like I’m in a special position in my life to be able to have these opportunities. I’m so grateful that Marcello brought me here. I remember being a little bit nervous about showing him my DVD. I’m very careful to separate any work I do for Bill from mine. Marcello asked me, “why don’t you give me one of your DVDs?” And I did, and he checked out my website and said, “I’d love to have you, can you come next year?” It’s really nice to have this time. I could spend weeks and weeks here, but it’s been a great opportunity. I’m very pleased.