The New York Choreographic Institute’s 10th Anniversary

New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, created by Peter Martins in 1992, was founded as a showcase for new work. The New York Choreographic Institute, on the other hand, is an affiliate of New York City Ballet, and was founded in 2000 by Martins and Irene Diamond as a lab for choreographers to experiment without the pressure of presenting a finished work. It’s easy to get the two confused since, in their own ways, they support the creation of new work and the name Diamond figures prominently in both.

The Institute did put some works on stage recently, in spite of their usual policy, to celebrate their 10 years of activity. In an opening speech—and in some short, filmed interviews which were presented—Martins expressed the importance of keeping the ballet idiom alive and relevant, even as society and culture evolve. It’s his stance that choreographers, when not faced with the obligation to produce a serviceable work, will feel free to experiment and thereby invent the new approaches that will help classical ballet to remain vital.

What makes the Institute’s output so rich is that it’s not just new dance being created. Through a collaboration with the composition department of The Juilliard School, new music is also being made. Pia Gilbert, a matchmaker of sorts, helps pair choreographers with composers so they can work to create these new pieces together. To honor Gilbert’s artful alchemy—so crucial to the success of this work—Richard Tanner, of the Institute, and composer Daniel Ott, introduced a tribute to her. Ott composed An Inflorescence, which featured rhythms to the cadence of her name, to which three prominent choreographers each fashioned a dance. Christopher Wheeldon created a solo for Sara Mearns, Alexei Ratmansky choreographed an untitled ensemble work, but perhaps the most successful was Larry Keigwin’s Falling, an intricate quintet which showed that Keigwin is not just a contemporary choreographer, but also one who can make good use of ballet dancers. He creates fascinating characters from which unusual situations emerge. His work was probably the best tribute to Gilbert since his skill at forming interesting relationships is so reflective of her own contribution to the process.

The choice of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre was a mixed blessing. As a workshopping of pieces, it was nice to be up close where we could literally see the work that had been done, though it was also true that some of the pieces, like Justin Peck’s Tales of a Chinese Zodiac, set to music by Sufjan Stevens, might have been seen to better advantage if the audience had more distance from the stage. For this work and some of the others, a larger stage would also have been helpful. This aside, the evening came off as rather lavish what with the quality of the video presentations, the quality of the dancers—from New York City Ballet and advanced students from the School of American Ballet—and the live music performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Of all the evening’s works, I thought Jessica Lang’s Droplet—set to Jakub Ciupinski’s work, Simple Music—had the feel of a polished ballet that was ready to show. This duet for Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall starts with a mesmerizing repetition, in the spirit of what’s happening in Ciupinski’s opening music. The dancers stand side by side, repeating this phrase, establishing their relationship for the audience. When they later separate, moving into more complex spatial relationships, we’re ready to follow the increasing intricacies of their connection.

The programme booklet for this event was a handsomely produced publication, naming the events for the evening and then turning into a retrospective on the following spreads, each page listing the participants of the Spring or Fall session, going back to the Institute’s inception—and all with big photographs that make one wish to have been a fly on the wall for each of the past seasons. At the back are three pages dedicated to the New York Choreographic Institute Fellowship Initiative, a series of grants designed to help choreographers, and the companies with which they’re affiliated, produce new works.¬†

Finally, there is a page describing the Institute’s Symposia, presentations about the work of great choreographers of the past—Bournonville, Petipa, Ashton, Balanchine—to help those with an interest in choreography get a better perspective on how these icons have influenced the development of the form.

With all this seeding of the field going on, and all with relatively low profile, one is reminded of the saying that someone who helps others in a splashy way is really only out to help himself. Another saying I’ve heard is “classical ballet is a dying art form,” but with New York City Ballet’s unselfish support and fostering in play, it would seem that reports of classical ballet’s death are greatly exaggerated.

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