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Hailed as a “rising star of the Dutch dance scene” in 2003, Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is now well on her way to conquering the world. Her choreographic works have been commissioned and seen throughout Europe, including “Broken Wings,” her latest world premiere this month for English National Ballet, based on the life and works of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Her works are in repertoires of many companies across Europe, North and South America, and next season she will create her first commission for the New York City Ballet.
Lopez Ochoa completed her dance education at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp, Belgium. After a 12-year dance career in various European dance companies, in 2003 she turned her focus solely to choreography.
The Temecula Performing Arts Examiner wrote: “Ochoa is truly a masterful choreographer with an edge for what dance can and should be in this constantly changing industry.”
Sought-after by companies small and large, her roster of works appears in dance companies around the world, including Scapino Ballet Rotterdam, Dutch National Ballet, Djazzex, Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve, The Royal Ballet of Flanders, Gran Canaria Ballet, the Gothenborg Ballet, Modern Dance Theater Ankara, BalletX, Pennsylvania Ballet, Luna Negra Dance Theater Ballet National de Marseille, Ballet Hispanico, Le Jeune Ballet du Quebec, BJM-Danse Montreal, Jacoby & Pronk, Saarbrucken Ballett, Chemnitzer Ballett, Whim W’him, Incolballet de Cali, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Compania Nacional de Danza, Scottish Ballet, The Washington Ballet, Ballet Austin, Atlanta Ballet, Augsburg Ballet, Ballet Nacional Dominicano, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Grand Rapids Ballet, Ballet Moscow, House of Makers Amsterdam, West Australian Ballet, Ballet Manila, Ballet Nacional Chileno, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Daniil Simkin’s Intensio Project, Silicon Valley Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, English National Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet.
Her critically acclaimed signature work “Before After,” created for the Dutch National Ballet in 2002, has been performed at the Dance Passion Festival in the Netherlands, the New York Fall for Dance Festival, the Houston Dance Salad Festival, the 2007 Orange County Fall for Dance Festival, throughout Sweden by the Gothenburg Ballet, at several galas in Spain and is currently on the repertoire of Ballet Nacional Dominicano, Whim W’Him, Ballet Hispanico, Finnish National Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Her first full-length ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire, a collaboration with theater director Nancy Meckler for the Scottish Ballet, was acclaimed by press and public, receiving several awards. It had an extended tour through the U.K. and in 2015, the Scottish Ballet toured the piece in the United States.
Lopez Ochoa is a versatile chorographer who also creates for theater, opera, musical theater and, in 2006, for the celebrated Dutch fashion designers Viktor & Rolf’s project in the Van Gogh Museum. She belongs to the theater-dance collective Fantasten with whom she created successfully five full-length physical theater plays, which have been performed in many theaters and festivals throughout the Netherlands.
ICONS: Let’s start our conversation where you started: You grew up in two cultures.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa: I grew up in Belgium but I am a mixture between a Colombian father and a Belgian mother. Very early on we spoke Spanish at home but switched to French when I was four years old. We listened to Mexican and Colombian music, which I hated when I was young. Now I love it. The two cultures were omnipresent.
ICONS: Has that bicultural worldview played a role in your artistic work?
ALO: In 2009 Eduardo Vilaro, who at the time was artistic director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, approached me to make a piece because of my Latin background. It was the first time I created a piece based on my background. What did I do? I used the music that I grew up with and I despised so much. At the time I thought it would be my only piece about Hispanic culture, but then Eduardo liked it and kept inviting me again to Ballet Hispanico. Each time I chose another aspect of the Hispanic culture. But because I’m not entirely Colombian I view and approach the culture as an observer, which makes me guess it rather than make a statement about it.
ICONS: So you grew into it?
ALO: Yes, it took me time to realize it was a part of my identity. I think for a lot of mixed raced children it’s confusing. At some point as a child I was faced with racist comments from other children. Growing up I thought my brother looked like my father and I looked like my mother. Until the age of seven I thought I was white, then my mother put me in front of a mirror and said; see who you really are; a young girl with Colombian origins.
“Broken Wings", English National Ballet
Photo credit: Laurant Liotardo
ICONS: Tell me about your beginnings in choreography. Even before you started your professional dance career, you already knew you wanted to make dances.
ALO: Yes. I discovered choreography at the age of 11. My teacher right before a winter break came in and said, ‘Instead of teaching class today, I’m going to leave you alone with the pianist and she said, ‘You will create, choreograph while I have a coffee.’ I didn’t even know that word. In an hour my friend and I invented something.
Twelve dances were presented to the teacher. On our turn I thought, ‘Wow, if I could do this for the rest of my life I would be the happiest person in the world.’ That hour transformed me. Time stopped existing. Reality became different; we were creating our own reality. It was also amazing to see 12 different interpretations of that one piece of music. It was bizarre and fascinating at the same time. You could also notice which kids were more inventive than others. At age 11 it became a hobby and I thought, oh, I’ll just keep doing that. I didn’t even know [choreographer] was a profession.
When I graduated at 18, I went to a very small dance company in Germany. I knew I wanted to become a choreographer, but I first had to understand what it was to be a dancer in a company. For me, it was an essential aspect of my learning process as a choreographer: I had to go through the ups and downs of being a dancer -- being tired, being bored, being rejected, your body getting old. Knowing all of that informs the choreographer in dealing with dancers. Each dancer is sensitive; they have to be, they’re artists. Sometimes that is hard for a choreographer who has one idea and there are 30 different emotions and voices in front of her.
That’s why I danced, but I was not completely passionate about dance like I am with choreography. Dance was until five o’clock. Choreography for me can be the entire day, on Sundays, every day. It’s a different passion.
“Les Biches”, Whim W’him
Photo credit: Lavie Photography
ICONS: What are your thoughts on the lack of prominent women choreographers in the ballet world?
ALO: I believe the source of the problem lies within the education and career path of classical ballerinas. In the ballet system there are typically 30 young ballerinas for one boy. So the freedom of expression is broader for men than for women.
During their education classical ballerinas are never asked to verbalize what they feel, what they think, to express their ideas in front of a group about what they see in a performance. This should be an essential part of the education of these young ladies in their teenage years.
I come from a contemporary dance background. We tend to have more dialogue with the director and the choreographers, because we are asked to improvise. We might do contact improvisation to get into a certain lift in a dance piece. Ballet dancers, especially women, wait until they are told what to do. So at a young age they’re not challenged. To ask an 18-year-old girl at the Royal Ballet if she wants to do choreography isn’t enough. There’s hierarchical tradition, especially for women, which creates distance between a ballerina and a young aspiring dancer/choreographer.
Maybe there’s a lack of female classical choreographers because as young girls they’re not prepared and trained for it and it is very hard in that institutional environment to get the freedom to try things out and express yourself. If you just start choreographing at the end of your career at age 33 or 34, you’re not going to get hired because you’re just starting. Choreography is craftsmanship for which practice is essential. Then there’s the question of whether you want children. It seems both transitions arrive at the same time.
I think that one thing that women have that our male counterparts don’t have is that we always ask ourselves: ‘Is it good enough?’ Just let the work be judged. You don’t have to judge the work. Just make it. Have fun doing it and present it to the world because it’s what you have to say, how you express yourself to the world. Let others judge. I think men are very good at saying yes when someone asks, ‘Do you want to do a piece?’ Women, we think too much and second guess and always apologize. We need to instill in ourselves some nerve and focus on what any artist has to say. Don’t focus on the result or what people are going to think. For any artist in any art form you need the courage to put something out there. You’re going to be judged and you cannot control the judgment of others so don’t even think about it.
This change is going to come if something changes at the educational level. I don’t want to point fingers only at programmers or directors; it also needs to come from within.
ICONS: What do you advise young choreographers?
ALO: Young choreographers just have to embrace everything that comes on their path. And don’t stop dancing too quickly.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the arts for numerous publications and is director of communications for Dance ICONS.
Annabelle's work "Zip Zap Zoom" with the West Australian Ballet.
Annabelle sharing the insights of her creative process.