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Over the past decade, Canadian born choreographer Jennifer Archibald has punctiliously plotted the course of her career and has become the first Black female resident choreographer of a ballet company with Cincinnati Ballet. Her hard work has led her everywhere from center court at Madison Square Garden to the proscenium stages of the Kennedy Center. Theresa Ruth Howard spoke with Jennifer on behalf of ICONS about her inspiration and her wisdom gained in the field.
ICONS: After completing your training at The Ailey School it seems you transitioned immediately to choreographing. Was that your plan?
Jennifer Archibald: Choreography was always my track - that was always my goal. It really wasn't to dance for anyone; it was always to be behind the scenes, create work, and to be that voice on stage, to direct answers, and I knew that from a very young age. I've been choreographing since I was a little kid. I used to improv in my house all the time as a child.
ICONS: Today you are one of the “up and coming” female ballet choreographers, yet your trajectory is highly unusual. Your early choreographic opportunities came through hip hop and contemporary dance, yet you ended up in ballet.
JA: People always ask me if I like one thing [genre] versus the other, but that's not the case. Both are ingrained in my vocabulary and movement. That was just a gig-correction that was an exciting gig, but I knew that I wanted to do thought-provoking work, work that challenged me artistically. When freestyling in a club atmosphere, I was really practicing my skills in improv. For me, translating that into pedagogy or choreographing was easy, but the idea of storytelling and how I was going to evoke emotion in my movement was what I wanted to investigate. What I was doing was very glamorous; it was colorful.
But I remember Earl Mosley from Alvin Ailey had given me an opportunity to create work that allowed storytelling. At the time I was trying to explore emotional content and storytelling in my work. I realized that as I was going to these commercial auditions, I had more to offer. It just wasn't feeding my artistic soul. I wanted to make sure that I was creating work that would be recognized for my human connection quality and how I used the unapologetic ferociousness of hip hop.
ICONS: It seems you have found the sweet spot in balancing the divergent genres of hip hop and ballet. Tell us about the journey of finding your choreographic voice in the melding of these seemingly opposing aesthetics.
JA: When I first started presenting work, I remember presenting at E-moves and my work was not blending. That was about 18 years ago, and the reality was that I had dancers who are hip hop dancers, and I had ballet dancers on stage. Obviously, to get them to do both aesthetics as artists on stage was my responsibility, but that's not where they came from technically.
So it was my first experience realizing that I had to figure out how to train these dancers to be able to execute across genres. I also think that right now, we have more dancers who are trained to be more versatile than they used to be. There's an expectation for even a ballerina to be able to do more than just ballet and the same for a hip hop dancer. I feel that we're telling dancers to be as versatile as possible and to get more exposure in order to get more work because choreographers are demanding different things. I think audiences want to see different things. I think they are excited about the blends.
ICONS: As a Black female choreographer in ballet, especially without having a career in the field, have you ever felt pigeonholed, or a particular expectation about who you are, or what your work should look like, what it should say?
JA: I do think that I have been pigeonholed. When I have conversations with ballet directors, they are shocked that I come from a hip hop background, or they're not exactly sure what that means and how it affects my movement. I have operated in different circles. I would have a commercial reel and a concert dance reel, a commercial resume, and a concert resume.
I don’t know if it was the outside that was pigeonholing me, or if it was me just trying to figure out how to get this door to open versus that door. Artistic directors who have seen me only in ballet or only in hip hop are sometimes unaware of my varied background, so they’re unsure whether I can handle a mixture of genres. They may assume that if I do that, then I can only do that. But I feel like - here I am - my capabilities are evident in my work and in the recommendations from other artistic directors. That has been the struggle in New York for a long time, so I don’t say much.
A lot of ballet choreographers who have had opportunities have danced with the ballet company for years. It's usually males, it's usually male soloists who have been soloists for 10 years. Now they are transitioning into something else and they’re getting opportunities to premier work with a company. And then you have someone like me who has never danced in a ballet company before, they're thinking, “We don't know where she came from, but apparently she has all of these ballet credits.” So, word of mouth is letting me come through those doors.
I know that every time I have gotten the opportunity to choreograph short pieces, my reputation is on the line, the stakes are high, and I realized that as I was moving forward. I was gauging on how to navigate this ballet world. I think I've been kind of smart on how I have shown little pieces of what I’m doing. Now I’m in a situation where they are looking at me as a “resident choreographer” and I'm getting more work for these ballet companies; now I really have to make sure that my work is encompassing the urban aesthetics that will take over the ballet classical lines.
ICONS: How did you become Cincinnati Ballet’s resident choreographer?
JA: Initially Victoria Morgan, Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet, found out about me from John McFall, Artistic Director of Atlanta Ballet. He had seen an Ailey/Fordham piece in tech. He called me on his way to the airport, and he and flew me to Atlanta a couple of weeks later to set work on the company. John McFall said, “I see what you're doing. I understand what's happening within your aesthetic, and how you’re fusing it, and I think this is where dance is going.”
I was invited to created two or three works for Cincinnati Ballet, a 10-minute work that was well-received; then they asked me to do work on pointe, and I had never done work on pointe before, that was a 24-minute mainstage work that was on the same bill. Victoria asked me to go for coffee and said, “I have some exciting news - I would like you to be the resident choreographer of the company.” I mean in general, a choreographer would start with a company like Ailey II, or with the school company. If these short works are well received, they’ll lead to more work. That’s what happened with Tulsa Ballet – I did two short pieces and I got a longer work with the main company.
ICONS: Walk us through your process. Do you start with the movement, music or concept? What interests you most as a dance maker?
JA: I put the music on and I just start moving. It comes from an emotional impulse, and I paint immediately. I am physically doing all the material; I do it on them and then I say, “Does that not feel good? Should you be going left instead of right?” However, nobody improvises material. I see how my material is interpreted and then I say okay, we'll keep that – or not.
I don’t tend to change things once I see them unless I am trying to make sure the partnering is seamless. It is just an emotional and physical truth. I am also watching the dancers closely kinetically to see if there is something that seems strange. I don’t tend to push non-kinetic ways of operating. I do what feels stylistically good to the dancers who are in front of me.
I'm always exploring partnering. In a contemporary dance company, the way the dancers move in and out of partnering and weight sharing is very different than in a ballet company, just based on their training. In a ballet company, I want to see an attack in partnering, and to be honest, I want to push the dancers to explore different ways to touch each other.
This ties into the work that I'm doing at Yale. I do a lot of movement script analysis there - the emotions, sensitivity, and sensuousness of when and how two people interact with each other. This is something that I want to explore. I see it in acting and I want to make sure that my partnering work embodies that same heightened level of transmitting emotional energy.
Partnering in ballet can be predictable. I'm exploring how to break that down. I have women lifting men, men doing duets with men. I don’t just have the man walk around the woman. Do they always have to hold hands? Can they touch each other with different parts of the body?
ICONS: Do you have a choreographic signature?
JA: Commercial hip-hop has a formula. I create that unison/isolation type movement - not particularly using hip hop music. There's usually a really powerful gestural hip hop phrase, a strong phrase of power where the entire ensemble will come on stage. There's strong drum-based and heavily gestural-driven moment in my work. That strong pulsing phrase builds and grows; it goes down and then it ends with a very strong exclamation mark. That’s where my hip hop aesthetic comes through. A section like that happens consistently in my work, to the point that when you see it, you can say, “That must be Jennifer's work.”
ICONS: The inherent sensibilities of ballet and hip hop feel diametrically opposed. What are some of the challenges with incorporating hip hop into ballet, specifically when putting it on pointe?
JA: That’s an interesting question. When I did Redeem, my first pointe work, the girls’ shoes were breaking. The girls were coming back into rehearsal saying they needed new shoes. I realized that the way hip hop pushes the bodyweight through space was causing the shoes to break. That was my first lesson with working on pointe shoes using Hip Hop. It's very real. It's also about finding a dancer who can execute authentic street styles and ballet equally well and begin to workshop on pointe shoes. I've been trying to scout for them, and many dancers say, “I don't really do hip hop.” It greatly affects my choreography when a dancer can't execute an echappé in the way that we do it in sneakers. How do we begin to investigate that?
ICONS: How do you help ballet dancers get the “hip hop” sensibility and dynamics into their bodies?
JA: It’s hard. I will have my first real opportunity to do that when I go to work with Ballet West. The Artistic Director of the company, Adam Sklute, invited me to come this past November. I'll create the work in three weeks in April. This will be the first time that I've had the opportunity to workshop material, which is not the norm during commissions.
ICONS: Did you want to work in the ballet world? Was that your goal?
JA: I come from a family where they respected the ballet world. I think that level of respect was what made me want to show that I can do it, and do it well. There's something about ballet being at the top of the dance genres, which is another conversation. But there was something that challenged me to think: “let me see if I can do that!”
And for me, being unorthodox is in my personality. I don’t show up at rehearsals in typical ballet attire. I roll on the floor, and yet, I can do ballet. It's funny that sometimes I have house music playing while dancers are coming in and they wonder what’s happening. I tell them that we're going to get down and do this. To my right, there are the ballet masters who are wearing the company t-shirt. They have their notebooks and their pens, and it’s funny -- sometimes I wonder, “Should I pull my hair back? Should I wear my hair out?” I have to laugh when I walk into those rehearsals, and I tell myself, “Okay, let's do this!”
More About Jennifer Archibald:
Jennifer Archibald steadily built her career, blazing an unorthodox path without a balletic pedigree of having danced with a ballet company and with no support from influential friends in the field. She is vastly mutable, having made a science of her transmutation of kinesthetic and philosophical principles of the genres furthest from one another - hip hop and ballet. She also holds the position of Lecturer in Acting at Yale University, while heading her own company, The Arch Dance Company and is Program Director of ArchCore40 dance intensives. Her 2020 season will include new works for Nashville Ballet (February), Sacramento Ballet (March), and Ballet West (May).
Photography by Jennifer Denham, Ander J. Larsson, Peter Mueller, and Liezl Zwarts
Interviewer: Theresa Ruth Howard
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc. January 2020 © All rights reserved.