Dancer, choreographer, company director, and feminist agitator Ashley Bouder joined Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in 2000 at the age of 17. A principal dancer since 2005, she recently received one of international dance’s highest honors, the Benois de la Danse for Best Female Dance Performance at the Prix de Benois de la Danse, known as the “Oscars of Dance.”
In 2018, the New York Times called Bouder a “feminist ballerina with a mission.” She’s out to change the field’s dynamic, aiming to “further the inclusion of underserved artists in leadership roles in the performing arts.”
In a 2018 Dance Magazine opinion piece, Bouder said, “I’m a ballerina. I’m a feminist.” She understands that this, to many, is an oxymoron. And she knows by speaking out and taking action, she risks unpleasant ramifications from those who do not wish to see a change in the status quo. But change is what she’s creating as she progresses through her career, adding administration and choreography to her role as dancer.
To further her cause, Bouder in 2014 founded her own company, the Ashley Bouder Project, which operates during the NYCB’s hiatuses. NYCB dancers are guaranteed 33 weeks of work per year, leaving TABP 19 weeks to produce work. Good for independent creativity, tricky for the family budget and the nerves.
This season, Bouder has collected a group of colleagues to join her at the Vineyard Arts Project, where she has been invited by Ashley Melone, VAP artistic director, for a second year. Plans are to use the week for experimentation, not as rehearsals for specific dances, which is how Bouder structured the 2018 residency.
Bouder, who asked Gilbert Bolden III, Devin Alberda, and Clara Frances to choreograph, and will be choreographing herself, says, “For this residency, we will be a group of 10 dancers from NYCB: six dancers, plus two female and two male choreographers. I deliberately put together a group of professional colleagues so that we know we will import a disciplined and supportive atmosphere. My only rule is that each dance needs to be set to music by a female composer.”
The residency is designed so that the choreographers “play,” operating under the theory that one way to learn to choreograph is to choreograph. Bouder explains, “We’re planning on showing each other our work casually, either at the end of the day, or the end of each rehearsal block. Nothing formal, but designed to garner constructive observations as the week goes along. We’ll decide what to share with the public on July 5 over the course of the week. The idea is to simply have the time, space, dancers, and an idea to create choreography, which may or may not turn into a finished product.”
It strikes me that Bouder, and quite a few other prominent ballet artists inspired to make dance, have taken a page out of the modern choreographer’s playbook. That is, get some dancers, get a space, and get going.
A challenge all choreographers face, whether financed by a major company or independently, is the cost of creating a new work, even before one adds the costumes, sets, lights, sound, and theater expenses. Choreographers, regardless of their dreams, their preparation, and their intent, need space filled with dancers. Space is costly, and dancers are, or should be, too. These facts tend to mean many dances are “set” before they’ve reached their full potential — a place where the dance tells the choreographer where it needs to go, a dance that has not settled for a sequence of moves, however arresting, but without a compelling core, that are the same length as the music.
Being a choreographer is not for the weak of heart. It has some unavoidable, idiosyncratic challenges not present in other performing arts. The palette in painting, notation in music, the manuscript in literature, or the script in theater can all be invented by the artist alone, creating draft after draft, edit after edit, and going public once the inventor is reasonably satisfied with the output. There is no group of people in the room during the initial staging process (which happens after the choreographer’s private research and preparation), hoping for something good to happen. Also, the printed page and canvas do not voice their own opinions or telegraph thoughts like “Really?”
In addition, to make dance happen, a choreographer takes on the tasks of the painter, the composer or author, the director or conductor. Add shrink into the mix, as every dancer reacts differently to the choreographer’s direction, which is communicated on the spot and not written down. Some dancers need almost no words, others multiple repetitions, and others plenty of verbalized suggestions.
The connection between the choreographer and dancer is intimate, complex, and only really successful when there’s an unspoken mutual commitment to the intangible. Most people who pursue choreography have serious discipline, big hearts, and keen imaginations, and that’s certainly true of Bouder and her gang.
The Ashley Bouder Project share their choreographic experiments Friday, July 5, from 6 to 7 pm at Vineyard Arts Project, Edgartown. To reserve tickets, call 508-413-2104 or visit ticketsmv.com or vineyardarts.org. All tickets are donation-based, pay what you wish.