The Jacobs School of Music Ballet Theater will present their final ballet production of the season, “Spring Ballet” — with different casts — at 7:30 p.m. on March 31 and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on April 1 at the Musical Arts Center.
Ballet Theater students will perform “Serenade” by George Balanchine, a new piece by renowned choreographer Gianna Reisen, and “Ballad Unto” by the acclaimed Dwight Rhoden.
After Reisen’s first choreographed piece premiered at the School of American Ballet in 2015, she has been choreographing original pieces for companies like the New York Choreographic Institute and the New York City Ballet. In 2017 Reisen became the youngest choreographer in history to add a ballet to their historic repertoire.
Reisen has been working with other companies since, continuing to choreograph pieces with a neoclassical, contemporary form of movement. The Indiana Daily Student spoke with Reisen about her work on “Spring Ballet.”
IDS: How did you come to work with IUBT?
Reisen: Originally, (professor) Carla Körbes reached out to me. I got a call from her saying that one of my former co-workers, Jamie Taylor, referred me to Carla for the project because I love working with students.
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IDS: What is the piece that you’re premiering at the “Spring Ballet?”
Reisen: It’s an ensemble piece for a cast of 15. The music is Prokofiev, “Symphony no. 5” — the second section of the piece. It’s one section, but it’s the most energetic and lively and pretty nuanced. They approached me with the idea of something grander and more orchestral — I haven’t worked with a full orchestra a lot; I usually go for solo piano and chamber music, so I was excited to kind of branch out.
IDS: How do you start to choreograph a piece?
Reisen: Music is an important aspect of the process. I usually study the piece that I’m working with for several months and brainstorm. I like to outline a structure of what I think the piece might be and once I get my dancers, I visualize what the movement quality will be and go from there.
IDS: You’ve done so much in your career. How have all these different styles and experiences you’ve had shaped you as a choreographer and a teacher?
Reisen: It’s been a journey; I’ve had all these amazing, life-changing experiences in the dance world that have shaped the way that I think about making work and allowed me to open myself up to taking risks. I had a lot of experience — in terms of my training and different companies — but in terms of being a leader in the front of the room, that’s something you don’t know how to navigate until you’re there. Having been thrown into it was a blessing because I didn’t have time to overthink and had to operate pretty intuitively.
IDS: In the medium of constant movement, how do you make those important human moments pop for the audience?
Reisen: Honestly, it’s the musicality. You can really make the smallest thing effective if it translates from the music. That’s how you connect with an audience: by making a direct manifestation of the music into movement. I always shift back to the musicality because I really believe that’s how the audience can connect with what the dancers are saying with their bodies.
IDS: You’ve talked about how you collect music to choreograph to. What do you look for?
Reisen: I really like a wide range of music. For me to be fully inspired and drawn to something, it needs to be nuanced, ever-changing and tell a story. I love when music starts out with a bang — grasping the audience’s attention — then, in the middle, there’s a soft pas de deux and something more emotional. I love when music takes you on a journey rather than being repetitive and constant.
IDS: How do you craft an emotional resonance without a plot to build it off of in your pieces?
Reisen: I think it’s honestly bigger than myself; it’s more spiritual and intuitive. When I hear music and move to music, I have an immediate reaction — I think to create. I love to gain inspiration from the way dancers interact with one another, even outside of the studio. You can really create these types of stories by actually getting to know the people you’re working with, rather than treating them like little chess pieces. I really try and form connections, and that manifests itself in the work.
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IDS: It’s been said that contemporary ballet can be more individualistic in movement, do you agree with that?
Reisen: 100%. Even as a dancer I was always more drawn to a neoclassical piece than a “Swan Lake” or a “Nutcracker” because there’s an element of acting to storied ballets. It’s theatrical but not emotional. It’s almost put on. Those classical ballets are so homed in and focused on technique and everybody fitting this mold that every single person is the same. What I love about neoclassical and contemporary work is that if it’s done right, you can see the individual in the movement.
IDS: There’s an idea that many performing arts are elitist. How is contemporary work shifting the landscape?
Reisen: In my case, it’s interesting. I think as somebody so young — and a woman — kind of opens this relatability to people. I do think that the way we approach work and the way we can be inclusive in the work is the cultural shift — that’s how we’re going to bring in people who wouldn’t normally go to the ballet. I think that if you can be relatable in a way and exciting and honestly just you, the cultural shift is already happening. I’m excited about that. It’s an interesting position to be in as a young woman because it’s a different perspective than the perspective we’ve had for so many years. A lot of the foundational years of classical ballet have been male-run, and a lot of choreographers are men, and I think having a fresh perspective will just bring in a different culture and audience. I’m liking where things are going.
IDS: You’ve done so much in your career — what has driven you to try so many different things?
Reisen: Dance is always in my blood; ballet is in my blood. But I always knew there was something bigger than just being a dancer. Dancing never came naturally to me. I always forced technique. I never really thought of choreography as being a direction that I could take, but I always knew that there was something bigger and I was always a creative person. I think that a lot of these opportunities just came to me. The former director of New York City Ballet happened to come to one of the student choreography showcases, saw my work and from there the floodgates opened. I had the support, I had the opportunity, and I’m very blessed to have come to this point.