Based on both the East and West coasts of the United States, director and choreographer Jennifer Weber most likely first came into the spotlight of the ballet-loving world when she created Petrushka Reimagined for Brooklyn Mack and New York City Ballet’s principal dancer Tiler Peck along with Lil Buck.
But she has definitely been known in the dance space at large for a while for her choreography in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, &Juliet, and dozens of other projects that span the globe.
Her latest endeavor – her first premier since the beginning of the pandemic – is with Tulsa Ballet.
This is also the first time the ballet company will perform a hip hop piece; it is part of The Celebration, a season-ending program touted to be “a nostalgic journey, taking you on a ride through the works that Artistic Director Marcello Angelini commissioned and acquired throughout the past twenty-six years, the very pieces that made Tulsa Ballet the celebrated international success it is today.” (Tulsa Ballet)
Well, While You Were Gone is definitely a commission that is a significant addition to both Tulsa Ballet and Jennifer Weber’s portfolio, so I took this opportunity to learn more about this special collaboration straight from the choreographer’s mouth.
We also had the opportunity to interview Regina Montgomery, a Tulsa Ballet dancer featured in the piece.
Interview with Jennifer Weber
‣ It is quite unique (possibly, unprecedented?) for a choreographer to create a hip hop piece for a ballet company. How did this commission come about?
My cousins, Charles and Rose Flachs, danced with Marcello earlier in their career and remained close friends.
At Charles’ recent birthday Zoom (how very Covid-era), my Mom was bragging about some of my recent choreography projects and Marcello got the idea that bringing me to Tulsa could create a unique collaboration. He emailed me the next day and we met on zoom.
I could tell Marcello had great energy and a forward-thinking vision of ballet. I was so excited about what could be possible as I had never set work on a ballet company before, and I love putting myself in a room where I never
thought I would be.
I had had a bit of experience working with ballet dancers previously, but not a full company.
It all happened really fast and, before I knew it, I was quarantining in Tulsa and getting ready to work.
‣ What was the beginning of the process like?
Everyone was a bit nervous at first. Although the hip hop/ballet crossover is a plot of many popular dance films, what would it really be like to set work on dancers who speak a different language?
This was also my first time back in a studio creating something totally new since the pandemic began. How would it be to try and connect through masks? Would I even remember how to choreograph after so long? But as soon as we started, excitement took over and I quickly became inspired about all the possibilities of where our collaboration would take us.
I prepared a bunch of phrases so I would have material to teach on the first day. Instantly, I could feel the energy of the room and we all fearlessly dove in. The vibe in the studio was electric and somehow, we just clicked.
It felt so good and so special to all be together making something new. The dancers were open to what I was teaching them, and I was so impressed not only by their technical skills, but also about how they work. Tulsa Ballet is filled with truly incredible artists.
Hip hop is a really broad term and encompasses a lot of specific movement styles – bboying, locking, popping, waving, etc. I wanted to see how the dancers took to these different styles and what styles might start to create new concepts when fused with ballet.
I wouldn’t say I’m creating a hip hop piece on ballet dancers, but rather we are exploring what happens when you start to mix these two movement languages together to create something totally new. For me, this is much more exciting. I’m always interested in fusion and creating things no one has done before.
‣ What specifics can you share with us about the new work, i.e. storyline, music, costuming, staging etc.?
For my piece, While You Were Gone, I wanted to look at the idea of the ghost light (For anyone who doesn’t know, a ghost light is a single bulb on a stand that is left on overnight in a theatre after all the workers have gone home. Some people think it is simply a safety light, while others believe the light is left on so the “ghosts of performers past” can have a light to still perform on stage at night instead of haunting the theatre during the day.)
With all theaters closed, I imagined all these ghosts having a year to put on a performance and what they might create while the audiences were gone for so long. So in my piece, the dancers play the ghosts.
There are twenty-eight dancers in the piece, so I am exploring a lot of different ways ghosts could move and their relationships to the light itself. Sometimes the ghosts are very aggressive, other times they are joyous and playful. I imagined the ghosts having their own relationships and created a pas de deux for principle dancers Madalina Stoica and Arman Zazyan which explores a complicated love separated by the light and uses the breaking concept of threading mixed with lifts and floorwork.
Although most of the piece is done in socks, I created a section with women on pointe. I’ve always wanted to explore pointe work and found this created a very powerful character.
‣ Of course, this is not your first experience with blending two seemingly dichotomous dance forms; The Hip Hop Nutcracker has been a great success. How has working with the Tulsa Ballet dancers been different than those in The Hip Hop Nutcracker cast?
Of course there are many differences between the cast of The Hip Hop Nutcracker and Tulsa Ballet but in both, the dancers are absolutely magical movers with amazing storytelling ability and impeccable technique.
As a choreographer, I look for dancers who are clear storytellers who are mesmerizing at what they do. Although headspins are very different than fouettés, in choreography, they kind of take the same place.
Overall, I’d say working with Tulsa ballet is actually very similar to how I work with other dancers. I start with a story, characters and a concept. I prep a lot and then let the room inspire me. I always try to showcase what makes each dancer unique and to find the common language that brings everyone together.
‣ Speaking of casting, what qualities did you look for when selecting dancers considering that it’s safe to assume that hip hip is not the forte of Tulsa Ballet?
I look for that X factor that can’t be described, but you know it when you see it. It is confidence, it is technique, it is being able to command the stage and pull in the audience. I guess it’s fearlessness – that feeling of not being afraid to fail – being open to going way past your comfort zone and leave everything on the stage.
It was easy to find dancers within Tulsa Ballet for a variety of solos and special moments.
‣ What have been some particular challenges in choreographing for a company that is trained in classical ballet?
The biggest challenge is really breaking down the movement and trying to articulate how to make something look a certain way. When you have trained your body to move a certain way and then suddenly have to move it in a totally different way, it can be challenging – especially if what I am asking for is the exact opposite of your training.
I had to do a lot more dancing/demonstrating than I do when working with hip hop dancers who know my vocabulary, but I think this helped me be very specific about steps.
Sometimes I would prepare a section that in my mind was simple but was extremely hard for the dancers. Other times, a step or concept I was afraid might be challenging was perfected immediately. Trying to decipher what type of moves go into which category is still a bit of a mystery to me.
‣ And what have been some pleasant surprises uncovered as you continue developing the piece?
I think we were all a little surprised how easily we were able to work together.
Also we had a ton of fun exploring movement together and I think that is something that is all too often overlooked, the absolute joy of creating.
I hope this joy comes across on stage and translates to the audience. The piece is a true celebration of finding the magic between two different languages and how we can work together to make each other stronger.
Featured Image for this interview with Jennifer Weber courtesy of Tulsa Ballet
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