On April 25, a landmark event occurred at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts: American Ballet Theater (ABT) dancers performed for the first time in a year on a stage live in front of an actual audience. Uniting in Movement, as the program is called, featured new works by Lauren Lovette and Darrell Grand Moultrie and can be streamed on demand through May 26.
I was in the audience at that performance and it was exhilarating to see a company perform together on stage again, and also to be able to applaud and cheer them. ABT’s last performance before the shutdown last March was at the Segerstrom, so it’s appropriate that the company’s first pandemic live stage performance took place there. The performance ran without intermission for a little over an hour and was bracketed by Lovette’s La Follia Variations, a celebration of dance she originally developed for the ABT Studio company, and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Indestructible Light, a crowd pleaser choreographed to music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Billy Strayhorn.
The Segerstrom performance represents a new chapter, a new day, and a homecoming of sorts for California-born Lauren Lovette, 29, who was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet (NYCB) before deciding to retire during the pandemic. She has been choreographing for more than a decade and her La Follia Variations, which was originally created for the ABT Studio Company was only completed on the day ABT studios closed in March 2020. As Uniting in Movement was being planned, Lovette was invited to set La Follia Variations for ABT’s main company where it will now premiere at the Segerstrom.
Lovette grew up in Thousand Oaks where she was homeschooled until she began studying ballet intensively at the Cary Ballet Conservatory in North Carolina, and then the School of American Ballet in New York. In 2009, at 18, she apprenticed with NYCB, the house of ballet Balanchine built, joined its corps de ballet the following year, becoming a soloist in 2013 and a principal in 2015.
I feel like I know Lovette and I credit the pandemic for that. I spent a good deal of my late night pandemic viewing going down the rabbit hole of short dance films, ballet Instagrams and TikToks, watching members of NYCB, ABT, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Australian Ballet, and other dancers and dance companies, talking, teaching, cooking, making short films, and, yes, dancing online. There was a directness, a lack of pretension, an intimacy to these encounters, that felt like seeing behind the curtain—to see the person that was the dancer in a way that live performance on stage did not always afford.
So, given the opportunity to speak with Lovette about this momentous event for her and for ballet fans, I was eager to hear her thoughts on this performance and all things ballet. I began by asking about how she felt about having her first engagement as a choreographer in California.
“Every time I’m in L.A., it doesn’t feel like I’m visiting a strange place,” Lovette said. “I feel a great comfort in California, especially Southern California… everything from the weather to the way that things smell in the spring. It definitely feels like I’m home.” She added that given that she was staging her own work on a new set of dancers, and given the short time allowed by the bubble, and all the changes they made, she was nervous and being in California helped her.
For Lovette, becoming a choreographer was something she grew into. “When I was 18 and I had just joined the New York City Ballet and the corps, I remember doing a piece next to Justin Peck [a former dancer who is now the Resident Choreographer at NYCB]… and I thought, ‘That’s a choreographer. I’m not.’ I’ll just stick to dancing. I don’t think I have what it takes. And it was my boss. Peter Martins, who ever since that day thought that my piece was really good, even if I didn’t think so. Every year, iIn passing, he’d say, ‘She’s a choreographer.’ And I would just kind of chuckle to myself thinking, ‘What does he know? I’m not a choreographer. I’m just a dancer.'”
Martins then asked her to make a piece for NYCB which she did—and it wasn’t particularly well received. Some of the reviews were quite negative. So she was ready to put it aside. However, Lovette had already signed a contract to work with the ABT studio company, “and that was the thing that got me back on the horse [and when] I really thought, ‘I love this and I don’t care what the critics say.’ I felt like I’d already failed, on the biggest stage that I could imagine, in front of my peers, which was the most scary. So I thought everything after that is easier, so I’ll just keep going. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I really love it.”
On a “Trina Talks” YouTube conversation between ABT principal Isabella Boylston and NYCB dancer Tiler Peck which I fell into one night, they discussed that NYCB ballet dancers are distinguished by the speed of their technique. Lovette acknowledged that her La Follia Variations is meant to danced fast. “This is one of the fastest pieces I’ve ever choreographed. The pace is relentless. It’s got the most challenging speed, unexpected turns in the music. It’s 12 minutes and it just goes straight. You almost don’t blink.” However, Lovette said the ABT dancers were more than up to the task. “I know that ABT is more known for moving slowly. I know that they do more classical ballets. Their technique is very precise in a very different kind of way, but I didn’t feel in any way held back by the dancer’s ability to do it. I just don’t think that they do it very often.
“And so what I had fun with was getting into the space with them and asking something that maybe they looked at me with disbelief, like, ‘Are you sure it’s going to be that fast?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, try it.’ And then they do it. And they were fantastic because they can point their feet. They can turn out their legs. They have such beautiful technique and here they are moving just as quickly as New York City ballet dancers can move. So I had a blast working with both the studio company and the main company, but especially this time around with the more seasoned dancers. It was very thrilling.”
I asked Lovette to talk about La Follia Variations, the piece she premiered at Segerstrom—what inspired her and what we should be looking for in this specific dance performance.
“The majority of the piece is just dance,” Lovette said. “It’s hopeful and youthful and optimistic but there is a pas de deux in the middle of it, that to me, sounds like you’re underwater. But it wasn’t until I saw My Octopus Teacher [a Netflix documentary]… that I realized that’s exactly what it’s about. There’s an octopus. And all of these different moves started coming out of it. So I’m thinking of the ocean floor. And I’m thinking of the shells that the man is jumping on. And so if you want to look for something, I’d say look for the under the sea segment that happens in the middle of the piece, in the pas de deux. The woman has this lift and it’s like she’s floating over top of the water. And Chloe [Dancer Chloe Misseldine] moves so fluidly. She just has this way of moving her body that … I just looked at her and I said, “You are it. You’re the sea creature that I was waiting for in this piece, the whole time.”
“It’s a celebration. It’s got such a triumphant ending. It’s got such a hope about it. And that’s really why I made it, to have that feeling in the midst of COVID. And I’m so glad that now it’s going to be shown to an audience.”
Ballet is going through the same seismic changes cosseting the rest of society. It’s had its share of #MeToo moments and a much-needed push for greater diversity and representation. The Pandemic has given dancers, choreographers and dance companies time to rethink some of the very basic assumptions of ballet concerning body image and gender roles. And Lovette has been thinking about all this too.
“When I’m making something, I’m not thinking about trying to make a political statement. I very much love whoever’s in the room with me, having that piece be honest. And so there’s something to me about being able to make something new. And if I’ve got two men in the space who love men, that is their natural state, and they have to act every time they get on stage and pretend to fall in love the woman, when really they would be in love with a man. I want to give that to them. There’s something in me that goes, “Oh, that’s just so honest. And that’s so real. That’s so you. Let’s do that.”
“And I do care very much about the body image in ballet improving. I also take a stance of excellence into account that you have to be fit. You have to be in shape. You have to be strong. I think there’s been a little bit of an unhealthy standard [and] I don’t know exactly how it got there. I don’t know if we did it to ourselves. I don’t know if it came from directors. I don’t know if it came from a really long history of past preferences…I don’t want to reverse everything that’s been. That’s not really my stance on things. I just think there needs to be more room for what is found beautiful. Because what we do is subjective. What we do is art. It’s what people come to see to enjoy themselves, to have a good time, to feel something. It’s dance. And [for that] you have to be able to have a certain level of skill and talent. It’s an athletic field that you have to meet certain marks on a technical level.
“But when it comes to this other sort of subjective opinion of [what] one person decided was beautiful, I don’t think that relates to the audience well. I think audiences want to see themselves on stage. I think they want to see themselves represented in all different kinds of ways. I think there just needs to be a little bit more room.”
What struck me about Lovette was how the pandemic has brought her to this revelatory moment in her own journey, a crossroads where has made the choice to travel down a new road. The question I most wanted to ask her was: You spent your first 15 years of your life under a certain very strict way of listening to people (your parents) and your next 15 years under a very strict way of listening to people (as a ballerina). And now you’re the decider. What’s that like?
Lovette did not hesitate: “It’s absolutely liberating,” she said. “It’s been an interesting life because the first part of it, I was homeschooled and very sheltered and just in a very, very closed world. And then my dancing life wasn’t all that different.
“I have been in ballet, which is a silent field. We speak up very little. We do very well what we’re told. It’s why I got into ballet in the first place. I was a very shy kid. I was drawn to the fact that I could express things without having to say anything. I could just use my body to speak for me, instead of having to bring physical words out through my throat, vocally in front of people.
“But what’s been beautiful in it too, is that I don’t think I would be as vocal of a person if I hadn’t done ballet, which I know sounds strange because [it’s] a silent art form, but I’ve been able to practice public speaking. I’ve been able to do interviews. I’ve been able to get on stage and speak in front of large audiences. I’ve been able to sing and scream on stage at times, and also face the fear of being in front of an audience, which is its own courageous experience.
“I think it’s ironic because, yes, ballet has this history of being this very subservient, quiet, obedient thing to do. But at the same time, I think in so many ways it liberated me as a human, as a woman, and it gave me a voice and things to say, and choreography only amplified that. And I only got into [choreography] as a dare to myself—because I wanted to do something brave. And I was reading a book that said, “Sign up for something scary.” So I did.
“And it was hard. It wasn’t this journey of…and then here it is. It was little practice, little baby steps of standing up in front of a room and talking to my peers and telling them what to do. And what’s my idea and placing it in front of people. And so it’s grown with time and now I am happy to say that I feel very liberated in the sense that I’m about to venture off on my own, making the decisions for my own life, the way that I see fit.
“I love creating ballets. I think it’s just one of the most empowering things you can do. It’s exciting to work with different types of dancers. And I get to oftentimes have a say in the casting. There are so many different decisions I get to make now concerning the art form. And I love doing that. I definitely feel free in that regard.”
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