Choreographer Jodie Gates Explores Male-Female Dynamics in New Ballet 'Beautiful Once'

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 11, 2017

Before Jodie Gates became one of the most sought after choreographers working today in both classical and contemporary ballet, she was renowned for her technical artistry and star power as a Principal Dancer in the Joffrey Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. In addition to being Vice-Dean of USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and founding director of the Laguna Dance Festival, Gates has created more than 60 works for both classical and contemporary companies since leaving the dance stage.

Gates was back in Philadelphia for three weeks in June, creating "Beautiful Once," her third premiere she has created for BalletX, a contemporary ballet founded in 2005 by Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan, also former members of PABallet. The troupe has emerged as one of the most artistically successful contemporary ballet companies in the U.S.

During rehearsals on her next to last day in the studio with the dancers at the University of the Arts overlooking Broad St. talked about the work and the company. The ballet started with a new score by Ryan Lott, lead singer-songwriter of the group Son Lux. The title comes from a line in one of Lott's songs. "Ryan and I started last fall talking about the concept of the music," Gates said "I wanted to include some of his chamber music, that has counterpoint and delectable tone and I'm in love with his voice." Gates requested that Lott compose a six movement instrumental and vocal score.

Back in Philly

"It's so great to be back in Philadelphia and work with these dancers again. They are doing movement that is challenging not just on the technical level, they are so hungry and curious for new things and concepts in this piece."

The dancers (Caili Quan, Andrea Yorita, Chloe Perkes, Megan Dickinson, Francesca Forcella, Roderick Phifer, Zachary Kapeluck, Gary W. Jeter, Richard Villaverde and Daniel Mayo) were also on a virtual dance marathon, learning two premieres for the current program, while they are also rehearsing a slate of repertory for upcoming tour stops in Princeton, New York and the Vail International Dance Festival.

Even in the starkness of the studio, Gates' ballet looked complete; but the afternoon was spent with Gates pinpointing moments for minor choreographic changes, a step here or an expression there, all part of Gates' vital adjustments. "It still feels like a first draft," Gates later said, "I feel like I can always to do more. It's like painting a canvas, you keep adding outline and shadows, colors and textures. So, there are still moments that I might refine, put in texture." She also admitted to feeling "very content with this piece. For me it's the connection that I make with the dancers and this process has been sublime. Before setting the piece on BalletX dancers, Gates said she had workshopped some of the choreographic ideas on her students at USC to conceive "aspects of the musicality, particularly the counterpoint in the chamber music sections of the score."

The creative synergy that Gates has with the dancers is palpable and they stay focused no matter how many times they repeat a section even when they are not dancing full out. During a rehearsal break, Gary Jeter, formerly of Philadanco and Complexions Dance, said working with Gates in creating dance was a creatively rewarding experience for the dancer. "I first worked with her when I was dancing with Complexions in New York and am thrilled to be in this premiere," Jeter said.

Exploring Male-Female dynamics

A distinct component of "Beautiful Once" is how Gates expresses and explores male-female balletic partnering. At one point in a breakneck ensemble sequence that ends with everyone scrambling in organized chaos she tells them to "drive the men."

"When you are at a certain level as a ballerina, there can be a lot of insecurities that come with that title. When I work with ballet dancers I know what that means, and how fragile we can be, even though we are incredibly strong. I know that psyche, I was that."

Her approach reveals an artistic equity and dancer empowerment, which is so conducive to BalletX's artistic brand of exploring new vocabulary in ballet. Gates packs this work with solo, duet and ensemble sections that take full advantage of the technical artistry and dynamic drive of this troupe. "I really find inside the music, in the groove, how to get the dancers to really be that music," she explained.

She commented on the dramatic duet work in the finale. "These moments are difficult to finish, but I want the women to be strong and united. I tell them to bring who they are as female artists. That's my responsibility... I was a ballerina, so I know what it's like and then I worked in the contemporary realm. But I want the women to acknowledge their brilliance."

As to specific storylines or themes in the piece Gates says that she is "always careful about tying a story to a ballet, I don't want the audience to have a preconceived idea. But certainly this ballet was inspired by my thoughts about relationships, to ones' self first, to another person, to community, our country and even globally. I talked about that with the dancers in a very abstract way, in relation to all the chaos and the divisive nature of what's happening all around us... how can we, as artists, lift you up."

BalletX Summer Series at the Prince Theater includes the premiere of Matthew Neenan's "Let mortal tongues awake" and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's 2011 classic "Castrati." Performances run July 12-16 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA.
Visit the BalletX website for more information.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.