"Good job, guys," Nicolas Blanc said. "Nice, beautiful. What a step forward in two days."
Blanc, a choreographer who studied in Monte Carlo at the Academie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace, was training a group of six professional dancers last week at UC Irvine for a new ballet to be performed this Saturday as part of the National Choreographers Initiative.
The 12th annual Southern California project, presented by the Irvine Barclay Theatre in association with UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts dance department, promotes the production of professional dance, inviting choreographers from around the United States to initiate new works.
Founder and program director Molly Lynch, an associate professor at UCI and former artistic director for Ballet Pacifica, said that over the past 11 years, 25 pieces that originated at UCI have been performed nationwide.
Lynch selected four choreographers as well as professional dancers from many ballet companies to participate in the three-week process for this year's ballet, "NCI Discovery 2015." The dancers are from the Los Angeles, Sacramento and Austin ballets, among others.
Since July 7, the lineup of choreographers — Blanc, a ballet master with the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet; Norbert De La Cruz III, who was born in the Philippines and studied at New York's Juilliard School; Jimmy Orrante, a recipient of the inaugural Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship in 2005; and Sarah Tallman, a choreographer and dancer for Denver dance company Wonderbound — have worked with 16 dancers who successfully auditioned for the program. Six days a week and eight hours a day, the teams gathered in campus dance studios to rehearse movements and develop steps.
"The pieces are a narrative, and it has to be told by movement and body expression," Blanc said of his work. "What I like is the elegance and that it is very liquid."
Blanc said he was looking for music on iTunes when he listened to the piano music from the soundtrack of the 1950 movie "Orpheus," a contemporary variation on the ancient Greek legend. The music helped him develop a dance to the storyline.
"It was sort of a puzzle for me," Blanc said of the creative process. "It's a great story, and it's one of love."
He said he looks forward to watching the dancers express themselves onstage.
"This process has taught me how to craft something and understand the crafting field," he said.
For Tallman, developing a new dance felt like a "blank page."
"I chose to create a process different from me," she said. "It's leaning into the unknown. I'm excited about not knowing."
Tallman said she drew inspiration from nature and how it acts as its own "silent film."
Light and shadow and ebb and flow were themes she wanted to implement in an abstract but cohesive concept, she said.
She began thinking of "The Secret Garden," recognizing a door that, if pushed open, would release an element of surprise.
"The Door in the Wall," the title she gave her dance piece, is about facing a new portal, entering it and feeling scared but also excited to learn of the next step.
Tallman said she experienced those feelings when she heard about the National Choreographers Initiative and decided to come from Colorado to develop and showcase a new dance.
She wrote in her journal throughout the process, chronicling every thought.
"It helped me so my mind could be empty and my brain could be a blank canvas," she said. "I kept thinking that rather than try making something happen, perhaps I'll be a part of it. It opened a lot of exploration for me."
Tallman, who instructed dancers from Ballet Memphis, Estonia's Teater Vanemuine and San Francisco's Smuin Ballet, said creating a new contemporary ballet has been rewarding.
"There are so many beautiful things I'll have to journal," Tallman said with a laugh. "I will take with me the freedom I felt, the aspect of movement exploration, the new structure in the unknown and the reframe of not being afraid. Anything is possible."
If You Go
What: National Choreographers Initiative, "NCI Discovery 2015"
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive
Cost: $20 to $60
Information: (949) 854-4646 or thebarclay.org