Martine van Hamel would seem the last person to espouse any small-is-beautiful philosophy. After all, at 5 foot 7, this American Ballet Theatre principal dancer towers over many of her colleagues--and, for all the celebrated majesty of her dancing, she has lost coveted roles due to her height.
Yet, over tea in her dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera House recently, she spoke with great pleasure about abandoning the 4,000- to 6,000-seat halls where she performed with the 90-dancer Ballet Theatre this season. And about the delights of a tour to such relatively intimate venues as the 1,200-seat John Anson Ford Theatre in Hollywood, where her eight-member New Amsterdam Ballet appears on the "Dance Park" series Friday and Saturday.
"There's a different quality of feeling to doing this," she explained. "It's actually a difficult transition because we've become comfortable with projecting into a vast space around us. But once we've adjusted, it's very rewarding. We're more in touch with the people who see us. There's more of a response. It's nice to know the little things read without having to broadcast them a mile away."
Van Hamel acknowledged that the outdoor Ford Theatre stage is problematic for ballet: "You see it and say, 'Look at all this space!' But then you realize that all of it is concrete except for the little sunken pool area where we'll be."
However, she has found Shrine Auditorium (where Ballet Theatre dances its Los Angeles seasons) even more daunting. "It's an odd place," she commented. "Things just don't look the way they're intended to look. Even in the audience, it's intimidating. You applaud and the sound of the applause just dies. Everybody might be roaring but there's no effect."
Van Hamel formed the group that evolved into New Amsterdam Ballet in the late '70s but got around to naming it, or seeking incorporation and nonprofit status, only two years ago. She serves it in multiple capacities--as artistic director, chief choreographer and prima ballerina. Another Ballet Theatre principal, Kevin McKenzie, is assistant artistic director and nearly all of the others come from Ballet Theatre as well.
"The main idea is to nurture new choreographers, mainly people in the company who want to choreograph," she said, "and also to get pieces that lend themselves to small companies and are contemporary. Something we don't do at ABT all the time."
Thus her programs in Los Angeles feature only one familiar showpiece--Petipa's "Black Swan" pas de deux--and are otherwise devoted to chamber ballets by still-active dancers: McKenzie's "Grupo Zambaria" (to music by Milhaud), Ann Marie De Angelo's "Next Time" (to Edith Piaf and Vangelis), plus Van Hamel's own "Chansons Madecasses" (to Ravel) and "Trio a Deux" (to Beethoven).
Van Hamel turns 40 this November and choreography appeals to her far more than teaching or coaching as a way to extend her career beyond her dancing years. "I like the idea of staying in ballet in a creative area," she declared. "To me, choreography is an enormous challenge. It fascinates me to work with movement and with patterns and to put them together.
"I find it hard to communicate it sometimes, to relate what I want to see and, not only that, to get what I want to see. That's the craft. That's why I'm a beginner.
"There is so much about choreography that you don't learn when you're a dancer. Even though you think you know, it's completely different when you step on the other side. The oddest thing is sitting with an audience for the first time. You become aware that other people are looking at your ballet and you start looking at it in the same way they do. It's a startling change and I didn't expect it."
Until now, Los Angeles audiences have seen only one of her works: the biblical dance drama "Aman V'Tamar," performed by Ballet Theatre a year ago. Van Hamel granted that its critical reception was generally negative, but she judged some of the response to be more political than artistic:
"That was the year when everybody complained about ABT, how they didn't think it was running itself properly," she explained. "No matter what was out there, they tried to make it into a company (management) problem.
"I'm still happy it was done and that I can go on to something else," she concluded with a rueful smile. "When you get good reviews as a dancer, it's kind of interesting to get bad reviews as a choreographer and see how you're going to deal with it."