Variety in dance at UC Irvine’s National Choreographers Initiative

On her eighth day of rehearsal at UC Irvine, Kitty McNamee decided to refocus her dancers on the theme of their piece. Rather than demonstrate steps or go over musical motifs, the choreographer gathered her team around and read a different set of directions — from the dictionary.

The word in question was “transit,” which is also the working title of McNamee’s entry in UC Irvine’s annual National Choreographers Initiative. With the online Oxford Dictionaries offering a slew of meanings, she rattled them off quickly: the movement of people or materials, the passage of celestial bodies and so on.

Dance program: An article about the National Choreographers Initiative in the July 24 Calendar section described the initiative as a UC Irvine event. Although the university provides rehearsal space, the event is overseen by an outside advisory committee in partnership with UCI and the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Within minutes, McNamee’s group was practicing the steps of “Transit,” which, at least as of last Wednesday, consisted of an abstract series of pairings and separations. At various points, the eight participants formed rows, circled each other, picked opposite-sex or same-sex partners. Like the word itself, McNamee’s “Transit” has many components, and it may develop further before its performance Saturday.

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“I just do it on instinct,” McNamee said about maneuvering her dancers. “I work pretty intuitively. Some couples have a lot of tension, which is very good.”


Since 2004, UC Irvine has given artists such as McNamee a chance to work with, well, maybe “no pressure” is the wrong term. The four choreographers who make the cut each year lead rehearsals on campus for three weeks and at the end present their new works to the public at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Still, if the finished pieces aren’t “The Rite of Spring” just yet, that’s perfectly fine with program director Molly Lynch. The National Choreographers Initiative aims to not only give choreographers a work space but also to introduce ideas that dance companies can fine-tune and stage. So far, it’s been a success: By Lynch’s count, 22 pieces that originated at UCI have been produced nationwide.

“What we need in dance is dancers in a studio and time to be able to create,” said Lynch, an associate professor at UCI who formerly served as artistic director for Ballet Pacifica. “That’s what this is all about.”

Since July 8, an eclectic lineup of choreographers — McNamee, the artistic director of Hysterica Dance Company in Los Angeles; David Fernandez, who hails from Mexico City; Susan McCullough, an instructor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; and Petr Zahradnicek, the current choreographer-in-residence at the Milwaukee Ballet — have worked with 16 dancers who successfully auditioned for UCI’s program. Six days a week, the teams gather in campus studios to rehearse moves and sometimes craft pieces a few seconds at a time.

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Lynch, who chooses each year’s choreographers out of dozens of applicants, seeks variety in terms of style and background — and this summer’s works range from Impressionistic montages to linear storytelling. Zahradnicek, a Czech native, conceived his entry as a narrative about an immigrant’s experience; McCullough structured her piece around patterns as dancers move from solos to duets to trios. Fernandez’s contribution consists of two pieces, one a dream sequence and the other an interpretation of music.

Judging from last year, it may not take long for the new pieces to find an audience beyond UCI. Darrell Grand Moultrie, who crafted an eight-minute duet in the middle of his work “Moments,” found a taker in one of his fellow choreographers in the summer program: Melissa Barak, who produced the duet this spring with her newly formed Barak Ballet. Another 2012 participant, Thang Dao, developed his concept further this year at another choreographers’ lab in New York, while Wendy Seyb also said she hopes to stage a New York production of one of her UCI pieces.

For dancers, the National Choreographers Initiative means a chance to expand their résumés and broaden their styles by working with multiple artists. This year, Lynch said, the initiative set a record by drawing about 80 applicants.

AJ Abrams, who lives in West Hollywood and dances with Festival Ballet Theatre in Fountain Valley, applied for the first time this year and said he was ecstatic when Lynch gave him the news.

“She called me and I was like, ‘Really? Yes! I’ll be there,’” Abrams said last week before heading to rehearsal. “I had to pull over the car.”

Miller writes for Times Community News.


NCI Discovery 2013

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $30

Info: (949) 854-4646 or