Artistic director Molly Lynch doesn't do a lot of advertising to lure participants to the National Choreographers Initiative, now underway in the dance studios of UC Irvine.
That's because she doesn't have to.
Alumni have spread the gospel of the three-week project, an independent workshop that supports the growth of contemporary ballet. This year, about 40 choreographers applied for four spots. The lucky quartet — Los Angeles-based Melissa Barak and New Yorkers Thang Dao, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Wendy Seyb — have received transportation to Irvine, a fee, housing, professional dancers, plus rehearsal time in state-of-the-art studios. Their task is rare enough — to create whatever kind of dance they want. No pressure, no rush to finish, no critics' reviews. The icing is an informal public performance in the Irvine Barclay Theatre at the end, allowing the artists to see what their pieces look like on a stage.
It's mostly word of mouth too that has led to a reliable stream of dancers (plus two students) auditioning for NCI's 18-member pop-up company; it's three more weeks of paid work (most are on unpaid leave from regular company jobs) and the opportunity to be the human clay out of which new dances will be sculpted.
And even the public workshop performance, the last element of this trifecta, has seen an upswing in popularity. The show has sold out the past two years. This year's showcase and conversation with the choreographers is Saturday.
Lynch, also a choreographer and UCI associate professor of dance, took a break recently to reflect on NCI's unique character and its eight-year contribution to the national and local dance scenes. Lynch accepts participants with a rainbow-spectrum of choreographic styles. Some want nothing more than the chance to experiment, and they don't even complete a ballet. But others have used it to get a jump on outside commissions. Twenty ballets begun at NCI have gone on to have official premieres, including Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Jamboree," eventually staged for Carolina Ballet and aired on public television, and Edwaard Liang's "Vicissitude," which the Morphoses ballet company premiered at the Vail International Dance Festival.
"I'm not necessarily trying to push a particular agenda with the choreographers and expecting them to be purists, in a classical sense, or in their combining ballet and modern," said Lynch, who launched a similar choreographic workshop in 1991, when she was the artistic director of Ballet Pacifica.
"I'm open to seeing what direction choreographers of today are interested in exploring. I think there is a lot of crossover between dance and theater. I love classical ballet, but I also find it very interesting to see the new ideas and directions that people tend to want to go."
The current crop of award-winning dance-makers has a goal for the workshop. Barak, a neoclassicist with four pieces in the New York City Ballet repertory, is creating an 11-minute ballet to a score by Los Angeles composer Maria Newman (of the Oscar-winning, film-composer Newman family). Barak has recently had the unsatisfactory experience of having musical scores thrust upon her. She simply wanted to make a dance to music of her own choosing.
"I was just really craving to do something on my own accord and work on something [that was] total freedom, like something I had in my head, and that I wanted to do, like in my heart," said Barak, who is at NCI for the second time.
Moultrie, who just completed a piece for Philadelphia-based Ballet X, will try to expand his movement vocabulary, working on pas de deux (duets) in particular. He was attracted to NCI's slower-paced, pressure-free environment: "It's just a place where you can actually think about what you're doing."
The classically trained Seyb has been choreographing for the theater for the past four years; working again with ballet dancers will get her "dancer brain in gear," she hopes.
Born in Danang, Vietnam, and raised in Los Angeles, Dao has been researching the plight of Vietnamese dissident artists, writers and intellectuals for a piece that looks metaphorically about imprisonment. It will be his second piece inspired by events in his homeland; "Quiet Imprint" from 2010 probed the lives of displaced war refugees.
For his NCI piece, Dao said: "I wanted to create something that speaks about the importance of freedom and the importance of being here in America, which is a country of abundance and opportunity."
Then there's the bonus of being so close to Little Saigon and "all the Vietnamese food I can eat."