National Choreographers Initiative allows creativity to flourish

Choreographer Mariana Oliveira, background, works with dancers Elise Pekarek from Ballet Austin and Maté Szentes from Richmond Ballet.
(Photo by Chris Trella)

In dance, the pressure can be immense when dancers, the choreographer, artistic director and others must complete a piece for live performance by a certain date.

But projects like the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine seek to emphasize the creative process and take the pressure off producing a finished, polished product.

The three-week summertime workshop — now celebrating its 15th year — will culminate with a public performance July 28 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Unlike formal, completed dance productions, the show will start with four choreographers introducing their pieces, 16 dancers presenting what they’ve learned, and a question and answer session with the audience concluding the program.

“We really try not to put the pressure of performance on it; instead, we want [participants] to be creative, explore and develop new work,” said Molly Lynch, founder and artistic director of NCI.

The former artistic director for Ballet Pacifica, which closed in 2007, Lynch is also a professor of dance at UC Irvine and recently became chair of the dance department there.

Lynch started NCI as a way to build repertory for Ballet Pacifica. But now, it’s a nationally recognized laboratory for choreographers to introduce ideas and see how they materialize onstage.

“Each choreographer is a little bit different in their process and the direction that they’re going with the work that they’re doing,” Lynch said. “Choreographers are allowed to do a piece of their choosing, with no set length of piece, or music, or timing.”

Out of about 60 submissions this year, four choreographers were chosen. They are Kevin Jenkins, David Justin, Ilya Kozadayev and Mariana Oliveira.

Sixteen dancers — eight women, eight men — were chosen for this year’s initiative. All choreographers and dancers are paid. They have been rehearsing since the second week of July at UCI’s dance studios.

“NCI comes at a time when I’m very aware of the pressure to continue creating good work, or great work,” said Jenkins, 35, who is creating a piece called “Fortissimo” (“Very Loud” in Italian) for the July 28 program.

“I wanted to do something that’s really big — fun, vibrant and exciting. You could call me the Michael Bay of ballets. It’s very fast and very explosive. The dancers are picking it up well. But it’s challenging because it’s quick and there’s a lot of movement.”

Mariana Oliveira is another NCI choreographer. Originally from Brazil, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in London and has received commissions to create new works for the Richmond Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet Academy and A&A Ballet.

Oliveira is creating a piece called “Broken Wings,” loosely based on the Greek myth of Icarus and inspired by an Anselm Kiefer painting, “Landscape with Wing.”

“What I’m focusing on is the idea of freedom,” she said. “Being able to fly to whatever you feel is correct, and yes, there’s consequences to that.”

Oliveira, 31, said NCI is a great opportunity in a field dominated by men.

“I know how hard it is to be a working female choreographer, and I feel very lucky,” she said. “I keep hearing there’s not a lot of female choreographers. I think they’re out there. The problem is they’re not given a lot of opportunities. We actually need more programs like this that empower women.”

Since its inception in 2004, NCI has brought 56 different choreographers to Orange County to develop new works. About 28 pieces that had their first staging at the Irvine Barclay have proceeded to become finished productions performed by companies across the country and the world.

For instance, Ma Cong’s “French Twist” was created in NCI workshops in 2008; it was commissioned and performed by Smuin Ballet in San Francisco in 2010. Peter Quanz’s NCI ballet “Luminous” premiered at the Hong Kong Ballet, also in 2010.

“The work continues to live on, which I think is exciting to see,” Lynch said .

For ballet dancer Oliver Greene-Cramer, NCI is an opportunity to network and get pushed in different, unexpected directions.

“The world is small, and the dance world is even smaller,” said Greene-Cramer, 27, who dances with the Austin Ballet in Texas. “The expectation here isn’t for a finished piece. The expectation is to push yourself as a dance maker, as a dancer. It forces you to expand your comfort zone.”

If You Go

What: National Choreographers Initiative

When: 8 p.m. July 28

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: $20-$40

Information: (949) 854-4646 or