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Choreographers show works in progress

July 27, 2009 |  7:00 am


The program's four dances were over, and the applause faded away. But most of the Saturday-night audience at the Irvine Barclay Theatre remained rooted to their seats.

Chairs materialized onstage, and it was time for “Ask the Choreographer,” a favorite part of the annual National Choreographers Initiative (NCI) works-in-progress showing. One man wanted an explanation for dance-maker Rick McCullough’s choice of music: a full 15 minutes of air-raid-siren noise (by composer Michael Gordon).

“I knew it was going to become a challenge for the audience,” McCullough admitted. “There’s no escaping the emotional intensity of it. It’s about being afraid.”

Then he added: “I beg your pardon if it was hard to listen to.”

Getting an explanation from an artist, let alone an apology, is one of the reasons that NCI has become one of the most popular Southern California dance events. The independent, nonprofit NCI, run in partnership with the Barclay Theatre and UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, attracted a near-capacity crowd Saturday.

Nearly everything about it defies conventional wisdom. The pieces are incomplete and often experimental; they are performed by a pickup group of 16 dancers from mid-size troupes across the United States, with nary a star in the bunch; and the choreographers are little known outside the dance world.

But NCI, now in its sixth year, sells tickets to those who want a behind-the-scenes look at the mysterious and normally private process of creation. As movies such as “Center Stage” and television programs like “Dancing With the Stars” have demonstrated, there’s an allure to dance’s backstage scene, which even sophisticated events like NCI can tap into.

Every year the NCI works-in-progress showing attracts neophytes, die-hard dance fans, local arts administrators and usually a surprise out-of-town guest or two. On Saturday, international star Vladimir Malakhov, now a dancer and director with the Staatsballett Berlin, was spotted. 

The director of NCI is Molly Lynch, former artistic director of Ballet Pacifica and now a UCI professor, and she served as host and moderator. The participants have been in Irvine since July 6 practicing six days a week for nine hours day, she explained. The 16 dancers were chosen from 100 applicants, a record number. The choreographers have no conditions on what they can make, and they retain the rights to their works. (The performance is not reviewed.)

First up was Deanna Carter, a ballet mistress and professor at the University of Iowa. With five days to go before the showing, Carter said she finally put music (excerpts from compositions by Ezio Bosso and Gary Eistler) to her composition, “Ash to Glass.”

“I came here without a preconceived idea of what I wanted to work on,” she explained, adding that the creation process would go on back home.

“So for me…,” she continued.

Lynch gently touched her arm. “You can’t tell everything,” Lynch said, and the two women left the stage so the eight-person lyrical piece could begin.

McCullough’s rapid-fire work “Weather” was second. “One of the things I set out to do was to develop my own personal contemporary ballet vocabulary,” said McCullough, a professor at Florida State University.

New York resident Sidra Bell, the only one of the four who has her own company, said she had been experimenting with gestures for her piece “Iconography.” She commissioned a vocal score from her father, jazz musician Dennis Bell.

“I’m very fascinated by hands and upper body. One of the dancers told me, ‘I’m still trying to understand your language,’ ” she noted.

“Hush-Hush” was last. Created by Olivier Wevers, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, it was an exploration of clandestine relationships, and was framed by a shadow play scene in a doorway.
Like the others, Wevers began with movement before music. Well into the process, he still couldn’t choose between harpsichord compositions by J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. Stumped, he turned to his collaborators.

“I let the dancers vote,” he said, revealing just how democratic the fabled artistic process can be.

-- Laura Bleiberg

Photo: Dancers perform Deanna Carter's "Ash to Glass." Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times