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In mid-September, a sign posted on the notice board outside the Washington Ballet studio reads: “Please drop off pointe shoes and slippers to be dyed in the bucket near your dressing rooms by Friday, Sept 27th. Thank you!!”
Just weeks after the ballerinas’ traditionally pink satin pointe shoes are dyed bright red, the company will debut “RACECAR,” a fast-paced, 21-minute, John Heginbotham-choreographed ballet set to a percussion score. The piece is part of The Washington Ballet’s season opener, NEXTsteps, a presentation of three original works meant to push the art form forward from Tchaikovsky to the 21st century.
Many ballet works performed today are familiar and faithful stalwarts, like Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Nutcracker. With NEXTsteps, The Washington Ballet is doing something fresh—and taking a risk. As of Labor Day, “RACECAR” did not exist. The last of three pieces to be finished for NEXTsteps, it was choreographed in just 14 business days, from Sept. 3 to 20. From a stageside vantage point at a handful of rehearsals, the whirlwind creation of the ballet unfolds.
As a choreographer, Heginbotham is a hybrid. He studied concert dance at Juilliard and performed with modern dance company Mark Morris Dance Group for 14 years before founding his own, Dance Heginbotham. But his childhood ballet classes made him fluent in balletic vocabulary—pirouette, fouetté, tendu.
More often, though, his requests of the dancers are simple, visual, and in English: “It would be nice if that could look like a mechanical bull,” or “Make it more like a temper tantrum.”
His corrections are gentle—“Can we do this?” and “Let’s try that”—characteristic of him and uncommon in classical ballet.
A choreographer typically takes the first few days to observe the dancers and choose the cast. Those who don’t make the cut eventually deduce as much. “You can kind of tell in the first few days who will be in it,” says Jessy Dick, a studio company dancer with The Washington Ballet.
But Heginbotham’s work involves two casts of 16 dancers. On Thursday, Sept. 5, most of the 35 dancers rehearsing in a practice room at the company’s Wisconsin Ave. NW location will perform in the final ballet. Heginbotham stands at the front, and all of the dancers stare at him, chess pieces waiting to be moved.
Upon his request, the dancers rise up on their toes, then come back to the floor with quick, fluttering steps. “Can you just dirty it up,” Heginbotham asks. “Make it more sloppy, more violent.” The class laughs. Sloppiness is anathema to classical ballet. But they respond.
Heginbotham has long admired Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, former principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and all-around ballet legend. One Halloween, he dressed up as “Ghoulie Kent.”
During her 29-year tenure at ABT, Kent gained a reputation as a classical master. But her vision for this company is not simply to dance the canonical ballets. She wants to annually commission new works made in D.C., like “RACECAR.”
The afternoon of Sept. 9, Kent watches as Heginbotham arranges 16 dancers in a circle and divides them into four groups. Each group follows the same choreographic pattern, but they start at different times. Space between the dancers expands and contracts by the half-second.
“Oh my God, it’s so complicated,” Kent says of the movements.
Choreographers usually map out a score mathematically, she explains. Behind even the simplest steps is a calculation of beats for the dancers.
There is choreography, and then there is costume design, another complex aspect of the endlessly revolving world that is building a ballet.
On Sept. 11, costume designer Maile Okamura visits the company. Okamura, who also performed with Mark Morris Dance Group, is a longtime Heginbotham collaborator.
Costume designers tend to “get the short end of the stick,” Okamura says. Choreographers want the freedom to make changes up until the performance itself. But changing the ballet—particularly who dances in which group—can change the costumes. Once production has begun, the whims of the dance maker become the headaches of the costume designer.
Okamura’s costume proposal for Heginbotham’s piece is four variations of white eyelet outfits, including Club Monaco jumpsuits and custom-made shirt-and-shorts sets. The quarter-inch-wide holes in the fabric reflect the hole punch sound in “Paper Melodies,” the eerie percussive composition serving as the work’s centerpiece. In addition to the sounds of a manual hole puncher, the sounds of a music box, old-fashioned hotel bells, and a ghostly chorus of voices are buried in the score.
When Julie Kent drops by the wardrobe room for a few minutes to say hello, wearing a white shirt dress and orange sneakers, she is unaware that her own outfit will find its way into the “RACECAR” costume design. After Kent leaves, Okamura decides her white eyelet ensembles need bright shoes.
By Sept. 16, Heginbotham has scrapped the complicated circle from last week’s rehearsal.
“What I thought was going to be cool, it just, I don’t know,” he says. “It didn’t really look like… it didn’t look like anything.”
So, he introduces new choreography, an intimate pas de deux (dance of two), to dancers Tamás Krizsa and Sona Kharatian. The steps begin slowly and build to a gallop, in tandem with the music.
Heginbotham has the contours of the choreography laid out in his head. Kharatian and Krizsa should warily circle each other, then meet in the middle and lay their heads on the other’s shoulder.
“I’m just, I’m visualizing it like a toilet bowl,” Krizsa says.
“It is a swirl,” Heginbotham replies, smiling.
“He’s silly,” says Kharatian.
The choreographer holds his ideas loosely, working out the details, timing, and transitions alongside the dancers.
During a break, Washington Ballet marketing director Scott Greenberg asks Heginbotham, “What does this piece mean to you?” This is critical knowledge for Greenberg’s team to start targeting ads, drafting press releases, and adjusting ticket prices. With the premiere in just over a month, promotion needs to begin.
“To be honest, I don’t really know what this piece means to me,” Heginbotham says, trailing off.
On Sept. 19, the day before rehearsals end and Heginbotham returns to New York, the mood is light. The ballet is ready to be danced straight through for the first time. The ballet master, Rubén Martín Cintas, sets up a tripod to film the rehearsal. Heginbotham takes a seat at the front, between the dancers and the mirror. “I’m, like, very nervous,” he says.
Nineteen minutes and 53 seconds later, the ballet ends—just short of his 21-minute target. The dancers are panting. Before leaving, each one approaches Heginbotham and thanks him, with a little curtsy or nod, a company practice.
During the next several weeks, Cintas stewards the ballet, fitting in a couple hours of practice each day between rehearsals for the upcoming performances of The Nutcracker. The dancers switch back and forth between classical pieces and this contemporary one, and the very different muscles, mindsets, and shoes required for each.
The women on the wardrobe team dye the dancers’ shoes red and rip the lining out of white Club Monaco jumpsuits, adding hems and stitches and straps.
Kent herself puts the finishing touches on “RACECAR.”
Greenberg monitors ticket sales and ad spending, while Barbara Berti, the company’s public relations coordinator, sends out press releases and arranges for dance critics to attend opening night.
And finally, NEXTsteps will showcase the power and evolution of ballet at Sidney Harman Hall, from Oct. 23 to 27.
Back on Sept. 19, the dancers shine with sweat, their faces cherry blossom pink. After three weeks, “RACECAR” is nearly there.
“It doesn’t look like it,” says company apprentice dancer Victoria Arrea, “but we’re counting all the time.”