A Right Rite
Interview with Nicolo Fonte, creator of Ballet West’s new “Rite of Spring”
8 April 2014by Dean SpeerWhat first drew you to making dances and beginning your choreographic career?
Back when I was a student at SUNY Purchase I was required to take composition classes. These were classes that somehow taught you “principles” of choreography, such as spatial design and architecture, the importance of certain diagonals, understanding music choices, etc., with a heavy focus on modern dance choreographers and then trying these concepts out yourself.
Anyway I failed miserably at it in the first few semesters. I was really blocked. Then one day my teacher said, “stop talking about expression and lock yourself in a studio and do it!” And when I had a breakthrough I began to get very positive feedback. So as far back as that, the creative seed was planted for me to want to make dances. That first breakthrough was thrilling, empowering and I truly felt the beginnings of existing in my own skin - I began to hear the “calling”, so to speak. Then when I was a professional dancer I got involved with Choreographic Workshops at both Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Compañia Nacional de Danza until, in both companies, I was given “professional” opportunities.What has motivated you to continue making dances? Do you still get as excited with anticipation when you step into the studio?
I actually still get nervous when I step into the studio for the first time in a new process. It’s funny because it’s the unknown that causes both anxiety (or nervousness) and at the same time, a thrill - anxiety of “do I even know what I’m doing” and the thrill of possibilities, discovery and growth. Just when you think you may have arrived somewhere, or there is nothing relevant left to explore in a given process, I am learning that if I go a little deeper with what I’m working with, I arrive somewhere new or somewhere back where I’ve been but its changed or feels new because it’s informed by experience. That’s really powerful stuff and is what keeps me motivated to keep trying. What does your creative process look like?
My creative process changes a bit from work to work. But in general I work closely with the dancers in giving them basic material to work on in order to build the very fabric of that particular work. I usually start with a single phrase of movement - and go from there - very much in the way a writer will find that one sentence that thrusts the book forward or in fact anchors it. Once that phrase has been experienced, manipulated, inverted and reinvented - I watch to see if anything new content has been revealed and then develop it further.
One interesting thing I have discovered over the years is that I now believe more and more that creation is a process of knowing when to let go - killing your darlings so to speak for the bigger picture, and being open to the unknown. But the key is knowing your intention so you can direct and shape that which is still unknown.How do you try not to repeat yourself, or is this even of concern to you?
This used to really concern me - that all the works had to be very different. Then I discovered that this was an unnecessary and arbitrary pressure placed on myself that interrupted my own creative flow. I don’t want to keep making the same ballet, so I won’t. If the idea, intellectual conceit or reason if you will, to make the next ballet is clear, it will be different enough from my previous work. My experience has been that it is when I get a little lost in a process, self-quoting steps in to fill in the blanks - which is fine but it can feel forced. Whereas a new or fresh idea has its own physical motivation that will continue to push my language further - or not. But the choreographic “world” created will be organic and not artificial. It takes time to understand what is honestly organic and what is forced in a new process. It is much more like evolution rather than revolution and I have definitely come to terms with that.How might you describe your movement palette?
Rich, complex, extreme but also subtle, flowing, organic - and very musical.Rite is obviously iconic and a big undertaking. How have you approached making it your own for Ballet West? Does your concept have an arc to it? How much is pre-planned and how, if you do, seek and expect inspiration from the dancers themselves?
My first “approach” was to try to rid myself of any pre-existing notions about what the Rite is or should be. I found it liberating to try and hear the music as if for the first time, without the weight of history. My instinct then was to tap into the rhythmical structure of the score, and avoid all literal narrative content and hopefully illuminate the music in new and interesting ways. But the ritualistic and primitive feel of the music made it very difficult to strip away ALL narrative content. And I didn’t want to completely ignore the episodic nature of the music. So what revealed itself to me in the process was a “rolling” narrative of thematic material having to do with basic, instinctual emotions and desires.
My “job” was to make a dance. That is always my job. But in this case, to resist the temptation of trying to make something “important” and just experience the music as music was really interesting to me. “Fantasia” was a big influence in the sense that if Disney could take what is considered to be very high brow music and set it to animation, a cartoon, (brilliantly done I might add), that helped me feel freer in simply creating movement and shaping it architecturally rather than interrupting my own creative flow with the unnecessary burden of the importance of a subject matter.
I already had in mind certain dancers for certain roles so that really shaped the role and consequently, the ballet, itself. It’s a very different process to either imagine a dance or imagine a dance with very specific people in mind. It becomes way more personal that way. The danger there is that you only play to what their perceived strengths are and not stretch them or yourself further. But I do ask a lot of the dancers at Ballet West in terms of collaborating. I’m not interested in them generating material per se BUT they are beginning to understand on a much deeper level what the collaborative process is and what it means to take responsibility in tapping into when I’m “on” and when I’m not. They are now able to push me along or rather guide me when I might stray too far from what we were originally working on or when I am simply stuck. That for me is true collaboration and this was especially true during the creative process of the Rite.You are a resident choreographer and must know Ballet West and the dancers well. How has this influenced the trajectory of your work?
Again, the importance of really understanding one another and honestly accepting one another (dancer and choreographer) in a creative environment releases the potential for really profound and beautiful works to come to life. This is also true in any department of the organization.Are you a choreographer who likes to work closely with each of the production elements – costume, scenic, lighting – or someone who prefers to mostly let them do their thing?
I do like to work closely with my collaborators. But I work with the same group of people a lot - my team if you will, that I most certainly encourage them to do their thing because their thing is now so closely related to my thing. But I will definitely guide them in a certain direction. Usually I express what I don’t want and then let them discover where they want to go given those parameters.What is it like seeing your work on stage for the first time? Exciting? Fun? Do you tend to pass out like I’m tempted to do? Different from what you expected or experienced in the studio?
The translation from studio to stage is always the scariest. There are many factors involved in that changeover that can either enhance what you’ve done or diminish it. I’ve learned over the years to keep an eye on distance, perspective and always intention in the studio. Because what you see and feel from a group of dancers at two feet away from you is very different from the separation of an orchestra pit and more. But I am always very excited the first time on stage.
The actual premiere is another story. I am a nervous wreck and way too aware of what I imagine / project to be negative audience reactions during the performance. Then there usually is a very positive response and I’m relieved but exhausted from torturing myself unnecessarily in my imaginings. I don’t seem to be able to change or undo that opening night experience!What are one or two notable works that you’re particularly proud of or you felt were most successful…and why?
Beautiful Decay, created on BalletX last summer is a work that I am really proud of. It’s an original concept 2 act ballet, incorporating 2 elderly dancers in their seventies and using Vivaldi’s 4 Seasons in its entirety, for the first act - a recipe for disaster!! But it was a huge hit and I did things choreographically that I hadn’t done before. One reviewer called it “… an evening of explosive, athletic dance that leaves the audience speechless after just the first act, but also a witty and sophisticated meditation on the passing of time.” And when newness is successful it is such a fabulous thrill and truly satisfying.
Adam Sklute, the artistic director of Ballet West, has often said to me that he loves the way I take iconic, well known music and am able to reinterpret it, making it relevant for today. He thought that was true of my Bolero and I believe it is at least partly why he charged with me creating a new Rite of Spring. I am also really proud of the work that the dancers of Ballet West and I accomplished with my new Rite. I hope Adam and really just everyone will be too!
For more about Ballet West:http://www.balletwest.org/