An Interview with Emery LeCrone
New York, New York
January 23 and March 5, 2014
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Popkin
Emery LeCrone - photo © by Zac Nicholson
With the debut of her newest composition later this month at the Guggenheim Museum’s “Works and Process” (it’s her second appearance there) and other works programmed for two successive nights at Jacobs Pillow over the summer, Emery LeCrone’s career is taking off. We talked over coffee on the upper West Side of New York on the afternoon of January 24, 2014 and then updated things on the phone last week. The 27 year old choreographer’s roots are in classical ballet, but her work increasingly combines the classical and contemporary genres. The choreographic voice is unmistakably personal – both rhythmically compelling and at times nearly Zen in its purity of line and simplicity of statement. While she’s received support from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, and a fellowship from New York City Center along the way, her career has been essentially self-directed, growing out of a determined drive to create. In person she’s tall and striking with a way of relating that’s informal, modest, at times funny, but remarkably clear and straightforward. She is who she is without pretense. In a New York art and dance world where you often meet mystifying doubletalk, there’s none of that. Instead just the opposite, an artist with integrity who’s always herself, tells you what she thinks and then does it, and always maintains a personal touch.
Tell me about the Works and Process commission coming up at the Guggenheim on March 23 and 24.
It’s called “Bach Interpreted” and the idea was to create two separate dance compositions to the same musical selection, Bach's "Partita No. 2 in C Minor." But one of the pieces is classical and the other is contemporary, so it’s a chance to explore two ways of treating this music choreographically. The Bach composition is is in six different movements - Sinfonia, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Rondeaux and Cappriccio. So it’s a work that’s in parts and it’s also an artistic collaboration between myself and Yigal Azrouël, who’s just a fabulous fashion designer and who’s creating four different looks for the classical end of the piece and six for the contemporary. And I’m incredibly excited to be working with Yigal actually, it’s a thrill, because you seldom get to work with someone like him. Also the Guggenheim’s format is partly interview so Jared Angle [the principal dancer at New York City Ballet] will be moderating and Yigal and I will be on stage talking about the work besides just having it performed.
Didn’t you do something with the same Bach score last year at the Youth America Grand Prix’s “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” Gala?
Yes I choreographed just the Sinfonia movement of the Bach which is about a tenth of the composition here and actually that YAGP composition is still the first section of this much longer suite of dances. Tyler Angle and Teresa Reichlen [both principals at NYCB] danced it at that gala and they’ll dance it here and I’m keeping that part in. But then the new work contains the other five sections of Bach’s music in the classical composition, and six new sections in the parallel contemporary treatment.
photo copyright © Visual Media Artists, of Tyler Angle and Teresa Reichlen dancing “Bach Partita No. 2” at the YAGP Gala
How did the Guggenheim commission happen?
It’s an interesting story. That was my first time working with Tyler and Tess and it was originally Ken Gordon - who is a huge fan of Teresa Reichlen and who has also seen a lot of my work - who approached me with the idea of making a duet for her and that’s how it started. And then after that gala Duke Dang and Mary Sharp Cronson from the Guggenheim said, “Would you be able to make two pieces to this music? Do you think it would lend itself to contemporary choreography?” And I thought absolutely. Because while I at first thought the music was maybe more innately classical, the idea of exploring Bach’s solo piano music in contemporary dance was fascinating and offered a new perspective. And actually I started to work on the contemporary part of the composition first, last June, when I got six dancers together and we had a two-week rehearsal process at the Guggenheim to build the basic structure for that contemporary end.
Who are the dancers going to be at the Guggenheim?
For the classical rendition part it will be be Tess and Tyler but also Stella Abrera and Alexandre Hammoudi, two dancers from ABT whom I’ve never worked with before. And then for the contemporary part it’s three men and three women - Kaitlyn Gilliland, Sarah Atkins and Kimi Nikaidoh; Pierre Guilbault, Richard Isaac and Alfredo Solivan.
That cast is really impressive. What’s it been like blending everyone together into a single ensemble?
Kaitlyn and I have been working together for almost two years. I’ve gotten to know her really well because when she left NYCB she came to Columbia University where I was the resident choreographer at Columbia Ballet Collaborative and I literally ran into her on the street around the campus. And I said: “What are you doing? You have to join the dance company up here, I’d love to work with you.” So that’s how we started in. And I’ve also worked with Sara Atkins a great deal, from my first Ballet Builders composition right through my work with Miro Magloire’s New Chamber Ballet, where I was resident choreographer for a while, and where Sara danced. So I know these dancers and what they do and I have a strong artistic feeling for how to work with them.
But I think - especially this piece – almost everybody in the contemporary part of the work is a freelance artist in New York City. So that means they work for a couple of different companies and some of them are also in school part time, so we all have very different schedules and it is complicated to get the group dynamic really solidified. You want time for that. But I knew that going in, and that’s one of the reasons I started on the contemporary part of the work in June last year - because I wanted to give it as long as possible to really gel between all of us, so that they’d have time to get used to each other and I would have time to create specifically for them, and make it feel more organic, like a company would be when you see each other every day in class and rehearsal.
And that process is feeling easier in the classical part of the work with Tess and Tyler, and Stella and Alex, because they come from companies where that organic whole already exists. And when you come to dancers like them as a freelance choreographer there’s an aesthetic, the NYCB or ABT aesthetic, and they have to some degree the same sorts of strengths and same sorts of weaknesses. So in a way it’s easier with them, because you know roughly what type of choreography they’re used to doing; what kind of movement they’re used to. And I don’t need to take a whole lot of time to figure those things out.
photo copyright © Visual Media Artists, of Tyler Angle and Teresa Reichlen dancing “Bach Partita No. 2” at the YAGP Gala
You knew Tess and Tyler from working with them before. But what’s it been like making dances on Stella and Alexandre?
It’s working out wonderfully, even though ABT has been on tour in Japan and they’re just getting back, so that we’re going to have to pick things back up and have a first full run through of their duet next week. Of course I knew coming in that Stella had speed and strength and how beautiful she is, but what surprised me is that I also found a beautifully lyrical side. She has this luscious port de bras, as well as a depth and maturity that I’m getting to know and that I didn’t necessarily associate with her as I’ve seen her at that company. And Alexandre is just wonderful solo dancer - his facility for fast footwork and turning and jumping is just amazing. And the classical part of the work also has two pas de deux for Tyler and Tess where I get to explore similar contrasts. The first is a spitfire composition and the second is very much softer.
Can you talk a little about how you got into being a choreographer, how all this happened?
Both my sister [NYCB soloist Megan LeCrone] and I trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, a boarding arts high school, and over the summers I started attending School of American Ballet summer intensives. I did that four summers, starting when I was fourteen. It was pretty consistent and I went through all the levels, where I had Peter Boal, Kay Mazzo and Suki Schorer, all great teachers there. And after I graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts I joined North Carolina Dance Theater, which is Patricia McBride and Jean Pierre Bonnefoux’s company. Again it’s a Balanchine based company that also does contemporary repertory. And that’s really where I started choreographing. The company had an opportunity for new choreography on a couple of programs and encouraged its dancers to create work, and they also bring in young, new choreographers to do a contemporary rep along with the classics, and they gave me the opportunity to create my first work for their second company while I was there. So that’s really how I got started, both dancing and choreographing.
When did you transfer the locus to New York?
While I was at North Carolina Dance Theater my sister Megan was accepted into New York City Ballet. She’d been at SAB for less than eight months and got into the company. And when I was coming up to visit her I just knew right away that I wanted to be in New York. So that was really the transition. I just made the decision that I wanted to come here, to see what choreographers I could work with here, and of course I wanted to be close to my sister. So I moved here with no job. (Laughs). And in the meantime, during that transition phase, there was choreography program called “Ballet Builders.” It was 2008 and my sister said, “I think you should apply for this. You’re not doing any thing right now that would interfere, why not submit that piece you made last year?” It was the only piece I’d ever choreographed at that point. So I submitted it and it was selected, one out of four works, and presented at the Kaye Playhouse. A New York Times reviewer came and it got a good reception in the paper and people just started hearing about it. That was “Pulling to Break.” It was to Philip Glass “Violin Concerto No. 1” and that was the ballet that Sarah Atkins, who I mentioned is also performing in the Guggenheim work, danced in when we very first worked together.
How did thing progress from that point? You were living in New York . . .
Yeah with no job. (Laughing again). But at the time Christopher Wheeldon was founding Morphoses for his inaugural City Center season. And he was looking for freelance dancers for his “Dance of the Hours” and I auditioned for that and luckily got the job. And meanwhile I also picked up this and that and also became resident choreographer for Miro Magloire’s company, New Chamber Ballet. And then Chris took “Dance of the Hours” to the Metropolitan Opera [as part of its production of “La Gioconda”] and that’s really the point that I got a job here that was able to support me doing choreographic projects. I got a steady job dancing in the corps de ballet at the Metropolitan Opera, where they hire dancers for their opera divertissements. And the reason I got the job at the Met, dancing in their ballet company, was because I had already performed that ballet for Chris in his City Center season.
You were also chosen for NYCB’s choreographic institute, can you tell me about that?
Well I had applied several times to the New York Choreographic Institute. I think I started applying in 2008. And lots of people apply, it’s prestigious and hard to get in and the year before I received it I actually didn’t apply any more. Because I was frustrated and I didn’t want to overwhelm them and keep submitting. And then finally the next year I thought, “Well, let me just try one more time.” But by that time I had accumulated a couple of more classical pieces for other companies, works on pointe that I felt made a stronger submission than I had in the past. So I submitted and was accepted. And that was the fall of 2011, and Justin Peck and I were on the program in the end of October that year.
photo copyright © by Mathew Murphy of Emery LeCrone choreographing at the 2011 New York Choreographic Institute
And it was great. It’s a very, very short process and that taught me to be much more efficient, so that - for other commissions after that, going to companies - I’m much better prepared, because you essentially . . . On paper the choreographic institute looks like a two week process but actually your ballet is finished by Wednesday of the second week so it’s really an eight day rehearsal period and you’re trying to make something fifteen or twenty minutes long. It’s just not a lot of time and the dancers are working for the company the rest of the time, so it’s a bit of a different creature in that everybody who’s involved is multi-tasking. So it teaches you a completely different mental approach. You have to be prepared conceptually because you just don’t have the time to come in and spend a whole day making something you’re not going to use. You have really to be efficient. And I think it also just reinforces how much music is key and picking something that you are really passionate about, that you know ahead of time that you have specific choreography in mind for, and that you are able to count and translate for the dancers. Because that just helps everyone learn it. If you’re switching music all the time – which is great as far as a process – but in a week, the dancers need to have something to grab on to. So it taught me a great deal about how to work.
I saw a tape of a dance production that you did last summer for a Sara Neufeld music video. Can you tell me about that?
That came about because the director, Derrick Belcham is a mutual friend of both of ours. He’d been to a couple of my dance performances and asked after a show whether I’d be interested in choreographing for a music video or a film. So then a couple of months later he sent me a new piece of music by Sara, it was solo violin, both contemporary and classical in feeling, not too long. And as soon as I listened to the music I knew I wanted to work with Kaitlyn [Gilliland] and Pierre Guilbault (who is also in the Guggenheim piece) because they come from sort of opposite directions. You know Kaitlyn comes from a very classical background and Pierre is trained in Cunningham and is strictly modern. So I got the two of them and we made the piece in six hours. We rented space, we got together; Derrick was there; Sara was there. It was very collaborative in that we talked about how we wanted the whole piece overall to look. So that was fun.
How do you like to work? Do you prepare a lot of movement beforehand for instance or go into the studio and Zen your way through it?
It’s interesting because I’ve really been thinking a lot about it lately. I find as I choreograph more and have gotten a little older I’ve reached the point where I like to have time. A lot of time. So that is the first thing. Time with the dancers and time with the music. Everything. In the past I used to find a piece of music and kind of just whip it out and be happy with it. But as I make more work I’m realizing it’s hard in to be innovative, I mean with respect to myself and in relation to what I’ve already been doing. Because you get into habits and you have little tricks that you’re used to doing, your default things. So I think the stage I’m at now, is that I’m really interested in getting that first rendition out, and then having the time to edit it, having the time to look at it, and to be able to say, “Okay I’ve done that before” or “I can make this dancer look better if I do this.” And it means everything from listening to the music sooner on my own, to having more studio rehearsals just so that it feels (pauses) . . . It just feels like as a developing artist, I need time to invest. But it’s also a Catch 22. Because obviously you’re going to do the projects you can get and time is always going to be at a premium. But if I had my ideal answer to the question, I would want every project to feel like that.
photo copyright © by Mathew Murphy of Megan LeCrone, Russell Janzen and Da’Von Doane in Emery LeCrone’s “With Thoughtful Lightness” at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process program in 2011.
The first part of “Bach Partita” that we saw last year at YAGP was pretty minimalist, or maybe I’d call it formalist. Anyway, stripped down and bare, a kind of pure dance aesthetic with few other elements. But you’ve also done a good deal of more theatrical stuff. How do you feel about that theatrical element in dance?
I love it and it’s something I explore when I get the chance but that’s sometimes hard to do as a freelance artist. Because a lot of that work needs to be created with bigger resources. But I go that direction when I get a chance and have the impulse. It also depends on the music and on how you see it. I’ve got a work coming up at Marymount Manhattan College for example right now and it’s interesting because the Marymount piece is pretty much as far opposite from the Guggenheim work as you can get. There are set elements and a huge blue tarp on the floor. There are floor mikes [microphones] and hoods and crazy costumes. It’s really grounded and there’s a lot of partnering and lifting in a contemporary way. And I also recently did a work at Juilliard called “In Pursuit of Falling” that took that direction. It had eight benches that moved around as part of the work and were incorporated into the choreography and a very ambient score that was like a soundscape with some text in the background. So it depends on the project and especially on the resources and that’s kind of why I went out on that limb at Juilliard. Because that time I had the ability to build the set pieces, and have six foot fluorescent lights on stage, and technicians, and they have the budget to do those things that when you’re producing on your own, well you often just don’t have the time or the resources. But it’s also a skill to be able to create dance in a very paired down and simple way, that it can still be effective but without needing much in the way of lights and costumes, and that you can still be theatrical that way too. So I think having both skills is incredibly important to me and actually those are the choreographers I admire most – the ones that can be very theatrical without all that stuff but at the same time know how to use it to aid in what they do when it’s there.
Who do think does that?
It’s hard for me to pick just one choreographer out like that. But I think that someone that’s a little bit more out of the box for me, and that people are often surprised when I say I like her work, is Pina Bausch. Especially her timing, which is a profound choreographic strength, the way she makes these evening length pieces that have little vignettes, but you never find it jarring moving from one solo to a duet, or to a group piece, because of the way she’s able to weave all those together. Theatrically it’s genius. But I see other stuff - I actually like to see as much as I can and like a lot of up and coming people. There’s a female choreographer – Loni Landon – who I think is making great work right now. You know there’s so much. That’s probably the hardest thing because there’s little parts I like of almost everything.
What else have you got coming up? Where else can we see your work after the Guggenheim shows?
Well there’s a bunch of things scheduled this spring and into the summer. I’m restaging a work of mine called “Outflow Boundary” for Marymount Manhattan College’s Spring Gala, between May 8th and 16th . I originally made that for North Carolina Dance Theater. Then Ballet Academy East is premiering something of mine on May 16th also under the direction of Darla Hoover. It’s for their annual Spring performance and for 26 dancers. Then at Jacobs Pillow this summer I’m going to premiere a ballet for Daniel Ulbricht’s Stars of American Ballet on July 16th. The dancers there are going to be Emily Kikta and Russell Janzen of NYCB, they’re two incredibly talented youngsters, but the following night I’ve also got a forty minute program of some of my other works for what the Pillow calls “Inside Out.”