We have almost seen the end of the National Choreographers Initiative (NCI), a gem of the Orange County dance scene, and internationally respected as a program that supports the continuous evolution and innovation of ballet.
After a year of hiatus due to the pandemic, founder and artistic director Molly Lynch was unsure whether the organization, which is fully supported by donors, would survive another year away from the stage. But when planning for the event began, cases of COVID were on the rise and vaccines were not widely available for all age groups. A 2021 event would be risky.
âI said to my advisory board, ‘If we don’t try this year, it’s over.’ We will not gather the energy, the contacts. We won’t be able to keep the donors, âLynch said. âThinking about that scenario is exactly what made us say ‘we have to try’. ”
Molly Lynch, Founder and Artistic Director of the National Choreographic Initiative
But saying “yes” was not without its challenges. Lynch and his team were faced with new procedures and logistics that have never been part of NCI planning in the organization’s 18 year history, starting with a required âback-to-campus planâ. by UC Irvine where the event is hosted.
Lynch shared that she needs to reflect and write down every step of the dancers’ stay in Orange County. From how attendees would travel in Irvine – driving instead of flying – to what specific hallways and bathrooms designated cohorts might use on campus.
âI had a moment where I was like, ‘Am I crazy for trying to do this, or what?’â Lynch said. âRehearsals are almost impossible if you distance yourself socially. Would it even be worth it? â
But still, she continued.
âWe knew (the experience) wasn’t going to be exactly like it used to be, but we had to do our best to get back to rehearsals and live performances,â Lynch said.
Putting artists back to work
Had NCI gone for good, it would have been just one of many arts organizations forced to shut down in 2020 due to lack of funding due to inactivity.
The arts and entertainment fields in California generated a higher percentage of jobless claims than even the hospitality industry. The reopening guidelines written by Californians for the Arts refer to a report by the California Department of Labor indicating that the arts, entertainment and recreation sector has seen the largest percentage of job losses in the state, 40 , 3% from March 2020 to August 2020, compared to the leisure and hotel sector, which experienced a job loss rate of 27%.
NCI choreographer Katarzyna Skarpetowska said she was out of work from March 2020 until January 2021 and her participation in NCI couldn’t have come at a better time.
âTo be honest, I didn’t feel in good shape. My mind slowed down a bit because I was out of training due to inaction for so many months, âsaid Skarpetowska. âThere has been a lot of transition for the dancers, the choreographers, the teachers. Their life has stopped, in a way their identity has stopped. We live and breathe this art form. It defines us as people. This is who we are.
Yet desperate times have forced many artists to retire or adopt a new profession.
Dancers who do not dance
As studios closed, performances were canceled and tours blocked, declining mental health became grappling with the most apparent economic challenges brought on by the pandemic.
âDancers, when they’re not dancing, they wonder if they exist, and this existential question, I think, is pervasive in the worldâ¦. How do we exist in this world that has changed so radically? Paula Thomson said during a webinar presented in April 2020 by the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science.
Thomson, who is a professor and dance coordinator in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, spoke in a webinar series called âHelping Dancers Help Themselvesâ on Performing Artist Mental Health and COVID- 19.
âVery early on, (the dancers) feel this desire to move, to dance, to express themselves. It’s also part of their identity, so they form an attachment relationship with their own talent, not just with others, but with themselves as dancers, âThomson said during the webinar.
Thomson, who was later interviewed by phone, said the imminent return to the stage comes with risks but incredible joy.
âTo be without this community for so long, when they actually come together – dancers, other collaborators, audience – coming back to that live connection is such a gift and it’s deeply inherent in who we are as human beings,â she declared.
This collective sense of loss felt by the dance community and anticipated joy has been a great motivation for Lynch in promoting the return of the National Choreographers Initiative.
âI think we’ve proven to ourselves that people need the arts. They are enriching but also therapeutic. We have to have this in our lives, âLynch said. âIsolating people is not healthy. This era showed the importance of expression through movement and music.
Investing in the future of dance
In the early 1990s, Lynch initiated this choreographic program to foster the creation of new dance works and as a means of building a repertoire for the Pacifica Ballet, which she conducted from 1988 to 2003. Over the years, NCI has been became a major incubator for new ballet works, not only for Southern California, but across the country and the world.
Former NCI choreographers have gone on to become artistic directors of ballet companies, including Amy Seiwert (NCI 2008) who took over as artistic director of Sacramento Ballet in 2018 and Ma Cong, who made her choreographic debut on Broadway with “Mr. Butterfly” in 2016, who was recently appointed Associate Artistic Director of the Richmond Ballet.
When: 8 p.m. July 24
Or: Irvine Barclay Theater, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
Cost: General in person, $ 45; in-person student, $ 20; live broadcast, $ 20.
Tickets: Buy online at thebarclay.org or by phone at (949) 854-4646
This year, NCI takes on added importance by offering paid work to dancers and bringing them back on stage.
On Saturday, July 24, Orange County audiences will enjoy four works by up-and-coming choreographers and see a cast of professional dancers made up of members of the Smuin Ballet and Sacramento Ballet Company. After the premiere at the Irvine Barclay Theater, the creators hope that these works will find their place in the repertoire of dance companies around the world.
âThe NCI Project is an important part of developing new works and advancing the art form,â said Jerry Mandel, president of the Irvine Barclay Theater. âThe Barclay has been operating safely since our reopening on June 24th. While the dance production comes with its own set of unique challenges, (Lynch) and her team developed a solid approach for this year’s project that gave us confidence that we could move forward with this event.
Navigating the pandemic through distance learning and partial sets has served only as a temporary solution. According to Lynch, the arts must nurture a rekindled sense of use and significance in order to survive after the pandemic. She’s taking the first step by bringing with her the next generation of choreographers and dance leaders.
Kaitlin Wright is a writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at [email protected].