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pnb: choreographers’ showcase—interview with barry kerollis

Jordan Pacitti, Maria Chapman, and Josh
Spell in Basic Disaster
(photo © Rex Tranter, 2008)

Barry Kerollis, after a short stint with American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet, joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet in 2004. Last year, he choreographed Basic Disaster for the Choreographers’ Showcase.
(It was not, as he said a the post-performance show last year, a basic disaster!)

Rosie: What was the first piece in your life that you ever choreographed?
Barry: Ever? Like, ever ever?

Well, it’s funny. The first time I ever choreographed—that I can remember—was at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.

In D.C.?
In Washington, D.C., yes. I moved to Washington, D.C., on September 9, 2001. We were only a couple miles from the Pentagon. So two days after I moved to D.C, our country was attacked….we were very close, we were very touched, we were very scared. We lived in a lot of fear. We were under lock-down for three days after the September 11th attacks. We students came together really quickly as a group; we became a family really quickly.

We started bouncing ideas off each other: ways of getting our emotions out as well as helping other people. So we had a remembrance performance where we asked people to come and donate money. We chose a child who had died in the flight that had gone into the Pentagon, and the donations went to his family.

Four of us who were seniors at the school came together and we all choreographed something. And then we also took pieces that we had done before or seen before and we put together a program. So, the first thing I ever choreographed was a jazz solo on myself.

It was really great, until I got halfway through and had no idea what to do.

I pretty much did most of it, but my friend, Melissa Hough, who is a dancer at Boston Ballet now, helped me with the end of it, because we were sort of both jazz competition babies.

I did it and I didn’t love and it kind of turned me off of choreographing.

So when I came here and they were doing the Choreographers’ Showcase, I thought: Anh, it’s not something I want to do. I had a roommate during one program who was really into choreography and he was always saying, “I hear music and I have all of these ideas! I just see it in my head.” And I thought: Well, I don’t, so I’m never going to be a choreographer.

Three years ago I thought I’d consider it, though, because it’s always good to grow as an artist. I want to continue in the dance world when I’m done dancing and I think there’s no better way to do that than to do choreography. Not only do you get to continue to move and grow as an artist, but you get to enrich other artists’ lives. And you get to be in the studio with the dancers as opposed to being upstairs [in administration]. So I chose to do it last year, for the Choreographers’ Showcase.

I knew I wouldn’t do it unless I had music that inspired me, so I actually got the music before I signed up.

The response to that was really good and now I know that I can choreograph. Whether people like it or they don’t like it, I know that I can at least create something.

That you’re not going to end up with nothing?
Yeah. I won’t end up like that show in D.C., where I got to a certain point and then couldn’t do anymore and needed someone else’s help. I see now that I can create an entire piece.

You say your roommate had music and visions in his head before he choreographed. How is it for you?
I hear music that makes me want to move. And then I need to listen to it over and over and over again, almost obsessively, so that I can get a feeling for the music. I have to put a lot of thought into it. I can’t just sit there and let it happen inside my head. A lot of times I’ll go into the studio and put the music on and just of play around and see what comes out. If I think it’s something I’d like to put into the choreography, I’ll record it. I’m big on recording everything I do.

What do you use for that?
I just have my little digital camera.

Would you be willing to share some of those clips online with us?

I’d be glad to.

That would be so cool. Thanks!
[At this point, Kerollis helps me with some problems my recorder is having. Thank you very much!]

What number piece is this for you?

As a complete piece…it’s my first piece. We’re given a limited amount of time to put these together. Luckily, with the [Professional Division students], we can work with them during our layoff—we have a three-week lay-off after the fifth rep, usually April/May. I stayed in town, and so that gave me time to really work with them.

Last year, we didn’t have as much time. The Showcase was in March or April, and we had a bunch of programs before that. So, last year, my piece [had as subtitle]: A work in progress. I never actually got to finish it: I had another movement and a half left to do. So, I’d say that this is my first complete piece.

But I’ve also worked with Lindsi [Dec] and Karel [Cruz] on a little pas de deux that I’d like to complete. And I just finished a solo with Maria [Chapman] to see if I’d like to use a certain style of music. It’s sort of electronic. It’s from Slumdog Millionaire. I was inspired by Tanja Liedtke’s Construct at On the Boards and how she used a lot of electronic music.

I don’t want it to seem like cliché [makes electronica sounds] music. I wanted to use it and see if I could still feel inspired…it inspires me to dance at a dance club, but not necessarily in the studio.

So how did it work on in the solo? Are you liking it?
Yeah. I like it a lot. It’s really interesting, because the music really changes the mood of my choreography. The more contemporary a piece of music, the more contemporary I choreograph. The less contemporary it is, the more classically I might choreograph.

So the piece you’re doing this time for the Showcase? Is it classical? Contemporary?

I would say that it’s halfway between neoclassical and contemporary. My music is Thomas Neuman’s American Beauty from the film. I took about eight tracks from the soundtrack and I rearranged them to make my own story in my head.

This is my first venture with a corps de ballet. There are eight people in my piece: there are six corps girls, a principal female, and a principal male.

I wanted to explore using a corps work this time. I feel when you have corps work, it’s more classical, due to the need for choreographed structure. And I also wanted to try some more contemporary stuff. The music uses classical instruments but I wouldn’t say that it’s classical music. It’s very modern. There are a lot of noises and sounds in there that you wouldn’t typically hear if you were listening to an orchestra. I really liked that.

I wanted to show both sides of the music, so my corps girls dance a little bit more neoclassically and then Erin Crall is dancing more contemporarily. And that also works out for the story that I have behind the piece.

Will we see the piece with Karel and Lindsi and the piece with Maria?
I hope so…at some point.

What I’m working on right now with Maria would be a solo within a piece. I mean, if she went to a gala, I’d be glad if she performed it, but it’s a smaller part of something I hope to create. And, the same goes for what I was doing with Karel and Lindsi. But really with Karel and Lindsi I had just finished last year’s Choreographers’ Showcase and I wanted to do something else to see if I wanted to continue choreographing. It was like: Well, I did that, and I got a lot of response from it. But now that I’m not going to get a response from this—will I still feel inspired?

And did you?
Yeah, I did. It’s complicated…because when we’re in our season, it’s hard to devote a lot of time to choreography. Especially if I’m dancing a lot, because I work really hard all day and then I, listen to music either on my breaks or while I’m walking here from home. When I get home, I’m really tired, and the last thing I want to do is think about it. And I also have a small apartment, so it’s hard for me to choreograph at home.

So what would you say is your favorite piece that you’ve done so far?

I would say Pariah, the one that I’m working on right now.

The reason would be because it’s the first piece I was able to complete. And it’s longer: it’s 16 minutes long. It showed me that I can pretty much put bookends on a piece. A lot of times, when you think about creating something, you have these great ideas but it’s really hard to bring it together as a whole. I felt really accomplished once I was able to see it through from beginning to end. It’s pretty daunting to come up with 16 minutes of choreography.

Sixteen minutes is a long time!
I have enjoyed it so much, for that reason, and also because we’re working with students. When you’re working with professionals, they’re already trained dancers, but we’re working with dancers in training this year. They’re more influenced by you. They are more willing to listen to you. You get to watch them grow. You know that you have a part in that growth.

So you’ve actually seen that in the studio?
Yes. Yes. Definitely.

What was your initial goal this time? To finish?
I wouldn’t say it was my initial goal: The goal is always to finish. For this piece, my initial goal was to fulfill my concept. I’d say, as hard as it is to complete a piece from beginning to end, it’s much harder to keep your concept flowing throughout the entire piece. I feel like I was really able to accomplish that. My story has developed over time. It’s not necessarily a story that people are going to [know], like Sleeping Beauty, [a story you can read in a book.] It’s sort of a statement, I guess. It’s not an in-your-face statement, but just a cultural statement that I’m trying to get across.

I was concerned at first, because I was afraid that for a school performance it might be a little heavy. But I talked with the power-that-be and they said that the content isn’t out of reach. Also, we’re working with students who are not ten-year-olds or 12-year-olds. We’re working with students who are about to be professionals. They’re going to be working with all types of choreography. They’re old enough to understand this kind of stuff.

My piece is about bi-polar disorder. In ancient India times, pariah was how they used to refer to the untouchables. These days, it pretty much means social outcast. I wanted to portray someone who suffers from bi-polar disorder: they have very high highs and very low lows and they often don’t have much in between. Because of those extremes, they tend to isolate themselves. If they’re really high and they’re having this (to-them) amazing experience, other people may not be able to relate to what they’re going through, and so they might see it as abnormal, culturally. So they sort of push them to the side. That person who has bi-polar disorder, they kind of isolate themselves without realizing it.

What I wanted to do was to explore how it does that. So my six corps girls represent society. Erin, she’s my principal, her character has bi-polar disorder, and then Ryan Cardea is an entity in her head. You won’t see him dance when the society is onstage, because they can’t see him. In my piece, often, the two of them dance together. You’ll see that often he manipulates her head, because he’s in her head manipulating her head. And when she’s on pointe, often, she’s higher. And when she’s closer to the ground, she’s lower.

In terms of mood swing?
Yeah. Also, just a little side note: To make it separate, I tried to make Erin dance a little more contemporarily, so that she would stand out as different from society.

You have a lot of contrasts going on.
Yeah. Or, at least, I hope I do.

That sounds really interesting. Do you want to choreograph more?
Yes. I do.

It’s complicated…I love watching new choreography that inspires me. I love watching something that impresses me. And I want to create things that make people feel the same way that I feel when I see something that I think is amazing. I hope that at one point in life I’ll have pieces that really inspire people and let them leave a show feeling great about what they just saw.

I feel I’m ready to take the next step. Now that I have a few pieces under my belt, I’m hoping to apply to the New York Choreographic Institute this year. I know that Kiyon [Gaines] has gone to it before, and Paul Gibson I think, and Olivier [Wevers]. Kiyon and Olivier are choreographers who have done the Showcase for years and years. Olivier is starting his own company and Kiyon is doing very well: he got to create his first piece for a repertory performance for PNB. So I feel like getting that outside experience is the next step I need to do.

You have a musical background, is that right?

Tell me, again, what you play.
I started playing piano when I was five. My piano teacher ended up being my middle school band teacher. He requested that I learn the xylophone and bells and pretty much all the mallet percussion. So I did that in sixth grade, and I fell in love with music.

I didn’t really love music when I played the piano. And I remember that when my teacher asked me to learn the mallet percussion, I thought that he was actually going to ask me to quit, because I had a really bad lesson…

Anyway, so that’s how I fell in love with music. And we had a steel drum band, so I played the gitta, which is probably like the cello of the steel drum band. And then I started playing the flute. I taught myself the flute at the end of sixth grade. Seventh grade: clarinet. And then in eighth grade, my director asked me to learn the saxophone, so I learned the alto saxophone. I also have an understanding of brass instruments (except for trombone), but I’m not very good blowing into them: my embouchure isn’t very good. But when it comes to woodwinds, I can pretty much play most woodwinds.

So, did you take music theory as well?
I learned music theory mostly through my piano lessons.

Did you continue on with piano, then?
I played piano until I was 16, and then dance took over and I had to stop. That’s one thing I haven’t really kept up with too much and that’s kind of sad: I’ve lost a lot of it. I still keep up with the flute, because it’s easy to pick up and it’s easy to carry around with me.

It helps that I have that history with music. So I understand that the reason people can pick up on a theme…you can move away from it…and you can bring it back…and they can hum it again—not necessarily hum, but they can relate to it.

I feel like that helped me understand choreographic structure a lot better.

Well, you’re in good company. Balanchine…Millepied… Millepied was here recently and I got a chance to look at his scores. Did you ever see his scores?
I didn’t get to see his scores.

He wrote all over them; everything was notated.
Yeah. I wish…that’s one thing, being a new choreographer: you don’t necessarily have access to the scores of your pieces. That’s something that can become a challenge sometimes. That’s why I have to listen to the music obsessively: because I can’t see it. If I could see it, I could say: Oh, I recognize that..and I see there…that’s it repeat. Whereas without the score, you have to listen to it until you remember the music. You have to go over it again and again.

Will you finish Basic Disaster? I really loved that piece.
I do want to finish Basic Disaster. But I don’t want to do it until it’s something that I can really create. These workshops are to grow and learn things. I don’t want to revisit something in a workshop setting. I want to grow and do something else.

Well, I’m sure you will. I’m looking forward to tagging along for the journey.