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pnb: choreographers’ showcase—interview with kiyon gaines

Gaines choreographing
(photo © Angela Sterling)

Kiyon Gaines joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet in 2001. In addition to dancing, he has managed to choreograph 15 works in 4 years! His ballets include blitz…Fantasy, {SCHWA}, Infinite Intricacies, and Interrupted Pri’si’zh’en . {SCHWA} was taken into PNB’s repertory during the 2007 Celebrate Seattle Festival. Gaines was commissioned to choreograph a piece for the company back in 2008: M-Pulse. He has participated in the New York Choreographic Institute as well as RDA’s Craft of Choreography conference.

The problem with these interviews is that sometimes the person’s amazing energy doesn’t come across when the interview is reduced to type. As soon as I learn how to embed an mp3, I’ll share clips of the voice with you. It’s really been such a treat for me to get to hear them; I think you’ll enjoy’em too.

Rosie: What was the very first piece you ever choreographed?
Kiyon: The first piece I ever choreographed was called blitz Fantasy. And it was actually for the 2005 Choreographers’ Showcase here at PNB.

It had a lot to do with my colleagues urging me to create something. I have lots of energy and I was always saying, “I saw this in a dream. Can you see if this would work out?” And they’d say, “Oh, okay.” Or sometimes, if we were in rehearsal, I’d think: It might work better if we did it this way; if I were a choreographer, maybe I would do this instead.

So, you were already seeing things.

Did that happen to you in class when you were younger?
Not really. It just sort of happened here at PNB.

My peers really urged me to create something. I was sort of against it. I said, “I’m not a choreographer, I don’t think…” And they said, “Well, just try it.” And I did, and I fell in love with it. I really love doing it.

The whole process?
I love the whole process. Especially with my recent projects. My process has changed. I used to come into the studio with most of the work already done. I would create on myself and then come in and stage it. But now I have really gotten into working with what I have in front of me, really looking at the dancers that I have, really looking at their strengths and abilities and creating something specifically for them. It’s nice. It takes a little longer, but I think it really makes the process more enriching.

Was it a little scary the first time you did that?
Oh my God, yeah. I had nothing. I decided to come to the studio just “blank canvas.” And that’s always a little scary. I had the music, of course, but I thought: I’m not going to create anything [beforehand]. I’m just going to go in, put the music on, and see what happens.

So what made you decide to handle that particular one in that way?
I wanted to try something different. I knew already—sort of—what I excelled at, and I wanted to see if I could push myself further and find something different and new. I thought the only way was to step outside my comfort zone and just be uncomfortable. Sometimes in those uncomfortable moments you find something really interesting.

And which piece was this?
M-Pulse. I worked with Lindsi [Dec beforehand] but that was just for her stuff. A lot of the divert sections just sort of came in the studio. It was difficult for me, because it was my first big premiere and I wanted it to be fantastic.

It was great, but I think that now I’ve struck a nice balance…coming in with a few things—not so much, but just something.

One of the things I loved about M-Pulse was the patterns, how they morphed—the way people came in and went out and moved around the stage. Was that something that just happened in the studio?
It happened in the studio. Most of it happens by chance.

It was very successful.
I don’t really write a whole lot of things down. I’m a mover; I’m a do-er; and so sometimes I’ll say: “Oh you’re standing there…why don’t you come in from there.” And then if it looks like a mess, I say, “Well, that won’t work,” and so we play with it until it turns into something.

I know a lot of choreographers are very structural about their stage placement, but I just sort of let things happen organically. And most of the time it works.
What number piece is this for you?
This is #15.

Congratulations. What’s your favorite so far?
Well. I think I would have to say my favorite one still so far is {SCHWA}. I really loved that one. It was a tango-inspired ballet. I love how it is made of little vignettes of dances that each could stand alone but also work very well as a complete work. I always go back to it for inspiration.

It was very stylish. My favorite was Interrupted Pri’si’zh’en, the one with all the boys. So I was shocked to hear you say that you thought you worked better with women and that choreographing for men was harder for you.
It was. I had a really good time work with the guys. We had a really great time in the studio together. But that was another example of me stepping outside of my comfort zone…creating a piece only for men and making them the central characters in the work. That was something I thought I’d never be able to do.

I think that’s what’s helping me to grow as a choreographer. I try not to rest on the things that I think I’m good at. I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself. So each piece is sort of like a study or a task to see how I can push myself farther.

What was the task this time around?
I used ballet barres in an unconventional way. That was the task for this new work, which is called No Holds Barred.

I like it.
I didn’t want to make the barres the central figure of the work. I still wanted it to be about the dancers and their abilities. But for a while I’ve been watching my peers in ballet class…how people act when no one is looking…like when they’re waiting on the side to do a combination. Or, right before a class starts and people are really silly and excited: they hang over the barres and they flip over the barres… I really wanted to take all of the things that I had been observing and sort of weave them into a work where I could use an apparatus.

It’s not so different from using the table in One Flat Thing or chairs, like in lots of tango pieces.

I really wanted to give the dancers an opportunity to figure out what could be done if you could do anything. We had a lot of scary moments: flipping over the barres. We didn’t really have things to weight them down in the studio, but onstage they have devised things to keep the barres stationary so they won’t be moving around.

It was a very fun process, both for the dancers and for me. You will see moments of them using the barres, but they won’t be the central figure. It’s really interesting what you can do when you’re already in a confined space and you confine it even farther.

The barres stay stationary, but the dancers go back to them in each of the four different sections. Each section has a different mood, and so you will see different things happening on the barres.

How many dancers do you have in this piece?
I have eight dancers. Wonderful dancers! Seven women and one man.

How did you choose them?
Well, you know, I didn’t really know the Professional Divisions students that well this year, so I went in and watched a ballet class. And some of them had danced with the company in productions. I just went off of that.

I’m always drawn to people’s energy. I feel I have a lot of energy. If people can make me smile and make me happy I’m like: Oh, I want to work with you.

Did you reach your goal? It sounds like you did.
I think so. It’ll be interesting to see the audience’s response. I’m hoping they really like it. The colors are really vibrant. I’m using the Torque costumes. There’s lots of color happening onstage and the music is very energetic.

What’s the music?
I used four different pieces of music. The first piece is by a composer named Nico Muhly. Have you heard of him? He did the music for The Reader.

Also he worked with Benjamin Millepied, who was here last year.
Yes, he knows him.

It’s a sort of moderate tempo, just to start you out. I think of this piece as a journey. It starts sort of subtle. You get some hints of pizzazz, but it starts subtly with Nico.

And then it goes into the second piece, which is a pas de deux, which is a competition—very competitive. It’s to very new-age sort of music by Michael Gordon. Very impactful.

And the third piece sort of brings you down a little bit, makes you come down a little bit…into this eerie, cool pas de quatre interlude that is very short. Short and sweet, I think. It really showcases the dancers and has nice elements of ballet and use of the barre.

And then it brings you home with this huge piece by Gabriel Prokofiev. He did a symphony in four parts and it’s his fourth movement, which has been electronically altered so it’s very cool. Lots of stops and pauses so it really allows it to be a great vehicle for dance. It’s a nice little journey—for the ears, for the eyes, for the heart. I hope it really gets you going.

And the third piece is by?
She’s a cellist. She used to play with the Kronos Quartet and her name is Joan Jeanrenaud. And she was actually very gracious in letting us use this piece. It’s from her solo album.

A lot of the music is sort of mixed media. It’s classical music with a twist. It’s sort of like my root idea of choreographing, which is classical ballet with a twist.

I heard you say a few weeks ago that Twyla Tharp had encouraged you to follow your vision, to do ballet if you want to.
To go with my gut And this piece has been a great experience with that, because I actually went back to sort of the original feel of what I think is the core of my choreographic vision: classical ballet with these bursts that you wouldn’t expect to see. It feels great to go back to a place that’s comfortable every once in a while, just to refocus yourself and say, “Okay, this is why I keep doing this.”

And do you want to keep doing this?
Of course. Of course. I’m hoping to do more projects outside of PNB even.

You’ve done several for PNB…
And then I’ve done a work for Donald Byrd at Spectrum and I’ve done a work with the Seattle Dance Project. And then I also choreograph for companies on a regional level. They’re part of this huge organization called RDA. I have a friend, Debra Rogo, who has a company in Eastern Washington, so I’ve been choreographing for her and PNB simultaneously. And I’ve just been invited to the Craft of Choreography conference to create another work for the third year in a row…this time as a Project Tier Choreographer, which is sort of the top level choreographer .

It’s always nice to go somewhere and do your experimenting in what is sort of a private laboratory and then take ideas from there and bring them back.

Do you have a lot of time with the dancers there?
Oh, yeah. I go in the summer; I’m there for about two weeks. And I have unlimited time with the dancers, which is fantastic. It’s really great.

I guess this is a Showcase and not a Workshop.
Yes. And it’s really nice to be able to put your work on display, for people to come and enjoy and even criticize. I always like for my work to come across the pit into the audience. I like the audience to be moved in some way. When I’m choreographing, I always try to look at things from the prospective of the audience and not as a choreographer all the time. I don’t like to get hung up on my vision so much. For me, the main thing is to entertain and for people to come and experience new work. And to see how ballet can change, how it can evolve and evoke a new emotion.

So that’s your goal.

And has it been that way since the beginning?

Since the beginning. My whole thing is: If I like to watch it…if I can take off my choreographer’s hat and put on my audience hat and just sit and don’t look at the steps and the composition but just look at the work as a whole…if I can sit and enjoy myself…then it’s something really interesting and creative and something I’d like to share. That’s sort of my gauge of whether I think something is ready or not.

A lot of time they come from the dancers. But when I start the choreographic process, it comes from the music. I do a lot of searching for music first. I keep a running list of things that I hear in a notebook and I go back and revisit things at different times.

The music always comes first for me. And then, it’s watching people. I love dancing and choreographing simultaneously because I get to be in the studio with dancers and not only watch them do their art but I get to watch them just be people. A lot of the times people don’t know they’re being watched and they do the most beautiful things. Like if they’re in the back, marking something—or just off in their own little world—and they don’t realize people are watching, they create the most beautiful art. It’s so nice to be in that sort of environment. It stimulates ideas.

What people see is what gets put onstage. They see the final product. A lot of the most interesting things happen on the way, on that journey to the stage. That’s when you really see great things happen. I’m so lucky to be able to do both. I want to see what’s going to happen when I stop dancing and start just choreographing: then where’s my inspiration going to come from?

You’ll find it. I can’t imagine you lacking inspiration.

Do you have any favorite choreographers?

I do. I have lots of favorite choreographers. First and foremost, George Balanchine. The way that he is able to move large groups on the stage and make it coherent is just fantastic. I love the way he structures all of his works. Things just sort of weave in and out so fluidly. Fantastic! I also really like Victor Quijada’s work, his sort of fusion…I like Jiří Kylián.

I’ve only seen a few of his videos. I’m excited for PNB to do his
Petit Mort next fall.
William Forsythe. And a couple of new choreographers. For example, Lightfoot León at NDT. I’ve been watching a lot of their work.

Do you go there to see it?
Oh, YouTube. YouTube is a great vehicle to see a lot of the European choreographers. Jorma Elo, the stuff that he was doing at Boston. Fantastic! Christopher Wheeldon is another one. There are just so many places to get inspiration from. These choreographers are [mixing video, dance, stationary objects, singing] and they’re mixing styles of dance together and creating their own. It’s really fantastic that you could put almost anything on stage and have someone get it. Someone will get it. Even if everyone doesn’t get it, someone will. Those are the kinds of people I look to for inspiration, that I really look up to as mentors.

Do you get to talk with folks much about choreography and choreographing?

Not really. I’ve been talking with Peter [Boal] about this…about why it’s so difficult to be able to sit down with other choreographers and talk about things. I have found that choreography is a very intimate thing—it’s a very personal thing—and I’m just not quite sure that everyone wants to…not that anyone’s being selfish, but everyone has a different process. It may be that part of the journey of becoming a choreographer is figuring it out for yourself and not having someone else tell you about it, influencing what you could potentially create. Maybe it’s part of a rite of passage in becoming a choreographer.

Honing your craft is a very personal thing. At least, that’s what I think. I haven’t been able to talk to anybody about it! That must be it.

As a writer I would think that would get lonely.
You have your dancers and they’re there with you. And then when you’re given great opportunities like the Showcase, you have your audience, who is there to see your work. You always have people out there. You always find your muse.

Your muse must be working overtime. In just four years you’ve done so much! To have a piece premiered in the company’s mainstage season? Wow.
Peter really is a big supporter of my work, which is great for me. Hopefully there’ll be more mainstage productions for me.

I’d love to see
Interrupted Pri’si’zh’en again.
I love that work. I’m glad so many people responded so well to that one, because I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to turn out at all.

Lindsi Dec and Kari Brunson in M-Pulse
(photo © Angela Sterling)

With M-Pulse, one of my comments in my review was that there was a lot of posing. I wondered if you thought there was a lot of posing…and then, if you did, did you like that posing…and why?
I was trying to experiment with no movement. I know what I’m good at: I’m good at things happening one after the other–fast—footwork—. But I thought: Sometimes it might be good to just stop moving and see what can happen. And of course, if I would revisit M-Pulse there would be changes.

Don’t change my favorite parts.
With the posing, I was trying to see if I could make things happen without making anything happen. Just to make shapes. Sculpture.

I actually had just gotten back from the New York Choreographic Institute. We had taken a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And we had seen so many sculptures. I was thinking: Maybe I can try to get that sculptured look in there. That’s where that stems from. Every ballet has a challenge.

The challenge of M-Pulse, actually, was working with a composer who lives so far away.

It was amazing that you guys were able to pull it off.

Being able to collaborate that far away…

I’m actually talking with another composer in New York for a work for next year’s Showcase already. So we’re going to see if we can work that out so that we can collaborate on something—either new or that he has already composed.

His name is Aaron Severini. Aaron Severini and I went to school together at SAB. He dances at New York City Ballet now, but he also composes on the side. He actually did a collaboration with a dancer there… .

We’re just in the stage where we’re talking about it. We’ll see if we can make it happen. We have a long time. Next year’s workshop is not until the spring 2010! We have a while to make it happen.

Ultimately, what do you hope for from No Holds Barred?
I hope that with this piece, people leave happy, and excited, and revved up. I hope that all the energy that the dancers are putting into the work comes across to the audience and makes them feel something…feel that buzzing inside that makes them just want to get up dance!