Above photo by Rod Brayman: front-Lauren Post, Betsy McBride; back-Carlos Gonzolez, Isadora Loyola, Patrick Frenette, Rachel Richardson, Jose Sebastian. Now that the American Ballet Theatre fall season ended two weeks ago, not much is going on in the New York ballet scene until the New York City Ballet Nutcracker. ABT dancer Duncan Lyle fills the void with two world premieres and two revivals November 18 and 19 at the Martha Graham Studio Theater. Fellow ABT dancers Isadora Loyola, Betsy McBride, Andrii Ishchuk, Courtney Shealy, Rachel Richardson, Patrick Frenette, Carlos Gonzalez, and Javier Rivet will perform the works Duncan choreographed.
Duncan, who joined ABT in 2012, has had choreographic interests for many years. On how his interest in choreography started: “Honestly, it’s a question that’s just as hard to answer as “why did you start dancing?” Duncan says. “It’s just always been there. I remember once when I was about eight years old, I was doing the Garland Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty in my school’s end-of-year performance, and I had re-choreographed the entire dance in my backyard with a hula hoop. In one rehearsal, I accidentally started dancing my version!.
“My first real piece of choreography was for Dirty Dancing at my high school, and then after that I choreographed The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Les Misérables. It was during this time I realized that I could get a large group of people to do the same thing at the same time (which is harder than you might imagine) and that I could be the leader of the room. Since then, I have choreographed about ten pieces, the longest being Sketches, which is eighteen minutes.”
Duncan’s works are classical with Frederick Ashton as his greatest inspiration. “I think we have the same sensibilities of what constitutes romance – just the simplest gestures can be so powerful. He was also a master storyteller and a master of structure. There are so many Ashton works that I love. I also really love how Tudor was able to infuse narrative into dance steps to create seamless storytelling.”
“I wouldn’t categorize myself as cutting edge, or an envelope-pusher. I like to create beauty and hopefully move the people who are watching my work.”
Prelude will be the first of two premiers with Carlos Gonzalez and Javier Rivet with original music by Duncan after Frederic Chopin. The second world premiere will be That Which Never Was performed by Isadora Loyola, Betsy McBride, Patrick Frenette, and Andrii Ishchuk set to piano works by Robert Schumann.
Duncan created The Same Cage for ABT’s Incubator Workshop program in 2018. The work explores the turbulent and complicated relationships between Maggie, Brick and Skipper in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Sketches is a ballet for seven dancers which premiered in 2018.
I asked Duncan about finding time to work on projects and his creative process.
How did you find time working on this project during the ABT fall season?
It’s difficult. During the ABT fall season, I was lucky that some of my ABT colleagues were generous enough to give up their days off and after work hours to work on That Which Never Was and Prelude. All of my other works have been commissions so the budget, studio space, rehearsal time, and dancers have been organized by somebody else. This is the first time I am organizing something for myself and it was a huge task to coordinate eight dancers’ schedules in our time off and find studio time performance space. The dancers have been so gracious and I am so grateful to be working with friends who are willing to help me out.
Where do you get your ideas and music selection?
I spend much time searching for and listening to music. I pick one composer at a time (the less well-known the better) and go through their entire oeuvre or at least as much as I can find. I then catalog anything that I connect with and I think could work for choreography in some way.
Everything else usually happens serendipitously. Once I found out the dancers I will have, an idea will usually come to mind based simply on the number of men and women I have and whether I feel like creating a narrative (for narratives, I draw from things I know – either personal experience, or plays or novels) and then I can usually quite quickly pick music I think will be suited to the idea.
Everything usually comes together at one time in my mind. I haven’t been in a situation yet where I have an idea that I can’t find music for, or that I have chosen music that I have no idea what to do with.
Describe the way you create works. Is it a collaborative effort with the dancers when you get into the studio, or do you have the piece all planned before the first rehearsal?
The first thing I do is read the score so I can visualize the music, and then listen to the music as much as possible so that I can create a structure in my mind. After that, I will mark up the score with counts.
The structure is the only thing I have planned before I come to rehearsal. I know exactly what is going to happen when, but I usually don’t know what the actual steps will be until I get in the room. If I am particularly pressed for time then I will come with steps prepared.
I wouldn’t say that my work is collaborative but I certainly create on the dancer in front of me. Whatever comes to my mind is dictated by the dancer that I am creating on. I am also very open to a dancer saying what they like and what they don’t like. I want the dancers to enjoy what they are dancing. It’s about all of us – not just about what I want.
Duncan is from Australia. He graduated from the Royal Ballet School in 2010 and joined Boston Ballet the same year. He joined ABT in 2012 where he has created featured roles in works by Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor as well as performing featured roles in works by Twyla Tharp, Ratmansky, Cathy Marston, Michelle Dorrance, Ashton, Mark Morris, and Kurt Jooss, among others.