Ballet Stars

18-Year-Old Gianna Reisen on Choreographing for NYCB's Fall Fashion Gala

Gianna Reisen in rehearsal with NYCB corps de ballet dancer Ghaleb Kayali. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

This Thursday marks New York City Ballet's annual Fall Gala. Spearheaded by actress and NYCB board member Sarah Jessica Parker, this glamorous event unites the worlds of ballet and fashion by partnering choreographers with top designers to collaborate on new works. This year, alongside premieres by NYCB company members/choreographers Lauren Lovette, Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher, 18-year old School of American Ballet alumna Gianna Reisen will present her first work for the stage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater.

NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins noticed Reisen's work at SAB's Student Choreography Workshop and invited her to create a piece for The New York Choreographic Institute in 2016 before offering her the Fall Gala commission. This opportunity came as part of a whirlwind year for Reisen; after finishing her studies at SAB she was offered an apprenticeship at Dresden Semperoper Ballett late last spring. Reisen spent only three weeks getting settled in Germany before returning to NYC in late August to start rehearsals for the gala.

We caught up with Reisen to hear what it's been like to work alongside such high-caliber artists and to get the inside scoop on her premiere.

Tell us about your piece. What music are using?

It's called Three American Pieces by Lukas Foss. It's chamber music for violin and piano. I found the piece a while ago in the depths of Spotify and was immediately drawn to it. And when I found out I would be choreographing for NYCB I thought of Foss' piece because it really reminded me of the company; it basically screamed NYCB.

NYCB corps de ballet dancer Emma Von Enck and NYCB apprentice Roman Mejia rehearsing for choreographer Gianna Reisen. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

How many dancers are you working with, and how did you choose your cast?

I'm working with six men and six women. My entire cast is made up of younger corps members. I'm extremely happy with the group; they've been working very hard. It's great because a lot of them were my former classmates and also some people that I've watched growing up at SAB, so I know them fairly well as dancers. It's making the process a lot more fun.

How long is the piece?

It's a little over twelve minutes. I finished the piece quite early which is super helpful for me so I have a lot of time to focus on details and the bigger picture and emotion behind the movement. Also for the dancers and myself to feel more comfortable with what they're doing.

Which designer are you working with, and what has that collaboration been like?

I'm working with Virgil Abloh. He's been an amazing person to work with and the collaboration has been so fun. I really don't know anything about fashion design at all and Virgil had never worked in ballet before, but we've been very open to each other's ideas and the finished products are pretty amazing.

Can you describe to us what the costumes look like?

The color palette is fairly neutral. All of the women have short skirts with tulle but they each have different components to them and different length sleeves. Two of the girls are in black, two are in ivory and two are in blush. All the men are in black. It's a simple color palette but I think it feels sophisticated and interesting.

What has it been like to work with such top-tier dancers and alongside such well-established choreographers?

In the beginning it was definitely extremely intimidating for me because I was coming into the company as this new person that not a lot of the company members knew. And the whole process is very new to me, creating a work for stage and for a company of such high caliber. But now that I'm further along in the process I feel like everyone is extremely supportive and nice. There's obviously still a good amount of pressure, but I feel definitely less intimidated now than in the beginning. Once I started to feature my dancers as individuals I felt a kind of shift. A lot of people (including myself) have really warmed up.

Gianna Reisen in rehearsal with NYCB corps de ballet dancerGhaleb Kayali. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

How do you see choreographing fitting into your life going forward?

I hope there will be choreographic opportunities in Dresden. I really hope that I have the chance to expand choreographically. I am still dancing, so I want to see where I go as a dancer and where life takes me. But I'd really love to pursue both dancing and choreography at the same time. I'll definitely take any and all opportunities that come my way in choreography.

What has the biggest highlight of this experience been?

To just be working with such incredible dancers. They're all insanely talented and so eager to work and so open to new ideas.

Gianna Reisen rehearsing NYCB corps de ballet dancer Emma Von Enck and NYCB apprentice Roman Mejia. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

What has the biggest challenge of this experience been?

The transition between being a dancer and being the boss of other people. When you're a dancer you're really told what to do. You're always following instructions and there are people overseeing your everyday life. The hardest part of me was taking a second to realize that I was now the one who needed to tell other people what to do.

What part of Thursday night are you most looking forward to?

I've never choreographed for the stage before. So to have my first ballet premiere at the Koch theater and see my work onstage for the first time... it's going to maybe be the best moment ever.

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