"Can you caress the wall?," Annabelle Lopez Ochoa said, frowning to get a better sense of the dancers' living room on her screen. It was April, and the contemporary ballet choreographer was trying something new. Together with two dancers from the Norwegian National Ballet, Julie Gardette and François Rousseau, she was creating a piece entirely over Zoom—the first of what she now calls "a video diary of what dancers do inside."
What was originally a one-off celebration for Rousseau, whose stage farewell was cancelled due to the pandemic, has turned into a larger creative project for Ochoa. Since then, from her house in Amsterdam, she has taken to creating dance films, all three to five minutes in length, with performers around the world. Dancers from Tulsa Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and more have already taken part, with others scheduled in the coming months.
Ochoa had to rush to fly out of Tulsa in March, where she had been re-staging her ballet Vendetta, just before international travel was banned. Being stuck at home instead of going from commission to commission prompted some soul-searching. "We're all forced to go back to point zero. It made me reflect not just on the pieces that I've made, but on the artist that I am," she says. Working with dancers again proved energizing. "What do I like in choreography? I noticed, being on Zoom, that it's the interaction."
The early sessions were bumpy. Gardette and Rousseau had to alternate between leaning in close to their screen to see corrections and dancing from enough distance for Ochoa to see the bigger picture. The music proved the biggest hurdle, however. "It was delayed, so I would hear 1, 2, 3, and they would hear pause… 1, 2, 3," the choreographer says.
She figured out a way to share music that causes less delay (although Ochoa says synchronization is still an issue). One hour on Zoom is now enough for her to craft one minute of choreography, and the dancers she asked to participate generally jumped at the chance to do more than staying in shape while sheltering in place. "It's not the same just doing ballet class at home: you don't have that collaboration energy of learning choreography," Maine Kawashima, a soloist with Tulsa Ballet, says.
Ochoa reached out to Kawashima and her boyfriend Sasha Chernjavsky, who were both cast in Vendetta, to make The Chicken or the Egg, a humorous film that came out in late July. The dancers collaborated actively when it came to realizing Ochoa's vision: when she asked if they could get an actual chicken to star in one scene, a friend of a friend delivered a selection of birds to choose from. "That worked out very easily because there's farms and chicken everywhere in Oklahoma," Kawashima says with a laugh.
While Ochoa had used YouTube to promote her work early in her choreographic career, this project led her to experiment with the medium. She took it upon herself to edit each film, and asked a friend who is a cameraman to mentor her. "The first time he saw my work, he said I had basically done a fancy archival video," she says with a laugh. "He explained to me that the world is your stage in film. I decide how the viewer looks at the piece." She started trying new angles and collage techniques, and asked dancers to use their eyes in a more "natural" way instead of projecting as they would in an auditorium.
For some performers, the experience has also been a taste of the kind of creative freedom companies can't necessarily offer. Joffrey Ballet dancer Dylan Gutierrez, who will be featured in an upcoming film with his real-life partner Jeraldine Mendoza and even composed music for it, relished "the opportunity to collaborate with Annabelle on her own terms, and not have to know whether we're available for her piece. We get to make all the decisions together." The pair suggested the sessions weren't all that different from studio rehearsals. "If anything, I felt like it was more streamlined," Mendoza says.
Ochoa isn't sure whether she will continue her Zoom-based venture when companies all return to work. While traveling to the U.S. is likely off the table until 2021, Dutch National Ballet has already asked her to contribute to a special evening of impromptu premieres in September. Still, creating virtually has proved a warmer process than anticipated. "I feel that when I go inside dancers' houses, there's an intimacy which you don't get when you're in a studio," she says. "And it was nice to see that even if companies never ask me for a piece again, I will find a way."