The dancers of Bolshoi Ballet in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Is Back Onstage: We Went Inside Bryan Arias' Latest Work

This summer, when parts of the world were slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, all live performing arts events having been canceled or postponed, choreographer Bryan Arias found himself in Moscow creating a brand-new work for the Bolshoi Ballet.

Arias, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, and danced with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Kidd Pivot, had been invited by Bolshoi artistic director Makhar Vaziev to be part of an impromptu program of contemporary choreography titled Four Characters in Search of a Plot. Three other international choreographers—Martin Chaix (France), Dimo Milev (Bulgaria) and Simone Valastro (Italy)—had also been asked to participate. This program, unusual by all standards for Russia's esteemed classical ballet company, opened the Bolshoi's 245th ballet season on September 10. Eager to resume live events, the theater introduced a number of safety regulations for audience members, including limited and spaced-out seating, temperature checks upon entry and audio messages reminding patrons to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Below, Arias talks about his trip to Russia and his experience of creating his new piece, The Ninth Wave, on the Bolshoi Ballet dancers.



A bare-chested male dancer squats and balances the body of a ballerina costumed in blue, who lays across his legs.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Phone Call From Moscow

"Because of the pandemic, all my plans got shifted into the future and there was no certainty about anything. I was in quarantine in Basel, Switzerland, feeling a bit lost and trying to stay inspired and motivated. And out of nowhere I got a phone call from Makhar Vaziev, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, with an offer to come to Moscow and to choreograph whatever I would like. I agreed on the spot—I was ready to do anything at that moment. We decided right then that I would do a 60-minute piece, with a cast of 40 dancers, and I would use live music. This would be a ballet with the largest number of dancers I had ever worked with."

Traveling to Russia During the Pandemic

"Everything about the trip seemed suspended and improvised. I was scheduled to travel on July 19 but on July 16 I still didn't have my Russian visa. When I finally got the visa, one day prior to my departure, I was told at the embassy that there was no guarantee that I would be able to enter into the country. Next day, I packed my bag and took a train to Paris; from there I went to a small airport servicing only private jets. There I met the three other choreographers. It was my first time traveling to Moscow and up until the end of the trip it all felt unreal."

A man wearing glasses and a green puffy jacket takes a selfie in front of a maritime painting that shows a ship capsizing in a storm.

Arias in front of a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Inspiration for "The Ninth Wave"

"In my preparation for The Ninth Wave, I wanted to dive into all things Russian, so I surrounded myself with Russian art and music, and I began reading a lot about Russian history and culture. When I first saw the works of maritime painter Ivan Aivazovsky, I just felt inspired by his art. He lived a secluded life in a small town on the Black Sea. The imagery of the sea is so rich with possibilities, and my imagination just took off. I also found a connection between the art of Aivazovsky and the music of Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When I imagined their music performed live—it just felt right."

Selecting the Cast

"I had five days before the Bolshoi officially began working after the lockdown. Mr. Vaziev selected a group of 50 corps de ballet dancers who, in his view, would be a good fit for this project. From there, all four choreographers started watching the company's classes. There were six to eight classes per day. Usually I would select a small group of dancers to work separately in a studio, just to feel how they carry themselves and to better understand their body language, their personality and chemistry. With the principal dancers (opening night starred Ekaterina Krysanova, Vladislav Lantratov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Artemy Belyakov and Jacopo Tissi), I was trying to figure out what I could do to showcase them in a new light. I wanted the audience to see these dancers, whom they know and love, through a different lens."

A bare-chested male dancer, wearing blue pants and with blue makeup on his chest and throat, does a large sissone on a darkened stage.

Bolshoi Ballet leading soloist Jacopo Tissi in The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

Staying Safe During Rehearsals

"Sometimes it felt as if COVID-19 didn't even exist there. In reality, everyone was responsible; everyone had tremendous respect and care for each other. If the dancers didn't feel well, they wouldn't come to work; they would immediately go to a doctor's office to get tested. It all seemed very efficient and it worked."

Ballet With a Hip-Hop Twist

"I had a great connection with the dancers. Even though we had to use an interpreter in the studio, the dancers would understand me almost immediately. I have a hip-hop and salsa background, and I can create challenging movements with that abstract, hip-hop quality. But here I tapped in to my classical ballet knowledge, more than I have ever done before. I was obsessed with classical ballet when I was growing up, so the whole process of creating The Ninth Wave felt very satisfying—it's a classical ballet where I used the elements of hip hop to accentuate certain shapes and movements."

Long-Distance Collaborating

"I had to work with my collaborators online since some of them weren't able to come to Moscow due to the travel restrictions. It added a layer of difficulty to my work. My lighting designer created lighting for The Ninth Wave with a digital app. The design was sent to the Bolshoi and they were able to re-create it; and the costume designer did the same. Luckily, my projection designer was able to come; she created and manipulated a set of images of Aivazovsky's paintings, which were projected on a backdrop."

Opening Night

"When the curtain went up it all felt surreal. Even though all three performances were sold out, the theater was only partially occupied because of the safety regulations. The Bolshoi dancers are used to full houses, but they told me after the performance that it seemed as if the theater was completely packed because of the energy the audience gave them. They felt the audience's love and support."

A large group of dancers wearing blue costumes stand backstage around a choreographer in a suit, clapping towards him in congratulations.

Arias backstage with the cast of The Ninth Wave after the premiere

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Closing Thoughts

"The experience at the Bolshoi has humbled me. It made me feel free and valuable and ready to go wherever the water takes me. It brought newness to my life and my career. Hearing words of appreciation from the dancers for my work and feeling their gratitude meant a lot to me. And just to be able to work and to be in the present, to realize that we want to be in the now…It's a bit unfortunate to think that we had to have a pandemic to realize the importance of feeling that way."

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Eighteen-year-old Sarah Patterson (foreground), with her classmates at New Ballet School. She's decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of outdoor, in-person classes. Courtesy New Ballet School.

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CALIFORNIA

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Adult Dance Intensive (virtual only, via Zoom)

May 28–31, San Francisco

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KENTUCKY

Lexington Ballet Adult Ballet Intensive

July 12–16, Lexington

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A group of eight smiling adult ballet students\u2014seven women and one man in the middle\u2014pose in a line and stand on their right leg in tendu crois\u00e9 devant.

A group of dancers pose at a past Lexington Ballet Adult Dance Intensive.

Ayoko Lloyd, Courtesy Lexington Ballet

Louisville Ballet Adult Summer Intensive

May 31–June 4, Louisville

Polish off a glass of sweet tea (or two), and then work up a sweet sweat at Louisville Ballet's Adult Summer Intensive. Geared towards beginning through advanced levels, students ages 18+ can take part in half- or full days of training. Classes offered include technique, pointe and jump strengthening, modern, Pilates and yoga. Students will also perform in a livestreamed performance on the final day.

MASSACHUSETTS

Brookline Ballet School Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

June 23–27, Brookline

The Red Sox and New England Patriots may get a bulk of the glory in Beantown, but the city is also a mecca for ballet. At Brookline Ballet School's Adult Summer Ballet Intensive, students (beginner or intermediate level) will spend three weeknights and two weekend mornings in technique and repertoire classes, wrapping up with an informal performance on Sunday afternoon.

NEW YORK

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June 14–25 and July 12–23

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A group of older adult ballet students in leotards, tights or leggings, stand in two lines with their left foot in B+ position and holding hands, as if rehearsing a ballet.

Kat Wildish (far left) working with adult students at Peridance Capezio Center

Matthew Venanzi, Courtesy Kat Wildish

OHIO

artÉmotion Adult Ballet Summer Workshop

June 14–19, Cleveland

Head to the Buckeye State for a week of training under the tutelage of Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona and principal Rex Tilton. In this Adult Ballet Summer Workshop, beginner and intermediate/advanced students will fine-tune their skills in two classes every morning: a 90-minute technique class followed by a one-hour class in one of the following disciplines: pointe/pre-pointe, acting, men's and women's variations, conditioning.

PENNSYLVANIA

Amy Novinski

May 24–28 and June 28–July 2, Philadelphia

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SOUTH CAROLINA

Ballet Academy of Charleston Adult Summer Intensive

July 26–30 and August 2–6, Charleston

Embrace the low-country charm in historic Charleston, where a weeklong Adult Summer Intensive at the Ballet Academy of Charleston invites beginning through advanced students to take classes in technique, stretching/Pilates/yoga, pre-pointe or pointe (for advanced students), variations, jazz, modern, contemporary and choreography. You may choose the half-day or full-day program.

TEXAS

Houston Ballet Adult Intensive

June 1–5, Houston

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UTAH

May 31–June 5, Salt Lake City

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A group of four men in dance practicewear face the right corner of the room and raise their arm as if beckoning someone. Three of the men stand in parallel, which the man in the middle sits in a wheelchair.

A men's class at artÉmotion Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

Logan Sorenson, Courtesy artÉmotion

INTERNATIONAL

The August Ballet Retreat in Leeds

August 28–30, Leeds, UK

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Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp

July 2–10, Morlaix, France

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