March 9 and 10, The Joffrey Ballet steps away from their typical performance venue to present innovative works and elevate both emerging choreographers of color and emerging professional dancers.
After an open call specifically for choreographers of color, the annual Winning Works Choreographic Competition pairs four up-and-coming dancemakers with the Joffrey Academy of Dance’s pre-professional students for three performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art that highlight a range of styles and voices.
Under a different name, the Winning Works program began nine years ago as a way for the Joffrey to create a platform for minority artists in an area of dance where historically white choreographers and performers have had more opportunity. The national competition asks for ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) artists to apply to set work on the Joffrey Studio Company and Joffrey Academy Trainee Program, made up of emerging professional dancers, typically ranging from 17-22 years old.
This year’s choreographers are Tommie-Waheed Evans, Marissa Osato, Xiang Xu and Edgar Zendejas. They come from all over the country and bring with them diverse backgrounds in dance.
Head of studio company and trainee program Raymond Rodriguez described this year’s Winning Works applicants as some of the strongest the Joffrey’s had, stemming from the variety in choreographic styles and content of the proposed works.
The pieces being presented by the 2019 choreographers are equally as diversified and dynamic. Their choreography ranges in style—including contemporary pointe, contemporary ballet, contemporary with asian folk influence and a contemporary-street dance hybrid—to portray different themes.
“Each piece is so aesthetically different and unique in what they are trying to say, and also how it’s representing dance, and I think that’s so beautiful and intriguing,” choreographer Marissa Osato said.
Rodriguez also sees a commonality in the internal, inquisitive nature of the works and the process-oriented rehearsals.
“All four of the works really involve the dancers coming into who they are and what’s inside that can be brought out. So it’s not just a matter of steps, it was a process of workshopping,” Rodriguez said.
Ballet training programs primarily restage classical works on their students, and Winning Works provides an opportunity for the Academy Trainees and Studio Company to learn original contemporary material from new choreographers and teachers.
“It’s so essential for these dancers to be exposed to all types of dance as the climate of professional ballet companies has shifted, where you are asked to be able to do contemporary works alongside classical works,” said Rodriguez. “It’s wonderful for these dancers to have that opportunity to have works created on them specifically, to work one on one with a choreographer and with a choreographer that they don’t know.”
Xu taught Asian Contemporary Technique classes alongside his rehearsal process to help his dancers take on the influence of asian contemporary movement and asian folk movement in his choreography.
Evans, Osato and Zendejas challenged the dancers to generate their own gestures and movement phrases as a part of the creative process, and parts of that movement is incorporated into the final pieces. Zendejas will even be crediting his work as “in collaboration with the dancers.”
Osato also engaged in conversation with her dancers about the meaning of the movement, allowing dancers to contribute their personal interpretations to the work.
“It was important to me that they were collaborators for the piece and that it was created on these particular artists, not just any dancers,” Osato said.
For Osato, whose movement style is a hybrid of contemporary, jazz and street dance forms, she had to trust going into the process that her dancers would effectively embody her choreography.
“I really wanted to push them to go into uncomfortable spaces physically and mentally/emotionally, and I wanted for myself to be really open to showcasing what kind of artistry they could bring to my work, because it is a gift to be able to work with dancers who are so technically adept,” said Osato. “They really took hold of the movement information and thematic information and internalized it to make it their own.”
As choreographers, Winning Works grants Evans, Osata, Xu and Zendejas the opportunity to present work in association with an established and nationally renowned institution, as well as receive mentorship from Rodriguez and Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet.
In addition to adding a distinguished name to her resume, Osata has found that her experience with Winning Works expanded her perception of what companies and artists she can create work for, particularly when coming from a background in commercial contemporary work.
“I don’t come from the world of ballet, so I didn’t realize how open [the Joffrey is] to diverse styles and voices,” said Osato. “I never thought working in a ballet institution was an option for me, so now I want to pursue other avenues to see what other companies I want to work for.”
As the only female choreographer on a program intended to represent minorities, Osata carried a responsibility to represent a woman’s voice with her into rehearsals, even if the piece isn’t explicitly about empowering women.
“There is definitely an imbalance in terms of female representation in higher up positions in the dance world, in terms of company directors or CEOs or people who make the big decisions,” said Osata. “It’s kind of impossible to ignore how that’s integrated into the choreographic choices that I make.”
Osata also recognized that upon seeing the other choreographers and pieces in process, she felt that the four of them were the strongest applicants and the best suited to create work on the students.
She invites the audience to come out to experience a dynamic performance and see a different side of the Joffrey Academy dancers.
“There’s really a lot of diversity and variety in the show and I think the dancers show so much versatility in their movement and performance quality,” said Osata. “I’m thoroughly entertained by it, so hopefully the audience will as well.”