[Interview by Claudia Schreier Originally posted in the Ailey Blog on May 29, 2012]
Behind the Dance: Choreographer Jennifer Archibald
In many ways, dance is a contradictory art. Just as a tremendous amount of energy must go into making a work look effortless, choreographers and dancers often engage in dialogue with the ultimate goal of conveying their intent without words. According to choreographer Jennifer Archibald, Ailey School graduate and founder and artistic director of the Arch Dance Company, the process is often as thought-provoking for the artists as the outcome may be for the audience. Jennifer reflects on the rehearsal and performance process for her newest work for The Ailey School, The Ladder, recently presented at their annual Spring Concert. www.TheAileySchool.edu
Give us a bit of background on your newest work for The Ailey School, The Ladder.
The Ladder is a conscious journey that ties reality with exploration, self awareness, and compassion. Ten dancers were chosen for the work, five men and five women. I look for dancers that are versatile and have great instincts, as it is important that the dancers can think beyond the movement given and relate to the concept.
For this work, I found the music first and then created the movement. I have always had a love for the cello – I find the sound emotionally engaging. I arranged the score myself and spent several weeks researching music. The concept of the work began to take its course as the score developed and the dancers finalized the concept through rehearsal.
Where did the concept of climbing a ladder come from, and how did you convey this theme to your dancers?
The idea came from the metaphor of “crabs in a barrel,” a mentality where individuals within a group crawl over their peers to bring them down and get out ahead. I believe this is a concept that both dancers and audience members can relate to – I think I can safely say we have all daydreamed about succeeding. The rehearsals focused on connecting everyday life experiences with movement and responding truthfully to obtaining a life goal.
In preparation for the creation of the work, I gave the dancers a written assignment. They were asked, “What is on top of your ladder?” and “Explain the time element of pressure.” I wanted the dancers to confront and honor a reality that would make them feel uncomfortable and driven. I felt the majority of the dancers were very honest when they completed the assignment. Honesty allowed clarity and made creating easier.
You make specific use of gestures in this work. What is the intent behind these movements?
Gestures are influenced by my background in hip-hop, and I use them to emphasize the human potential within the dancer. In many ways, it is my punctuation within a movement phrase. I ask the dancers to live through the gesture and to make sure the audience spots the smallest movement. It is the intent behind the gesture that makes it come alive. At certain moments in the work, the dancers put a pointed finger on the ground, or point while bending back. The finger on the ground is a testament to the dancers marking their territory. The reaching fingertips in the back arch define their reach for success.
What did you learn from this process?
I am still learning how to ask my dancers to define and specify their existence on stage. When they ask, “What is the piece about?” there are two ways I could answer. There is the superficial, brief, general description that I could provide, or there is a script and character analysis that could be examined. The questions that I asked the dancers fell into the latter category and served as stepping stones into intense character analysis. I honor the many hats that a choreographer wears, and as I continue I hope to create answers that will be easier to find.
Watch excerpts from rehearsals of The Ladder: