New York City Ballet’s annual celebration of fashion and dance, the Fall Fashion Gala, returns for its ninth edition, with world premiere works by two powerhouse choreographers based in NYC. Both Sidra Bell and Andrea Miller are in the midst of critically-acclaimed, wildly prolific careers as makers and thinkers, whose conceptual and pedagogical approaches to dance inform the companies they’ve each founded—Sidra Bell Dance New York and GALLIM, respectively.
Both Bell and Miller were originally commissioned to premiere new dances in Fall 2020; both were then asked to collaborate with filmmaker Ezra Hurwitz to create pieces for NYCB’s New Works Festival, a digital dance-film initiative launched last fall as a way to continue to create safely during the pandemic.
For her New Works Festival film pixelation in a wave (Within Wires), Bell selected dancers that she’d previously cast for the stage piece intended for 2020. “We were working unconventionally, on Zoom, then creating the piece site-specifically, working outdoors,” she says of the process. “I found that the dancers were very generous and open to collaborating on ideas.”
This sense of openness and generosity are essential to her choreographic practice. “I come in with my body and work from the ground up, working on phrases with the dancers in the studio,” Bell says. “I like to think that we’re all facilitating a generative process together, so it’s communal—I don’t really stand in the front, I just drop into the group and start playing with material.”
Bell’s process has been shaped and informed by nearly 20 years as an active performer, choreographer, and educator. Alongside serving as the Artistic Director of Sidra Bell Dance New York, she has created more than 100 works for BODYTRAFFIC, The Juilliard School, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet School, and others; and her works have been performed throughout the U.S. and internationally. She is the first Black woman to create a work for NYCB. She is a Master Lecturer at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, a Lecturer at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance, Adjunct Professor at both Drexel University and Ball State University in Indiana, and founder and creative director of the award-winning MODULE Laboratory, an immersive platform for movement and theater artists.
The concurrent streams of Bell’s career are essential to her creative practice. “Teaching has been a really important portal for me to study the language of the form, to expand the language of the form, to learn,” she says. “I’m moving through my body, receiving all this physical information from all of these communities across the world, and to share the language of dance and to be in process with people—it’s such a gift to be in education, not only to give, but to receive.”
That spirit of collaboration, of giving and receiving, extends to Bell’s approach to her newest commission for NYCB. “I’ve been working a lot with [NYCB Director of Costumes] Marc Happel— he really is a wonderful guide and advisor,” she says. “We actually met at the end of 2019, and we started to think about how theatrical we wanted the costumes to be, thinking about scale and color.” Bell selected CFDA Fashion Award-winning designer Christopher John Rogers as her collaborator; his designs have been worn by the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and more.
“I was really interested in structural optimism—that was the undercurrent of what I was looking for in the designs, and that’s what drove me to Christopher,” Bell says. “There’s something very playful about his work, but there’s also a rigor to it.” That combination of structural detail and lightness, and a shared interest in humor, are playing a significant role in her conception of the choreography. “I want the costumes to act as a set element—like other worldly forms,” she adds. She has chosen music by Nicholas Britell, Oliver Davis, and Dosia McKay for her NYCB work.
“It’s been such a build-up since everything happened with shutdown,” she reflects. “Being able to have this jewel of a process, I’m just excited to jump into the studio.”
Collaboration similarly lies at the core of Andrea Miller’s practice; what appeals to her about working with members of NYCB? “I get a sense that they’re very brave and creativity is also part of what inspires them—they dive into their artistry. That’s something I’m going to love.”
Her film for the New Works Festival, new song, featured four NYCB dancers moving in a dream-like, nearly continuous sequence on the campus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. From the single-take camerawork to the incorporation of a diaphanous mist and splashing water, the film captures dance as part of a creative whole—reflective of Miller’s approach in general: “I like to have time to just think, to dream as much as I can before I get into the studio. I’m building the world that I’d like to dance in.”
GALLIM, founded in 2008, performs Miller’s works internationally, as well as offering training for dancers in improvisation, filmmaking, acting, site-specific work, and Miller’s methodology of movement and creativity. Miller’s works have been performed by other leading dance companies including Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet Bern, Pennsylvania Ballet, and more; she is a Guggenheim Fellow and the first choreographer to be named Artist in Residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the heart of Miller’s works is a spirit of interdisciplinary boundlessness. A sought-after collaborator in film and fashion, Miller has created for Hermès, the actors Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington, and directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, among others. Miller is also an Adjunct Professor at Marymount Manhattan College and The Juilliard School.
In July, Miller completed a weeklong run of her most recent work, You Are Here, an immersive sculpture, sound, and performance installation commissioned by Lincoln Center for Restart Stages. It featured audio portraits and live performances by NYC-based artists and citizens reflecting on the pandemic’s multifaceted effects on their lives. You Are Here marked the first time all 13 of Lincoln Center’s constituents, along with 11 community partners, collaborated on the same work. “Part of the reason that I made You Are Here was to focus explicitly on the pandemic, so that maybe it would be possible to process, heal, and move into other aspects of my experience,” Miller says. “For [this commission for] New York City Ballet, I do think it’s still somehow going to relate— but in a new phase.”
This combination of the external with personal experience is essential to Miller’s work; as she explains, “For me, it’s part of my makeup, when I walk into the studio—what’s happening in the world around me—and in my own trajectory as an artist.”
Her decision to collaborate with Paris-based Colombian-American designer Esteban Cortázar for the Fall Fashion Gala similarly reflects her approach to the intermingling of the public and private, the personal and the artistic. “I thought this invitation to choose a designer would be an opportunity to work with a South American artist,” she says. “And Esteban is out of this world. Also, my husband is Colombian and I always want to be closer to his culture and that of my children.” Colombian-Canadian singer-songwriter Lido Pimienta has been commissioned to compose the premiere’s music, which she will perform live as the first-ever female composer of color to be commissioned by the Company.
Miller draws inspiration from the characteristics of Cortazár’s designs that first caught her attention. “There’s movement in his work, as well as sculpture—those [qualities] sometimes contradict themselves, but he does it so effortlessly,” she says. “And he is also really comfortable with being bold and sparkly, subtle and strong.”
“I’m also very excited to be with my New York artistic family,” Miller continues. “There is something important in this time, for me, about being with New Yorkers, being with a New York organization. I think we all are processing something together.”
Madelyn Sutton is an arts and culture writer based in Asheville, North Carolina.