Annabelle Lopez Ochoa choreographs Zoom work for ballet students in Chicago and Amsterdam

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"A wonderful escape from the ‘limbo times’ we’re in at the moment"

Chicago and Amsterdam may be over 6600 kilometres apart, but the distance has been magicked away for a while through a new joint initiative by the Dutch National Ballet Academy and the Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet. Commissioned by the two academies, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has choreographed a new Zoom work, on which the students in both countries have collaborated intensively. Joffrey student Emily Porter says, “As young dancers, we all feel frustrated that we’ve hardly been able to work in the studio during the lockdown. But Annabelle has given us a huge dose of positive energy and creativity, and challenged us to discover what is possible in the circumstances”. NBA student Sven de Wilde says, “She actually saw it as a source of inspiration that we’ve mainly been at home over the past weeks. The ballet shows us in a way that we’ll never appear on stage”.


The Zoom ballet by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa  premiered on 1 March 2021 and can be watched here:

LIFE'S A BRIDGE I Annabelle Lopez Ochoa I Dutch National Ballet Academy & Joffrey Academy of Dance

STILL FLOATING I Annabelle Lopez Ochoa I Dutch National Ballet Academy & Joffrey Academy of Dance


The American student Emily Porter had just undergone a major foot operation when rehearsals started for the project by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. “The operation had been in the offing for a while, and when things ground to a halt due to COVID it seemed the ideal time to get it done”. She says it’s an “absolute blessing” that she was able to rehearse for the Zoom ballet so soon after the operation. “And I never dared hope that Annabelle would involve me in the project to the same extent as all the other dancers. I could do everything sitting down, and I learned so much from it. Instead of the usual physical thrill you get from moving your legs, you have to do everything with your upper body. You have to dance with your elbows, ears and eyes”. She laughs, “Luckily, I had a chair on wheels, so I could also swivel around a lot”.
This season, Emily became a member of the Studio Company of the Joffrey Academy of Dance. The eight dancers of this youth dance company – who in normal circumstances still spend around half their time at the academy – all took part in the rehearsals for the new Zoom ballet, along with fifteen first-year students of the Associate Degree course at the Dutch National Ballet Academy.
NBA student Sven de Wilde says, “At the moment, most of us are shut in by the four walls of our house, apart from a limited number of studio classes that are allowed. So this project has opened the ‘doors’ for a while to something different, something new. It’s been so important to us and has given us such a boost. It was also great to get to know new dancers in these times and see how they work. The dancers of the Joffrey Studio Company are slightly older than us and have a bit more experience, which makes the collaboration even more exciting and inspiring”.

Now’s the time
It was José Carayol, Head of Studio Company and Trainee Program of the Joffrey Academy of Dance, who took the initiative for the projects. “Ernst (Meisner, artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy – ed.) and I have known each other for years and I think there’s a good match between our academy in Chicago and the Dutch National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam. We both have a reputation for being innovative, creative and versatile”.
Ernst Meisner says, “José and I had previously talked about the possibility of collaborating. Last autumn, he brought it up again and asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to do something together now, precisely in these strange times?’ At the time, our school had just opened up again, unlike the schools in the US. But in December, when it became clear that we, too, would be going back into lockdown after the Christmas break, I thought ‘now’s the time’”.
José says, “We soon agreed that we’d like to work with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. She’s a familiar name in both Chicago and Amsterdam, as she’s previously made works for Joffrey Ballet, Dutch National Ballet and – less recently – the Dutch National Ballet Academy. And during the pandemic, she’s also made many beautiful dance films, including It was all a dream, a wonderful Zoom ballet for Joffrey dancers Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Guteirrez (and their dog Kahlua – ed.). Dylan also composed the music for the piece, and he’s doing that for this new project as well. I think that’s a great message for the participating dancers: look beyond your own discipline, because the more personal qualities you develop, the richer you’ll become as an artist”.

On the sofa
As so often applies during this pandemic, the structure of this collaborative project had to be continually adjusted. José says, “The original idea was that Annabelle would work live in the studio in Chicago and Amsterdam, with a videographer, and the dancers would also be filmed outdoors on the streets of both cities. But the continually changing circumstances and the fact that some dancers were located around the world due to lockdowns in their country of origin meant that Annabelle eventually had to contend with a great many restrictions, despite having total artistic freedom. At the same time, that also made the project even more exciting. I spoke to her the day before rehearsals started and she said, “I hardly know what I’m going to do tomorrow, because I’ve no idea what I’ll have to face”.
Ernst Meisner says, “But there was one thing she was sure of from the start, and that was that she wanted to create something that couldn’t be performed in a theatre, but only in the dancers’ homes – on the sofa, in bed, on the stairs or in the kitchen”.

Not ‘stuck’ to the camera
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa says, “Something else I knew straight away was that I wanted to work with smaller groups. I find it impossible to make a piece with more than twenty people at a time on screen. Then you’re looking at postage stamps all the time”.
So she split the dancers up into a boys’ group and a girls’ group, and within those groups she often worked with even smaller groups, via break-out rooms. Because of the different time zones in Amsterdam and Chicago, the Zoom meetings always took place in the evening (Dutch time).
“In the first rehearsal, I focused mainly on letting the dancers get to know each other well. And I wanted to find out where they lived – and how they lived. Then I gave the dancers the assignment of creating three stage sets, as it were, out of furniture and objects, and taking photos of them. Something I taught them straight away was that they shouldn’t get ‘stuck’ to their cameras. As video is already so two-dimensional, you need to pay extra attention to creating depth. In the following rehearsals, I gave them all sorts of tasks and taught them tools for improvising with one another, partly based on the Forsythe Technologies”.
Sven de Wilde says, “For example, we had to express all the letters of our first names in choreography. The material from the short solos produced in that task was then used to create group pieces”. Emily Porter adds, “It was a creative process in the true sense of the term. Instead of having us faithfully copy her movements, Annabelle gave us all sorts of tools to use and improvise with. Something else I thought was wonderful was that we could then teach our own individual material to the other dancers”.
Sven says, “At the beginning, I found that quite difficult. I’m a perfectionist and very self-critical, so I’m not so easily satisfied with the material I ‘create’, but Annabelle gave me the confidence to get over that uncertainty. She pushed me… no, she showed us ways to push ourselves. And she’s very open and honest. If she’s not satisfied and wants to see something different, then she just says so. I thought that was really refreshing and inspiring”.

Like caged animals
Annabelle says, “I set to work with them on the basis of the improvisations they sent me on video. I made choices regarding the material and added dynamics, and I discovered and reinforced the intention underlying the movement. For the improvisations, we also used objects in the dancers’ homes: a staircase, a cushion, a ball, but at a certain point I knew I needed a shared element – a cinematic focal point. That became a red balloon, an object that – now many shops were closed – everyone had at home. I see this red balloon as a symbol of creativity and freedom. In my eyes, dancers who have to do classes and rehearsals in their living rooms are like caged animals, so this symbol of freedom was really important to me”.
Emily Porter says, “The red balloon also connected us all. It was as if we were passing the balloon through the edge of the screen to someone else in Amsterdam or Chicago, or anywhere else in the world. It was a nice gesture, which underlined the unity of our group of dancers”.
Sven de Wilde laughs, “Incidentally, not everyone had a red balloon at home. I had to trawl quite a few supermarkets to find one. Right now, just before Valentine’s Day, you do see red balloons in the shops, but they’re all heart-shaped. It was quite a challenge to find a normal one”.

Tinkering with hundreds of videos
The rehearsals with Annabelle are over now and Sven and Emily can look back on a couple of very special weeks. Emily says, “Even on Zoom, it’s great being with Annabelle. Not only is she a choreographer who’s known and acclaimed all over the world, but she was also incredibly respectful and supportive towards all of us. I also really liked the fact that this project enabled me not only to get to know the dancers from Amsterdam, but also to share time, energy and creativity again with my fellow dancers from the Studio Company at last. The project with Annabelle was a wonderful escape from the ‘limbo times’ we’re in at the moment”.
Annabelle says, “And now it’s up to me. I’ve got hundreds of short videos of the dancers, and it’s my job to ‘bake the cake’. I love doing that, actually. It’s hard choreographing through Zoom, but tinkering with all those clips, making choices and making sure all those youngsters get their own moment of fame in the film is a great job. I lose myself in it completely, sometimes till five or six in the morning. I feel like a kid of ten who gets to play with a huge box of Lego”.
Emily and Sven are very curious as to how the film will turn out. Sven says, “I’ve no idea what it’ll look like. It’s a total surprise!”
José Carayol laughs, “That’s funny! The boys I talked to here in Chicago had no idea either, whereas the girls found it easy to imagine what direction it would go in. But whatever expectations they – or Ernst and I – might have, one thing’s for sure: Annabelle will surprise us all”.

Creativity knows no bounds
Ernst Meisner says, “The great thing about Annabelle is that she really got the dancers to collaborate and challenged them to explore their creativity together. Because apart from fulfilling our Associate Degree students’ huge need for an inspiring initiative outside the regular, mainly online curriculum, the project was also all about the encounter and exchange between the students”.
José Carayol says, “I’m incredibly happy with the way Annabelle inspired and motivated the students. Even through Zoom, she’s able to create a real connection with the dancers and get the best out of them”.
Ernst adds, “I’ve had nothing but happy reactions from the dancers as well. Annabelle has such enthusiastic energy. She expects a lot of herself, but also of the dancers, and the dancers really appreciate that, especially at the moment”.
José says, “The main thing we want to show through this project is that creativity knows no bounds. We hope that the dancers who took part have broadened their horizons a little and that they’ve got just that bit closer to their dream”.

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen