International choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has been celebrated around the world as a multifaceted artist with a unique and compelling voice.
In 2003, after 12 years as a professional dancer, she decided to focus on her choreography—and was quickly praised for her versatility.
“Ochoa is truly a masterful choreographer with an edge for what dance can and should be in this constantly changing industry,” the Temecula Performing Arts Examiner wrote.
She’s created works for companies such as Dutch National Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Scottish Ballet, The Washington Ballet and, now, BalletMet.
Her newest piece, Ecliptic, includes nine dancers who move with and manipulate hoops in an effort to evoke harmony and continuity. It will premiere on stage throughout be MOVED, our mixed rep show featuring three works by three acclaimed choreographers. (You can learn more and buy tickets here.)
Here, she shares more about the inspiration behind the work, how she grew to love dance and the challenges facing female choreographers today.
Tell us what inspired Ecliptic.
I was inspired by a painting called Ecliptic Series by American artist Kathleen Werner. It’s a very geometric image that contains a lot of circles in many sizes. I was drawn to it in a hypnotic way. I kept seeing new small details and elements. There is something very pleasing in its structure, symmetry, formations and color gradients; all kinds of qualities that can be found in choreography. I decided to use hoops as a prop. I work quite often with props in my ballets. I tell the dancers that the prop is an actual dancer. The hoop is a third person in your duet. There’s a pleasing symmetry and geometry that emanates in the dance if the dancers manage the hoop to its perfection. It creates an eternal circle of energy between them, which is probably why I like these paintings because the circles are an endless continuum. It made me realize that when we’re in harmony with each other, there’s a circle of energy created between two people—I give, you receive, then you give back. We stay in connection. It’s that harmony that I’m looking for between the dancers. And weirdly enough, it is very pleasing and satisfying to watch.
Do the hoops signify anything or are they more like a fourth partner?
The hoops are a fourth partner. They have to be manipulated with such precision in order not to come across as an incongruous object. Basically the hoop has to “disappear” or become an extension of a limb, and the dancers have to embrace that element the same way as they would embrace another dancer.
Talk a little about your process—do you create as you go in the studio?
I always have a strong conceptual idea. For example, with Ecliptic, I knew I was going to start with a duet. I listen to the music a million times before starting the process, and I imagine approximately where things will happen. Then I come to the studio, and I forget everything about what I prepared. I let myself be inspired by what happens in front of my eyes, and I follow my intuition. I always say that the muses are with me in the studio, and they’re whispering in my ears. So sometimes the muses whisper something completely different than what I originally intended to do.
What’s it been like working with the BalletMet dancers?
They are a pleasure to the eyes (laughing). It’s very satisfying when you do a geometrical piece that the dancers actually fit into that painting. They have gorgeous lines. I love that some of the dancers are short and some are really tall because the painting contains different sizes circles. It’s a perfect match.
Your parents met dancing and encouraged you to dance from a young age, but you didn’t like it at first. Why not—and how did you grow to love dance?
I was a tomboy. I loved dressing up like my brother. I loved that I could pass for a boy. One day I was playing soccer, and the kids with whom I was playing with thought I was a boy. I was so happy. But my mother decided to send me to ballet to become more feminine. I hated it. But funnily enough, ballet did transform my body and physiognomy. My posture changed. My behavior changed. Then during my second year of ballet, I performed on stage for the first time. When I saw the older dancers doing their technical tricks, I suddenly understood the why of all of these arduous exercises. The perfecting of the technique and strength was to gain freedom to express emotion or tell stories. I was hooked because I loved telling stories. As a dancer, I always needed a reason and an intention. I guess that’s why I love creating narrative works. If I don’t have a theme or a concept, I have no idea where to start with my movements. I need that frame and purpose.
The word versatile is often used to describe you as a choreographer. What does that mean to you?
I was trained as a classical ballet dancer, but I only performed professionally in contemporary and modern jazz companies. I’m also a mix between a Belgian mother and Colombian father. I speak four languages, French is my mother tongue, but I have a Spanish name. I live in Holland since 26 years, so that has become my first language. I am all of these elements combined. When someone asks, “where do you come from?” I never know how to formulate my answer. I don’t like to be labeled. I love classical ballet. I love the form, although I never performed it. But when I go to a contemporary company, it feels like I am back home in my own company. So that’s where my versatility comes from. I adore and respect both styles and techniques, and I want to be the best I can, choreographically, in both styles. I love telling stories, which is a different way of approaching choreography because it’s about the human nature and psychology. How do you bring a character to life? By giving it real intentions and human qualities.
There have been lots of conversations around the role and importance of female choreographers in the industry. What does it mean to you to be a female choreographer today? Is this something you think about and bring into your work?
I never questioned myself about being the only girl between the male choreographers until it became a discussion, and that discussion started about 10 years ago after which I started observing the phenomenon and had to agree that it was in fact true —I’m often the only woman around, even though the world of ballet has a lot of women. In my observation, my career developed rather slowly. I am thankful that it was slow paced because I needed those years of practice. Through achieving things and failing at things I learned how to make the big narrative ballets I’m making today. I don’t think I could have made A Streetcar Named Desire or Broken Wings at the age of 30. I needed to have a better understanding of the human nature. What I did observe about the difference between male and female choreographers in classical ballet is that when a young male choreographer shows potential he is given a second opportunity much faster than when it’s a woman. About a woman’s work, the reaction will be that of waiting to see how they develop, giving the time to mature before giving them a second opportunity. But choreography is a craft. You have to practice, and you have to create a lot of ballets and present those ballets in front of audiences to see if they work or don’t. And by witnessing your successes, your failures and mediocre works, you exercise your craft. Because women are given fewer opportunities they develop slower. Nevertheless there are a lot of women out there making dance works. Usually they’ve had a career as a contemporary dancer. These women thrive more as choreographers than classical ballerinas because their dance career is based on dialogue and exchange with the choreographers, instead of listening and executing what is demanded of them. In contemporary dance, the dancer has to think and help develop ideas and movements. That’s why many female choreographers nowadays come from the contemporary world and that’s why we need to nurture the few ones emerging from the classical dance world.
How do you empower the dancers in the studio?
When I was a younger choreographer, I could physically show the dancers precisely what I wanted. But what happens with that approach is that sometimes you end up frustrated that you don’t see exactly what you’ve shown. I realized that now that I’m not in dancing shape anymore, the less pretty and exact I show them movements the more the dancers can shine. I let them find their way to execute the choreography. I look at them. I sculpt the movement on them. They are the clay and I knead them to a form or an energy that is fitting to the concept of the work.
See Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s world premiere, Ecliptic, throughout be MOVED, Oct. 25 through Nov. 2 at the Davidson Theatre.