Beyond ballet – Jennifer Archibald is expanding the palette of classic dance

Cincinnati Ballet resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald

Cincinnati Ballet resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald (Photo by Liezl Zwarts)

– By David Lyman

Jennifer Archibald is busy.

Actually, “busy” doesn’t begin to describe her workload. Every time she turns around, someone is begging her to choreograph. She just finished a work for the Conservatory at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. Before that, it was the Grand Rapids Ballet. Next month, she’s off to create a piece for the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theater in her hometown of Toronto.

That’s on top of her lectures on acting at Yale University, the multiple classes she teaches in New York City and her work at Arch Dance Company, the New York-based group she owns.

Now, though, she’s in Cincinnati, creating a world premiere piece for Cincinnati Ballet as part of the company’s Bold Moves program – April 26-29 at the Aronoff Center.

This is getting to be something of a ritual for Archibald – her fourth work for the company in as many seasons. So it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise last spring when Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan named her the company’s resident choreographer.

“I have been so happy with everything she has done for us,” said Morgan. “She has a special talent for taking ballet technique and incorporating all sorts of other types of movement into it. She’s powerful and she’s demanding. I love it when she’s here.”

Being resident choreographer doesn’t mean Archibald will actually live here. But for the foreseeable future, she’ll continue to choreograph at least one new work each season. And she’ll get more deeply involved with the company’s outreach and education programs.

In an odd way, the time she spends in Cincinnati provides Archibald with a bit of relief. While Cincinnati may not be home, it’s a place where she has come to feel comfortable.

“It’s like having a home where I can experiment and keep creating my voice and develop my craft,” said Archibald. “It gives me a place where I can always go back to. It’s my lab. And I know it’s an opportunity that not many other choreographers have.”

Resident choreographers are a relatively new addition to the Cincinnati Ballet mix. The first was former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Kirk Peterson, who served from 2001 to 2009. During his years, Peterson proved to be a good coach for the dancers, especially in more classic works. He staged three full-length ballets for the company and added several newer works, as well.

Next came Adam Hougland (2009-2017). He was younger and edgier than Peterson and brought a sensibility more common to modern dance than to ballet.

That brings us to Archibald.

Cincinnati Ballet dancers perform Archibald’s “Never.Nest” in 2017

Cincinnati Ballet dancers perform Archibald’s
“Never.Nest” in 2017 (Photo by Peter Mueller)

Melding movement and music

Archibald is not the sort of choreographer you might have expected Morgan to recruit. People often describe her work as having elements of hip-hop. Or jazz. Or modern. “Street movement” is a phrase she sometimes uses. “Ballet” would rarely be among the first terms people would use to describe her choreography.

Yet Archibald is a highly literate choreographer and brings a work ethic to the studio that inspires dancers even as it exhausts them.

“I am amazed at the speed with which information comes to her choreographically,” said Garfield Lemonius, chair of dance and associate artistic director at Point Park University. “Like a painter creating on a canvas, she sees colors and uses them to create an image that is simply brilliant.”

“I am amazed at the speed with which information comes to her choreographically,” said Garfield Lemonius, chair of dance and associate artistic director at Point Park University. “Like a painter creating on a canvas, she sees colors and uses them to create an image that is simply brilliant.”

Though he and Archibald were university students together in Toronto, they hadn’t worked together professionally until recently. As she worked with his students, he was impressed with how effectively she fused music and choreography.

“It’s as if the accompaniment was created for the choreography,” he said.

That often is the case for Archibald. If she is not mixing her own music, she is working hand-in-hand with composers to shape scores that meld perfectly with her choreography.

“I’m emotionally attached to my music,” said Archibald. “If the music isn’t strong, everything suffers. The work suffers. My happiness suffers.”

That’s one of the things that makes the new Cincinnati Ballet piece such a departure for her. All three works on the Bold Moves program – others are choreographed by Justin Peck and Kate Weare – will be performed to live music. Grammy-winning classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird, which specializes in new music, will perform on stage. Archibald had some hand in selecting the music, but it’s nothing like the musical control she normally has.

“Victoria has always given me challenges,” said Archibald. “And this is just another challenge. But I love Eighth Blackbird and their music. I spent lots of time with this music when I was driving home to Toronto for Christmas. Yes, this is different from the way I usually work with music. But I’m ready for it.”

Besides, she knows she’s returning to an enormously supportive environment, a place where dancers are enthusiastic and eager to work with her.

Cincinnati Ballet dancers James Gilmer and Christina LaForgia Morse in Jennifer Archibald's "Sit," 2014 (Photo: Peter Mueller)

Cincinnati Ballet dancers James Gilmer and Christina LaForgia Morse in Jennifer Archibald’s “Sit,” 2014 (Photo by Peter Mueller)

‘Go hard or go home’

“Jennifer is really an awesome person in the studio,” said dancer Christina LaForgia Morse. “The way she works, she makes sure that every movement she creates is individual to our own bodies. And because Victoria is always putting her in challenging situations, she gets to explore things she doesn’t normally get to explore.”

More often than not, that formula has resulted in fascinating additions to the company’s repertory and highly positive experiences for the dancers.

“She’s a breath of fresh air in the studio,” said Morse. “Her pieces are always a blast to dance. It’s a good way to end a long season. She brings an energy to the studio that makes us want to work hard.”

And working hard is important to Archibald. Hang around the studio for any length of time and you may just hear a familiar Archibald mantra – “Go hard or go home.”

She’s not trying to be a tough guy. It’s just that when she goes to the studio, she is there to work. She is, in her own words, “a straight shooter.” Unlike choreographers whose creative process is convoluted and drawn out, Archibald works quickly and with self-assurance. It’s as if she has a thousand dances stored inside her and all are competing to get out.

She’s not trying to be a tough guy. It’s just that when she goes to the studio, she is there to work. She is, in her own words, “a straight shooter.” Unlike choreographers whose creative process is convoluted and drawn out, Archibald works quickly and with self-assurance. It’s as if she has a thousand dances stored inside her and all are competing to get out.

Like many dancers, she is something of a perfectionist. She wants things to be a certain way and a certain shape. And she wants them to convey a certain set of emotions. Archibald and her dancers work movements over and over again. But finally, there comes the moment when she must let it go and the choreography is on the stage.

“You just hope the audience likes it,” she said. “That keeps me up at night.”

It’s not that she tries to please everyone all the time. But she does want audiences to understand what she’s trying to say. She wants the choreography to connect with them.

More than most choreographers, she has an extraordinarily broad movement palette to work with. She’s not wedded to any single style or technique, so when she arrives in the studio her mind is churning with ideas and possibilities.

For dancers, that is a formula both unpredictable and invigorating.

“She is really focused,” said former Cincinnati Ballet dancer James Gilmer, now a member of ODC, a dance company in San Francisco. “She walks in with a plan and executes it right away. I was always super-pumped to be in her rehearsals.”

Being prepared like that is not just a matter of expedience, said Archibald. It’s also a matter of respect for the people she works with.

“They’ve put in their work to be prepared, technically,” she said. “So I have to make sure I’m as prepared as they are. As a dancer, when you’re not prepared and not physically fit, that’s when you have failed. It’s the same thing when you’re a choreographer. You’re dealing with artists. You have to be sure you are prepared for them.”

It’s exhausting. And demanding. But this is Jennifer Archibald’s moment. She doesn’t want to get too cocky about it, but she recognizes the importance of what has happened to her career.

“I’ll only say that I have noticed a pick-up in the momentum of work,” she said, laughing at how overly cautious that must sound. “I think this is what every artist dreams for. I know I have to ride this and create the best work that I can. This is what I’ve worked all these years for.”


Cincinnati Ballet ‘Bold Moves’

April 26-29, Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center

  • “Murder Ballades” – Choreography by Justin Peck of NYC Ballet. Music by Bryce Dessner.
  • Two world premieres – one choreographed by Jennifer Archibald, one by Kate Weare.

All music will be performed live on stage by Eighth Blackbird.

cballet.org/bold-moves


Club B annual gala

April 20, 7-11 p.m., American Sign Museum

Cincinnati Ballet will host a hot ’80s dance party with the Rusty Griswolds, light bites, cocktails and surprise performances. Co-chairs are Christine Lippert and Halle Quinn. Vice chairs are Shannon Miller and Deb Schaefer.

Tickets: $150, $75 for YPs ages 21-40.

cballet.org/club-b

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