Transcript: New Works interview with Heather Britt

Stacey Recht, Marketing Director for Cincinnati Ballet, interviews Heather Britt, New Works choreographer. Transcribed by Heather Kitchen

Stacey Recht: How do you start the choreographic process?

Heather Britt: For me, what I’m doing when I’m choreographing I like to start with the music, so the music tells me what the story is. Usually I’ll listen to the music over and over and over again, maybe a hundred times, and it starts to take shape as I’m listening to it. I’ll start to think “Oh, I see 2 people in this section, or I see 5 people in this section and I think they’re women, or I see a lot of people in this section” That’s the first step, and then after that I start to see a movement vocabulary that goes along with that. Honestly, the story comes closer to the end. As the movement takes shape to the music it starts to tell its own story.

SR: So you’re determining the characters, or figures, through the music.

HB: Yes, so before I go into the studio – Usually when I come into the studio I have the music completely mapped out as far as what emotion is being portrayed in that section of music, maybe a little bit of movement vocabulary, and then I also know that it’s a duet, for instance. And then I come into the studio and start working with the dancers that I have cast for that duet, and actually they help a lot to determine what the character is based on their experience of that emotion that is being portrayed.

SR: You have worked with Cincinnati Ballet in the past for New Works 2009. What’s it like to be back in the studio at Cincinnati Ballet Center?

HB: I’m super excited to work with Cincinnati Ballet again. New Works – as an audience member, New Works was my absolute favorite show of the season, so to be able to choreograph for New Works is huge for me. Cincinnati Ballet dancers are so diverse in nature – they’re extremely athletic, but at the same time they have a beautiful grace to their movement. They’re able to try anything. They’re fearless. My experience with them last year during New Works was that, like I said, they’re really able to try anything and just had a positive attitude to me trying a movement on them and going “oh, actually that doesn’t really work or tell the story I’m looking for” and we would throw a lot of material away, but they were actually okay with that process, so I enjoyed that a lot.

SR: Why do you love New Works?

HB: The reason I love New Works so much is that it provides a space for artists to take risks and try things that maybe haven’t been done before, and take a classical art form and make it a little more contemporary and push the limits and see what the audience thinks. And I think the outcome is that a lot of younger people come to New Works and are completely surprised at what they see, just something they can connect to that maybe they couldn’t connect to with one of the full length ballets.

SR: Tell us about your work with Peter Adams.

HB: This year I’m collaborating with Peter Adams again, he’s a musician and composer. He pretty much is a musical genius as far as I’m concerned. I love collaborating with him; we worked together last year. The process as far as how I work with him is, I give him a few words or a few ideas maybe that I have. Last year, for instance, I said, “I’m looking for something that ebbs and flows, has a lot of different emotion, highs, lows, love, pain, you know…all of these different emotions,” and he basically created the work around that little bit of information. And then when he came back with the work, I said, “Well, actually I need a little more energy in this part, or I need this part to be shorter or this part to be longer” but overall we were able to kind of speak the same language pretty early on, which was great. This time the key words that I said were important to me: “I want this piece this year to be a little more grounded, a little more raw, a little more earthy…” And the movement that I’m seeing has a “thrown” quality to it a little more this year, and I just want it to be… “raw” is the word that keeps coming to mind. So he went into the studio and came back with a piece that fit that description to him, which is actually very different than what I had originally thought, but it works great. Again, he gave me the first draft, and I said, “I kind of need this, or I need that.” It’s a complete compromise. He said, “I hope you’ll hold onto this part because I worked really hard on it and I love it” and I said, “Okay, but I need you to change this part…” So, we really work well together. And the piece of music is gorgeous, so I’m excited to work with it.

SR: How has it been working with the dancers?

HB: So, I’m very excited to be back for the second year of New Works with the same team. Victoria has asked that I choreograph an end piece again with a large group of dancers, and I’m using the same composer, Peter Adams. So it’s been another year since - one year since we’ve been together - so I really see this piece almost as a continuation of last year’s piece. Not a part two, but just where we are a year later as a whole. So we have where I am a year later, where Peter is as an artist a year later, where the Cincinnati Ballet Dancers are a year later, and what our story is today compared to what it was last year.

SR: As a choreographer, you’ve really worked a lot this last year.

HB: As far as choreography goes this year, it’s been a pretty busy year. I’ve had lots of different projects. I started out with New Works last year, I choreographed a splash dance flash mob for the Fine Arts Fund on Fountain Square. I worked with Concert Nova, which is a contemporary symphony group here in town. They had composers re-write a contemporary version of Carnival of Animals, and I worked with Cincinnati Ballet Dancers to choreograph to those new compositions and put those together. That was a great project. Also NKU, I’m a full time professor there, and I’ve been choreographing for some of the shows there and putting pieces on their dance troupe. I set a piece on Cincinnati Ballet trainees that was taken out for the Cultures of Dance. I’m working on a brand new musical that Stacey Simms has written, It’s called the Vivian girls, and Peter Adams actually is the composer for that as well and it’s about Henry Darger’s work. I have been doing a lot of different projects, so I’ve been really busy. I have been working with the Ohio Lottery doing dances for the Powerball, so people are actually dressed in lottery balls and running around the state performing, so that’s been really, really fun putting that together and doing some commercial work.

SR: As if I don’t know – since I am an R&M addict myself – what is Rhythm & Motion?

HB: Rhythm & Motion is a dance workout class that I teach at Cincinnati Ballet. It started in San Francisco over 30 years ago. I was teaching, dancing and performing professional in San Francisco and found R&M and started teaching for them. And when I moved back to Cincinnati, they said, “We’ve always thought of expanding. What do you think about taking it back to Cincinnati?” So, when I came back to Cincinnati, came to the Ballet, started R&M here, and it has just exploded in the last 10 years that it’s been here in Cincinnati. The people that come to R&M are amazing; we have everyone from dancers to people who have never danced a day in their lives – all together in one room, 60 people dancing together just because they love to dance. It’s beautiful to watch, it’s a release, it’s therapy for a lot of people and it’s just a way to express yourself without feeling the intimidation of taking a dance technique class or being asked to perform or dance a certain way. It’s a great way to self-express, it’s a release, it’s joyful, it’s my own therapy, and I’m really grateful for it and all of the people that come to the class.

SR: When did you start dancing?

HB: I’ve danced my whole life. I grew up here in Cincinnati, I went to SCPA for dance and pretty much knew that I wanted to be a professional dancer. I actually was a professional modern dancer for many years, and I still perform with modern choreographers here in Cincinnati. My background in dance is very strong in ballet. I took ballet every single day of my life from age 9 all the way through high school and also took modern dance at least twice a week, but when I graduated from performing arts I knew I wanted to go more of the modern route as far as performing professionally. So most of my professional career happened in San Francisco. Moved back to Cincinnati, got married, had children and tried to find a niche here as far as performing and there’s a place, Contemporary Dance Theater, a modern community there that is just wonderful, that provides a venue for modern dance in the city and gives dancers here a chance to perform – but I never really thought that I was going to be a choreographer. My plan was NOT to choreograph. How that started was I had a lot of dance teaching jobs, I’m at NKU, but I also have taught for the Cincinnati Ballet Academy doing the Summer Intensive, and at the end of the intensives the summer intensive culminates into a performance so I’ve had to choreograph pieces for those performances. Victoria saw a couple of those pieces at NKU and here at Cincinnati Ballet and asked me to do New Works last year, so it came as a huge surprise. I wasn’t expecting to choreograph at a professional level – so very excited, very terrified at the same time, but loved it. So since that opportunity was put in place, this year has just exploded as far as choreography and we’ll see where it goes from here.

SR: What does dance mean to you?

HB: Dance, for me, is definitely self-expression. It’s a way to release emotion and to tell a story that comes from the most inner part of myself. I use dance all the time if I’ve had a bad day, or if I’ve had a really joyful day, using my body to express those emotions on a daily basis. Dance for me has really kind of saved who I am as a person and just allowed me to remain healthy mind, body and spirit.