“Three World Premieres”: The name of the Washington Ballet’s upcoming program at Sidney Harman Hall is straightforward. The outcome is less so, with its risks, as well as its potential rewards. That’s the thrill of it. No safety net here, no time-tested classic added to the mix to ensure satisfaction — just fresh invention and a lot of heart. The gamble (call it a celebration of creativity) is even more daring considering the three choreographers are all new at it. They are dancers, first, making the leap to the other side of their art.
It all started one day with Misty Copeland. “I was in the studio and just tossing her around,” says Marcelo Gomes, the former principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre. “And she and some of my friends said, ‘Oh, you really should put this on paper or something.’ ”
That got Gomes thinking, and not long afterward, he began creating small works for ABT, including one in 2015 titled “AfterEffect” and starring Copeland. The Washington Ballet invitation was inevitable, because Artistic Director Julie Kent and Gomes are close friends, stemming from their dancing partnership at ABT.
Gomes’s new piece is titled “The Outset,” and its story of the comforts and conflicts in a small town springs from the music, Dvorak’s String Quartet in F. It’s dubbed the “American Quartet” because the composer worked on it while vacationing among Czech immigrants in Iowa. Gomes matches the music’s playful spirit with a wedding, but there’s also a main character at a crossroads.
“He sees the twinkling lights far away,” Gomes says. “He has to decide whether to see what’s beyond his own walls.”
Dealing with a major life change is something Gomes knows about, more deeply than he could have ever wished. Tall and elegant in a wool blazer and jeans, with a relaxed, cheerful air and a smile that brightens the small office where we’re speaking, Gomes has recently emerged from a dark period. In December, he resigned from ABT, where he was one of its most distinguished stars, amid an investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct from nearly a decade before. Neither he nor ABT disclosed details, and Gomes politely declines to say more about it.
In the immediate aftermath, he found himself publicly supported by many in the ballet community, including Kent, who told The Washington Post that their friendship, and her plans for his ballet, were unchanged.
“I’m still kind of processing that whole thing,” Gomes says. “I’m really focused on the road ahead. For me, now, it’s about choreographing. And expanding my repertoire as a dancer.”
He’ll star in “Giselle” this month with Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet. After that will b appearances in Sarasota, Fla., Mexico, Japan and in his Brazilian hometown of Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon. Veteran ballerinas Alessandra Ferri and Nina Ananiashvili have reached out to him with projects.
He credits his newfound optimism to inner strength and, especially, the love of his fiance, choreographer and dance teacher Nick Palmquist.
“He said, ‘Let’s get up in the morning and go about our day and continue with our lives.’ Where I’m at now. . . . ” Gomes blinks into the distance, and his eyes shine. “He showed me that I could get there.”
The turmoil forced him to grow, he says, and with that came a deeper appreciation for the power of emotion — pain, as well as pleasure — in his work.
“When I sit in a theater I want to be transported, by amazing turns and beautiful jumps and beautiful lines. But I also like to see crisp musicality. And heart, really.”
Gomes grows quiet for a moment. “What we’re all trying to do,” he says, “is create heartbreak.”
Gemma Bond is seven months’ pregnant and sniffily from a cold, two attributes that give her a charmingly lopsided, whispery quality as she wheels around the studio calling out musical counts. She does this with her eyes fixed on the slim notebook she holds, full of notes and diagrams for her new ballet, titled “Myriad.”
Even with her baby bump — and even without looking — Bond has no trouble demonstrating the light, soaring steps she wants her dancers to perform. Until:
“I cahn’t do this,” the English-born Bond gasps with a laugh, getting down on her knees. She partly rolls, partly flops onto her side, and the dancers join her. Soon she has them wiggling on their stomachs, with their legs and pointe shoes lifted daintily off the floor. It looks like a room full of spindly bugs, with Bond as their petite, pillowy queen.
Female power is the motif in “Myriad,” danced by six women and a man. “I wanted them to be a corps de ballet,” says Bond, a member of American Ballet Theatre’s corps for the past decade. There’s a dreaminess about her, with her soft voice and languid blue eyes. “It’s always better to work from experience.”
But this is a corps of stars, for each woman has her moment in the spotlight. Bond chose several Baroque sonatas and songs by Henry Purcell, and created six sections corresponding to different facets of femaleness, such as the Madonna, the mother, the poet, the muse. Each is led by a different dancer.
“The ladies really cast themselves,” Bond says. “One dancer was asking a lot of questions at the beginning, and she became the ‘leader.’ She’s opening the ballet.”
Speaking up in a rehearsal is unusual: Dancers tend to be “quite reserved,” Bond says. “You do what you’re told. But asking a lot of questions — I think that’s interesting. It pushes me. You know, ‘Are the arms up here, or are they down?’ I have to think about it.”
Specificity is important to her. Bond creates an open structure first, then fills in details bit by bit, with every rehearsal. It’s what she learned early on in her career, when Bond danced with the Royal Ballet.
“I grew up doing Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography, and being coached by Lynn Seymour and all these greats. They talked about why we do the movement, why we’re looking left instead of right.
“Nothing,” she says, “is ‘just because.’”
As a longtime member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and then with Jessica Lang Dance, Clifton Brown has worked with innumerable contemporary choreographers. There’s hardly a step he hasn’t perfected, a shape he hasn’t formed with his tall, flexible frame. Precision, discipline, careful planning: That’s the very air he breathes.
But creating his own choreography, he discovered, can be less about control and more about just letting things flow. Sometimes the best moves come from flubs.
The biggest surprise of his new endeavor, he says, “is that happy accidents can happen.”
For a perfectionist like Brown, that’s the ultimate irony. Brown’s partner, Fredrick Earl Mosley, is a choreographer, and he’d been urging Brown to try his hand at it for years. But Brown wasn’t ready to put himself on the line that way.
“I just didn’t want to make work,” he says. “It felt exposing.”
Eventually he realized “the only thing keeping me from doing it was the fear of failure. And so I guess I decided that that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have a reason to not do it.”
So here he is, surveying a studio full of ballet dancers as they spiral through his piece, titled “Menagerie.” The music is Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D, but for now, Brown, wearing a black hoodie, joggers and socks, is singing out the counts.
“Think of it not as a shape, but as moving, moving, moving,” Brown tells them. He whips around to face the mirror, stepping toward the corner on his toes, his arms stretching up as if he’s watering a hanging plant. “Grow, grow, grow,” he says. “Move your fingers.”
Although the women are in pointe shoes, the ballet reflects Brown’s eclectic dance experience. At one point, a male dancer spins into a back walkover; at another, a ballerina arrives late to where the others have clustered in a circle. She cuts through the crowd, which welcomes her like a blossom opening to a bee. After weaving among them, she darts away.
It’s a delightful moment, and it came about because the plan went awry.
“There are a few things in this piece that are only in there because of mistakes,” Brown says with a smile. Lesson learned: “It’s important to allow there to be life in the studio.”
The Washington Ballet performs “Three World Premieres” March 14-18 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets: $25-$118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org/events/three-world-premieres.