Choreographer Garrett Smith creates a new work for the Milwaukee Ballet and shares the story behind how it came to be.
Taking three Milwaukee Ballet principals through a section of Addendum on a recent Thursday afternoon, choreographer Garrett Smith is the tallest person in the room. This adds something to the humor of this new dance, a Milwaukee Ballet commission that will receive its world premiere this weekend at the Marcus Center. If you look past Smith and the three dancers to the back of the studio, you’ll see what I mean. Two tiny chairs—child sized, actually—sit in the back of the room. They are a key component of the dance.
Dancers Rachel Malehorn and Susan Gartell entered this scene by leaping over these two chairs, and now, they—along with Alexandre Ferreira—are downstage, fine tuning Smith’s meticulously detailed upper-body work, and harrowing extensions. At one moment, the dancers bring their right leg forward, bending it to the side but holding their toes right in front of their faces. Then, they release it, letting it whip behind them and freeze in a post that looks like an Olympic long-jump trophy.
As Smith stops and restarts the recording (richly textured cello music by Zoë Keating), he fine-tunes the dance phrases: This extended leg should be en demi-pointe (on the ball of the foot) rather than en pointe (on tiptoe). This sequence of gestures should fit precisely with the specific syncopations in the music. Everyone’s mouth should open wide in the moment when the head and arms are thrown back convulsively.
During a break, Smith explains the work of this rehearsal. “We’re setting the musicality,” he says. “We already know the steps, we’ve created movement that we like. So now we make it so all three brains think like one. So each gesture lands on the exact beat or note.”
It’s the kind of precision that seems endemic to Smith’s work. In last year’s Genesis Choreographic Competition, he used music by Mozart and Haydn, and created physical phrases that followed the skittering melodies with rigorous attention to detail. Sometimes, the phrases were articulated with classical ballet vocabulary. But more often, they were matched with a contemporary and fresh assortment of gestures, mostly in the upper body—angled elbows and wrists or quick turns of the head. The originality and wit fit the spirit of the music perfectly, and Smith won the competition, earning him this chance to work with the company again.
But what about those tiny chairs? That idea originated during that Genesis visit to Milwaukee, before he even knew he’d return for another Milwaukee Ballet gig.
“I was at Michael Pink’s house for dinner last time,” he explains. “There was a chair in the house—this tiny kids chair—and I was in a creative mindset so I just started playing around with it. I thought it would be kind of cool to do a piece with chairs like that.”
Hence the title: Addendum, implying a connection between last year’s piece and this one.
But while there were some choreographic connections between the pieces, most of Addendum was created after Smith arrived in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.
“I knew we were going to use the chairs, and that we were going to utilize them as much as possible,” says Smith. “But it’s more fun to just wait and see what happens. If you plan too many things in advance, things are always going to change.”
“More and more, I start the process with lots of improv,” says Smith, who has created dances for the Houston Ballet, the Norwegian National Ballet, and SALT Contemporary Dance. “For Addendum, we started the first day with improvisation. I asked dancers to take a chair and dance with it across the stage.”
“Watching someone work like that, you get a sense of who they are as a person and a dancer,” he continues. “I try to see what’s special about them and highlight that. Working like that gives me a chance to put their best self in the work—not just make them dance like me.”
Addendum will be part of the Milwaukee Ballet program called “Kaleidescope Eyes,” presented March 31 to April 3 at Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center.