Grand Rapids Ballet: Get to know ‘Movemedia II’
choreographer Susan Jaffe
By Adrienne Warber
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Movemedia” contemporary dance series is all about exploring the art of dance. For the past four years, the popular contemporary dance series has drawn some of the industry’s leading and most creative choreographers. “Movemedia II” will open today and feature the works of female choreographers Susan Jaffe, Andrea Schermoly, Penny Saunders and Yuka Oba. Grand Rapids Ballet will present three shows on Thursday, April 16, Friday, April 17, and Sunday, April 19 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre. One of these choreographers, Susan Jaffe, was a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) for 20 years and is now the Dean of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). Get to know choreographer Susan Jaffe, her artistic process, and find out more about her “Movemedia II” piece.
Susan Jaffe’s Career in Ballet and Choreography
Susan Jaffe’s career began almost like fairy tale, where her hard work and talent launched her into one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies at a very early age. She came to New York at age 13 to look for dance opportunities and was soon dancing with the American Ballet Theatre’s Ballet Repertory Company (now called ABT Studio Company), a lower level company to train and provide performance opportunities for dancers who are not quite ready to join ABT. After dancing with the Ballet Repertory Company for several years, she was noticed by ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had recently joined ABT as the Artistic Director. She was invited to audition for ABT and joined ABT at the young age of 18. Jaffe’s hard work and talent landed her principal roles even during her first year at ABT. She made her debut in Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center dancing opposite ballet star Alexander Godunov in a pas de deux.
Jaffe recalls what it was like when she was given principal roles so early in her career, “It was kind of a shock. I didn’t see what they saw. But it was a great opportunity, and I thought that I was either going to make it or not. So I worked my butt off for 10 years to live up to what they saw in me. It took me 10 years to really feel like I was the dancer that they saw in me.”
She became a critically acclaimed dancer in her 20 years as a principal dancer at ABT. She was known for her excellent technique and her emotional performances. New York Times called her “America’s Quintessential American Ballerina.” George Balanchine once remarked that she looked like one of his own dancers. She danced and worked with some the industry’s leading choreographers, such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Anthony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Jiří Kylián and Nacho Duato. She was also an internationally recognized ballerina. She performed with prominent international ballet companies like The Kirov Ballet, The Royal Ballet, The English National Ballet, The Stuttgart Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet.
She retired from ABT in 2003 and one year later co-founded the Princeton Dance & Theatre Studio in Princeton, New Jersey. She wrote a children’s ballet book titled, “Becoming a Ballerina.” While at the Princeton Dance & Theatre Studio, Jaffe began exploring choreographing her own pieces. Her choreography work includes a full-length version of “The Nutcracker,” “Ballet Studies,” “Pop Sonata,” “Carnival of the Animals,” and many others.
Over the years, Jaffe has choreographed contemporary pieces for Princeton University, Texas Christian University, Configurations Dance Theater and Lemon Spongecake Contemporary Ballet. She also has choreographed a pas de deux piece that was performed at the Youth American Grand Prix, and works for ABT, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of American Ballet and ABT’s Studio Company. She also earned an Honorary Doctorate from Texas Christian University in 2010.
Jaffe is now Dean of Dance at UNCSA. She also continues to choreograph her own works for UNCSA.
Working with Mikhail Baryshnikov
Susan Jaffe was one of the dancers personally chosen and trained by Mikhail Baryshnikov during his years at artistic director of ABT. Baryshnikov was known simply as “Misha” to his dancers and he worked closely with them. It was an exciting time to be a professional ballet dancer at ABT.
Jaffe talks about Baryshnikov’s impact on ABT, “Before Misha arrived, the American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet was very talented but not very uniform. It was made up of dancers of all different looks, height, weight. Misha had a certain look that he wanted to have in the company, and he hired dancers to create a more uniform company. Also, before his time there, most principals were from foreign countries. He thought that there was talent within the American Ballet Theatre, so he would just nourish it. I was one of those people that he nurtured. “
She talks about his influence on the ABT dancers, “We did some Baryshnikov and Company tours for the first 5 or 6 years. We would have our own little private jet, and we would go from city to city. Every city he went to, Misha got another key to another city. He was such a big deal. It was great to be around him because it sort of made everybody step up their game.”
Jaffe’s Choreography Style
Jaffe’s 20 years as a principal dancer for ABT, her experiences with classical and contemporary dance, and her years of choreographic work have created a unique style.
“I have a classical based technique. But I like to create my own shapes. In class, I tell people, I don’t want ballet, but you still have to stand up, point your feet and stretch your legs. So it can be quite challenging for the dancers because they have to find that balance for standing up to that classical technique but having enough weight and freedom in the upper body to get into these kind of awkward shapes that I like to create,” says Jaffe.
Jaffe describes her creative process, “For me, the music inspires me to create. Movement starts to form in my mind. I like to work with the music rather than against it. Then, I’ll go to the studio and play around with movement. Then, I’ll start working with the dancers at the studio. Now, I become a sculptor and form the dance on the dancers, and work with their talents. Sometimes, I’ll give the dancers a phrase and have them work with it and see what forms. I like to work with their creativity too.”
‘Movemedia II’ Choreography
Jaffe’s piece for Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Movemedia II” is called “Weather One.” It is set to the music, “Weather One,” by Michael Gordon. The piece is inspired by the music and reflects both the weather and human relationships.
She describes her piece, “Weather One is a classical suite with a quartet, a trio, a duet and a soloist. Each part of the dance represents a different part of the weather. For instance, the central couple is the eye of the storm. To reflect this, the couple is a dysfunctional couple and that excites passion in them – a love/hate relationship. This forms the inner circle. The pas de deux is the weather surrounding that eye of the circle. They are really ferocious and out of control. Within that pas de deux, she is being tossed from one man to the other. It is a little bit brutal as well. In the pas de quatre, the rain is steady and these are the staple couples. The soloist is mother nature protecting the rest of the elements of the rainstorm. All the women will be dancing on pointe.”
‘Movemedia II’ Show Times and Ticket Information
“Movemedia II” opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. the Peter Martin Wege Theatre, located at 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids Ballet will hold two more performances on Friday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 19, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase online at Ticketmaster or by calling the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office at 616-454-4771.