Text: R. Collins
After a 2020-2021 season of innovative virtual programming—like performances of The Nutcracker with behind-the-scenes interviews and rehearsals, and the unprecedented choreographic collaboration behind “Collective Force”—the Grand Rapids Ballet will conclude its season beginning this Friday, May 30th with “Jumpstart: On Film.”
“Jumpstart” has been a mainstay in the ballet’s performance for a couple years, but this year’s virtual programming takes the fan-favorite event into cinematic territory, where intimate moments between movement artists and audience abound, and world-class dancers push their boundaries to create something entirely new for themselves. For this season’s edition of Jumpstart, the ballet has partnered with video sponsors SALT Creative Production Studio of Grand Rapids to produce and film nine performances choreographed by dancers. The series will be available to watch as many times as patrons wish, from Friday, May 30 through Sunday, May 2, 2021.
“The dancers are always surprising me with the amount of creativity they have inside them,” said James Sofranko, artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet, who has helped to cultivate the experimental and exclusive air of “Jumpstart” each year. “The amount of creativity and energy that they bring to the process is really inspiring and helps me, too, as a choreographer to remain excited about our artform and the possibilities that are there.”
What is typically a creative workshop for dancers to self-choreograph their own narratives for the stage has become almost a film festival for Michigan’s only professional ballet company, with each dancer group interpreting the film medium to portray their own message. For instance, dancer and choreographer Yuka Oba-Muschiana will be taking her “Jumpstart” performance to the preserved Victorian-era mansion, Voigt House, in Grand Rapids for an intimate portrayal of the creative process in all its highs and lows, from creative block to bursting expression.
“My piece is about a female storywriter, and I wanted to make a [performance] about her struggling to create the piece just like me. I thought it would be similar, because when I create choreographies, some days are really bad and nothing comes to my mind. I’ll try to make movements, but I’ll keep doing the same things over and over,” Oba-Muschiana said. “But some days something clicks or comes to my brain and creates such cool movements that I didn’t even think I could do.”
From an intense, approximately three-week process of planning, siting the dance, and getting on-site to begin performing and revising, Oba-Muschiana describes the journey of this year’s “Jumpstart” as an intense challenge in storytelling cinematically, though using film as a medium was a refreshing alternative to a traditional, final stage product. As opposed to being shown a rich, vast collection of light, movement, and formation while sitting back several feet, audiences will be able to observe the smallest of movements in a deep field of vision, afforded by a close-up camera.
“I think the audience can experience how we’re experiencing the dancing, because I see my partner so close and the audience can see my vision. I can show them how I see him in this moment,” Oba-Muschiana said.
Compared to a traditional, live theatre performance, this ability to have a lens or pair of “eyes” so close to the dance is perhaps the most unusual aspect to this event, and dance performance in general, according to Sofranko.
“On a stage show you can look left, right, zoom in on a specific dancer or look at the whole thing as one picture, but now we’re choosing that for you,” Sofranko said. “That is an aspect that’s exciting for a choreographer too, because sometimes you’re creating a piece on the stage and you really want people to notice such and such-a-thing, but the individual person in the audience can choose what they want.”
With that freedom, of course, comes a different responsibility to handle the nuances between movement and deliverance of feeling and, as Sofranko noted, to nail each one. It’s something the artistic director believes will be delivered to audiences this weekend, when “Jumpstart” takes to the virtual stage. Each dance group has risen to the challenge dealt by an unpredictable dance season, and Sofranko said in general, the ballet company has successfully found the possibilities that are intermixed with the strange. Fortunately, the ballet’s fans and even new international audience members have turned out to support their success.
“I think that’s a testament to the Grand Rapids Ballet and a testament to the resilience of these dancers. They will stop at nothing to keep dancing and creating art and I’m really proud of this company and what we’ve been able to achieve in this year, in the midst of the constraints that COVID has brought us,” Sofranko said.
Those who are interested in unparalleled virtual and artistic access to Michigan’s favorite ballet company can tune in this weekend for the three-day session of nine films and finish another great ballet season in a brand-new light.
“You get to see these young artists try to create their visions,” Oba-Muschiana said. “Everyone has unique voices; everyone’s pieces are going to look different, so you get to see so many types of artists who want to tell you about something. I think that’s something special about this program.”
Photography: Jackson Ray Nard, Scott Rasmussen