On one of the few nights this summer that it wasn’t too sticky to venture outside, I made my way to Lincoln Center’s outdoor plaza to watch New York City’s second annual BAAND Together Dance Festival. A product of the city’s post-quarantine push to reunite New Yorkers with the financially ravaged arts scene, the show’s sophomore effort featured five of New York’s most prominent dance companies within a single open-air show for 3,000 people. The night I attended, nearly every seat was filled.
I was in the audience to see a new work by Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa titled One for All. Commissioned by the Lincoln Center with support from Chanel, the piece’s premiere on August 9 marked the first time in history that the dance companies (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Hispánico, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and New York City Ballet) participated in a piece together. Sure, they shared the stage last year, but this was different. The melding of companies—of ethnicities, genders, and choreographic styles—is symbolic of a larger movement, away from the idolatry of historically white ballet companies and towards a seamless tapestry of identities.
While this particular piece was more about unity than anything else, Lopez Ochoa’s usual fare assumes a woman’s point of view—something still rare in classical ballet where women are often fairies, princesses, or swans to which horrible things happen until a man comes to fetch her. Rather than co-opting or restaging the same Russian works created long ago by now-dead men, Lopez Ochoa, who has created over 100 works for more than 70 companies around the world, concocts her own stories with a feminist twist.
“I like narrative ballets because I like to put the woman in her complexity—what she has to navigate, how she’s learned to survive this world,” she told Jezebel in a phone interview. “I like to give her agency, but also to give the female dancers who perform those roles more agency, as opposed to always being that princess and always being the victim.” She added, laughing, “What if you were the bitch this time?”
The women Lopez Ochoa chooses to spotlight aren’t always heroines but “complex” women. In 2018, Lopez Ochoa created a piece called Vendetta, an adaptation of The Godfather in which the patriarch leaves the family business to his lone daughter, passing over his three sons. In Doña Perón, Lopez Ochoa tackles the politics of former Argentine first lady Eva “Evita” Perón, and what happens to women when power is unexpectedly thrust upon them. And in an upcoming original work for Hong Kong Ballet, Lopez Ochoa is attempting to document the polarizing reputation of Coco Chanel, including her notorious antisemitism and work as a Nazi informant and sympathizer.
A self-proclaimed former tomboy, she was encouraged to join ballet simply because it was deemed appropriate for little girls at the time—only to be criticized for her weight and “Latina” hips. Her gender was the reason she became a dancer and it was also the reason (along with her ethnicity) that becoming a classical ballet dancer was out of the question, leaving much to analyze and pick apart later in her work. In an original ballet based on the musical West Side Story, for example, she countered the machismo of the Puerto Rican Sharks by having the men dance in high heels. The New York Times called her creative choices “gender-swap clichés.” But in a field where just 30 percent of artistic directors of the most influential companies in the country are women, according to the latest report from the Dance Data Project, even the overt messages are still hard to come by.
When it came to costumes for One For All, the award-winning choreographer designed them herself—because she had a clear vision and also because there was no budget for a costume designer. She put every dancer in the same white tutu in order to play with the gendered assumptions behind ballet’s “classical device.” Tutus, like pointe shoes, are generally only outfitted on female ballet dancers to accentuate the waist and legs, though a few companies are beginning to let nonbinary dancers in on the tradition. On top, the male dancers were bare-skinned, while the women wore bralettes or leotards that matched their skin tone, an intentional commentary on the unending whiteness of the field.
“I remember that Zoom call, and it was very silent in the corner of the classical ballet companies,” Lopez Ochoa said about the day she suggested the dancers all wear tutus. “They said, ‘Okay, so the men will also wear it?’ ‘Yes!’ I told them. In contemporary dance, it’s very normal to wear skirts and dresses, so that silence already told me, okay, this is very subversive for you. But you’ll see, it will work.”
Featuring one Ailey dancer, two ABT dancers, six from Ballet Hispánico, three from DTH, and two from City Ballet, with music by Dizzy Gillespie and Funky Lowlives, the overture to the festival was intended to make the dancers look like one company, not five, in a love letter to New York City. One for All, as a work of art, was bursting with exuberance. Alongside classical ballet, it respectfully borrowed movements from tango and vogueing. But the joy in the piece hardly measures up to the unflinching vision of Lopez Ochoa herself. She knows ballet is changing, even if at the pace of an aging tortoise, and it’s clear she will stop at nothing until the artform has arrived in the present and moved beyond, to the future.
Currently, Lopez Ochoa is itching to produce a narrative ballet based on The Danish Girl, a project she says she’s been pitching for seven years but hasn’t been able to get companies to bite. One company told her no because their patrons, who keep ballet companies financially afloat, didn’t approve. Another was worried they didn’t have the right dancers to play the titular role. They wanted to wait, she said, until the field had more trans women, as well as more men and nonbinary performers dancing in pointe shoes before making that decision, especially given the backlash to casting Eddie Redmayne, a cis man, as the lead character.
“The world isn’t ready for it, I guess,” she said. “I have to wait, but it’s gonna be made one day because it’s such a beautiful story.”
But whatever you do, don’t call Lopez Ochoa’s characters “complicated:” “The women are not complicated. It is the world they’re born into that makes their behavior complicated,” she said. “That world is tough on us, so we develop survival mechanisms that make us appear complicated.”