Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Kate Thomas makes space for neo-classical choreography

Kate Thomas
Artistic Director of Ballet Neo
(photo courtesy of the artist)

For my Montclair State University course, Performance Perspectives, Dance MFA student Lisa Harvie interviewed Kate Thomas, Artistic Director of Ballet Neo

Making Space 
for Neo-Classical Choreography

by guest contributor 
Lisa Harvie

Dance artist Lisa Harvie
(photo courtesy of the artist)

Lisa Harvie: Take me on your journey as the Artistic Director of Ballet Neo. How have you worked to gain recognition as a choreographer? What challenges have you faced with regards to space?

Kate Thomas: I was very naïve when I ventured into the world of pointe work. I didn’t realize that it is a closed club in New York City. It has been a challenge to gain traction as a neo-classical choreographer and over the past eight years I have worked hard to acquire recognition. I always look for opportunities. I started with ballet showcases such as “To the Pointe” and “Ballet Builders.” Those were wonderful experiences, but unfortunately neither is around anymore. General dance showcases are more difficult because you never know anything about the program or the other choreographers, and it doesn’t always mesh.

I have done my own showcases but finding space is always a challenge.

Performing in New York City is extraordinarily expensive and space of any kind is always an obstacle. I am very fortunate being the Director at the School at Steps that I get rehearsal space and that I can do showings here occasionally. In terms of more professional venues though, you have got to raise the money yourself and it’s a lot of work when you consider performing space, rehearsal pay, ticketing and marketing.

Fellini's Dream, a work by Kate Thomas,
at New York's Downtown Dance Festival, September 2015

LH: With site-specific work, do you always have a piece going in or do you ever see a space and then decide on the choreography?

KT: It’s rare to go back to a space and know what you’re getting into but it’s a great opportunity for a choreographer. The first time that I did the Downtown Festival in New York City, I only knew that it was outside. We performed Measurement and Caution by the river in Battery Park.  The piece created a nice contrast to the site, as the music was very aggressive. When I saw how beautifully it was lit with the lights reflecting up from the water, I had so many ideas for what I could do differently.

The second time we did that Festival, I created Fellini’s Dream, which was based on the Italian characters depicted in the work of film director, Federico Fellini. I went with black, white and grey for the costumes and it worked out beautifully against the backdrop of the blue of the sky and the water. The clouds too, that just seemed to appear, added another dimension. It was like a film set and the story of the piece evolved perfectly in that space.

LH: Do your dancers perform differently in a site-specific setting rather than in a proscenium theater? What about the audience response?

KT: I do think the dancers perform differently. I’m fortunate with the professionalism of the artists I have and the difference is minimal, but I can see it. You are somewhat less protected, especially in a more intimate space. It’s the same for the audience. If they are in the dark, they are honest, because they are protected. In a small studio space, when the lights are on and the dancers are in your face, you’re not going to get the same kind of reaction. It is also different when you are outside. You get streetwalkers, ambient noises and lots of distractions. The audience tends to not be as focused.

LH: How have you used traditional space in an innovative way?

KT: I did a piece called Dreaming Aldamar that was all set to the music of Chopin and was based on a recurring dream I used to have. In my mind, I go back to a childhood memory of this big old house in Princeton. I dream that I find a staircase, and it leads me to a gorgeous suite of rooms, and with every open door I encounter something different. Sometimes there is a party taking place, or the room is just covered in newspapers and leaves. I wanted to re-create this dream on stage and have each room be tied to a different Chopin piece. I had “the dreamer” come from the audience as though she was sleepwalking. It transformed the traditional space into a dream world.

I also play with the lighting. We did a performance once in Woodstock, and the space was basically a barn. It was not built for performances, but the lighting director was brilliant, and he made it work. He lit the dancers from above, and it created these shadows that were just beautiful. It created a space and an atmosphere that matched the energy of the piece.

The idea behind many of my pieces is sophistication. It’s to bring adult themes to ballet and move away from it always being about fairies. My goal is to make ballet relevant for another generation and to focus on significant issues. We need more current storylines. The first piece that I did with that in mind was Measurements and Caution. It’s about intimacy and the loneliness you feel in those relationships when you don’t connect. The piece includes six sections. I had one lighting director that lit all six sections differently. It effectively created six separate spaces and gave the piece a through line.

LH: Does site-specific work help to promote the ritual of a live performance?

KT: I worry about the future of the performing arts, mainly because everything now is so accessible through technology. Site-specific does help to promote what we do, because it captures an audience when they are perhaps not expecting to see something. It’s a thin line though. I think that it should still be formal enough to make it a performing arts experience and not just entertainment for someone as they eat their lunch in the park! For me there needs to be a formality to a performance so that there is at least some respect for the process and for the experience.

LH: Has site-specific work changed you as a choreographer?

KT: No, my work has changed more because of where I am and what I’ve experienced. I would change my choreography to suit a specific space, but I wouldn’t change my philosophy very much. I also have no interest in working off pointe, so that closes the door to some site-specific work. On the other hand, dancers now love to experiment with pointe shoes, which is exciting, and that changes what you can do with space, even in a traditional setting.

LH: What is your next site-specific project?

KT: The next site-specific thing I’m doing is with the Adelphi Orchestra. The music is Shahrazad, and we only have about four feet in front of the orchestra in which to dance, so I have to be very creative with the space. I want to bring the characters to life for the audience but without interrupting the orchestra. My idea is to have the dancers begin seated in the audience and to perform most of the piece in the house. It will be interesting to break down the fourth wall and create something that crosses over to the audience.

LH: Is there a space that you would imagine using to create a site-specific piece?

KT: Yes. There is a place in Princeton that has columns. It’s the memorial for the Revolutionary War Battle that took place there. It would be a perfect site for a ballet. I can see Isadora Duncan dancing there. It always comes down to the floor for pointe work though. It is always a challenge and adds an additional cost to set an adequate stage.

LH: So, life will continue in New York City, and you will move forward with your choreography?

KT: I am most myself when I am choreographing. Moving forward, I have thought about putting together my own showcase of female choreographers who work on pointe, because we are out there and we exist. There are a lot of us who are finding it difficult to gain traction. I would love to combine our talents in a joint showcase to get ourselves further recognized.  We need to make space for ourselves!


Ms. Thomas founded B.Muse Inc, a not for profit corporation to support her choreography and approach to dance education. B. Muse, Inc. provided support for the creation and production of Thomas' choreography, dance programs, lecture demonstrations and performances to schools in Harlem, the South Bronx, and throughout Upper Manhattan. She introduced a specific program for children in Upper Manhattan called the Morningside Dance Development Program to bring dance to areas that often were overlooked. B.Muse, Inc. has received support from the New York State Council for the Arts, The Harkness Foundation for Dance, Newman’s Own Foundation, California First Foundation Citibank and others.

Ms. Thomas began teaching dance to children in 1993 and developed an approach that was utilized by many studios and pre-schools throughout the city.   Ms. Thomas introduced her toddler program to The School at Steps, under the title “Little Steps” in 2000.  In 2002, she became full-time at The School at Steps in the position of Registrar, became Co-Director in 2003 and in 2004 was named the Director.

Under Thomas' direction The School at Steps  enrollment florished, new and existing programs expanded into three separate divisions, addressing the needs of dance students  by age, ability and level of interest. Thomas has redefined and developed the academic year curriculum-based program in all three divisions (Young Dancers, Technique and Pre-Professional), has created new programs for the Young Dancers Program, and has enhanced the Summer Programs offered by the school.  Thomas teaches Advanced Contemporary Ballet Repertory in the Pre-Professional Program at the School at Steps.

An exciting new collaboration began in 2009 with Grammy Award winning violinist, composer, Mark O’ Connor.  A full-length ballet, The Appalachian Suites Project, Flowers of Darkness, The Women of Monongah, was inspired by the largest industrial disaster in the United States, the Monongah, West Virginia mining disaster of 1907. Ballet Neo performances of this work in progress include APAP at Peridance 2012, two New Choreographers on Pointe’s Previews at the 92nd Street Y and the Ailey Citigroup Theater, John Prinz and Friends at the Ailey CitigroupTheater.

The company has performed at the Downtown Dance Festival (August 2006, 2008 and 2015), Dancers Responding to AIDS (2005), International Dance Festival, The Brooklyn Dance Festival (2015), Choreography on the Edge (2011, 2013), An Evening with Chamber Ballet, Ballet Arts Showcase, Steps Faculty Showcase and Academy of Performing Arts in Hudson, NY. In 2008, Ballet Neo premiered Measurement and Caution, music by Nini Raviolette and Acoustica in the New Choreographers on Pointe’, Ballet Builders, at the Kaye Playhouse in New York City.


Originally from Ottawa, Canada, Lisa Harvie has been working in the New York City dance community for over 15 years. As an accomplished performer, teacher and choreographer, her training encompasses a variety of dance disciplines. She holds her Advanced certificate in ballet through the Royal Academy of Dance and is fully qualified with the British Association (BATD) in jazz, tap and highland. She is a member of Actors Equity and a graduate of the University of Toronto. She studied at the Cumbrae Dance Center in Ottawa, Canada and received additional training from Randolph Dance Theater, Metro Movement, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Steps on Broadway.

As a dancer, credits include West Side Story (U.S. National Tour), My Fair Lady (Regional Tour - Theater of the Stars), Carousel (Stages St. Louis), Singin' in the Rain (Houston TUTS), My Fair Lady (Houston TUTS), West Side Story (Gateway Playhouse), Oklahoma (Gateway Playhouse), Footloose (Gateway Playhouse), and Scrooge (New York Stage Originals). Lisa performed at the Hudson Theater in a tribute to the late Broadway producer, David Merrick, with choreography set by Karin Baker. She worked with Patricia Wilcox in the 20th Anniversary Concert Performance of Rags at the Nokia Theater. She also appeared in the workshop production of The Great White Way, directed and choreographed by David Marquez. In addition to her work in musical theater, she has danced with the Ottawa Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at Canada's National Arts Center.
Ms. Harvie has been on faculty at Steps on Broadway for over 15 years. She teaches for the School at Steps in their elite children’s division (jazz, tap and musical theater) and for the open professional program (jazz). She has taught at NYU's Strasberg Institute, the Connecticut Dance Conservatory, The School at Columbia and the Cumbrae Dance Center. She has been a guest teacher throughout the tri-state area as well as in Canada, and has given master classes for the Joffrey Ballet School, The Open Jar Institute, Verb Ballets (Cleveland), Destination Broadway (NYC), The Elan Awards (NYC), the B.A.T.D. Annual Conventions (ON, Canada), to name a few.

Lisa was the Associate Choreographer for Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma at the Gateway Playhouse. She also choreographed Funny as a Crutch for the Foolish Theater Company in New York City. She has showcased numerous original pieces at Steps and has worked with high school theater programs in setting full-length musical productions.

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