Choreography XX: Nicole Haskins stands on the merits

Nicole Haskins has made a sweeping ballet to music by Benjamin Britten for her part of Choreography XX

Choreographer Nicole Haskins may have the solution to the “where are all the women choreographers in ballet?” problem. The dance world has been discussing this question quietly over the past ten years, but the problem has gained momentum in the more mainstream media as of late.

“I think it’s great that people are asking the question, ‘Where are the women?’” Haskins said when we talked over coffee recently, “but I think that falls short of actually addressing the root problem, not even a problem, but the root reasons why there are fewer women. They’re out there. It’s not like there aren’t women out there who are choreographing, but you have to maybe look a little farther.”

That’s right! They’re out there. And three of them have been in Portland for the last four weeks creating new ballets on the amazing dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre as part of Choreography XX, a choreography competition created by OBT artistic director Kevin Irving, to discover new women ballet choreographers. The free concert is outdoors in Washington Park, Thursday and Friday, June 29-30.

Haskins is one of the three, chosen with Helen Simoneau and Gioconda Barbuto from a pool of 91 applicants from across North America. (I interviewed Simoneau last week, and Barbuto and Irving this week.) So, yes, we may need more women choreographers, but maybe it would help if our companies employed the ones who are already doing the work.

Haskins is a ballet dancer and choreographer originally from Venice Beach, California. Her professional performing career began with Sacramento Ballet, where she danced for seven years, before going on to dance with Washington Ballet and then returning to California to dance with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco. She has been dancing with Smuin for the past four seasons.

OBT dancers Thomas Baker, Kelsie Nobriga, and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Haskins credits her success in choreography to the low-pressure workshops in making new work that both Sacramento Ballet and Smuin Ballet provided to the company dancers. They were free of cost and allowed her time to experiment with her craft. “It’s this idea that to be a choreographer you have to practice choreographing, and you need dancers, time and space. This is especially difficult for dancers who want to become choreographers, because, generally speaking, they cannot afford dancers, time and space .”

After choreographing 20 or so ballets through Sacramento Ballet, Haskins was accepted at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2010, where she created a new work on the advanced students at The School of American Ballet. The following year she received the institute’s Fellowship Grant to create a new work for Sacramento Ballet, and she received another fellowship grant this year to make a new ballet for Richmond Ballet. This past year Haskins was also a chosen as a choreographer at the National Choreographers Initiative in Irvine, California, a program that promotes experimentation in choreography. Choreographer Tom Gold, whom I interviewed a couple of weeks ago while he was in Portland setting a work on Portland Ballet, was there at the same time as Haskins, and Suzanne Haag, who dances with Eugene Ballet, is there this summer.

“These institutes and workshops and things where you are surrounded by other people going through the same thing as you and doing the same thing as you, are really empowering,” Haskins says. “I always try to seek them out—you can never know too many people or have to many connections.”

I asked her about how she felt about the lack of women choreographers in ballet. “A lot of women in ballet don’t work with women choreographers, so they don’t really necessarily think that they could do that, or know that there would be opportunities for them,” she said. An obvious solution to the problem right there.

“I want to believe that the lack of women choreographers in ballet especially, has a lot to do with the fact that ballet is a sexist sport.” Haskins said. “There are fewer men available, they get away with more, they’re usually the only boy in their school, they usually get scholarships to summer intensives. They are treated differently because we need them.” It’s a culture that women in ballet have accepted, even though they don’t like it.

For women in ballet she says it’s not a lack of confidence. “They have to work really hard to get that promotion. There’s a 100 other dancers waiting in the wings. They’re also in rehearsal more. If you look at classical ballets—Giselle, Act Two, say—there’s two men on stage. The rest of the men are off the whole time, and they have more free time to start choreographing.”

OBT dancers Thomas Baker, Kelsie Nobriga, and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

For Haskins she hopes that she “can just be a choreographer, and not have to be a female choreographer. Cause I’m happy to stand there, but at some point it’s like, ‘well is it just because I was a woman and there were ten other men you liked better than me? But because you needed a women, you…’ I would like to be on my own merits as a choreographer.”

As a choreographer Haskins has created ballets to a variety of music, but she is mostly drawn to orchestral music. For her, the choreographic process begins there. “I feel like I’m drawn to music that has it’s own life and personality,” she says. “I feel like it makes my job easier, because it already has its own story, it’s its own emotional arc. I can choose to contrast that, I can chose to go with it. But in my mind, it does so much of my work for me, because it already has its own soul, and I just enhance that with movement.”

Her new ballet is set to the music of Benjamin Britten’s The Illuminations, a song cycle based on prose poems by French poet Arthur Rimbaud. “The orchestration that Benjamin Britten creates is so complex and intense, and goes through so many levels, Haskins explains. “I liked the challenge of this being nine really different tracks of music, and some of them aren’t the smoothest from one to the next, because it’s a song cycle I liked all of those elements combined.” And she pointed out that the variety within the music would be a nice adventure for the audience.

The objective that Haskins is working with is about stretching the dancers abilities, and helping them change the air around them. She is finding that she is interested in atypical aspects of ballet movement. “I tend to find that going into something and coming out of something can be just as interesting if not more interesting. I have not trained in contemporary dance very much, but I think it’s odd that those principles seem to be split in two a lot—that it’s either you’re a contemporary mover and it’s about the movement and where it’s coming from, or you’re a ballet dancer and it’s about the positions. I think that they both can help each other.”

OBT dancers Kelsie Nobriga and Colby Parsons in rehearsals for Nicole Haskins’s new work for OBT’s Choreography XX. Photo by Yi Yin.

Haskins biggest artistic influences are George Balanchine and Helen Pickett. “I really liked working with Helen Pickett because she is someone who, as a [former] dancer, is so committed to getting in the trenches with each dancer, and I feel like that’s helped inspire me, that I could give that much back to the other dancers.” Haskins worked with Pickett once at Sacramento Ballet and twice at Smuin Ballet, performing in Petal which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed this season. “She is vivacious and energetic,” Haskins says.

One of the most important things Haskins has learned over time is to be flexible and try not “to control every moment” in the choreographic process, she says. Her hours in the studio have given her confidence, tools, and experience to be able to walk into a professional ballet company like Oregon Ballet Theatre and make a new ballet in just four weeks—a pretty impressive feat.

Haskins’ ballet, which will be performed this weekend, is sweeping, grand, and architectural. It encompasses the attributes of classical ballet like the pointe shoe and the use of line, but goes beyond positions, allowing the limbs and energy to extend, limitless, into the space, creating a larger-than-life effect. But you can see for yourself this weekend at Washington Park—and see why the problem of getting more women choreographers onto our stages is an important one to resolve.

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