Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is one of the busiest choreographers working today. As of September, the Belgian native has been away from her home for five straight months fulfilling a string of commissions in Cuba and across the US.
She’s currently creating her first piece for New York City Ballet, which will première at the company’s annual Fall Fashion Gala. It’s one of her biggest commissions to date. This comes at a time when the subject of women creating works on major dance companies is a hot topic. Very few women are getting this opportunity. By any measure, Lopez Ochoa has earned this commission and while she knows that it will be closely scrutinized she seems not to be feeling any pressure. The atmosphere in the rehearsal studio on the day that I visited was loose, upbeat, and full of humor while still intensely concentrated. She said that she works best in a relaxed, loose environment and that’s what she is trying to cultivate.
Lopez Ochoa created her first work in 2002 after a twelve year career as a dancer in Europe. Her early commissions were there, mainly in her native Belgium and the Netherlands. As her name got around and her reputation grew, work started coming to her from other countries until she became an international figure with strong attachments to companies such as Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, Ballet Hispanico (NY) , Whim W’Him (Seattle) and BalletX (Philadelphia). As part of her natural progression, she began branching out and taking more risks. Working with Céline Cassone, of BJM, she created her first work for a dancer on pointe, something she had avoided, with her focus on modern dance, but which opened up still more opportunities.
While her growth has been steady, 2012 was clearly her breakout year, with A Streetcar Named Desire for the Scottish Ballet. It was her first full length narrative ballet and it was well received by audiences and critics alike. She created nine new works that year and hasn’t slowed down since. In the past year, Lopez Ochoa choreographed a piece for Daniil Simkin’s INTENSIO and created another narrative piece based on Dangerous Liaisons. Ochoa was then chosen to create a new work for English National Ballet’s She Said a landmark program of all female choreographers. Her contribution Broken Wings became a major work about the life of Frida Kahlo and was the runaway hit of the season.
There’s not much one can say about a work in progress from observing a rehearsal but I’ve watched Lopez Ochoa at work before. Above all, she exudes the calm confidence of someone who has done this many times before and expects to go on doing it for a long time to come. She is consistently cheerful and open to feedback from her dancers and they respond to her. Obviously pleased with how quickly the New York City Ballet dancers pick up new steps, Lopez Ochoa kept a brisk pace, going back and forth between reviewing finished work and adding new steps. She was constantly pushing to add more as soon as a sequence was completed. She’s notably as quick to subtract steps as to add them and her imagination is free ranging. At one point she had the women of the corps de ballet on their backs doing moves that referenced Esther Williams by the pool. She related that these dancers have been open and receptive from the beginning. At other companies she sometimes gets tested by principal dancers so she loves the open and dedicated attitude she’s getting at NYCB. When casting this work, she looked for dancers of emotional weight and maturity, not perfection. There is no unifying look to this group and that’s part of the point. Lopez Ochoa wants her ballet to look as much like the world as she can get. They’re tall, short, stocky, lean and as racially diverse as NYCB’s roster can make the cast. The work is titled Unframed and the theme is about layers of our inner selves which are covered by clothes and which are gradually revealed during the ballet. Rosie Assoulin is designing the costumes for this piece. Lopez Ochoa asked to be paired with Assoulin because she designs exactly the kind of suits that the choreographer envisioned and the collaboration seems to be working out. She’s got nothing but smiles when talking about her work.
The Fall Fashion Gala is one of the year’s most anticipated dance events in New York City and always draws a lot of attention. The good news for Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is that she’s going to be fine no matter what critics think of her latest piece. She is firmly on the list of top current choreographers and is already booked pretty solid for the next three years. The woman has already arrived.