'The More Interesting Story'
Outgoing NBT choreographer Sidra Bell talks about her work post-COVID, the inspiration behind it, and why it's important for young people to see her succeed
“How can I bring the audience closer to the dance? That’s always the goal,” says choreographer Sidra Bell. Bell’s work has been seen on stage and screen, been performed in hotel lobbies and outdoor plazas, used music from string quartets to vaudeville riffs, and featured performers costumed in tutus and tattoos. She has been a dancer, educator, company leader and, last year, she became the first Black female choreographer to have a piece commissioned by the New York City Ballet. Bell’s newest work will premiere as part of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s February triple-bill program at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. She talked to Desert Companion about her creative process, her collaboration with NBT, and how social distancing impacted dance. A lightly edited excerpt follows.
What was the inspiration for the piece you’re doing with Nevada Ballet Theatre?
It’s called Intimacy With Strangers. I think the time that we’re in has kind of exposed a lot of the wounds of the human condition. A lot of relationships, post-pandemic, have seemed very transactional to me, so it's nice to think of that as like a container for their work. A lot of my works opted to work with the loneliness within our structure … (I was) thinking about a lot of the intimate interactions we have actually being with strangers. Within the work itself, there’s lots of patterning and moments of tenderness — even strife and tension. And there’s a moment at the end of the piece that I feel is very spiritual. Those were the kinds of tableaux and emotional landscapes I was working with.
The pandemic made people more aware of proximity and movement and other people in a way they maybe weren’t before. Has that impacted the work?
I think that's always inherent when you’re working in dance: It's so physical and you have to be able to trust and receive and challenge within the movement and bodily work that you're doing with your fellow dancers. For me, it was kind of amplified by the events of the last few years. Everyone has had to think differently about care and working with more empathy, more listening. Everything feels a little more fragile now.
What was the process for creating Intimacy With Strangers? How was the company involved?
I work a lot in community with dancers, I work a lot with improvisation and in this piece with Nevada Ballet Theater it was definitely co-generated with the dancers, kind of playing with ideas in this collaborative process. In terms of movement vocabulary, I don't like to develop anything before I get into the studio with the dancers, because I'm kind of looking at new faces. My process is a directorial process, but I will stand up in the beginning and improvise the movement with them. Mirroring is kind of the foundation of any improvisational or dance-making process. There is the reference to ideas in ballet and modern dance, but everything we’re developing for a new work is based in new languages, so it’s very collaborative. We develop ideas in real time and then, as we go through and timeline the piece and edit it down and decipher it, images start to pop up. In this piece there is a lot of coming together and pulling apart. There’s repetition: you’ll see one dancer do a phrase and then you’ll see a different dancer do the same phrase, but they have a very different voice through their movement.
Costuming and staging are a major part of your pieces. Was it different working with those aspects in Las Vegas, which is kind of known for flashy costumes and sets?
That's what's so fun about dance — it doesn't have to be of any particular era and that's what makes it kind of playful for me. I can pick up on different aspects of design without it having to be related to realism in any way. Talking to Amanda (Williams), the designer, we wanted to do something spectacular and big ... I always think about every new dance piece as being kind of like a collection, so it’s fun when you have the capacity and the amazing resources that Nevada Ballet Theatre has.
It’s important to see diversity represented on the stage, but it’s just as important to see it backstage in choreography and leadership positions. How do you feel you’ve impacted that conversation?
I see it in real time, just these past few years, having done so much in the higher education system and then to have my students say, “It's so important to see you in these spaces.” I don't rely on intuitions for validation — I have gotten a lot of validation from institutions, but I’ve gotten a lot of dismissiveness too. And I think for the new generation, it's important for them to see me make it in these institutions and in these spaces, but it’s also just as important for them to see me have my ups and downs and that there’s a survival story in it. That's the more interesting story.
NBT's program Blue Until June, including Intimacy With Strangers, plays Feb. 18-19 at Reynolds Hall. Tickets are $30.95-140.95. For more information, visit thesmithcenter.com.