Behind the Scenes of The Joffrey Ballet’s Winning Works

The process of artistic creation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The artist, whether occupying the visual or performing arts space, may be influenced by many factors: training, personal experience, physical environment, history, and politics among them. For many performing artists, artistic expression moves beyond the visual, incorporating sound. This is especially true of the choreographer, as dance performance often encompasses many forms of artistic expression, from dance and music to lighting and costumes. 

Art is an outward manifestation of what is inside of us. We create as a means of expression, to share our emotions, to claim our place in the world. That’s why it is vitally important to give a voice to all types of experience, and to support new work. The Joffrey Ballet recognizes these needs and cultivates up-and-coming artists with their Winning Works Choreographic Competition, which provides ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American) artists a platform to showcase their creations on the dancers of both the Company and the Joffrey Academy. This year’s winners will be presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater the weekend of March 20-22, 2020.

This year, 75 choreographers applied for the opportunity to be a part of Winning Works, says Joffrey Academy Director Raymond Rodriguez. He and Ashley Wheater, The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet, review the top 10 works and together select the four winners. This year’s gifted recipients are Chanel DaSilva, Tsai Hsi Hung, Pablo Sánchez, and Durante Verzola.

The Winning Works program is a boon for any choreographer, of course, but also for the dancers who take part in the production. “The students themselves grow and improve tremendously through the process of having new works created specifically for them, often collaborating with the choreographer,” says Rodriguez. “This program is one of the many highlights of the student experience here at the Joffrey Academy. It’s not too often [we] have new works choreographed on students, as they typically learn existing repertoire — which is also extremely beneficial.”

Choreographer Pablo Sánchez, who is honored with the inaugural Zach Lazar Winning Works Fellowship, has now experienced the program from both vantage points, first as an Academy dancer in Winning Works in 2011, and now returning as a choreographer for its 10th Anniversary. “This is a full circle moment for me,” says Sánchez, who currently dances with Ballet Memphis. “Being in the midst of my performing career while working as a choreographer has allowed me to become a well-rounded professional artist.” 

For Sánchez, the creative process of choreography always starts with the music. “It is the motivation for the organization of the work. I begin to create a blueprint by imagining pictures inspired by the music … the drafting process happens with the inclusion of the dancers, where we create, revise, edit, define, and polish until we have our shining finished product.”

Texas native Stephanie Martinez has been in Sanchez’ shoes — she was a Winning Works recipient in 2015. A self-professed late bloomer, Martinez didn’t start dancing until she was 19, a rarity for women in the dance world. Returning to the Joffrey as an award-winning, established choreographer with the splashy, joyous “Bliss!” in “The Times Are Racing,” she shares that she conceptualizes first when creating a ballet. “I have [the start of] an idea, then I begin to open it up and extract elements so I can start to move toward a cohesive idea,” says Martinez. “I am interested in building an environment … as a creator, I am OBSESSED and simply humbled to fill an empty space and to create my own identity. [I’m] working my way toward creating something that feels alive, satisfying, and hopefully a work the audience can identify with.”

The Joffrey, committed to diversity in its company and giving choreographers of all backgrounds an opportunity to share their artistry, walks the walk with the Winning Works program. “Representing artists of color in the industry is a matter of visibility,” says Sánchez. “The fact that the Joffrey Ballet fosters this visibility is vital to the well-being of our culture and society. Presenting choreographers of color is important because they inspire the dancemakers of tomorrow to step forward and be secure in their endeavors. This type of opportunity is what makes choreographers like me be visible.”

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