Q&A with Brian Brooks of Miami City Ballet
PBI chats with Miami City Ballet choreographer on creativitiy, inspiration and upcoming work.
PBI: What’s your dance background and how did you come to be a choreographer?
Brooks: I discovered a passion for choreography before I started training in dance. When I was 14, I got the notion that I should choreograph and spent several years creating dance before I started training when I was 17. It was a discovery in my teen years, and I felt I found my personal voice at that moment in my life and have held on tight ever since.
I eventually made my way to New York City and performed with many modern and contemporary dance companies and continued my training from a modern and post-modern background, all to support my choreographic interests. In the last 5 years, things have shifted and I’ve been working on multiple commissions with different companies.
How would you describe your style of choreography to those unfamiliar with your work?
Speed—it always feels fast. I believe in force and exposing effort. Rather than masking effort, the inner workings of the partnerships, and the contacts that happen within a piece, I like to bring that all to the forefront so there’s a certain sportsmanship that is always evident. This momentum is frequently in the work, as well as this idea that everything is just tipped ever so slightly or very dramatically off-balance.
I’ll reuse some steps from piece to piece, but I do love a sense of discovery. I like the idea of invention. A lot of the work that goes into the studio is about finding what’s the color of this work? What’s the shape of this piece? I hesitate to say what my work will look like, but whatever the shape of a work, I’m always compelled by the mere physics of it. You’ll rarely see a piece of mine that feels very upright. It’s always really pushing this sense of falling and redirection.
What’s your process for developing new work?
I think the first step for me of making a new dance is literally a first step. It’s moving in an open, empty, silent studio. Inevitably, the body grabs my attention and it will reveal something that could potentially become a full dance. Then I’ll begin to research, develop, and work with collaborators, dancers, and composers to build upon the initial idea. As I’m creating the dance and moving in the studio, I’m searching for movement that speaks beyond the movement itself. I’m not working with a narrative, character, or theatrically-driven storyline in my work, so the movement is not going to be literally. But I’m searching for a movement that is no doubt a metaphor for the human condition.
What role does music play in your process? At what point does it typically come into play?
As soon as I have the music, then the train tracks are laid. Whenever it arrives, I am on that train. It could come, unfortunately, at any time. It could come before I start working in the studio, so it’s a background influence. It could come the day before [a piece] premieres. Sometimes the things that happen the day before it opens are inspired and wonderful and necessary. It varies a lot, but I am greatly influenced by and married to the music. Whenever it arrives, it becomes almost the director of the dance.
Michael Gordon was commissioned to write the score for your new work for Miami City Ballet. What was that process like?
His music has been in every corner of dance and art for so many decades. When this project came up, I went to my dream list first and thought, “Okay, if I’m going to create a new work for Miami City Ballet, what would be the best-case scenario?” I was like, “Wow, Michael Gordon actually writing something original.” I reached out. He knew my work and didn’t hesitate to say yes. That’s where this started. … This piece is really influenced heavily by the music. It will be played live by a symphony orchestra. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous score.
Did you give him any guidance, themes, ideas? Or did you let him just go at it?
We did both. There’s a certain amount of freedom and unknown that I believe we have to have as artists when we’re creating. There was definitely a big, wide open door for him, and I said, “Just write.” And that’s just in case inspiration hits, in case something floods in when you don’t expect it. I like to be open to letting that in.
In the beginning, a lot of the conversations were directed by some specifics. We talked about structure. I wanted something that had a lot of momentum behind it. Something that transformed as it progressed. He’s written a piece that’s 25 minutes and never stops. You can tell there are different movements within it, but he’s transitioned from one sound, tempo, and crescendo to the next. It moves like the waves. It propels you from moment to moment, and steers around corners and then comes out in new places in a really beautiful and surprising way. I love the care he’s taken from note to note, second to second. All of my work ultimately is about tension and comes from tension, and the score has great rhythmic structures and really intense polyrhythms and counter rhythms. It gives us a great structure to do what we do in it.
Describe the piece for Miami City Ballet.
It’s called One Line Drawn. It has 16 dancers. I suppose there are elements of my work that are heightened with this particular company in ways that other companies wouldn’t. There are eight women and eight men. The women are on pointe, and my work has not sacrificed its speed or off-kilter propulsion. There’s something I find really exciting and a little bit wild to see these very classically trained, exceptionally talented dancers doing work that [allows them to] move in a new way. If you’re familiar with the company, to see them do this work is a thrill. They really are going for it. You get to kind of meet each of them at a moment in the piece, so although it’s heavy ensemble work with a lot of partnering and a lot of work with all 16 of them, you get a chance to see a window into them individually, as well. The work highlights them as soloists and also shows the incredible work they can do as an ensemble.
It sounds like you were really inspired by this group of dancers.
Oh yeah. They were incredibly generous with me. We talk about taking risks, and I feel like the dancers helped me widen my safety net so I can jump a little farther. And for them, as well. They were very excited to go into new areas of their artistry. The first few days, there was a lot of talk about how different this was for them and how many new things they were being asked to do. I reminded them that it maybe wasn’t that foreign; maybe a little unpracticed but not so foreign. We basically uncovered a new and broader side of their artistry. It was empowering. If you come see this piece, you’ll see these dancers [be] a little reckless. But they’re not reckless; they’re so precise and meticulous. There’s a precision to the chaos. There’s an order to the madness. We’ve tried to just take full advantage of their capabilities in the work.
Did the fact that this piece is premiering in South Florida, featuring a South Florida–based ballet company influence your approach or the final product?
I was really struck by the diversity in South Florida and also at Miami City Ballet. People come from a lot of different countries and backgrounds in Florida, but also in Miami City Ballet, which is somewhat unique for a classical company. This location and region is very well represented in the piece, which speaks a bit about community. The hierarchies are broken down in different ways in my work that I think will be exciting in the context of this classical concert, and this particular company heightens some of that with everyone partnering everyone else and being simultaneously an individual standing alone but also being a team player and blending right into the ensemble. There were some unique aspects of South Florida and of Miami City Ballet’s casting that I really appreciated and think will bleed into the work in ways that I can’t even imagine but I think will really resonate.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.