Adriana Pierce and a Budding Career of a Female Ballet Choreographer: Part I
On a spring night at Wynwood Walls two years ago, the air turned compliantly invigorating as a crowd of Miami City Ballet devotees, animated as if by South Florida prescription, strode about toasting to a successful performance season. What made this gathering special beyond our local predilection for partying, however, was a dance presentation by Miami City Ballet corps member Adriana Pierce. Originally choreographed as a collaboration with poet Barbara Anderson for the O, Miami Poetry Festival, Pierce’s Poetic Fusion used the beats and tenor of verse to mold emotionally charged segments for company ballerinas Nicole Stalker and twin sisters Leigh-Ann and Sara Esty.
For many in the surrounding audience, this served as an introduction to Pierce’s choreography — the best kind of thank-you message the company could have sent to its donors. Clearly, Pierce was already in flight as that still pretty rare bird: a woman ballet choreographer. The early demonstration of talent revealed a young artist whose knack for dance-making rides on thoughtfulness and diligence. And the months following “Dance at the Walls” have proven that Pierce knows how to stay on course, lofty and compass-right.
The 26-year old New-Jersey native, for instance, has become a welcome participant in Miami Chamber Music Society’s Mainly Mozart Festival, adding the dimension of dance to concerts three years in a row. For those multimedia projects, she most recently depicted tempestuous passions in highlights from the Divine Comedy linked to Dante’s text and a two-piano rendering of Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony. She’s also partnered with New World Symphony Fellows to create Acantilado, a piece for MCB dancers with music by Alberto Ginastera. And at the recent Dance USA Conference in Miami, her Café Music, to a rhythmically demanding Paul Schoenfield composition, delivered both lyrical and sprightly pleasures.
Pierce’s skills have been sharply honed at the prestigious New York Choreographic Institute, which led to a commission by the high-profile Ashley Bouder Project.Named after its director, a New York City Ballet principal, this collective aims to encourage new choreography — with a special regard for creations by women. The artistic association bore fruit at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater this August when Bouder and fellow NYCB dancer Preston Chamblee powered through Pierce’s just minted Unsaid to a score by Edvard Grieg, snatching a notice in the New York Times.
As Pierce plunges into rehearsals for MCB’s 30th anniversary season — she’s especially psyched about performing Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit and Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, company firsts — the moment seems fitting for her to reflect on her passion for making dances. Her comments help us understand what shapes and sustains an emerging artist, pointing her toward success in the future.
When did you first decide you wanted to choreograph?
I was 14 years old when I choreographed my first piece — a solo I performed myself — to get out of writing an essay. I stubbornly claimed I could say with movement what I could with words.But I soon realized I had no idea how to go about it. A dance/acting mentor of mine at the time, Diana Baer, sat me down and taught me how to interpret a piece of music in terms of emotional intent and phrasing, and encouraged me to create movement that was organic, musical, and effective. I suddenly understood dance in this new, communicative way, discovering my unique quality of movement and how it translated into phrases of steps.
I continued choreographing not necessarily because I knew it was something I wanted to pursue, but because I had numerous opportunities. My parents run an extensive music program, so I began working on all sorts of musical theater projects with performers of all ages, and also had the chance to do a lot of contemporary and interpretive dance performances.
Somewhere in the midst all of those projects during high school, and while I was studying at School of American Ballet, it just became clear that I enjoyed the work, I was good at it, and I didn’t want to stop.
What were the next steps you took to fulfill your aspiration?
When the opportunity arose to create a ballet for the Annual Student Choreographic Workshop at SAB, it seemed like the logical and exciting next step. … It was the first time I was working with dancers in pointe shoes, and it gave me the time and platform to explore this in ways that I still hark back to during current projects.
Going into those experiences, though, I was already equipped with a lot of knowledge. Directing and choreographing musical theater taught me how to manage large groups, collaborate with different production elements, and work on a timeline. I also learned, through trial and error, the ways in which I prefer to work, how prepared I need or don’t need to be before going into a rehearsal, and I found the confidence to admit when I make a mistake.
In addition — and this has proven to be paramount — I worked hard to understand how to create an effective and positive work environment and to appeal to the needs of my dancers. Everyone is so different — it’s my job to figure out how to get the work done while keeping the whole room confident and inspired and to know how I can learn from each of the dancers I work with: a skill set I’m constantly drawing from and adding to.
When did you get confirmation you were on the right track?
The first time I really thought I could do this professionally was after the second piece I created for the Student Choreography Workshop. It was a sultry pas de deux for two of my classmates. In fact, it was so sultry that they — and some of the other students — felt a little uncomfortable. It was half jazz and half classical ballet, and also half dance and half theater, and I insisted to my dancers that it was what it needed to be.
I can see now how different it was from the other ballets on the program, but I just had this emotional epiphany: I was 18 years old, and I knew I didn’t want to play it safe. I had the lights dimmed for the performance, I coached my dancers into dancing this intimate relationship, and when the male dancer collapsed to the floor at the end of the piece the audience let out an impassioned, “Ahhhh.”
That pas de deux became the central pas de deux of my ballet, Café Music, and has been performed on four separate occasions since 2008.
How did you develop your relationship with Mainly Mozart?
That began in 2013 when [Miami Chamber Music Society co-founders] Mike Eidson and Marina Radiushina had just taken over direction of the festival. They were looking for a young choreographer for the final performance, and Mike asked Miami City Ballet’s then-new director, Lourdes Lopez, if she knew of anyone who’d be up for it. A few months into her first season as our director, I had called a meeting with Lourdes to talk about my dancing but also tell her about my aspirations as a choreographer. I gave her a sample of my work and some writing I had done for an application at the time. Though I didn’t know what would come of our conversation, it was important to share this with her. When she got the call from Mike about the festival, she gave him my name.
I met with him in the boardroom at the Arsht Center to discuss the project. He took a big risk hiring me, and I admire him for that. I had worked a lot up until that point, but nothing high-profile.
He said, “You are sure you can do this?” And I kept responding, “I can. This is what I do.”
They had been looking to have a 10-minute ballet for 2 to 4 dancers. I chose a piece of music that is 17 minutes long, choreographed on 6 dancers, and it was a huge success. That was Café Music in its entire original form. Marina and I also have a nice working relationship. When I was asked to participate in the festival for the following two years I said yes without hesitation.
And your participation at the Walls — how did that come about?
That came about a month after I had completed a collaborative project for the O, Miami Poetry Festival. The company was looking for a performance aspect to add to their Wynwood event, and Lourdes reached out to me. She hadn’t been able to make it to the original performance at LAB Miami, but it worked out really well. Tony Goldman had recently passed away, and the performance felt like an homage to him and his gifts to the Miami community.