BY GAVIN LARSEN
THOUGH NICOLO FONTE and OBT’s relationship dates to the 2008 premiere of Bolero, Fonte’s first work for the company, his appointment as the company’s resident choreographer in the fall of 2016 was much more than a ceremonial designation. One year into this next-level partnership, the choreographer and OBT’s dancers are forging into ever deeper creative territory. The many rewards— for the artists as well as their audiences— are visible on stage.
The term “resident choreographer” sounds straightforward, but to Fonte, the benefits and possibilities extend far beyond the stability of steady work. While OBT already has an impressive collection of Fonte’s ballets (10 of them altogether, including 5 world premieres), he sees the position as the priceless gift of time, space, and trust. “Being a resident choreographer is a really privileged position to be in and to have,” he says. “I have full-on time in the studio— where I want to be— without all the pressures and responsibilities of directing an organization. It’s like having an in-kind version of my own company, which is a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
The most obvious advantage of being (and having) a resident choreographer— repeated, consistent hours in the studio with the same group of dancers— is what’s needed to build familiarity and a sense of mutual trust, which ultimately allows everyone to, in a sense, relax together. But in Fonte’s rehearsals, there’s certainly no complacency— quite the opposite, in fact. He wants dancers to feel comfortable enough to be uninhibited, but he remains clearly in charge. “I try to cultivate a creative, non-threatening environment,” Fonte says. “But one with enough direction that people aren’t floundering all over the place.” That’s a difficult balancing act which only a few choreographers have the nature to pull off. Fonte’s success has to do with his uniquely disarming, honest, infectious personality, but also comes from his unwavering commitments: to continue to break new ground creatively, to push his dancers to fulfill their (perhaps undiscovered) potential, and to deliver the highest quality product for OBT that he can.
Fonte’s excitement at having consistent access to OBT’s dancers is driven by his history with the company— several dancers have “grown up” on his works since 2008, and now he sees their talent at its peak. “They’re starting to understand what being in a creation is, and what their contribution can be,” he says. “They understand their body better, their interest shifts to wanting to make a ‘moment’ out of a step, instead of just being dictated to by a choreographer. I’ve been able to really tap into people’s individual strengths and challenge them in a lot of different ways— and subsequently, they’ve pushed me. That’s of primary importance and interest, because the potential for creative growth is so high.”
Fonte sees dancers’ energy and active participation as crucial ingredients in the creation of Rhapsody in Blue, which he says was more collaborative than his earlier OBT commissions. Principal Brian Simcoe, who’s been featured in Fonte’s ballets since 2009, says having incentive to take risks— especially in an art form that often discourages input— is confidence-building. “He creates an atmosphere of every dancer feeling comfortable to suggest or try things— whether he makes fun of them or not!— but as we’ve gotten to know what he’s looking for, he can take us there so much more easily.”
After nearly 10 years of working together, Fonte reflects on what might have once seemed an unlikely synchronism between him and Simcoe. “It’s really interesting to have this history with Brian,” Fonte says. “And I can feel it in the studio— he can practically read my mind. What’s so important to me is the ability to shift dynamics; to throw yourself around and then nail a beautiful arabesque line, or flow into another shape. Brian’s just so suited to what I do, it’s just sort of perfect. And maybe I had something to do with that.” Simcoe certainly thinks so, and credits his evolution to Fonte: “More than anyone else, he’s been able to bring my personality out in my dancing,” he says. “He was always looking for that from me from the beginning, and I was reluctant. But because I’ve gotten to work with him so much over the years, he knows my strengths and weaknesses. At this point, working with Nicolo, I can be myself so much more than ever before.”
Embarking on Rhapsody in Blue, Fonte was very aware that relying on his familiarity with the company— and OBT’s with him— would be a dangerous trap. So, while holding firm to the piece’s narrative backbone, developed with collaborators Thomas Lauderdale and Hunter Noack, Fonte came into the studio with almost no set choreography in mind. Instead, he held a three-day “audition” for the entire company to workshop material and— critically— decide on casting. “I didn’t want to fall into patterns,” he explains. “This is a new ballet, a new process, and I wanted to change the energy. Also, there’s a very talented pool of younger dancers on their way up in the corps, and I wanted to see how they might be integrated into the group. This audition approach was a way of seeing who’d jump off the page for me, really dive into this new stuff in a way I wasn’t expecting. I wanted everyone to have the chance to do that.”
One of those daring young dancers was corps member Emily Parker. Despite her relative newness in the company (she joined in 2014), she senses Fonte is astutely aware of her capabilities— and wants her to be, too. “What I love is that a lot of times, he’ll ask what your instincts are for a given moment,” she explains. “I’m 100% prepared to get shut down, but he knows what we can do and how to bring out the best in us. It’s rare to work with someone who knows us so so well and isn’t our director.”
And that’s the underlying element that makes Fonte’s work with OBT so fruitful: a sense of shared investment and responsibility. The dancers aren’t merely looking to Fonte for direction, he’s counting on them to be proactive as he creates— he doesn’t want dancers who simply do what they’re told. It’s a two-way street, and once they’re on it, there seems to be no going back. Is there pressure? Of course, but it’s the very best kind. “I still get nervous when I start a new ballet,” says Fonte. “But that’s a very good thing. It brings your A-game. And that coincides with having creative dancers in the studio with me— I don’t want to be the smartest one in the room, I want to be pushed a little. If someone has a better idea, I’m not intimidated by that. I want it all out on the table— then I gather it and direct it. That’s my job.” And as for the dancers— who are used to pressure: “We feel the responsibility of bringing his vision to life,” says Simcoe. “But it’s freeing. He trusts that whatever we do will be our utmost, and we know he won’t lead us down the wrong path. And that’s the very best feeling.”