Ask the Choreographer: Scarlet

Traditionally here on the blog, we spend a lot of time talking to the dancers about their experiences with the repertoire throughout the season. This post, however, is the first in an "ask the choreographer" series, diving into the inspiration and process behind the creation of Ballet 5:8's works. We hope you'll enjoy this interview with Ballet 5:8 Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer Julianna Slager on the making of Scarlet. Included are many of the questions we've heard from Ballet 5:8 fans about the new ballet.

Artistic Director Julianna Slager rehearsing Scarlet

Artistic Director Julianna Slager rehearsing Scarlet

Q. Will this production follow the story of The Scarlet Letter exactly or will there be an adaptation to better connect with the audience?

A. Great question! I have adapted this novel, especially the second half (Act 2). I wanted to see what would happen to Hester if, instead of going back to the thing she loves, but knows is out of context (Dimmesdale), we gave her the opportunity to move on and to find healing. This gives the second half a more hopeful feeling, but we still have a difficult ending for Dimmesdale, as in the original story. I am highlighting the themes differently than Hawthorne, and offering some alternative perspectives on the motivations behind the characters. I think of classic literature as a dialogue that spans the centuries...so in a way this is my "cup of coffee" with Hawthorne, as I respond to his thoughts and ideas. Hawthorne was very harsh on the Puritan society as a whole. We are true to that in the story, but also allow a bit of sympathy for why their culture shaped into such a legalistic community. Hopefully this will give the audience time to reflect on the way our society confronts sin, legalism and spiritual vulnerability.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge in working with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

A. The biggest challenge has honestly been creating simplicity out of this complex work. I've heard it said that "making the simple complex is commonplace, but making the complex simple...that's art." This is the challenge I face each day in the studio, and also with creating/utilizing the film. It's an exciting challenge though...it is rewarding to see when moments start to emerge that are clear and bring out a clear theme from the complex story we are dealing with. The film elements are an integral part of the storytelling, so that has been a bit of a challenge, not giving away too much in the dancing scenes, and also transitioning from film to dance smoothly.

Q. How did you decide on the music? 

A. Charles Ives was a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne, so part of the reason I chose his music was to portray Hawthorne's thoughts. Ives was an admirer of Hawthorne's work. There are pieces from Ives' Symphonies 1,2,3, and 4 included in the score for Scarlet. I listened to basically everything Ives had ever written and then chose music to fit the narrative I adapted from Hawthorne's novel.

Film Director Preston Miller and Ballet 5:8 Artistic Director Julianna Slager discuss progress during the filming of Scarlet

Film Director Preston Miller and Ballet 5:8 Artistic Director Julianna Slager discuss progress during the filming of Scarlet

Q. What inspired you to incorporate film into the production?

A. The style of the writing in The Scarlet Letter relies heavily on the narrator revealing the internal dialogue of the characters. The film elements we have created for the ballet "play the role" of the narrator. The give the audience a window into the histories and thought lives of the characters, while the onstage dancing represents the present day. It been incredible to be able to use the medium of film to help tell this story. The film allows us to communicate some of the complexities of the story in a way that is clear and easy to understand, capturing details that would not have been so easy to relay with only the broader storytelling medium of dance to work with. 

Q. When did you get the inspiration for Scarlet? How has the idea evolved since then? 

A. The inspiration came from the characters in Hawthorne's novel. I love how complex Hester and Dimmesdale are. They are real people, broken, messy and searching for redemption.  They want to do what is right, but they are also drawn to sin. They aren't super heroes or fairytale characters. They are flesh and blood humans just like you and me. Their story is difficult, and messed up, but that's what makes redemption shine so brightly. Only in confronting the darkness of our own sin can we see the incredible gift of redemption. We need stories that remind us that brokenness doesn't define us - it can be transformed by admitting that we're messed up and asking for forgiveness. I wanted a story that would embolden my audience to be vulnerable with their darkest secrets and bring them into the light. Healing comes from by confronting the dark parts in our hearts so that they can be forgiven by God, ourselves and those that we have hurt.

Q. What has been the most challenging part of choreographing for Scarlet? What has been most enjoyable?

A. The process has been an absolute joy. Walking into the studio each day to reunite with the characters and world we have created is an amazing feeling. I feel like I've hit my stride as a choreographer, and am enjoying the fruits of the two years of preparation that led to this premiere. The hardest part is always self-doubt. I make 1,000 decisions in every rehearsal, and sometimes it's hard not to second guess my instincts! I love the crafting of the sections including the corps de ballet, which in this context means I'm working with 15-25 people. That is so fun, so much geometry! I love creating big sweeping pictures that engulf the stage. I also absolutely love coaching the soloist and principal dancers and drawing the character out of each of them in our one-on-one rehearsals. Working with Brette, Lauren, Antonio and the whole team has been fantastic. They have been so helpful, providing creativity when needed, and trusting me when I take the work in an innovative direction. All in all, I'm going to miss being in the midst of the choreographic process, but am excited to share the final piece.