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Claudia Schreier is a rare creature in the ecosystem of ballet: a young, Harvard-educated, neoclassical ballet choreographer who is notable for her abstract, musical movement style that is layered with subtext. She has received prestigious commissions from the Vail Dance Festival and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the New York Choreographic Institute along with many awards, including a 2018 Princess Grace Award for Choreography.

Her work garnered her a 2017 Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Choreographers at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, leading to the commission of First Impulse for Atlanta Ballet’s season opener this weekend at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Schreier sat down with ArtsATL on a busy Sunday at Krog Street Market to talk about her new ballet and the creative choices that underpin it.

ArtsATL: Tell me about the music for First Impulse.

Claudia Schreier: The music is a 24-minute concerto grosso in three movements from Estonian composer Eino Tamberg. I have fallen in love with his work and have gone deep into his catalog. So much about his approach to life and the creative process I have found deeply inspiring and energizing. To begin, I knew Atlanta Ballet to be a company with youthful energy, and I was looking for something really rhythmic and driving with a lot of color and character to it, something to both challenge them and be structurally interesting. And I am always attracted to scores that have complex time signatures. The sense of uneven meter has a propulsive energy to me. This score, in particular, as complex as it is, also made sense in the overall abstract narrative of the piece. It gave me a lot to play with in the studio.

Schreier choreographed her first piece in high school.

ArtsATL: You are known for your take on neoclassicism. Is this the first time you are using a sort of story line in a ballet?

Schreier: There isn’t a narrative, but there are relationships that develop throughout. I wanted the structure of the work to come from my experience of getting to know the dancers. Rather than set out with the purpose to make distinct principal roles, I created for the ensemble, and then I picked out featured moments as they made sense. From the outset, I aimed to create a sense of individuality, so every costume is different. There are eight men and eight women, but only two men and two women are specifically paired off, a “slow couple” and a “fast couple.” From there, an older/younger sibling dynamic emerged, which we play upon.

ArtsATL: You mentioned this is the first time one of your ballets will have a set. Is that an exciting addition?

Schreier: Yes. Very exciting. The costumes are by Sylvie Rood, who has a background in both ballet and fashion, so her sense of line is beautiful. Nicole Pearce designed both the lighting and set, which is inspired by Sylvie’s costumes. It is minimal and abstract, made of curved lines that draw the eye upward and create a world for the dancers to inhabit.

ArtsATL: How do you describe your movement style, and how do you convey it to the dancers?

Schreier: The steps are neoclassical, but the movement quality has a grounded fluidity the dancers are trying to achieve that is subtle but relates to how they approach every step. I am interested in the way the hip leads the shoulder and use images like wringing out a towel or treating your body like a coil. I want them to apply it to everything they do, how they use their plié. Some of the dancers already move this way naturally, and it is just a matter of bringing more of it out of them. 

I break the music down as I hear it, and give the dancers charts of counts, so that they can learn it in a way so as to internalize musicality and get away from the counts as soon as possible. I hear the cyclical energy of it, and there are circles figuring in all of it: the lighting, costumes, set design and this music.

ArtsATL: Your path, this overlap, seems unusual for a ballet choreographer. 

Schreier: My first real choreographic experience was in high school in Bedford, New York. My violin teacher, who was also in the New York City Ballet orchestra, encouraged me to choreograph something for a performance with the high school orchestra. When I would go to see the New York City Ballet, she would take us backstage, and the experience humanized this otherworldly place for me. When I got to college, Harvard had the Harvard Ballet Company but didn’t have a dance major at the time. I had no reason to think it was possible to be a professional choreographer, even though I was in an environment where I was fully supported to the extreme. I started making ballets my freshman year, and by my senior year, I began to have opportunities off of campus. I just choreographed because I wanted to do it, purely out of passion.

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