When you strip away the tutus and tiaras, the grandiose steps and voluminous sets, classical ballets are great stories. From The Nutcracker to Swan Lake to Giselle, ballets tell larger-than-life tales of love and loss, of desire and pain and of other-worldly encounters. And while choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa revels in these fantastical myths, she strives to add new and accessible perspectives to the host of stories being told in ballet.
“I’m a big fanatic of trying to find new stories for classical ballets,” she said over Skype from Austin, Texas, where she is currently working with Ballet Austin on a new program. Ochoa, 45, is engaging, energetic and well-spoken. She has cropped brown hair and deeply brown eyes. Her smallest gestures betray a life in movement, an elegance of gesture particular to ballet dancers.
“In ballet it seems it’s always the same 12 stories and that are great stories. I make an effort to find new stories for our audiences. What disturbs me is that everything is so sweet and so perfect in ballet. It sells an unattainable beauty and perfection. I missed that it could be just about us, about normal people and our lives.”
Later this month, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal will bring Ochoa’s evening-length ballet Vendetta, Storie di Mafia to Israel.
“If you go to the essence of my Vendetta, it’s a man who is part of the mafia and has four children. He chooses his daughter to be the next godfather. In order for a woman to succeed, she needs her father to have big dreams for her and make it possible. Not just in Vendetta but in general. I set it in the ‘50s, where women are meant to get married and have children. He chooses her because she is the most suitable for the honor and responsibility of the job,” she explained.
Being a woman fighting for her place in a man’s world is a theme not just in this ballet, but in Ochoa’s life.
Part Colombian and part Belgian, Ochoa began dancing early. She was trained at the Royal Ballet Academy in Antwerp. After her studies, Ochoa performed with several leading European companies before joining Scapino Ballet, where she danced as a soloist for seven seasons. Her choreographic journey began at the height of her performative career, and brought Ochoa from the middle of the studio to the front of the room. Most of her contemporaries and peers in this situation, particularly in the ballet world, are men.
“I felt, in classical companies, that I was not one of the guys. At the premiere parties, they don’t hang out with me because I’m not one of the guys. But when I’m in the studio, I’m not focused on the fact that I’m a woman in front of a big group of people and have to use my voice to express myself,” she said.
“It takes time to get used to your vulnerability. When I come to the studio, I try to be as open and vulnerable as possible, I am sensitive to energies. You can get swayed by a dancer coming in in a mood, and not wanting to be there. You can take it personally. You have to get used to being able to block it out. As a woman, I had to learn that I cannot please everyone. Men have the ability to not be distracted by these sensitivities. When you work with classical companies, you work with big groups of people, big sets, big costumes. It can be very overwhelming.”
For the past 15 years, since she stopped performing and devoted her time exclusively to choreography, Lopez has become well-versed in the grandeur and demands of her job. She has choreographed works for more than 40 international companies, among them, the New York City Ballet. To each troupe, she brings both her experience as a dancer and her vision for a more realistic ballet future.
In meeting Les Grands Ballets, Ochoa found a company that is equally committed to shaping the future of ballet. In recent years, the company has put an emphasis on blending styles, on presenting the tried-and-true ballets alongside more contemporary works. The dancers are all very versatile, with both the technical and dramatic abilities required for the works they dance.
“They are a great company, a hybrid of sorts, including both contemporary and classical styles. The dancers are very mature artists who think with you and don’t wait for you to tell them what to do. It was great to develop the characters with them,” she said.
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal will perform Vendetta, Storie di Mafia at The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on Feb. 27, 28 and March 1. For more information, visit israel-opera.co.il, or call 03-692-7777.