Lauri Stallings had every intention of following her older brother to Broadway straight from high school, but her parents had something else in mind. Dance was fine with them, but they wanted her to get a college education, too. She skipped her senior year in high school and enrolled at Point Park University, a small liberal arts school with a strong performing arts program in downtown Pittsburgh. “It was the only decision my parents every made for me,” she says. She graduated in 1989 with a bachelors in fine arts.
That was 20 years ago. Today, after a long career as a ballet dancer at Cleveland-San Jose Ballet, Balletmet, Ballet British Columbia, and Hubbard Street, Stallings became a choreographer. American Repertory Ballet (ARB) commissioned her for the ninth annual “Dancing On the Ceiling” program, created by ARB’s artistic director, Graham Lustig, to commission works by women choreographers that are grounded in classical ballet.
Stalling’s work, “exorcising Man,” appears on a program that also includes appear along with Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen,” and Graham Lustig’s “Dialogues” and “VISTA!” Thursday, March 2, at McCarter Theater, and Friday and Saturday, March 24 and 25, at Symphony Space in New York. Showing concurrently is an exhibit of the work of dance photographer Erin Baiano, which includes photographs of Stallings’ choreographic process, at the Douglass College Library (see box below).
According to an ARB press statement, “‘exorcising Man’ is a three movement piece depicting the dualities of the individual self in contemporary society. The concertos of CPE and Johann Sebastian Bach provide the core of the work as ‘exorcising Man’ draws parallels to the rare moments of harmony found in the life of every man.”
Stallings’ initiation into choreography was serendipitous. John Alleyne, artistic director of Ballet British Columbia, was doing a commission for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, and he caught the chicken pox and couldn’t travel back to Vancouver. Stallings was slotted as soloist for the as yet uncreated three-and-a-half-minute prologue, and two weeks before opening night, Alleyne told her to start creating the prologue on her own. She finished it — to high accolades from the Globe and Mail. Soon she started winning awards, and her career as a choreographer took off.
Stallings sees her choreography as a work in progress, and she’s not ready to settle finally on a language of movement. “I don’t want to find it yet or there’d be no reason to continue. I love not knowing, being afraid, walking into a studio and putting myself into the moment and the process.”
Although some artists start with a vision, Stallings always starts with a process and lets the vision develop. When creating a new dance, she starts with two opposing forces — structured movement and improvisation. To become acquainted, she immediately gives the dancers “a nice big paragraph of movement, not a sentence or a word.” Then, after an hour of watching them dance and picking it apart, she says, “Let’s improvise,” and has the dancers work alone, or in small groups, to random choices of music. “Between the two I learn a lot about people,” she says. “They have to use the left and right sides of their brains and hearts, use fear and knowledge, make choices for themselves and have choices made for them.”
Stallings tries to help her dancers find what she calls “presentness,” a feel for the pedestrian that pushes against their classical training. For example, if they are moving on stage, she might suggest that they run for the bus: “It’s a real bus and it’s really late,” she tells them.
As her process continues, Stallings starts seeing frames and pictures and a spatial element: “I give myself barriers and open up barriers. Then I throw all the ideas away; the next day I bring something back that I threw away; the next day I feel lost, then struggle through. Eventually the process takes over, as long as you leave your ego at home.”
Stallings has faith that artistic vision will grow out of her process. “My vision is to be present and to be open to the vision,” she says. For the dance she is developing for ARB, “exorcising Man,” the process took her back to a picture the she hadn’t been able to get out of her head — a Zimbabwean sculpture at the Atlanta airport. “It came back up during the process, and I thought, ‘Ah, that’s what we’re doing.’”
ARB’s Graham Lustig says her ten-and-a-half minute piece “is highly challenging, because of a vocabulary unique to her, the way she puts movement together.”
Stallings considers a company of dancers working together on a performance to be a “family” of sorts. Not surprising. Stallings, a fifth-generation Floridian from Gainesville, says: “Family is the root of who I am.” She grew up on a dirt road surrounded by pine trees and lots of space, and she says she lived outside with her three siblings until her parents called them in each day at dusk.
Her father, now retired, was a lab supervisor for the city of Gainesville; her mother worked in the printing business and is now a financial administrator. Stallings’ artistic streak may have come from her mother, who had to give up a full scholarship to study music because she got pregnant at the end of high school. Stallings very much admires her parents, who have always encouraged her to be creative. “They are the standards that myself and my siblings use to set ours,” she says. “They are the last two humble people in the world; always to this day they give more than they receive.”
This first full season as a dance maker has been a whirlwind of new works: at the Vail International Dance Festival, with a group of dancers from Chicago; with the Atlanta Ballet; River North Dance Chicago; then Point Park University, her alma mater; and most recently, with Hubbard. On the side she choreographed a scene in the upcoming movie about the Beatles, “Across the Universe.”
For Stallings, who says she lives “mostly out of a suitcase” and calls New York and Chicago home, working in so many venues is not a burden at all, but an adventure. (Her partner of ten years, Rick Carrlin, is the production manager of jazz at Lincoln Center.) “At every institution I learned that I needed another tool in my toolbox,” she says. Because both dance institutions and dancers are unique, each with their own sets of needs, she has to fashion the appropriate “tool” to respond to each new situation. “My responsibility when I walk into a studio,” she says, “is not just to create dance but to take care of the dancers as human beings.”
Stallings’ move from ballet dancing to choreography reflects her fundamental values. “I realized that what I liked doing more than focusing on myself was giving to other people.” As a choreographer, she says, “you are processing life through movement — who you are, how you see the world and life. You use dance as a means of deciphering that for rest of world to view.”
Dancing on the Ceiling, Thursday, March 2, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. American Repertory Ballet presents “exorcising Man,” by Lauri Stallings; Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen”; and Graham Lustig’s “Dialogues” and “VISTA!” 609-258-2787.