Dance Meets Poetry at the Louisville Ballet

By Jennifer Kiefer for Louisville Magazine

Photos by Chris Witzke

In the Louisville Ballet’s large studio space on East Main Street, dancers lift up on tiptoes, visible from the lobby through a series of small windows along the outer wall. Orchestral music pulses as a dancer pirouettes across the dark-colored mat, the moves reflected in the wall-to-wall mirrors. From Jan. 23-27, this space will be transformed into an intimate black-box theater for an annual showcase featuring choreography by Louisville Ballet dancers.

This year will be dancer Shelby Shenkman’s first time choreographing for the showcase. “In the past, any dancer was able to sign up and say, ‘I’m making a piece,’” says Shenkman, in her second year in the ballet’s main company. Since Robert Curran became the group’s artistic director in 2014, the showcase process has become more arduous, with a lengthy and detailed application process, so that the choreographers have a more critical thought process behind their work. “Not just go in blank,” Shenkman says.

Photo: Shelby Shenkman (on floor) and Kiki Petrosino.

Each year, choreographers are constrained by what Shenkman calls “catches,” which are meant to provoke creative thought. Choreographers can’t perform in their own pieces, for example. Last year, they had to work with a composer. The audience’s position in the room changes each year — one year with bleachers along the far wall, another year flanking the performers. This year, the audience will sit in an L-shape. Other catches for this year’s showcase include using only two or three dancers per piece and working with a spoken- or written-word artist. “Which is where Kiki comes in,” Shenkman says.

Poet Kiki Petrosino, head of the creative writing program at U of L, attended the showcase last year. “I loved it but did not believe that there would ever be a chance that I would ever get to participate in it,” she says. When Petrosino and Shenkman first met in person in August, it was clear to them they’d be a perfect collaborative pair. For both, this project is a way to explore their own personal histories and ancestry.

Shenkman, who grew up in Florida and studied dance at Butler University, is channeling her experiences from a program that allows young Jewish adults to travel to Israel. “To go to this place that is really sacred to all of my ancestors and family, being at a place like the Western Wall and wondering how many of my relatives have dreamt of coming here?” Shenkman says. “And here I am.” As part of her application for the trip, Shenkman wrote that she wanted to incorporate it into her dancing. “There are a multitude of ways that choreography can come to you,” she says. “I wanted to find the most organic way of translating my experience there.” When Shenkman visited the Dead Sea, she asked her friends to move around in its high salinity, looking to replicate their weightlessness in dance. She has also designed movement around the architectural shape of a roof from one of her pictures.

Photo: Rehearsal for the Choreographers’ Showcase.

“Just like Shelby,” Petrosino says, “I’ve been suddenly thinking a lot about things that have happened centuries ago and wondering or seeing how that history that I was not there to witness nevertheless placed me in the position where I am today.” A Baltimore native, Petrosino has been writing for the majority of her life. Like many writers, she has found her craft to be an often-solitary pursuit, typing in front of a laptop or filling a notebook. For this showcase, Petrosino has drawn from her research into her Virginian ancestors, who were part of the African-American enslaved and free communities. (Her digging into her past translated into her newest book, Witch Wife.)

The piece Petrosino contributed to the showcase exists in various forms: the original draft appears in an illustrated chapbook called Black Genealogy, and the newer iteration includes details from the journal Shenkman kept during her trip to Israel. “I want my poems to live different lives,” Petrosino says. “It’s been a year of talking about what artistic production is with other artists and getting away from that very solitary practice of just writing on my own.”

Petrosino and Shenkman’s collaboration includes all aspects of the piece, including physical movement cues and costume design. Everything came together for Shenkman when she heard Petrosino read her work aloud. “I understood it so much more clearly,” she says. “Immediately, I was like, ‘She has to read it live.’”

Photo: From left, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Shelby Shenkman, Kiki Petrosino and Annie Honebrink.

The first rehearsals for the piece began in early August and will pick back up a couple of weeks before the performances. It features two dancers, Sanjay Saverimuttu and Annie Honebrink. When discussing color palettes, Petrosino describes the piece as an “interplay of light and dark,” with Saverimuttu representing the tangible, contemporary role looking into the past and Honebrink playing the unseen, ethereal past.

Shenkman has created three brief movements, the first with live spoken word by Petrosino, the second more lighthearted and the last more solemn. “I wanted to have some somber notes, because I think both Kiki and I can agree that learning about your own history, you learn about some horrendous things,” she says. “The last piece of music is based on traditional Hebrew melodies, notoriously (in) minor key.

“I think it’s going to be a really different, diverse evening,” Shenkman adds. “This is going to showcase all the different ways you can combine these two art forms and be very relevant.”

“I’m not dancing,” Petrosino says. “Just so everyone knows.”

This originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine