Daniil Simkin -- Big Plans for the New Year

International ballet star Daniil Simkin is a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre and a coveted guest artist. He is also a man with interesting ideas about the future of ballet, which he is working to make more accessible to more people. Via social media (@daniil on Twitter), he shares authentic video footage of the extensive process that leads up to a show—as well as some hilarious short movies—to engage new, digitally based audiences. And, excitingly, his collaborative project, Intensio, is set to make its multimedia world premiere this summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Festival, followed by a tour culminating at the Joyce Theater. Intensio will feature Simkin, joined by fellow dancers from ABT and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, in new works by innovative choreographers Alexander Ekman, Gregory Dolbashian, Jorma Elo, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Simkin recently spoke with The World Dances about his goals for Intensio, what he looks for in dancers with whom to collaborate, and his vision for the future of ballet.  Follow Intensio’s activities by checking out #Intensio on any social media. (“Not only I’m tweeting, but all the other dancers involved are talking about this over all the social media platforms and using this hashtag.”--Daniil)

On your website, you describe Intensio’s mission: “INTENSIO is a new word created to reflect our approach to performance.  A performance should be an INTENSE experience for the viewer resulting from a firm INTENTION for the program, which in INTENSIO is to combine the new ways of technology with the substance of world-class dance.” Could you please explain the intention driving the project and its work?

At the same time the name is actually Latin for stretching and expanding as well. We would like to explore the directions in which ballet or neoclassical dance can go, and make it sort of—approachable.  We pose a question with every piece: is this the direction ballet could go? And obviously people will like different answers. There’s no clear answer, no such thing as the best choreographer or the best piece. But that’s the beauty of art. Everybody is entitled to an opinion and everybody will hopefully find, in some way, something they like and can connect to. And in that sense they can decide for themselves in which directions ballet should go and what they appreciate in the evening. It’s going to be quite different!

Can you share any examples of how it will be different?

Alexander Ekman’s solo for me will involve video projections, spoken word, and a narrative. In contrast, completely, Gregory Dolbashian’s piece will not have a narrative—and it’s in socks. Ekman’s will be classical, pretty much, Dolbashian’s will be completely contemporary and breaking the way ballet dancers move. It’s not really ballet; it’s more contemporary dance. Then we have Jorma Elo, who basically twists the classical language into different territory and that piece will have live music. That’s the first half of the evening. Then we have the second half of the evening, which is going to be a piece for all the dancers involved including real time video projections. The projection happens in real time. There’s no prerecorded footage and the projections will react to the dancers on stage, so every time we dance the piece will be different. 

How do you answer the question you’re posing about the future of ballet? What draws you to the pieces you’ll be performing?

First of all, the answer is that it’s exciting to do something new. In a way, we did something very risky, because four new creations is a lot. All of them together might not be a masterpiece. But I think we will find jewels here and there and moments in which the questions we ask are being answered for at least some of the audience members. For me, there are no clear answers yet because we’re still in the process of creating. For we dancers, it’s very exciting to learn a different language. For example, I was in the Gregory Dolbashian rehearsal and it’s so exciting because it’s like doing your job, but doing something completely different. It’s enriching.

How do you train for the new challenges?

Gregory Dolbashian had a 2-day workshop where everybody was sore and in pain because it’s a different way of moving and we use completely different muscles. It’s a shock to the system, but not just to us. We’re mainly classically trained dancers, so to put us in a different framework of choreography might actually change the framework as well. I’m sure Gregory’s piece will not be the same piece he would have done on his own company. It changes him as a choreographer and it changes his piece. I think it’s very interesting what can develop in that situation.

What motivated you to undertake this project?

What drove me to do this project is that I grew up in Europe. Every year we’d have a festival presenting cutting edge dance from all over the continent. I grew up with this very particular European aesthetic, where the spectacle is more—not just visceral—more emotional. It’s sort of more about the bigger picture than just the steps. Steps are important as well, but it’s more about the feeling the piece leaves behind. It’s more about the evening than the combination of steps. In that sense, having come to New York, I feel like a lot of choreography in the United States emphasizes the steps and not the spectacle. In my opinion, spectacle is important. In our day and time we have to compete with so many other forms of entertainment that, in order to stay relevant, we have to entertain. We can’t do the same things and be boring.

Much of your work features technological components like video and innovative lighting. What attracts you to these multimedia elements?

Yeah, we live in very exciting times. So many possibilities are there for us to take, but especially in ballet, not many opportunities are being taken to integrate them and to be open to new ideas. It’s like a closed box where the elements are being rearranged in different ways and nobody thinks—not even outside the box—but at least open the box ever so slightly and look out a little bit. I’m not saying we should be completely out of it, but I feel like the same elements are being rearranged and rearranged and rearranged.  At the same time, these days we have so many other elements that are not being taken into consideration. My goal, from my point of view, is to show that, yes, we can have a fashion designer do the clothes, and we can have video projections, and interesting lighting, and it can be done in a different way. As I said, I want to make some kind of spectacle.

What do you hope the impact will be when it all comes together?

That we create something more than just dance. It should be an experience, it shouldn’t be just dance in unitards. That has its place, don’t get me wrong, but there is also more than that. I just feel like, not entitled, but that I can allow myself to say, “Listen. Take a look. This is also possible it doesn’t have to be only like it has been.”

It seems like the collaborative approach can be a great way to reach new audiences, people who didn’t know they’d like ballet, who maybe come for the costume design or media integration, and then get hooked.

Definitely! Also I have a whole social media plan set up and everything. There will be clips and information. In our information age it’s important to document and share it because, if you don’t share the process, nobody’s interested. You have to generate interest in the younger generation. We’re online. I would consider myself younger generation and I want to involve younger people as well and make it entertaining and interesting.

Why are you so committed to engaging new, and especially younger, audiences?

In my opinion, not only these days, our dance world can be very susceptible to clichés—that it’s very elitist and high brow. But it’s not high brow. It’s very basic and very human in the sense that the language of dance is very visceral. Before there was speech there was body language. Our art is very refined body language, and with that body language you’re able to move somebody in a certain way that you couldn’t do with an aria, or a song, or a poem. All of those are totally valid forms of expression, but ours is, I think, the most basic there is and I think it has great potential to move people. But at the same time it has this image of being dusty, old fashioned, and being sort of boring or hard to approach, which it isn’t. I want to change that conception.

Do you think the larger companies should be more involved in this movement, or do you think it’s the role of independent projects?

Smaller projects are easier to handle. I have the power and access and we’re not working under union contract.  The more people involved the more complicated it gets. I feel my mission is to lead by example and show that yes, you have to document it. You have to have video clips out there of the whole process and share it. You can’t hide behind the product. The product is only the final stage of the process and the process is as important as the product. I enjoy rehearsals very much and I film almost all of them. It’s interesting. Some companies, I don’t blame them because it’s hard for these big institutions to ignite change, but change will come. It comes slowly but it’s happening.

What do you look for in dancers with whom you would like to work?

They have to have a certain spark, move well, and be a nice person. We’re doing this project in our free time, so it has to be an enjoyable process. We can’t be working with divas or people with big egos. It’s never perfect and it can’t be completely without conflict or little disagreements. But I really do pick people by personality as well as skill because it should be fun in the end.