A World Premiere by a Pennsylvania Ballet Dancer: Interview with Russell Ducker

Less than a month after the curtain closed for the grandiose opening of 2018-2019 season, Romeo and Juliet, the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet will return with another exciting playbill. Petite Mort and World Premieres, running at the Merriam Theatre November 8-11, 2018, features a new work by company dancer Russell Ducker. The aspiring choreography spoke to Phindie days before his world premiere hits the stage.

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Pennsylvania Ballet dancers rehearse Russell Ducker’s world premiere ballet. Photo by Arian Molina Soca.

Phindie: The first program of the season just ended..

Russell Ducker: Yes, it was a really busy time. The season started and we had two weeks of rehearsing dedicated to my piece and Andrea Miller’s. That’s when I drew skelton of my ballet and created the beginning and the end. In this last week, I went back to it and tried to refresh it up. We left it while we rehearsed Romeo and Juliet and did not touch it about a month or so.

Phindie: How did it work out for you to not touch your piece for a period of month?

Russell Ducker: It was good to have some separation, but at the same time it was quite frustrating because I had these ideas and not be able to get it to the dancers. It was good and bad. I am taking it as a positive.

Phindie: Can you tell me about your piece?

Russell Ducker: The ballet is called “This Divide.” It’s about division and conflict. I divided the dancers into two groups and the stage into two levels with a staircase. The stairs have wheels and move around and the dancers dance on the stairs. There is also cross over into the pitt as well. I tried to use the space in the interesting way.

Phindie: And each group of dancers represent something?

Russell Ducker: Yes, they represent opposite of each other. It could be interpreted in many ways.

Phindie: In the current state, the word ‘divide’ almost instantly brings our mind to…

Russell Ducker: Politics, absolutely. I made it clear by the costumes that they are the two separate entities. And it is up to the audiences to reach their answers to the questions such as why they separate or why they are different. In the ballet, they come together at the end and there is some resolutions. It has been quite a challenge. There is a lot to overcome and accomplish but I feel that we are getting this.

Photo by Arian Molina.

Photo by Arian Molina Soca.

Phindie: Well, it is a theme that is not so easy to come up with an answer. It is sometimes not easy to even discuss about it.

Russell Ducker: Yes, there is so much conflict and division right now. But why don’t we at least create some beautiful piece of art out of it? The piece is very energetic.

Phindie: How did you come to the music that is used for your ballet?

Russell Ducker: The music is composed by Glenn Branca. He came up to my rader when I was reading his obituary on New York Times in May this year. He was born in Harrisburg, PA and came from Rock and Roll background. He was the most famous for Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) where he used 100 guitars for the orchestra music. He conducted the piece at the World Trade Center (June 2001.) In this piece that I am using for my ballet, the music spreads in two sections. One is a section with very heavy drum, and the other is sort of like a noise that sounds like a phantom layer. It’s almost hard to describe but a sound of silence. And those two very conflicting passages lock into each other. And I thought that the piece represents my idea perfectly.

Phindie: Did you come up with the idea first or the music gave you the concept?

Russell Ducker: I think I wanted to do something that involved conflict and the music sort of fed that idea.

Phindie: Has the ballet been completed?

Russell Ducker: Everyday it’s evolving. Ultimately, it will come to the point where I have to step back and not touch it anymore. I am not sure I’m quite there yet. There is something to go onto the stage, but I have to keep pushing and horning it and go into the details. I also need to let it sit with the dancers and let the dancers to interpret it. If I dictate them and tell them what to do too much, it will not be organic. I am trying to find the balance.

Phindie: How are the dancers coming along with the ballet?

Russell Ducker: They have been amazing in the process. They have been very collaborative and really invested in it to make something good. I feel that it has not just my work but more of the collaborative project. What you see at the stage will be something that are coming out of everyone. Being a dancer of the company gives me an advantage since I know how each dancer dances and what he/she is the best at, so I feel that can exploit their advantages and and let them feel evolve.

Phindie: How do you manage your crazy schedule of juggling being a dancer and a choreographer at the same time?

Russell Ducker: It is especially hard right now because I am dancing another piece of the playbill, and also choreographing. I spend three hours daily rehearsing the Andrea Miller’s piece and another three hours working on my piece. I am having to take off my dancer head and switch to the choreographers one. I have been trying to separate myself and focus on the both sides but it has been a bit of challenge. For me, it is important to disconnect. I swim, which I really enjoy. It’s something that I got better at. I swim a lot and watch Netflix.

Phindie: Have you ever thought of choreographing something with stories?

Russell Ducker: I haven’t choreographed anything with stories, yet, but I think all of my ballet pieces have some kind of stories with beginning, middle and end, and always have some journey for the audiences to go with. I would like to have the challenge. However, I do like the shorter 22 minute pieces in which I can put some messages. I loved Romeo and Juliet, though. it’s the masterpiece and some stories need the good length. Maybe some point in the future, I would love to try.

Phindie: Philadelphia audiences know you as a dancer. And It would be the first time for many of the audiences to see you as a choreographer.

Russell Ducker: Yes, it’s been daunting thought, really. I just hope they enjoy it, i think the dancers are so great that people will enjoy the show no matter what. I just hope that it will be a opportunity for them to see a different side of me and that it will encourage them to come back for more.

Phindie: We hope so too! Thanks Russell.

“This Divide” will be on stage at the Merriam Theater from November 8-11 as part of Petite Mort and World Premieres. For more details and tickets, visit paballet.org.

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About the author

Eri Yoneda

Eri Yoneda writes about dance and classical music for Phindie.