Claudia Schreier Explores Narrative Ballet in Her New Work for Miami City Ballet

April 28, 2022

A week into final rehearsals for The Source, her second world premiere for Miami City Ballet, Claudia Schreier fine-tuned its closing section, keen on demonstrating tricky moves for the dancers but also huddling with them, balm in her voice. Later, Julius Eastman’s luminous music surged in the studio as advancing cadres of dancers opened up for others, their points of contact touchstones of trust.

While brainy, Schreier’s choreography stays attentive to the dictates of the heart. It has gained the Harvard graduate awards and commissions, with Atlanta Ballet naming her choreographer in residence in 2020. But The Source, a narrative ballet for 16 dancers, takes her in a new direction. Created in collaboration with her husband, filmmaker Adam Barish, it features music by a diverse range of composers, including Riley Mulherkar, Frank Zappa, Alexina Louie and Julius Eastman.

The Source, which premieres April 29 at West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, shares the bill with Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, William Forsythe’s Herman Scherman Duet and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain Pas de Deux. For Schreier it’s a high point from which to survey her journey.

Wearing a black turtleneck and workout pants, Claudia Schreier squats down on the ballet studio floor, watching a large group of dancers in a rehearsal. The ancers' reflections are shown in the mirror behind her; they wear assorted dancewear and are standing at ease, discussing the movement.
Claudia Schreier. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB.

How did this commission come about?

MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez approached me about doing a new work in 2019. That got put on hold, and in 2020 we pivoted to create Places, a short film. After vaccines began rolling out, Lourdes had the vision to use this commission to—in her words—experiment. She invited Adam [Barish] to join the project for us to make a work that could thrive on both stage and screen. The stage and film version of The Source were developed in tandem and are inextricably linked, with Adam as director.

What has your rehearsal schedule been like?

I’ve been working on The Source for a year. We began our in-studio rehearsals last November. When I start creating a ballet, there are many components I have to sort out before movement vocabulary—to do everything I can to set the choreographic dominoes up well, though plans inevitably change. This ballet required more preparation because from the beginning the design had to uphold the integrity of the story Adam crafted.

Describe the scenario for The Source.

This is an adventure story about a group of strangers burdened by sorrow who seek to destroy the roots of pain. The ballet can be viewed as an allegory for the five stages of grief. But whereas some tales are about learning to change the things we can, this explores how we learn to cope with what we can’t.

I a large dance studio, Claudia Schreier stands in the front of the room and watches as two couples do a shoulder lift. The female dancers, wearing leotard, tights and pointe shoes, sit on their partner's left shoulder and reach their right arm up, leaning their upper bodies back. The men, who wear tank tops and either shorts or workout pants, hold on to the womens' back and thighs to keep them from falling.
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB.

How does Adam’s filmmaking come through in the stage version?

There’s filmic sensibility woven throughout the live production; digital footage exists in concert with performance onstage. But, more significantly, Adam’s structural choices help in executing transitions, shifting audience attention and heightening the visual impact of a scene.

Where are you now as an artist, woman of color and concerned member of society? 

Those roles are inseparable. In the same way I can’t parse these parts of my identity, the world of ballet can’t be isolated from society. The ills that plague our communities manifest in the ballet world, which has been slow to shift focus to what dancers can do, instead of what they look like.

Studying sociology taught me to look for where I can make a difference in practical, sustainable ways. My career is anomalous. And it can’t be overstated how important representation is. Of the five compositions we selected for The Source, four are by people of color. Femenine was nearly lost forever largely because Julius Eastman openly refused to apologize for who he was—a Black, gay composer. His is such a remarkable composition we couldn’t resist it.

What else drew you to the scores?

They complement and contrast each other to give the ballet propulsion. The music choices influenced the shape of the story as much as the other way around. Adam and I kept going back and forth to make sure each composition felt like the only piece for its place in the work. Summerland, by William Grant Still, is an exquisite piano solo. In another ballet, I might have choreographed to emulate its bittersweet nature. But for The Source it transforms into the foundation for a pivotal point.

Schreier rehearses Renan Cerdeiro and Rui Cruz. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy MCB.

How have MCB dancers affected your process?

They are remarkably versatile and receptive. We have not assembled a collection of easy counts, yet the speed with which they pick things up is impressive. They’ve allowed me to keep making adjustments to tell our story in the most effective way.

How has your relationship with Adam evolved?  

Adam and I met in New York in 2015 and started dating a year later. At the time I was working day and night to put together my first full-evening performance, and he was wrapping up his first feature film, which relied heavily on dance. Both of us see music, so it seems inevitable we’d end up as collaborators. Foremost we have immense respect for one another. Trust is our foundation, in love and art. I wouldn’t say we’ve mastered the balance of switching between work and home life, but he’s helped me see a deeper beauty in both.

How do you recharge?

This is something I’m still learning to do. I spent my 20s working a full-time job and choreographing whenever and wherever I could fit it in. That drive remains ingrained. I’m still figuring out how to strike a balance. I love what I do, but I know how important it is to rest and recover. Easier said than done, but I’m trying!