Hamptons Dance Project: ABT’s Jose Sebastian Grows a Ballet Festival

August 14, 2023

In the summer of 2018, American Ballet Theatre corps member Jose Sebastian was walking in upper Manhattan with his mother, Pat, after his final performance in the company’s Metropolitan Opera House season. When he found himself reminiscing on summers he spent in the Hamptons as a child, Jose recalls, he suddenly turned to his mother and said, “Someday, I want to bring the [ABT] dancers to the Hamptons.”     

“Don’t say ‘someday,’ ” she replied. “Just do it. You’ve got a year! I’ll help.”

Flash forward to 2023, and the mother-and-son duo are now gearing up to present their fifth season of Hamptons Dance Project, with Jose as artistic director and Pat as producer. The annual summer dance festival features artists from ABT and this year takes place on a picturesque 20-acre farm in East Hampton, New York. The 2023 HDP runs August 18–20 and includes world premieres by Gregory Dolbashian, Gemma Bond, and Adriana Pierce; a work by Melanie Hamrick; excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit; a guest performance by tap group Music From The Sole; and a new version of Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop, reworked and titled Glow by Glow for HDP. The cast includes ABT principals Aran Bell, Catherine Hurlin, and Joo Won Ahn; soloist Chloe Misseldine; and corps members Erica Lall, Tyler Maloney, Carlos Gonzalez, Lauren Bonfiglio, Sierra Armstrong, and Kento Sumitani.

Jose Sebastian and Catherine Hurlin, shown in profile, perform in front of a blue sky at Hamptons Dance Project, an outdoor dance festival. Sebastian, in a black unitard, lifts Hurlin, who rests on his back and arches upward, as if flying. Her legs point behind her, her right knee bent in a gentle attitude; he supports her by holding her shoulders.
Jose Sebastian and Catherine Hurlin in Jorma Elo’s Slice to Sharp. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Hamptons Dance Project.

Jose, who is also dancing in the program, relishes the opportunity to exercise his artistic eye while building the repertoire each year. “I try to diversify the program as best I can,” he says. “I also try to provide opportunities for my friends to work with choreographers that we don’t normally get to work with at ABT.”

Pointe spoke with the Sebastians to learn more about HDP’s growth over the past five years.

Jose, you and your fellow ABT dancers have just finished the company’s summer season. How do you navigate schedules in preparing for HDP each year?

Jose Sebastian: It can get quite crazy. But a lot of the dancers are repeats and work their schedule around the festival, which is really heartwarming. Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin are flying in from Japan for this, then they’ll head straight to Australia afterward.

It would be much more cost-effective if we rehearsed in the city and took everyone out to the Hamptons for one day, did the performance, and came home. But we rehearse for two weeks in the city and then a full week in the Hamptons. We have dinners together, and there’s lots of laughter. That process is part of the vision.

Sierra Armstrong, shown knees-up from below, performs in a bright, shiny teal leotard and black tights, with long cobalt blue gloves up past her elbows. She dances outdoors at Hamptons Dance Festival in front of a blue sky and lifts her right arm up, nestling her face gently.
Sierra Armstrong in Houston Thomas’ Bass am Wasser. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Hamptons Dance Project.

You’ve mentioned HDP’s picturesque setting. What is the venue like?

JS: For our first year, we had the festival at Guild Hall, which had a full stage, lighting, and dressing rooms—it was easy. But when the pandemic hit, we had to get creative. About 20 years ago, a friend of ours was inspired by Jacob’s Pillow and built a platform on his farm overlooking Gardiners Bay. I first saw the platform in 2019, and I knew from the minute I saw it and the beautiful backdrop that I needed to use it for HDP. We’ve used that space since then, and we love it. I want people to really take in the scenery there; the stage is on top of a bluff, and all around you is water.

Pat Sebastian: It’s very non-Hamptons and is in a more local area—you have to park your car and walk a bit. It’s taken years off our lives with the stress about having good weather, but it really does add magic. When everything’s set up, it’s like there’s a golden filter over the entire week.

Jose, how have you gone about building the programs each year?

JS: People have such different tastes, and I try to accommodate as many as I can. Part of that is through the music—classical, opera, contemporary, and even country and rock. We’ve incorporated live music each year.

I’ve been fortunate in that I was in the same class as Justin Peck, so reaching out to him wasn’t as scary as I think it is for some people. All the choreographers we’ve worked with have been incredibly generous and giving in letting us do any ballet of theirs.

Jose Sebastian and Lauren Bonfiglio mirror each other as they perform outside at Hamptons Dance Project, in front of a lake and blue sky. They lunge in tendu devant, shown in profile, with their torsos twisting as they bend forward to hold hands by their feet and extend their back arms on the upward diagonal.
Jose Sebastian and Lauren Bonfiglio in Justin Peck’s Chutes and Ladders. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Hamptons Dance Project.

You’ve also commissioned several premieres for HDP. What are this year’s like?

JS: HDP Season 5 marks Gregory Dolbashian’s fourth year with us; I’ve been in love with his work for a long time. I’ve asked Greg to create a solo on me to music by Luke Howard, and it will be played live by David Evans, a conductor for the Broadway show Wicked.

Gemma Bond has created a new work for two couples. In my effort to keep the program’s music diverse, I’ve asked her to use opera music since she has experience creating to it, so she’s using the final trio from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It’s so beautiful, and with the setting of our venue it will look and sound sublime. Gemma also introduced me to singer and songwriter Toby Lightman. Adriana Pierce, who worked with us last season, will be creating a new duet to Toby’s “After All.” Toby will be singing live with us this year—it’s going to be unforgettable.

Jorma Elo has also reconstructed Glow-Stop for us. What was once a piece with six couples is now a piece for three. On top of that, he’s choreographed a new section. His piece will be closing out the program this summer.

What feedback about HDP have you gotten so far?

PS: It sounds like the Hamptons has everything, but dance has been somewhat neglected. The main motivation for creating this project was to get more dance out there, and it’s been very well received. When I go to the [Metropolitan Opera House] to see Jose dance, people come up to talk about how much they love the festival.

JS: Olga Kostritzky, who was my first ballet teacher, works with us as a coach. We’ve had a few dancers say how special it is to have somebody like Olga around, because not normally do you go into a project or summer gig and leave a better dancer because you have somebody like her coaching you. She’s relentless, and we love her to death.