Dancers need walls, preferably lined with tall mirrors and sturdy barres. Dancers need a temperature-controlled space to warm up their muscles, choreograph, rehearse, and teach.
And then there are the other walls – the incomprehensible level of discipline required, the barriers keeping dancers with non-traditional body types off the stage, the rules about how to dance once you’ve made it there, and the high rampart surrounding a company. First it keeps you out. Then it keeps you in.
“I think maybe people are looking for a different way,” says Rubinald “Rubi” Pronk, co-founder of the contemporary dance team Jacoby & Pronk. “It’s not very common, especially in the classical ballet world, that people are going to go on their own. Everybody just sticks to a company usually, and you stay there until you’re 38, and that’s it.”
Pronk didn’t fit the physical mold of a ballet dancer – neither when he started, nor when he quit. As a teenager, the dancers he looked up to said he could be a character dancer at best.
“I was really small, and I had legs up to here.” He gestures to his neck and laughs. “I had really weird proportions, but actually that made me stronger. It made me fight more, because they told me I wasn’t going to make it.”
With exceptional height (both he and his partner Drew Jacoby are around 6 feet), Pronk never developed into the prototype. Despite this challenge, he succeeded at the Dutch National Ballet and New York’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where he met Jacoby.
“The first time I was doing a duet with her I forgot all my steps because there was such a chemistry,” says Pronk. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ Overwhelmed.”
Part of the reason the duo works, he says, is that they both buck the norm. Jacoby is more muscular and powerful than the average ballerina, and Pronk’s flexibility and sex appeal (named “Holland’s sexiest ballet dancer ever” by Elsevier Magazine) goes beyond that of the average danseur.
The role reversal works, he says. After being paired up in Complexions in 2006, they began freelancing in 2007. From one gig – a gala in Houston – they rose to a Dance Magazine cover in 2009 and their first full evening show in 2010 (at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival). Today they boast a continuing stream of prominent, international gigs.
A new kind of partnership
The duo has grown into a small, project-based touring company of six freelance dancers. They came to Louisiana at the invitation of the New Orleans Ballet Association and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. For years, the two organizations have teamed up to bring artists here to perform and teach. But Jenny Hamilton, NOBA’s Executive Director, says in this case NOBA and NOCCA gained some flexibility of their own.
“Artists are working in a lot of different ways these days,” Hamilton says, and they created a new model for working with Jacoby & Pronk. After a residency in New Orleans, they will appear Friday and Saturday at NOCCA, in performance that includes choreographer Leo Mujic from Croatia and dancers Chalnessa Eames from Seattle and Montreal-based Prince Credell.
“They’re all over the place, so we talked to them and talked to NOCCA about the opportunity to expand this so that it was beyond performances and a couple of master classes,” said Hamilton. The three-week residency gives Mujic the space to create a new piece, titled Ghost, to premiere at the NOCCA performance.
Eames will also perform a new solo work, titled La Langue De L’Amour, by choreographer Olivier Wevers. It’s Eames’ first time to work with Jacoby & Pronk, but like Pronk, she enjoys pushing her own limits. She gracefully steps into the role of teacher.
Raising the barre
In a warmly lit NOCCA studio, Eames leads around 20 high school girls in black leotards and pink tights through a series of strenuous classical exercises.
“Plie! Releve! Sous sous, and fifth position.” She moves throughout the group with cheerful authority, switching back and forth from group instruction to individual attention, skipping to reset the music between exercises. Leather-soled ballet slippers squeak loudly on the floor as the girls attempt double or triple pirouettes. “Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Someone’s pulling you up from the top of the head!”
It’s easy to forget that Eames is a performer, not a teacher. Her affinity for kids makes the work easy, she says.
“The space is amazing,” Eames says. “The students are very hard-working. I gave them a pretty tough class and they were willing to take it all, and repeat it over and over.”
An hour later, she hops across the hall to a studio overlooking the river to learn a quartet that she and Credell will perform with Pronk and Jacoby.
Eames and Credell refine their movements in accordance with instruction from Mujic and Pronk. Their pas de deux alternates between tension and vulnerability. In one moment the dancers walk mechanically, hips first, in opposite directions. In another moment, they rest tenderly in the crook of each other’s neck.
The dance, titled One, was created by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa as a duet, but reworked as a quartet for the Jacob’s Pillow Festival.
In rehearsal, Pronk moves around Eames and Credell, viewing their movements from all sides, creating a circle of focused study within the large room. Even with the sparse aesthetic of the rehearsal and the starts and stops, the dance is gorgeous.
After the NOCCA performance, Jacoby & Pronk will hit the road again. First to the Holland Dance Festival, then Belgrade, and on and on. Pronk feels at ease with the uncertainty in their future and the limitless possibilities of their multimedia style.
“I try to push it further and further,” he says. “I try to create a space.”
Click here for more information or to buy tickets to this weekend’s Jacoby and Pronk performances.
More Photos by Jason Kruppa:
Molly Davis writes about New Orleans for NolaVie. Catch her tweets about Southern art and politics at twitter.com/journsouth.