Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko on MOVEMEDIA: Handmade

Interview by Moya Tobey | photography by Elyse Wild 

This weekend, the Grand Rapids Ballet premiers MOVEMEDIA: Handmade, a deeply personal contemporary dance production billed as one of the renowned company’s most poignant productions of the year. We talked to Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko to gain insight into creating MOVEMEDIA: Handmade and how ballet can be a powerful, modern tool to explore our shared experiences and confront issues pervading our culture.

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: What does your role as artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet entail?

James Sofranko: It includes everything that goes on the stage and everything that needs to happen to make that show go on — hiring the dancers and choreographers, deciding which productions to do at what time of the year, meeting with set designers, costume designers and the stage manager. It also involves meeting with the marketing staff and the executive director, handling the budget and fundraising. It’s really a bit of everything, but mainly it’s my job to get the dancers looking their best and have the best product for the Grand Rapids Ballet on the stage.

WLM: Tell us about creating MOVEMEDIA: Handmade.
JS: I created the program, and I spoke to the choreographers. For the internal pieces, I had an application process. I saw who was interested and was glad to see a variety of ideas coming through the door. I wanted to express creativity; I wanted to offer an opportunity for dancers to experience what it’s like on the other side of the studio. When you’re a dancer you’re always told what to do, and you sometimes don’t understand fully what it means to be the choreographer, so this is a nice opportunity for them to switch roles. As a dancer, it gives you an appreciation for the craft of choreography. We also need to cultivate the next generation of choreographers because ballet is an ever-evolving art form.

I was a dancer for 18 years, and toward the end of my dancing career people were saying, “Can you choreograph this or that?” Suddenly I had to be a choreographer. I hadn’t had much training, so I want to offer a little more of that to these dancers.

WLM: What message is the Grand Rapids Ballet trying to convey with this production?

JS: That ballet can be a very modern artform; it can be about issues that we deal with in our life every day. It’s not always a traditional form that is about fairytales and tutus and tiaras. It’s that too, and we will do those ballets as well, but this ballet specifically is comprised of all new creations. I wanted the choreographers to do something personal to them. Many of them have chosen things about current events for the piece. Penny Saunders, the choreographer-in-residence, did a piece called, “Testimony.” She is using the recent hearing of supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and what it takes for someone to come forward to speak their beliefs and truths as her inspiration. Nicolas Blanc’s piece is called, “Aquatic Hypoxia,” which is a characteristic of oceans and the Great Lakes where there are dead zones — areas where there isn’t enough oxygen in the water. These areas are exacerbated by humans and climate change. He wanted to delve into an issue that was personal to him — an issue that should be personal to all of us.

There are a lot of personal ideas in the production. This is a ballet about our lives; it’s not about a fairytale in a book.

Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko

“When you break it down, ballet is just movement to music. We can all understand that; we can all sit back and enjoy or be provoked by what we see on the stage. That’s what art is all about — it puts you in the mind of an artist to think about how are they trying to say what they want to say.”

WLM: How will this year’s production be more personal than previous MOVEMEDIA ballets?

JS: In previous years there would be a theme, but I left it open for the choreographers to make something personal and poignant for them.

WLM: What was it like to work with seven choreographers on the production?

JS: It makes for a very eclectic show. How to put them together was one of my challenges. There are some logistical things like which floor they want to use. Casting needs to be considered, too: people can’t necessarily dance in a piece back-to-back because they have to change costumes. The challenge for the dancers is that if they are in more than one piece, they have to change from one dancing style to the next. From one hour in rehearsal to the next, they might have to go from point shoes to flat shoes. You have to use your technique in a different way and shift your brain immediately. Or, if you’re a dancer and choreographer, then you’re in someone’s piece then all of a sudden the next hour you’re rehearsing, and you’re the one in charge. It makes for a very exciting time here. There are a lot of ideas being thrown out. We aren’t trying to emulate something from the past — we are making it brand new.

WLM: What are you most looking forward to with this new addition to the MOVEMEDIA series?

JS: The moment the curtain opens is always the most exciting because it is a lot of work. We put in so much planning and time in the studio, sometimes you think, “Oh my gosh is this going to happen?” because, inevitably, there are bumps along the way. What if there are injuries? What if there is a problem with the set? What if the costumes aren’t ready? There is a lot of stress that leads up to it, but then it all reaches this climax, and I sit in the audience and get to enjoy the performance. It’s a little bit like a birth because you’re working on these pieces for so long, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is the audience going to like it? Is the audience going to be offended or turned off by it? Is the audience going to erupt out of their seats or is there going to be silence at the end? That’s the really exciting part for — to see what the response is going to be and how the dancers respond. In rehearsal, we are dancing for ourselves in front of the mirror or on the stage without an audience. All of a sudden, when there’s an audience, you get all of this energy in the room. Things change a little bit in performance. It’s fun to see that shift to, “OK, we are doing this for real now.” It’s fun to see which pieces rise above the others. I’ve seen it many times in my career where pieces you thought might be a dud in rehearsal end up being the most beautiful thing on stage. It could have been the energy of the dancers, the music, the audience or a combination of all those things. It’s the unknown that’s the fun part of what I get to do and witness first-hand.

WLM: What do you hope audience members take away from the experience of seeing MOVEMEDIA: Handmade?

JS: That ballet is an art form that can relate to us. A lot of people probably think that ballet is this elite form of art that they don’t know anything about so they shouldn’t go. When in reality, you don’t need to have any preconceived ideas about what ballet is or know how to do it or have even taken a ballet class. When you break it down, ballet is just movement to music. We can all understand that; we can all sit back and enjoy or be provoked by what we see on the stage. That’s what art is all about — it puts you in the mind of an artist to think about how are they trying to say what they want to say. What techniques do they use to get there? It’s an invigorating mental process for me as an audience member.

WLM: What is the most challenging part of the production?

JS: Getting enough rehearsal time for everybody. With seven choreographers who all want every hour of the day, we have to be fair and divvy it out. Some people have bigger casts and others have smaller casts. Trying to keep people in and out of the studios at the right time can be a challenge.

WLM: What is the most rewarding part of the production for you?

JS: I think seeing many of the dancers step up to become choreographers is really exciting, and I think it’s rewarding for them. It’s rewarding for me to see that I’m able to offer this experience to them. If they bloom into it, then maybe they are going to pursue a career in choreography one day, and they got their first opportunity here. I think the more opportunities we can give, the better the art form will be.

Purchase tickets for MOVEMEDIA:Handmade here.


When: Feb. 8 and 9 at 7:30, Feb. 10 at 2:00
Where: Peter Martin Wege Theatre
Cost: $52 opening night, $48 Saturday and Sunday

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