What Happens When a Ballerina Choreographs for a Music Festival

May 22, 2019

It’s been an eventful few months for Sage Humphries, to say the least. Last November, the Boston Ballet company member made her (very well-received) choreographic debut with a piece called YOU, part of the company’s BB@home: ChoreograpHER program. Just one week later, Humphries sustained an injury that kept her offstage for a couple of months. But she didn’t have much downtime: Artistic director Mikko Nissinen soon asked Humphries to make a piece for Boston Ballet’s first-ever appearance at Boston Calling Music Festival. Now that Humphries is back in the studio, Dance Spirit caught up with her to talk about making ballet rock, working with her composer brother, and what it’s like to see her name next to William Forsythe’s.

Dance Spirit
: How did this piece come together?

Sage Humphries: Mikko, my boss, approached me in January when I was still injured. He asked if I’d be interested in choreographing something for May. We ended up having a meeting when I came back from my injury, and I want to say the rehearsal process started in early April. The piece is 8 minutes and 40 seconds, and I’m on the edge of finishing it. Of course there are some edits and tweaks I want to make. It’s been a little challenging because I haven’t had a lot of rehearsal time, so a lot of the choreography has just been done by myself in the studio.

: Your brother, Michael Humphries, composed the music, right?

SH: Working with my brother for a second time has been super cool. (He also composed the music for the piece I choreographed back in November.) Michael composes and produces music as FutureSelf. Mikko actually approached me insisting that Michael compose, because our artistic visions really match. Right when we knew this project was happening, Michael and I started brainstorming ideas. He’ll send me sections of the music, and then I’ll choreograph to them. We have a really, really good working relationship.

Sage and Michael Humphries bowing after last fall’s BB@home: ChoreograpHER program (Brooke Trisolini, courtesy Boston Ballet)

: Who are your dancers?

SH: I have four dancers in the piece. They’re amazing principals (Kathleen Breen Combes and John Lam) and soloists (Maria Baranova and Roddy Doble). I was amazed to get to work with such experienced dancers. It was so easy for me to take the most dramatic version of my vision and put it on them, because I know they’re able to execute it. The piece is called White, which suggests a blank slate. It’s up for interpretation. It’s based on the history of classic rock. Each dancer represents an inspirational, extraordinary rock artist. Picture a 16-year-old boy—kind of like my brother when he was younger—listening to his favorite record, and suddenly it comes to life before him. It’s nostalgic and modern at the same time.

Rehearsing “YOU” (Brooke Trisolini, courtesy Boston Ballet)

: How much were you thinking about the fact that this would be performed at a festival, as opposed to a more traditional ballet setting?

SH: I definitely made the piece specifically for this audience. I really enjoy going to music festivals myself, and am always amazed by how music brings all these diverse types of people together. It’s such a hyped-up audience, you have to do something that’ll click and stick with them. This piece bridges the gap between music they already know and love, and modern music that’s more at the forefront of the industry. The women are in pointe shoes, but I wanted the choreography to feel more human and relatable than a super-classical piece.

: What makes this piece different from YOU?

SH: That was my first piece ever, and I’d had a lot of time to think, design, and meditate on how I wanted it to come across. I was so in my head about every little detail. Since we didn’t have a lot of time with White, I had to do a lot of prep work beforehand, and go into the rehearsals prepared to teach. The cool part is, because they’re such experienced dancers, they already know how to personalize the style and add their own flair. I’m collaborating with the dancers and letting them explore way more than I did the first time around.

Rehearsing “YOU” (Brooke Trisolini, courtesy Boston Ballet)

: Did your injury affect the choreographic process at all?

SH: I had a stress reaction in my L2 in November, the week after the ChoreograpHER premiere. I was out for all of Nutcracker. When I was approached about this piece, it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t have to be in rehearsals until March at the earliest, so my injury didn’t play a huge role in allowing me to demonstrate in rehearsal. It did, however, allow me the time at home in California to think about what I wanted. I spent a lot of time with my brother, and we had dialogue all the time about this piece.

: What does this opportunity mean to you?

SH: It’s exciting that I get to be a choreographer amongst the legends. My piece comes after a pas de deux by former BB principal Yury Yanowsky, and before William Forsythe’s piece to Khalid’s “Location.” That was intimidating for me at first because I was like, “One of these things is not like the other…” But it has also challenged me. Mikko believes in me, so I have to believe in myself. My brother believes in me, I believe in him, I believe in my dancers. I love music festivals, and I can’t really explain how excited I am! My whole family is coming out to see it. Uniting the music industry and the ballet industry like this has been a longtime dream of mine.

Sage Humphries’
White can be seen on Saturday May 25 and Sunday May 26 as part of Boston Ballet’s performances at Boston Calling Music Festival.