Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Choreographer Claudia Schreier delves into ‘struggle and aspiration’ in Passage

By John Mark Rafacz

In Passage, her first ballet for Dance Theatre of Harlem, choreographer Claudia Schreier has created a work that evokes the resolve of the human spirit.

Virginia’s 1619–2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, in partnership with the Virginia Arts Festival, commissioned Passage as part of the 400th-anniversary reflection on several historical events, including the arrival of the first African slaves in what is now the United States.

The dance, which had its debut earlier this year in Norfolk, Virginia, will be featured on Dance Theatre of Harlem’s program November 12 at Eisenhower Auditorium.

Jessie Montgomery, violinist and composer, created the music for Passage. Montgomery has performed several times at the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State as a member of Catalyst Quartet. Catalyst joined with Imani Winds quintet in September to perform the world premiere of Montgomery’s Sergeant McCauley at Schwab Auditorium.

Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson tells a reporter for Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot that the commission gave her company the chance to work with two African-American women artists who are emerging figures in white- and male-dominated genres.

“I thought, well, wouldn’t this be a wonderful and suitable combination for the 1619 commemoration that these two women of color are creating such exciting works,” Johnson says. “This combination of giving voice to people who are not traditionally given voice in this field, and the idea of that fateful coming together of cultures that was 1619, seemed to be a really wonderful match.”

Schreier, a New York native and a Harvard University graduate, has choreographed more than thirty dances. She’s known for combining neoclassical technique with a contemporary vocabulary. Vail Dance Festival, Atlanta Ballet, American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, Juilliard Opera, New York Choreographic Institute, and other organizations have commissioned works by her.

She is the artistic director of Claudia Schreier & Company, which has presented several full-evening performances of her work featuring dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and other leading troupes.

In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Schreier talks about the creative process for Passage and her collaboration with Montgomery.

Question: When you were asked to choreograph a dance inspired by the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what is now the United States, what was your reaction?

Schreier: I was honored to be invited by Virginia Johnson, the Virginia Arts Festival, and American Evolution to take part in such a meaningful partnership with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Neither VAF/American Evolution nor Virginia Johnson stated that the ballet should be inspired by that specific event; rather, they encouraged me to explore the themes of the commemoration — democracy, diversity, and opportunity — and create a work that connected to these foundational ideals in whatever way resonated most. Jessie and I felt strongly that the work should not explicitly illustrate the events of 1619, but instead reflect, through abstraction, the individual and collective journeys put in motion by this historic moment.

Question: Passage, which features twelve dancers, isn’t a literal depiction of history. What themes do you explore in the dance, and how do you use movement to convey those ideas?

Schreier: Passage addresses themes of struggle and aspiration and reflects, in abstract, the fortitude of the human spirit and an enduring will to prevail. There are several images throughout the ballet that suggest descent or ascent, as well as the presence of water. The movement is borne out of this ebb and flow, much of which is drawn from Jessie’s sweeping score.

Question: Jessie Montgomery, who composed the music for Passage, is familiar to Penn State audiences through her appearances with Catalyst Quartet. Did you collaborate with her on the score, or did she complete the music before you started your work?

Schreier: Yes, Jessie and I worked together to develop the score for the ballet. At the outset, she sent me thematic material that she then developed and adapted based on our recurrent conversations about what we envisioned for the overall structure and tone of the work.

Question: How would you characterize the music? For use in performances of Passage, was the music recorded by an ensemble or by Montgomery as a violin soloist?

Schreier: Jessie’s score is lively and evocative. The music is composed for flute, clarinet, horn, and string quintet. For the world premiere of Passage at the Virginia Arts Festival at Chrysler Hall in May 2019, Catalyst Quartet (featuring Jessie Montgomery on violin) performed live with members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the legendary Tania León, and they then recorded it at the VAF studios following the performances. I was present for the recording session so that I could give notes on tempo and phrasing for sections that could impact the dancers’ performance.

Question: What relevance do the events of 1619 have on Americans, and others, who will experience this dance in 2019 and beyond?

Schreier: I am sharing this quote from American Evolution’s website, as I think it best answers your question. “The commemoration of formative events in our nation’s history is a core element of civics education. As a society, we need to fully understand the foundation of today’s America. Learning about the challenges, successes, and inequities of the past enables a full appreciation of the difficult path our nation has taken to become what it is today. This honest historical perspective empowers and motivates both current and future generations to take an active role in shaping the course of our nation’s future.”

Question: You and Montgomery are African American. Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director, is African American. How important is it that Passage was conceived and created by African-American women?

Schreier: This commission for Dance Theatre of Harlem and its resulting collaboration are, in many ways, a microcosm of the themes underscored by the commemoration. We — as artists, as citizens, as women of color — have the privilege of using this platform to acknowledge how our individual narratives have been shaped by the collective perseverance of many. Jessie and I had the opportunity to be trained in art forms based in the Western classical tradition by standing on the shoulders of pioneers who endured unspeakable cruelty in pursuit of these same passions. As the nation pauses to reflect on the implications of all that has happened in the 400 years since, we wish to honor the unwavering resolve of our forebearers and all those who continue to push forward.

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.