What do you get when you put a ballerina with two hip-hop dancers?
A 'big question mark' (they're still figuring it out)
BECKET — On a recent Sunday, dancers Sara Mearns, Sebastien Ramirez and Honji Wang were all showing signs of exhaustion as they sat around a white folding table in Doris Duke Theatre. Mearns slouched in her chair, Ramirez hunched over a laptop and Wang, the most energetic of the three, occasionally rested her chin on her hand. A week of grueling mental and physical exertion during their residency at Jacob's Pillow had certainly taken its toll, but something else was also weighing on them: the burden of not knowing what they were going to perform in two weeks at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival's season-opening gala.
"Big question mark," Mearns said.
"For now, we don't even want to think about it," Ramirez added.
On Saturday, June 17, the three dancers are scheduled to present a work-in-progress at the annual fundraiser, which will celebrate the organization's 85th season this year. The trio's sneak peek is a rare occurrence at the gala, which is traditionally reserved for finished works. Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival director Pamela Tatge, who replaced Ella Baff in 2016, said the performance signals the organization's commitment to developing new projects in the future, largely through a robust residency program. While the artists hadn't told her what they would be performing as of Wednesday, she wasn't concerned that she hadn't received an update.
"I would absolutely not expect it at this point," Tatge said.
Beyond the standard research-and-development period that can confound even the most accomplished artists, these dancers' diverse backgrounds offer an additional challenge. Mearns is currently a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, one of the world's most prestigious dance companies — and one very much tied to its classical roots. Wang and Ramirez are a hip-hop-inspired duo who formed their own company, Wang Ramirez, in 2007. Since then, they have choreographed and danced in six productions, the most recent of which, "Everyness," was released in 2016.
But the dancers' histories also help explain their collaboration. In 2015, Mearns worked with contemporary dance choreographer Jodi Melnick during a residency at Jacob's Pillow, ultimately performing in Melnick's "Working in Process/ New Bodies" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in November of 2016.
"I'm willing to experiment. I'm willing to do different things and not just stay in the ballet bubble," said Mearns, who enrolled in the New York City Ballet's School of American Ballet in 2001 and was eventually promoted to the role of principal dancer in 2008, according to the organization's website.
Wang and Ramirez have collaborated with numerous artists throughout their careers, pushing the boundaries of hip-hop dance. For example, in 2015, Wang performed a duet with flamenco dancer Roc o Molina in "Felahikum," and Ramirez choreographed — and Wang danced in — Madonna's Rebel Heart Tour during the same year. The couple— the two have been romantically involved for more than a decade —have structured their lives around teamwork. Before entering a professional relationship with another artist, Wang and Ramirez research his or her previous productions, but they are primarily drawn to the artist's ability to enrich the duo's training methods and creative process.
"We have our backbone, our vocabulary, our tools that we [have used] to work for many years, so when we work with another artist [who] has such a history and background and technicity, it's very enriching for us to use [in] our vocabulary," said Ramirez, who was born in France, where the duo is based now.
In working with Mearns, Wang and Ramirez saw an opportunity to incorporate her intense academic training into their self-taught routines.
"It's so different [than] what we are doing, and it has such enormous grace — it's very athletic at the same time," said Wang, who hails from Germany.
Mearns was exposed to Wang Ramirez's work for the first time after a mutual friend took her to the Breakin' Convention at the Apollo Theater. "That was so not my world, and I was like, 'What am I doing here? This is so weird,'" Mearns said. But their performance shifted her perception of what hip-hop dance can be. "It's a contemporary version of hip-hop. It wasn't just like fast movements. It was — there was artistic expression behind it, so that immediately brought me in," Mearns said.
Mearns saw Wang Ramirez again at New York City Center's Fall for Dance Festival and chatted with the pair. They agreed to work together in the future. "I know I'll never be able to do what they can do in the same way — they feel the same way — but we're not trying to mimic each other or imitate each other. We're just trying to bring the best of both worlds together and see how it can work," Mearns said.
Tatge, who called Mearns one of the best current ballet dancers, reached out to Mearns about returning for a residency at Jacob's Pillow. She then asked Mearns about potential collaboration partners. Mearns mentioned Wang and Ramirez, who had performed "Monchichi" at Jacob's Pillow in 2015.
"It feels somehow like a school trip," Wang said of Jacob's Pillow, noting that artists-in-residence eat, sleep and perform on campus.
"It's like a secret that only some people know about," said Mearns, who first made the trip to Jacob's Pillow for the 2015 season-opening gala.
The trio will be back at Jacob's Pillow the week before the the gala after a one-week absence; Mearns returned to New York City before dancing at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, and Wang and Ramirez flew to Paris.
Though their angst about creating something to present in such a short period of time was apparent, the trio's appreciation for sharing their different dance vocabularies was also obvious.
"[There's] nothing more beautiful in this life, I think, than to know the unknown," Wang said.
By Saturday, June 17, the trio hopes they will.