Claudia Schreier caps Atlanta Ballet residency with ‘Carnivale’

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

Choreographer-in-Residence will serve additional three-year term.

Claudia Schreier is often asked what advice she’d give to Black choreographers, like herself, who seek to work at the ballet world’s highest levels, a space traditionally dominated by white men.

Schreier said the equation for success has two main parts. The artists must have talent, vision and a prodigious work ethic. Equally important is help from people and institutions that can support them.

Credit: Kim Kenney

Credit: Kim Kenney

This duality has mutually benefited Schreier and Atlanta Ballet during her past term as Choreographer-in-Residence. The three-year partnership, stretched to four years due to the pandemic, has come to an end that’s also a beginning.

Atlanta Ballet is currently re-negotiating Schreier’s contract for an additional three years, on schedule to celebrate with “Carnivale,” Schreier’s fifth stage production with the company. It’s one of two world premieres featured in “Significant Others,” a triple bill that will close the season May 12-14 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Atlanta Ballet has a history of engaging up-and-coming choreographers with what’s generally a three-year commitment involving at least one new ballet each year. A Choreographer-in-Residence is generally free to accept commissions elsewhere during the term.

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

In Schreier’s case, this has created a dynamic of coming and going, where ideas from Schreier’s projects outside of Atlanta Ballet have folded into new works within the company, which have then spun off new creative ideas.

A recent look into a “Carnivale” rehearsal at Atlanta Ballet’s studios showed how Schreier’s choreography epitomizes this dynamic.

To sounds of melodious strings and chirping flute, dancers Mikaela Santos and Sergio Masero encircled one another, exchanging supports through shifting pushes and pulls. As if in conversation, they opened outward and folded inward in changing configurations until Santos appeared whirling above Masero’s head, her bent legs scissoring like halves of a diamond’s edge orbiting one another in space.

Schreier’s ascent in the ballet world took an unconventional path. She choreographed from an early age alongside classical training at the Ballet School of Stamford, Connecticut. While most top-level ballet choreographers emerge from dancer ranks in larger companies, Schreier chose college instead.

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

Credit: Photographer: Kim Kenney

She continued making dances as a student at Harvard University, and later, while she worked in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s marketing department. Over time, Schreier developed a distinctive voice that fuses neoclassical technique with a contemporary vocabulary.

Gennadi Nedvigin, artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, saw Schreier’s potential some years ago, but felt she was still young. Her 2018 “Night Vision,” performed by the Joffrey Studio Company, showed marked progress, prompting Nedvigin to offer Schreier a commission, which would be called “First Impulse.”

“First Impulse” came on the heels of “Passage,” a 2019 work for Dance Theatre of Harlem on the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans in North America. At the time, Schreier, whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is Jewish, was coming to terms with her identity as a Black person. It was weighty subject matter.

“First Impulse” allowed Schreier to “let loose and do the flip side,” she said, “which is responding to music, embracing the strengths of an ensemble, and letting my mind fly.”

Composer Eino Tamberg’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 5, inspired Schreier to explore “how emotion and feeling can be drawn out of pure abstraction.”

Nedvigin was intrigued by Schreier’s musicality — particularly her ability to make visible the layered intricacies of music structure. “That depth really lured me in,” Nedvigin said. “I wanted to see how she would progress, what she would create.”

Atlanta Ballet announced Schreier’s appointment as Choreographer-in-Residence just before the pandemic hit. Soon after, travel restrictions and social distancing protocols made conventional dance making methods impossible. Schreier choreographed over Zoom, setting the same choreography several times a day on separate pods of dancers.

“It was exhausting, but also enthralling,” said Schreier, because it forced her to work at a granular level, dissecting movement as she taught it. And this degree of specificity has since informed much of her work.

Outside of Atlanta Ballet, Schreier garnered commissions from increasingly prominent companies such as Boston Ballet and Miami City Ballet. These tended to be larger-scale works, so Schreier chose to explore a quieter side of her creativity in Atlanta. The result was “Fauna,” a pensive quartet capturing the “soft, perfume-y French quality” of Claude Debussy’s impressionistic style.

Schreier’s elaborate “Kin,” created this season for 16 San Francisco Ballet dancers, brought Schreier into close collaboration with composer Tanner Porter. Their creative process sharpened Schreier’s connection to music, perhaps influencing the way Schreier interpreted Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto in Modo Galante,” her inspiration for “Carnivale.”

“It’s fanciful, it’s fantastic. It’s full of life and imagination,” said Schreier of Rodrigo’s music. “There are a lot of modernist, dissonant harmonies that he weaves in and out, and just when you feel like you’re going too far, it pulls you back into a familiar musical key again. It feels like he’s writing the entire piece with a little bit of a smirk.”

Distinct poses and gestures evoke the Lovers, the Jester and other characters from commedia dell’arte, a theatrical form dating to Italian Renaissance street fairs.

Abigail Dupree-Polston’s brightly jewel-toned costume and set designs span the color palette. Diamond shapes recalling Harlequin costumes “warp” into spots and spirals inspired by patterns on moth wings. In contrast to Schreier’s most recent out-of-town piece, a spare duet in flesh-toned unitards, Schreier said, “I just wanted to make my own circus tent.”

As for what’s next, Schreier and Nedvigin are making plans for bigger projects, including an evening-length work. Meanwhile, Schreier will come and go, connecting Atlanta Ballet with the dance world at large, while bringing back new ideas and methods.

Wherever she goes in the next three years, Schreier will have a home base in Atlanta, where she can continue to grow relationships with dancers and build on the familiarity they share.

Schreier praised company dancers’ skill and ability to quickly learn and perform her choreography with an “electric quality” that elevates the work immediately. “It’s a real tool to be able to keep moving forward,” said Schreier, “knowing that they have your back.”

“There’s an inquisitiveness to what they do, and that makes me want to push harder,” Schreier said of Atlanta Ballet dancers. “And then you end up with a ballet that is so much grander than anything that I would have walked in imagining.”


Atlanta Ballet: “Significant Others”

8 p.m. May 12; 2 and 8 p.m. May 13; 2 p.m. May 14. $25-$142. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 800-982-2787,