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Work by Thai American dancemaker is a milestone for New York City Ballet


The idea of ​​rebirth takes wing in ‘Fortuitous Ash’, a dance created by 28-year-old choreographer Keerati Jinakunwiphat for the New York City Ballet. The title of the work refers to the mythological phoenix, consumed by fire and reborn from its ashes.

Also animate the piece: an appreciative stretch of form. “I like a ballet stride, but I like stretching and stretching it out in different ways,” says Jinakunwiphat. “That’s exciting for me.”

That approach has paid off. On February 1, New York City Ballet premiered ‘Fortuitous Ash’, the first work Jinakunwiphat has choreographed for the company. The piece appears on a 21st-century choreography program alongside ballets by renowned dance makers Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky and will be performed several more times in New York through February 11, as part of the company’s 2023 winter season.

Set to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, “Fortuitous Ash” represents the first time choreography and music by female artists of Asian descent enter the NYCB repertoire. (The company’s winter season also includes Peck’s world premiere “Copland Dance Episodes”.)

On a rare day in January when she didn’t have to worry about juggling “Fortuitous Ash” with the demands of her day job – as a dancer with Kyle Abraham’s esteemed contemporary group AIM – Jinakunwiphat spoke via Zoom about “Fortuitous Ash’ and her aesthetic.

It’s an aesthetic, she says, that necessarily reflects her Thai-American identity: “I want to create from an authentic or original place, [so] it has to appear in a certain way.

“American culture promotes individuality, which I love, and I think it’s super important,” she adds, “and I always want my dancers to shine as themselves and be seen as themselves on stage. And then, thinking more about my Thai culture, which is super heavy on community and family, that’s where the connectivity lies in my work, people support each other and move together, and it becomes something bigger than themselves.”

Jinakunwiphat grew up in Chicago, the child of chefs who run a Thai restaurant. Joining a youth ensemble run by the nearby Dance Center Evanston and studying ballet were groundbreaking experiences. She then earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Conservatory of Dance at the State University of New York at Purchase.

She joined AIM in 2016. Her time with the company has taught her valuable lessons about nuance and presence, she says.

“The power of subtlety is something Kyle is really good at and that inspires me,” says Jinakunwiphat. Rapid bravura movement may be in order, she adds, “but there is something so powerful in the slowness and subtlety of things. That’s something I’m researching now – and something I’m getting the City Ballet dancers to work on.”

In addition to assisting Abraham with new commissioned work, Jinakunwiphat has built a reputation as a choreographer in her own right, winning commissions.

In 2019, New York City’s Battery Dance Festival presented her “Good Island,” which she calls a riff of “adventurousness, impetuousness.” [and] sensitivity’, inspired by the books ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’.

In 2019, AIM premiered “Big Rings” by Jinakunwiphat at New York’s Joyce Theater, a tribute to the virtuosity of top athletes and her fellow AIM dancers.

Abraham says that Jinakunwiphat was the first company member to choreograph a commissioned work for AIM. She “is a really gifted choreographer,” he said via email, using a “unique and very necessary” voice.

Wendy Whelan, associate artistic director of the New York City Ballet, was one of those who saw “Big Rings.” She recognized talent. “When you see it, you want to grab it. You want to hone it and give it a shot,” she says.

Jinakunwiphat was invited to participate in the fall 2021 session of the New York Choreographic Institute, a subsidiary of NYCB, where she began developing the work that would become ‘Fortuitous Ash’.

A classical music catalog introduced her to the scores of Du Yun, a Shanghai-born composer whose sharp opera “Angel’s Bone” won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for music. get,” says Jinakunwiphat.

She first choreographed for Du Yun’s ‘Impeccable Quake’, but as the dance evolved over the years, Jinakunwiphat changed scores. “I didn’t want to be too married to a version of myself that was creating at the time,” she says. “I wanted to be in harmony with who I am now as a creator.”

So “Fortuitous Ash” now unfolds on the trumpets, electric guitar and electronics of Du Yun’s “Air Glow”, as well as part of “Run in a Graveyard”, for electronics and bass flute.

Five women on pointe shoes and four men dance “Fortuitous Ash” to life. The piece, says Whelan, “has a very contemporary feel to it, which we also love, but [Jinakunwiphat] knows how to work with our ballet dancers, because she understands ballet.”

Whelan is also aware of the milestone the play represents as a work choreographed and scored by female performers of Asian descent, saying she and NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford have tried to make diversity of dance makers an important part of their programming. to make.

NYCB soloist Sebastian Villarini-Velez says he’s noticed how “Fortuitous Ash” deviates from the move he often has to perform.

“I feel like most of our repertoire depends on counts and positioning,” he says. “While with her it is more driven by the feeling, the breath”, allowing “our limits as dancers to be explored more.”

With “Fortuitous Ash” having stretched out his phoenix’s wings, Jinakunwiphat returns to dance mode. As for other projects, “Choreographically, that’s open,” she says. “Let the world know.”

Casual Ash Through February 11 in New York City Ballet’s winter season (through February 26). At the David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. 212-496-0600. nyc ballet. com.

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