Headshot: Adam Hougland

9 Questions with Choreographer Adam Hougland

Rehearsal still: Smuin Ballet in Cold Virtue (Hougland)
John Speed Orr and Erin Yarbrough-Stewart rehearsing "Cold Virtues" (Hougland). Photo by Keith Sutter.

Smuin Ballet, as part of its opening program for the 2012–2013 season, is presenting the West Coast premiere of Cold Virtues by the exciting young choreographer Adam Hougland. Popular with audience and critics alike, the work is set to Philip Glass’s haunting Violin Concerto and features fourteen dancers, whirling and leaping against a mesmerizing backdrop of spinning fans. The Louisville Courier-Journal described the ballet as “beautifully bleak, honest in unflinching fashion.”

Hougland currently is principal choreographer for the Louisville Ballet and the resident choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet. In addition, he has created original works for American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, the Limon Dance Company, and Washington Ballet, among others. Winner of the Princess Grace Award for Choreography, Hougland was one of Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” for 2011.

California Literary Review: How would you describe your choreographic style?

Adam Hougland: I’m very inspired by music, so I would say that my work is musically driven, and as my dance background  is diverse, I tend to draw both from classical techniques as well as contemporary. I really like telling stories and making dances that are movement driven, first and foremost, but that also have a strong sense of theatricality.

Each choreographer has a dance vocabulary that is unique to him or her. Who do you cite as influences on yours? 

Martha Graham, Jiri Kylian, José Limon, Paul Taylor — also George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and Kenneth McMillian.

It seems that although your performance experience was mostly in the modern arena, ballet companies have performed more of your choreography than modern groups. What caused you to move in this direction?

There aren’t many modern dance repertory companies in the States. For the most part, ballet companies are where new work gets commissioned. And really, this whole thing about “ballet” or “modern” is so outdated. It’s all dance — period.

You chose the Philip Glass Violin Concerto for Cold Virtues. Did you use the complete work, or have you edited the music in any way? 

The whole thing!

Headshot: Adam Hougland
Adam Hougland. Photo by Armando Braswell.

When you set an existing work on a new company, what choreographic changes do you make, if any, to take advantage of the different dancers’ skill sets?

I don’t usually make any changes unless a dancer is seriously struggling with a step, or if there has been that one lift that has always bugged me. I think it’s easy to tinker too much and spoil the whole thing. You have to know when to “stop painting.”

For works with complicated sets and other tech, do you ship the original construction, or are new ones created to accommodate the different theaters?

Usually original sets and costumes are rented at the new theater’s location — unless it’s something simple like the fans in Cold Virtues. It would cost more to ship the original sets than to buy brand new ones on site.

As principal choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet, you have a pretty full plate. Yet you manage to add in freelance projects. What is your secret to keeping all these balls in the air?

It’s really a lot less crazy than it might seem. My situation with both Louisville and Cincinnati usually is one new work or one restaging at each. So I’m not in Cincinnati or Louisville unless I’m working on something specific.

As principal or resident choreographer for a company, what level of freedom do you have when choosing topics and music for new works? 

Usually I get to do whatever I want, but there are always limitations in terms of budgets for sets/costumes. So, depending, we just agree on how big or small a new work will be ahead of time and then try not to go over — which is never easy.

What new projects do you have in the works? Are you considering the possibility of a full-length narrative ballet for either Louisville or Cincinnati?

Well, I have choreographed Mozart’s Requiem for Cincinnati, which was done as an evening-length work. I also have a Firebird that’s a one act full-length and also my Rite of Spring.

However, I would jump at the chance to make an even more substantial evening-length work. It’s just hard to get those kinds of opportunities these days, as money is tight. But, yes, I would jump at the chance!


Smuin Ballet
October 5–14, 2012

Cold Virtues by Adam Hougland (West Coast Premiere)
Oh, Inverted World by Trey McIntyre
Starshadows, Homeless, No Viviré (Michael Smuin)
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco

For tickets and information, please visit www.smuinballet.org or call 415.912.1899.

*This program repeats in Spring 2013 in Walnut Creek, Mountain View, and Carmel.

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