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Hearts Onstage

A choreographer for Beyoncé brings his talent to Richmond Ballet’s debut multimedia production.

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Richmond Ballet is buzzing. Its top brass, Artistic Director Stoner Winslett and Managing Director Brett Bonda, file into the main studio on the last Friday in August, with a class of trainees and other employees. It appears everyone wants to watch this rehearsal.

The person creating the buzz is choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, visiting from Harlem to rehearse his new work, "Inversion." Combining dance with music, audio and video, the creation is likened to a live dance documentary exploring the hearts and minds of professional dancers.

Set to open the season this week, the world premiere of "Inversion" is also the ballet's first multimedia production.

Moultrie, who choreographed a dance for the Ballet's New Works Festival last year, decided to do something completely different for his return to Richmond.

"I wanted to do a piece on the dancers' lives," Moultrie says. "That's the only thought I had. I didn't know how it was going to be done or what we were going to do. I just wanted to interview them and go from there."

Moultrie is a graduate of the Julliard School and choreographs for a variety of genres, including ballet, modern, theater and commercials. Superstar recording artist Beyoncé selected him as a choreographer for her 2013-'14 world tour.

He started work on "Inversion" in May by recording interviews with Richmond Ballet company dancers, asking questions about such universal human experiences as love, body image, aging and gender. What emerged was profound and revealing.

"I said [to the dancers], thank you so much for giving your all," Moultrie says. "Because I didn't know what in the hell was going to come out of this."

After the interviews were filmed, the overwhelming process of editing began. Through the summer, Moultrie whittled down hours of footage and audio. When he returned to Richmond in August for two weeks, he set the choreography on the dancers. Initially, they danced to silence, the plan being to create the dance before the music.

Video of them dancing each section then went to Dave Watkins, a musician, composer and the audio visual supervisor for Richmond Ballet.

"After I saw the video," Watkins says, "I could lay in piano notes and set the tempo based on the dance. There was no music for the dance, just the interview. That's a testament to how great our dancers are — they had an internal tempo that was locked in. I could go in and write music based on what they are doing."

Choreographing and then composing the music is the reverse of how it is usually done. It could have been a disaster, couldn't it? "But that's where we live, right?" Moultrie answers. "Walk toward that risk. That makes me feel good, because if you don't do that, you're doing the same thing over and over again."

Before the rehearsal begins, he calls the company dancers into a circle and they hold hands.

"It's about positive energy," Moultrie says of the ritual. "I don't want to be one of those crazy choreographers screaming and throwing chairs at them."

They rehearse a humorous part of "Inversion," revealing a goofy side to the dancers rarely seen by audiences. One of the video clips shows a dancer doing an ear-folding trick. Someone else confesses to being a biter as a child, and an animated and hilarious Valerie Tellmann calls her pointe shoes "little tiny coffins" and talks about her feet dying more every day.

The interview process also revealed heartbreaking stories, and sharing them became cathartic for many of the dancers.

"We've learned a lot more about each other, which makes everything even better," dancer Elena Bello says. "I didn't know some of these things about my colleagues until we started doing this piece. People were sharing their stories. We've led some pretty interesting lives. It's like our hearts are on the stage."

When rehearsal ends, Moultrie says goodbye, the respect and affection he feels for the dancers and crew obviously mutual.

"I think as humans we are complicated," he says. "And it's not that we're depressed and sad. It's just that we all have these stories of perseverance. So this is turning into a love letter to the dancers. I'm very happy about that, when as a choreographer you can do something with substance. And you see that they really feel it and enjoy it because it is theirs. You feel like you're doing something in the world instead of just making up dance." S

Also on the program with "Inversion" is "Swipe," choreographed by Val Caniparoli. The show runs Sept. 23-28 at the Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre. For tickets and show times visit richmondballet.com.

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