Arts / Performing Arts

Prolific Feminist Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa Takes On Delmira For Houston Ballet — Bringing Historic Women to Life

The PaperCity Interview

BY // 09.22.23

“The creator in me is my inner child.” – choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa is prolific. At age 50, the contemporary ballet choreographer has created 77 works for dance companies around the world. Among them are conceptual pieces and ballets that bring to life famous paintings from Picasso and Botero, allowing figures to break free of the canvas to tell their stories.

But she may be best known for her full-length narratives that feature well-known women from recent history — including Eva Peròn, Coco Chanel and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — who share at least one thing in common: complicated lives.

The world premiere of Ochoa’s “Delmira” — which runs through next Sunday, October 1 as part of Houston Ballet’s mixed repertoire “Tutu” — adds to that roster. Maria Callas will follow in November when Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Chile presents Ochoa’s “Callas La Divina.”

Delmira is Delmira Agustini, Uruguay’s revered poet of the early 20th century. Ochoa invites the audience into Delmira’s impossible love story, which was cut short — along with her life — due to constraints placed on many women of that era. Forced to marry one man, Delmira was in love with another.

Besides Delmira’s dramatic personal story, Ochoa also took inspiration from her poetry, and in particular “El Sisne” or “The Swan:”

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Como dos calidos brazos;               Holding me in a warm embrace

Ningunos labios ardieron                No lips have ever burned

Como su pico en mis manos           Like his beak in my hands

Houston Ballet principals Melody Mennite as Dellmira and Connor Walsh as Enrique Reyes and artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s "Delmira" (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet principals Melody Mennite as Dellmira and Connor Walsh as Enrique Reyes and artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delmira”
(Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Three weeks into rehearsal for “Delmira,” Ochoa graciously sat down for a conversation at Houston Ballet’s state-of-the-art Margaret Alkek Williams Center for Dance.

Having watched a number of Ochoa’s interviews and rehearsal videos, I was prepared for an artist of tremendous vitality. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the burst of energy that blazed into the conference room. Her flame, I discovered, is the energy of an enormous creativity — a fire that doesn’t scorch but illuminates and shares its intensity. Her audiences are invited to gather around it, like friends around a fire pit, to wonder and muse at all that has been created and the possibilities of creations to come.

Ochoa is open and passionate about Delmira, as she is about all the other women who’ve inspired her work.

“Delmira’s is a beautiful, tragic story,” she says. “Beautiful because it’s poetry. Like paintings, it lends itself to imagery and visuals and emotions. Because ballet is not anecdotal. Ballet is the poetry of movement.”

The conversation moves seamlessly through a wide range of topics. The process of selecting the subjects for her narratives. Her dedication to women’s rights. Growing up in Belgium with a Belgian mother and Columbian father. And how Ochoa works with dancers and designers to bring her vision to the stage.

Here’s more from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa:

Houston Ballet – Company Class, Tutu, Delmira, Stars and Stripes
Houston Ballet demi soloist Chae Eun Yang and artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delmira”
(Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

How do you choose the women on whom you base your ballets? What drew you to them that you wanted to express through their stories?

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa: The first one I did was Frida Kahlo. I think her paintings lend themselves very well to dance. A painting has energy. A painting has soul. There’s so much in there that brings me to imagery and movement.

So I started digging into the life of Frida Kahlo. I found her inspiring as a woman, inspiring for us. To read how women lived in those times — their hardships and challenges — informs the history of our emancipation. Not all universities and professions were open to my mother in Belgium in the 1950s. That’s not so long ago.

Is your interest in painting reflected in other aspects of your work? In the set for “Delmira,” perhaps?

ALO: I’m very attracted to surrealism. Even before I choreographed, I had postcards of Salvador Dalí‘s work and Magritte’s. I could just look for hours at these paintings, and I would see other things. And they would just take me into this world of a different reality, of surrealism.

For “Delmira,” I told my set designer that I want the curtain to open, and it needs to be — to feel like — a painting from Salvador Dalí. You’ll see emotions, colors, birds, butterflies, trees made with paper. Very surreal.

I want people to be curious about Delmira. She wrote about the lake and the swans and the moon and the trees. I use that symbolism in her poetry to tell a story. The audience must use their imagination, too, and imagine what it means.

What do you look for in a dancer to play the title roles in your grand narrative works?

ALO:Every dancer who can do a narrative role is a creative person. There’s only so much you can do as a choreographer from the side. You’re giving the ideas. You’re giving the steps, the musicality, but you’re not feeling inside the work. The work becomes grand when you have a creative person in front of you — committed, who does their homework by researching that character. They may try things that are completely wrong, but they will go fearlessly into that journey with me.

The piece casts the dance. I never cast the piece. I’m not a choreographer who will always give the same role to the same people. I like to mix and change. It is the piece that whispers in my ear, “It’s this person.” And it’s intuition.

The older I get, the more I trust and listen to my intuition.

Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as Delmira and Chase O’Connell as Enrique Reyes with choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa rehearsing "Delmira" (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as Delmira and Chase O’Connell as Enrique Reyes with choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa rehearsing “Delmira” (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

You are constantly traveling internationally, and you have said that “home” is the studio where you are working with a dance company on one of your ballets. When you come to a new city, how do you approach choreographing dancers you have never worked with before?

ALO: I don’t behave differently whether I know people, or I don’t know them. Sometimes I would prefer they didn’t know me because they would have fewer expectations.

But there is sometimes reservation from the dancers on the first day. I try and break the ice by being goofy, by creating an atmosphere where we can play. People shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes because sometimes mistakes might be better than the choreography, and I’ll say, “No, we have to do your version.”

When I’m in the studio, and I play, I could just go on and on and on.

Tell us about your background: where you grew up, and what led you into the world of dance.

ALO: I’m a cocktail between a Belgian mother and a Colombian father. When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents had just moved back to Belgium. My mother said, “If the child is a girl, we stay here. If it’s a boy, we go back to Latin America.” She wanted me to have all the opportunities that women in Latin America did not get. I guess even in the womb, I was a little bit brought up as a feminist.

And then I became a tomboy. So my mother put me in ballet (Ochoa laughs). Even at that age, I saw that my brother had another position within the family, within society and among our friends. The feminist in me wanted the same opportunities.

After starting ballet, my physiognomy changed completely. I became very girly in two years’ time. I didn’t really like ballet, but then we got a performance and I was hooked. I started working hard, and after two and a half years, my teacher saw I had a certain talent and asked my parents if I wanted to be a dancer.

Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite as Delmira and artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s "Delmira".(Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite as Delmira and artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delmira”. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

You danced for 12 years with several European dance companies. What eventually drew you to choreography?

ALO: Around age 28, I decided I enjoyed choreography much more than dancing and gave up my career to jump into the void. They say there are so many choreographers, nobody’s waiting for you. But funnily enough, and that’s what I say now to young choreographers. I love the unknown, not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.

As a choreographer, I go out there to create things, and I make my own decisions. Since the age of 30, I’ve been doing that. And I still like the unknown. I’m still a tomboy. I still fight for equality.

In recent years, new mixed media concepts in video, electronic music and vocalization have challenged the performing arts. You’ve said, with each work, you try to expand your limits and that “choreography is a constant search.” Can you imagine a time when your work will burst through the frame of its genre, in the same way the characters you created for your art pieces burst through theirs?

ALO: I work with teams to give the audience an experience. It’s about getting sucked into a world, as opposed to simply looking at a dance. Maybe that’s why my work is more narrative and theatrical, because I want you to come in.

I don’t think I’m necessarily a trailblazer. I hope that I do add new ways of telling stories and that I open the path for other female storytellers. All storytellers, who are younger.

In any artist, it’s the inner child who does not yet know all the rules of the world.

Houston Ballet’s “Tutu” runs through next Sunday, October 1 at the Wortham Theater. Performances are scheduled for this Saturday night, September 23; Sunday afternoon, September 24; Friday night, September 29; Saturday night, September 30; and Sunday afternoon, October 1. Find more information and tickets here.

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