Photo by Joe Toreno

How 20-Year-Old Gianna Reisen Balances Choreographing for NYCB and Dancing With L.A. Dance Project

It was fall 2016. Gianna Reisen—then 17 and in her final year at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet's official training school—had just been made the offer of a lifetime: the chance to choreograph a work for the company's fall gala. She would be the youngest person ever to do so.

Two weeks later, Reisen went from an all-time high to an all-time low: She found out she wouldn't be getting an apprenticeship with NYCB. "I absolutely deflated," she remembers. "Imagine if, after seven years of working towards something, it simply doesn't happen. It's sort of heartbreaking."

But Reisen, now 20, handled the roller-coaster ride with aplomb. And her career has only accelerated since that fall. She's created not just one ballet for NYCB but two: Composer's Holiday, that first commission, which premiered in September 2017, and Judah, which premiered in September 2018. She spent a season at Dresden Semperoper Ballett before joining Benjamin Millepied's trailblazing L.A. Dance Project, and recently created a new work for LADP.

With such a full plate, when does Reisen stop to catch her breath? As it turns out, she doesn't need to: Constantly creating is her oxygen.

Photo by Joe Toreno

Growing Up SAB

For Reisen, as for so many other dancers, everything started with The Nutcracker. "I was maybe 7 when my mom took me to a local studio's Nutcracker-type show, and I was hooked," she says. She started taking classes at In The Spotlight in Waldwick, NJ, and spent weekends on the comp circuit. "I always preferred jazz over ballet, because I found ballet tedious," Reisen remembers. "But one of my teachers, Lisa Danias, saw my balletic ability and really wanted me to consider SAB." So, at age 11, Reisen auditioned for the prestigious school, not expecting anything. She got in.

Reisen was surprised by the intensity of SAB. "It was a very high-pressure situation, especially for a young person," she says. "There's so much to learn, and it's all in pursuit of a single goal." That goal was getting into NYCB, something Reisen has no problem admitting she wanted. While at the school, Reisen found respite from the pressure by daydreaming about choreographing. "From a very young age, I'd been intrigued by choreography," she says. "I'd heard about the SAB Student Choreography Workshop, but initially I was too young to participate in it, so I passed the time by fantasizing about the music I'd use and what my piece was going to be."

When One Door Closes...

During fall 2015, Reisen finally got her chance to choreograph for the workshop, and was overwhelmed by the creative power she held. "I could choose my music, I could choose my dancers—I could choose everything, and it was so fun," she says. "I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt like something was starting to click." She began to realize that making ballets was fulfilling her in a way that dancing in ballets wasn't. Peter Martins, then ballet master in chief at NYCB, sensed that shift, and asked Reisen to make a piece for the 2016 New York Choreographic Institute—while she was still a student at SAB. "It was unheard of for someone my age to be asked," she says. Creating that piece, Hexapoda, snapped everything into perspective for Reisen. "I realized that choreographing was something I could do forever," she says.

Immediately after the NYCI wrapped up, Reisen experienced the one-two punch of landing her first NYCB commission and missing out on a company contract. "It was a confusing time," Reisen says. "But eventually I discovered that my role with NYCB was meant to be something entirely different."

Photo by Joe Toreno

Solving the Equation

In her final whirlwind months at SAB, Reisen auditioned for other ballet companies and earned an apprenticeship with Dresden Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, Germany. "I got to Germany and the first thing I did was ask the director if I could start a month and a half late, because I was making a ballet for NYCB," she says. "He just tilted his head in disbelief, and was like, 'What? You're 18, what are you talking about?' "

Almost as quickly as she'd left, Reisen found herself back in NYCB's studios—this time, at the front of the room, with the dancers following her instructions. "Feeling comfortable up there is something I really had to work towards," she says. "You have to verbalize your vision in a way your dancers, and eventually audiences, will understand. That was the hardest part for me to grasp."

Reisen considers the creation of Composer's Holiday a true turning point in her life. "I fell in love with the process of making a ballet," she says. "When choreographing, I think strategically, almost mathematically. 'How can I complete this equation?' " Her answer was to go with what she knew: dancers who were also friends, and music she'd loved for years (Lukas Foss' "Three American Pieces"). NYCB corps member Christina Clark, who's a longtime friend of Reisen's and has danced in both of her ballets for the company, was impressed by Reisen's innate choreographic ability. "Gianna has this rare blend of a clear vision and a desire to collaborate," Clark says. "She'd come into the studio with new concepts to try on, yet was always willing to listen to our feedback or change direction. She has an incredible way of envisioning things that come alive onstage."

The Eureka Effect

After the premiere of Composer's Holiday, Reisen returned to Dresden—and her entire world shifted. "It was literally like I'd been picked up by a pair of tongs and dropped into the middle of the Swan Lake corps," she says. "It was the closest thing to an identity crisis I've ever experienced." Composer's Holiday was also getting lots of good press, which made it that much harder to snap out of the mind-set of a choreographer and into that of a corps member. "I was focused on being a dancer, but deeply missed choreographing and collaborating," Reisen says.

Then, NYCB came knocking again, this time with a commission for the fall 2018 gala. "I knew I had to follow my gut," Reisen says. She left Dresden after one season and headed back to the Big Apple. But her German sojourn was definitely worthwhile: Judah, Reisen's second ballet for NYCB, is informed by the many eye-opening pieces she saw while in Europe, including William Forsythe's Quintett. "I can honestly say that seeing that piece changed my life," she says.

Photo by Joe Toreno

Putting Down Roots in L.A.

Reisen experienced déjà vu while creating Judah. "At that point, I'd auditioned for L.A. Dance Project and been offered a contract, but I had to ask Benjamin Millepied if I could start a month and a half late because of the commission," she says. Millepied, a former NYCB principal, gave Reisen the green light.

Now that she's dancing with L.A. Dance Project full-time, Reisen couldn't be happier. "I was trying so hard to fit the cookie-cutter ballerina mold," she says, "but here, I feel like I'm having an artistic revelation." Fellow company member Janie Taylor—also a former principal with NYCB, who oversaw the rehearsals for Rising Water, Reisen's piece for LADP that premiered in September—has enjoyed watching Reisen bloom. "She really dove into learning new skills and participating in processes that are more common in the world of contemporary dance rather than ballet," Taylor says. "She's very confident and comfortable in the front of the room while creating, and for someone her age, that's really unusual to see."

These days, Reisen doesn't exclusively subscribe to the label of either dancer or choreographer. She's learned the two go hand in hand. "I work on myself as a dancer and as a choreographer every day," she says. "I'm only 20. I'm in no rush. More opportunities will come. But right now, I'm surrounded by all these inspiring people—I just want to keep inhaling it all."

Fast Facts

Age: 20

Birthday and zodiac sign: February 19, 1999, Pisces

Musical artists currently on repeat: Andrew Bird, Frank Sinatra, Bon Iver, Clairo

Favorite piece to dance: "Right now, it's Kyle Abraham's Chapter Song, which he made on LADP."

Favorite piece to watch: "Either George Balanchine's Serenade or William Forsythe's Quintett."

Top three choreography tips: "Be flexible in rearranging your ideas, really study the music you choose, and remember that sometimes the most beautiful arrangements come from your worst mistakes."

Dream theater to stage a new work: Théâtre de Champs-Elysées in Paris, France

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