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  • Megan Kudla

Women's History Month: Highlighting Women Choreographers With Joffrey's "Winning Works"

Each year, The Joffrey Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet, presents "Winning Works," a choreography competition that provides emerging choreographic artists the chance to set an original piece on the Joffrey Academy Trainees and Studio Company.

This year, with Joffrey's national call for ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American) artists to participate, the five choreographers chosen were Jainil Mehta, Martha Nichols, Manoela Gonçalves, Houston Thomas, and Xavier Núñez. Each bring their unique backgrounds, perspectives, and artistry to works that will have their world premiere on Friday, March 8, at 7:30 pm, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater.

March being Women's History Month, a spotlight Q&A on choreographers Martha Nichols (she/her) and Manoela Gonçalves (she/her) provides a look into their personal artistic insights, as well as what women artists have inspired them.

Photo of Martha Nichols
Martha Nichols, "Winning Works" 2024 choreographer

Can you share your dance and choreography background? 

Gonçalves: I come from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I started my professional training as a dancer there. My career took me to Europe, where I have been working on a mix of choreographic works for theater and on camera for film and music videos. Because of dance, I traveled the world and met people from different cultures and backgrounds. Connecting people and collaborating through art is my passion, and I like to use choreography as my tool.

Nichols: I started my training at a dance studio where we learned many styles, including jazz, contemporary, hip hop, and tap. Professionally, I’ve done a lot of commercial work dancing in film, television, and touring with artists, as well as some theater shows and concert work. Choreographically, I've worked in film, Broadway, universities, and with some contemporary companies.

What does being a "Winning Works" choreographer mean to you, and what has it been like to work with the Joffrey Academy of Dance students?

G: It has been a dream and a privilege to see an idea come to life for "Winning Works" here in Chicago. The young and talented dancers from the Joffrey Academy and Studio Company are incredibly hard-working and inspiring to create with.

N: To be a "Winning Works" Choreographer is to be invited into a legacy of excellence. To me, it means being recognized by those who have gone before me and are currently operating in spaces I'd like to be in. Working with the Joffrey Academy students has been incredible, inspiring, and so much fun! The students have a beautiful balance of technique and structure, with openness and curiosity. 

What is the title and inspiration for the piece you have choreographed for "Winning Works"?

G: My piece, "Ocean," is named after Alice Phoebe Lou's second song used in the piece. Her music, lyrics, and herself, as an artist, were a huge part of the inspiration for the piece, as well as grief and my recent personal experiences. I like to make art relatable to the dancers and the audience, and grief, letting go of something or yourself, might be one of the most relatable experiences we all have or will have as humans.

N: The title of my piece is "Carried by Thought," and my inspiration was the music, which was composed by Ben Waters, watching the dancers navigate improv exercises, and the 8 categories in the psychological mental process. After listening to the music while watching the dancers move, it left me thinking about thoughts themselves and how a thought can carry you on a trip if you allow yourself to be carried; and when you allow yourself to be carried, what does that look like?

Photo of Manoela Gonçalves
Manoela Gonçalves, "Winning Works" 2024 choreographer

Being that it's Women's History Month, why do you believe it is important that women have a voice in the field of choreography?

G: Recently, I was asked, "So, are you assisting a choreographer in creating a new work or helping someone?" It was a little funny that it was hard to understand that I was creating something myself. I wondered why, but it was not the first time somebody questioned that. Some friends told me it might be because I look younger than I am, but I have male colleagues (younger than me) choreographing who never got questioned about being in charge of a project. So yes, having more female, young (why not?) choreographers is very important.

N: I believe it is important for women to have a voice in the choreography field because only women can offer the authentic perspective and experiences of women. Women having a voice in choreography not only allows for more stories to be told, but in a heavily white-male dominated field, it also allows for familiar stories to be told in a new way.  

What other women artists have inspired you?

G: Alice Phoebe Lou inspired the creation of this piece, but she is also an artist who inspires me in a larger sense. Choreographically, Crystal Pite is one of the most exciting artists right now. I am interested in pieces that make me feel deeply and get lost in their world while having a sense of narrative. Pina Bausch is another huge inspiration to me. I wish I had been introduced to her work earlier in life. 

My first piece, "Frida," inspired by Frida Kahlo's work, life, and, more specifically, her diary, was co-created with Esther Perez, an old colleague from Zurich Ballet. It's a happy coincidence that I will perform my piece for "Winning Works" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which has presented her works in the past.

N: Two of my biggest inspirations are my mother and my grandmother.  Neither of them were professional dancers, but I learned authenticity and about artistry from them. Other women who inspire me are Paula Kelly, Mandy Moore, Sheila Barker, Ruth Carter, Laura Mvula.

What is one piece of advice you would leave to young girls/women wanting to pursue dance and choreography?

N: The piece of advice I would offer is… Only you know what your dreams look like, so only you can decide what it’s worth/what you're willing to do to achieve it. If you study yourself just as much as you study the dance and choreography world, you can intentionally navigate your career without diminishing your beliefs or yourself.

To see the 14th annual "Winning Works," you can find more information at Performances take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater (220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611) on Friday, March 8, at 7:30 pm; Saturday, March 9, at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, March 10, at 2:00 pm; Friday, March 15, at 7:30 pm; Saturday, March 16, at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sunday, March 17, at 2:00 pm.

Cover photo courtesy of Joffrey Academy of Dance. Credit to Todd Rosenberg .


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