Claudia Schreier walks into a rehearsal studio at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. She carries a notebook in which she has written the ballet that has possessed her for months. In it are sketches of the floor patterns for her dancers, the shapes she wants them to make with their elastic limbs, the crescendo and rhythm of the music as she imagined it through her dancers’ bodies. She shows me her choreography notebook before her rehearsals start one January morning, but I can’t decipher what she’s written down. It’s her own language, one she is able to transpose onto the young dancers who are, at that moment, stretching along the studio’s perimeter.
Her dancers are primarily Studio Company members at Joffrey Ballet, one of the best companies in the country; many of them have moved here from all over the world. Claudia herself was never a dancer here but landed in this room through a more circuitous route, after winning a coveted spot in the 2018 Joffrey’s Winning Works Competition. At age 31, Claudia would be nearing the end of her career as a professional ballet dancer. As a choreographer, she’s just getting started.
Claudia grew up in a mixed-race family in Westchester, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and white father, and soon noticed that no one around her, including in her ballet classes, looked like her. “My community was predominantly white, upper middle class, and liberal, which made for a comfortable but sheltered childhood,” she recalls. “I consider myself lucky not to have felt that I was treated differently in ballet class due to my skin color, but it wasn’t until years later that I understood how much my upbringing influenced my perception of what ballet was and who it was for.” In the past few years, Claudia has become a full-time freelance choreographer, notably as a woman of color in an art form that has had a diversity problem since its beginnings.
Dance is one of the most ephemeral art forms, leaving no trace behind, and the part of dance that lasts — choreography — has been historically dominated in ballet by white men (George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Vaslav Nijinsky are perhaps the most famous among them). A few women of color, like Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre and Michaela DePrince of the Dutch National Ballet, have made headlines for changing the face of classical ballet onstage, but Claudia stands out in the industry for being one of very few women of color who identify specifically as ballet choreographers. “Staking a claim in an art form historically associated with exclusion is critical to broadening the definition of what ballet can and should be,” she wrote in an email.
In her Joffrey rehearsal, Claudia is choreographing a new ballet called “Night Vision,” a nearly twelve-minute piece set to a concerto by Richard Danielpour. The dancers speak several languages as they work out the ballet’s kinks together, but they all count in English once the music starts, snapping their fingers to the irregular rhythm. Claudia works through each sequence with them several times, explaining what she’s after and trying different steps on their bodies until she’s satisfied — until her dancers move with ease through the staccato sequences.
I ask Los Angeles Ballet soloist Liz Walker, who has worked with Claudia in the past, to describe her choreographic style. She explains that it’s a mix of “balletic vocabulary with the sweeping movement through space … more commonly found in modern dance.” In “Night Vision,” for example, much of the dancing is contemporary, with more modern gestures like turned-in legs and flexed hands, but the women dance en pointe, partnered by male dancers.