Daniil Simkin's INTENSIO Is Ballet for the 21st Century

For the first half of his life, American Ballet Theatre dancer Daniil Simkin was known as "the son of Dmitrij Simkin."  He long ago stepped out of his father's shadow. "Now he is known as 'the father of...," the younger Simkin tells us, laughing. (Simkin's mother, Olga Aleksandrova, was also a noted ballet dancer and is now a teacher.) 

Simkin, bringing his newly premiered Daniil Simkin's INTENSIO to Houston for one night, has been causing quite a stir in the ballet world. There are endless comparisons to Mikhail Baryshnikov. "I can see the similarities," Simkin says. "I have a Russian background; he has a Russian background. We're similar in stature, and we're both somewhere between demi-caractère to danseur noble. I can see where people are coming from, and it's a great honor, of course. They're comparing me to the best. It's very flattering, but there is no pressure because of it.

"I've met him several times, and the last time he gave me a compliment. I get very shy around him because he is who he is. All I can do is the best that I can." 

More than for his performance on stage, Simkin resembles Baryshnikov in his ability to ignite an audience. Baryshnikov took ballet into mainstream pop culture in the 1970s. Simkin is doing the same thing now.  He's opening ballet to mass audiences. For Simkin, it's been very purposeful. 

“Ballet has always had a sense of 'This is just for certain people, this is not for everybody.' Why? If someone can connect with me, with my work, on an emotional level, what does it matter what their background is? It's just a matter of time for the big institutions, big companies to be opening up. They have to.

“Of course, we have to deliver on the highest level possible; nevertheless the packaging, the presentation of our art form is changing as we speak,” he says. 

Among the most obvious changes Simkin has embraced is the use of social media. Six years ago, members of the ballet world harshly criticized Simkin for using Facebook and Twitter.

“People would openly speak against me in front of everybody else, saying, 'This is stupid. Baryshnikov did not have to do this. This is just self-involvement,'” Simkin tells us. “Six years down the lane and where are we now? Those same people update their Facebook page more than I do!”

Simkin says his use of social media is a part of his effort to be transparent in his work. Mounting his own productions is another. 

INTENSIO, seen earlier this year at Jacob's Pillow, features seven members of the American Ballet Theatre and a special guest from Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal performing commissioned works from four of today's best contemporary ballet choreographers: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Jorma Elo, Alexander Ekman and Gregory Dolbashian.

Though not connected through a storyline, the four works are connected in sensibility, Simkin says. "A quote I like from Anton Chekhov is 'Good art asks questions.' With each piece, we wanted to suggest a direction that contemporary ballet can go to."

The performance features a liberal use of multimedia technology. (Simkin's father created the original real-time video.)

It seems Simkin's detractors didn't learn the first time around. They've accepted social media, yes, but now they grumble over his use of video with ballet.

“We'll see where we are in another ten years,” he laughs. “I've had a couple of 'I told you so' moments with other members about social media. Maybe I'll have more about using technology onstage.” 

Along with exploring new directions in contemporary ballet, INTENSIO gave Simkin the chance to take on several new roles. He produced and curated the program. He raised funds for the project. He organized the dancers' housing and travel, organized rehearsals, rented studio space. 

"I always like challenges, but in the beginning, it felt like an insurmountable mountain. There are all these limitations — you have to raise this much money by that date. You have two weeks to do this before that other thing is due. It can be overwhelming. 

"But once you start to accomplish something, little by little…it becomes invigorating. This was the first time any of us tried to do something like this – four choreographers, all new creations. We have video projections, live music. Everything was new; everything was a challenge. 

"It's not necessarily that you can generate great profit, but it's been a great way to stay focused. Business, I found, is a way of meditation. It gives you no room to think. Some parts of meditation is trying to teach you how not to think. Here, you are so busy running from appointment to appointment, you're organizing, you're planning, you're scheduling, you're relaxing. You don't have time to wonder what's next; you just do what's next."

See Daniil Simkin's INTENSIO at 8 p.m. November 6. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit $35 to $85.  
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Olivia Flores Alvarez