Category Winning Works

2022 Winning Works Choreographer Audrey Ipapo Baran. Photo: Carolyn McCabe.

Audrey Ipapo Baran is one of four winners of the Joffrey Academy2022 Winning Works Choreographic Competition. Her world premiere, Porcelain, debuts March 18–20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater.

A small, delicate figurine holds sway over Audrey Ipapo Baran. She knew them as a child, a collectable more commonly known as Oriental dolls.  These were objects that were "super feminine, almost untouchable, but also breakable," Baran recalls, bringing to mind images of her past. 

Some of those images inspire her world premiere, Porcelain, for the Joffrey Studio Company and Academy Trainees. Historical stereotypes and stigmas of Asian Americans have been brought to a head recently with the arrival of COVID. Violence, too, directed mostly at Asian American women. As Baran shares, she wanted to address those ideas with the dancers—"invisibility, being ignored, put into a pool with other bodies who may or may not look like you."

In a recent conversation, Baran traces her path to the Joffrey and articulates why her porcelain past speaks to some of the universal problems of today.  

From your perspective, what is unique about Joffrey’s Winning Works Choreographic Competition?

It’s really changing the face of what choreographers look like. The demographic of choreographers, especially in the ballet world, has been monochromatic for a long time. Highlighting the choreographers who are undiscovered and have so much to offer is amazing. I love that they've been doing it for 12 years and not just the past three or four years.

What does it feel like to be selected amongst those artists?

It’s surreal. Every time I step into the studio it feels magical. I don't have a strong history in ballet. I was a competition kid, went to school and got my MFA in dance. It's my life and career, but my pathway is maybe different than some of the other choreographers who have come from this program. It’s amazing that this daughter of an immigrant and competition kid from Charlotte, North Carolina, can have this opportunity.

How will this opportunity help you and your choreographic career?

I've been following some of the past choreographers. The doors have opened for them. I would love to work with more companies, more dancers in different environments, on different bodies. I hope that continues.

Can you tell us about your piece?

My piece is called Porcelain. The title stems from what we used to call Oriental dolls made of porcelain—other worldly objects that were super feminine, almost untouchable, but also breakable. I had a lot of them growing up. The piece responds to a lot of the stereotypes and stigmas around Asian Americans, recently and historically. With COVID and violence against Asians, especially Asian American women, I'm affected by that, as we all should be. I wanted to explore these ideas with the dancers—invisibility, being ignored, put into a pool with other bodies who may or may not look like you. These are not issues that are unique to Asian Americans, but universal problems that we're all encountering.

Tell us about working with the Studio Company and Academy Trainees.

They're incredible. They can do it all. They're so hungry. My style of movement is different from the things they've done in the past. We do a lot of floor work and rolls and things like flipping their legs in the air. They were just like, okay, I'll try it. It's been awesome to see that drive. They're so open and receptive to everything. To see them celebrating in their own idiosyncrasies and see them as human, too, not just dancers, is awesome.

It sounds like your process is a little push and pull.

Absolutely. I work now, as opposed to maybe five years ago, in very collaborative ways. I also do a lot of improvisation with the dancers—their input and movement vocabulary. It’s a relationship between choreographer and dancer. I never say it’s my piece; it's our piece and I'm shaping it. I want them to feel some ownership over it and that they're an integral part of the piece and the process.

What do you hope the dancers get out of this process, especially at this point in their careers when they’re at a crossroads?

Showing them that they are dancers and not just ballet dancers—that they have the ability and the tools to do whatever they want. They are such versatile dancers and artists. If they want to choreograph and create, these are ways and methods and tools that they can add to their box to enhance their artistry and creativity.

What do you hope audiences take away from your piece?

I never try to tell people what to think. I just want them to witness and absorb so they can inform their own ideas about what they're seeing. There are senses of reflection, a sense of sadness, sometimes a sense of anxiety throughout the piece. But however someone interprets them, they can’t be or right or wrong. I hope they ride that wave.

How would you describe your movement style or the type of movement happening within your piece?

The broad umbrella term is contemporary. I don't claim to be a contemporary ballet dancer or choreographer, but it's contemporary influenced and codified modern techniques and jazz. Like hybrid martial art stuff that I've collected along the years. Each piece is different because it's informed by the dancers. Whatever movement history they're bringing to the work is usually evident in the piece.

Last year was the first time the Joffrey captured everyone's piece digitally. This year will be the second. How does the digital version of this art form help with accessibility?

For a long time, there's been this wall between people who like dance and people who can pay to see dance. I hope that the digital release breaks down that barrier for people who want to see more and don't know that they love dance. For people who can't pay to come to Chicago for the show, it’s another form of accessibility. We need more dance and art in our lives. There's certainly a different way of watching dance on a screen than live, but it's better than not seeing it.

Once everybody leaned into this digital thing, we started seeing a lot more people watching dance. It seemed to open the door for a lot of people.

And that's what I try to do in my work, make it accessible and engaging for people who will pay to see a live band or a dining experience. It's about having a fun night at the theater as opposed to just going to the ballet.

You mentioned that you're the daughter of immigrant parents. Has that informed your style or approach to dance? Did it contribute to your piece?

My father was Filipino. He was in the medical field. I come from a medical family and some artists, but it was never really part of their idea for me. To have the permission and the privilege to go into the arts was amazing. I try to honor that. It used to be that if you went to college for dance or art, it was like, well, what are you going to do next? Or What are you going to fall back on? That's not the case anymore. It's a great story for lots of people who are artists and making a living. There's lots of forms of success, which is the point.