The music of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” usually evokes an image of a graceful ballerina en pointe. But what if the ballet classic was reimagined to accompany the high-powered movements of professional athletes?
This juxtaposition is just one way in which New York-based choreographer Keerati Jinakunwiphat blurs the line between sports and dance in her latest work, “Big Rings.” Drawing inspiration from the movement and culture of athletes in major American sports, Jinakunwiphat explores notions of artistry, performance and teamwork while celebrating the individuality of each dancer.
Jinakunwiphat was on tour as an apprentice in Kyle Abraham’s dance company, A.I.M, when Abraham asked her to join on as a full-time company member and choreograph a piece of her own for their upcoming show season. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
She had been incubating this idea to incorporate elements of sports into dance. To her, dancers are not so different from professional athletes. She views everything as movement from an aesthetic lens, whether it be modern dance, basketball or even a touchdown celebration. Creating a dance piece inspired by both the technical movements and more vernacular social interactions in sports allowed Jinakunwiphat to reveal an artistry that can be appreciated without the pretense of more highbrow art.
“I always think about relatability, so that’s why I feel like making a sports piece is fun. It hopefully is more accessible to people that don’t know anything about art,” she said.
Music also serves as an avenue for relatability. In addition to the aforementioned “The Dying Swan” theme, she curated a score of instantly recognizable hits including “Space Jam,” Drake’s “Big Rings,” Chance the Rapper’s “Good Ass Intro” and the Chicago Bulls theme song — a nod to her hometown.
Her piece, which debuted at the Joyce Theater in October, pays tribute both to her roots in Chicago as well as her adopted home in New York and the community she has found there, including her dance family in A.I.M. Her choreography celebrates her fellow company members, leaning into the individuality they bring and the team they have created.
This attention to individuality inspired her to experiment with conceptions of performance. Before the choreography officially begins, the dancers of “Big Rings” warm up and stretch. While the act of warming up itself is standard, Jinakunwiphat places the dancers onstage, showcasing their warm-up as an element of the performance itself.
“I like seeing everyone in their own zone and the individuality,” she said. “It’s the same with sports when they're doing drills before the game starts. You kind of see the rawness and the stripped version of the game, which could be a little more put on.”
Harnessing the individual strengths of each dancer, Jinakunwiphat brings together a united ensemble. “I like to create dynamic group work with people having to work together. I like seeing bodies intertwined and be so spirited with each other and powerful,” she said. In fact, she believes that A.I.M’s focus on individuality makes the company stronger as a whole.
If A.I.M were a sports team and “Big Rings” a game, then Jinakunwiphat would be the coach, a role that comes less naturally to her than choreographing.
“How to coach and direct is a whole different thing, which I'm learning about myself now,” she said. “It’s definitely a lot more challenging. You have to be able to communicate more, but also know what you want.”
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Despite her hesitancy, her fellow company members can attest to her prowess as a director. Claude “CJ” Johnson, one of the dancers in “Big Rings,” attended SUNY Purchase with Jinakunwiphat as undergraduate students. Having danced in pieces she choreographed in college, Johnson sees tremendous growth in her work in “Big Rings.”
“Keerati was able to give really good feedback and tools in order to accomplish what she came in to do,” Johnson said. “She was really able to coach us to do such things that we weren't able to do. She’s a great leader.”
Jinakunwiphat will continue to lead her team as A.I.M. performs “Big Rings” on tour across the country and around the world. Later in July, she will be presenting a work titled “Good Island” at New Victory Theater in New York City. She plans to continue choreographing commissioned pieces, but for now, Jinakunwiphat feels lucky to dance in a company she loves and create work that is meaningful.
“Movement to me is so healing and expressive,” she said. “I feel grateful for the chance to be able to be a part of storytelling or bringing attention to something through my way of communication.”