Ballet for a Better World

Turtle group, left to right: Claire Pennington, Lana Hankinson (as Fergus), Gabrielle Corrigan, Giorgia Picano, Olivia Gintel Rudkhevich and Felicia Isotti

Benjamin Briones thought he would be an industrial designer. That would have been acceptable to his parents who were both lawyers. He had even completed his first year of architectural studies in Mexico City. Then accidentally he was introduced to professional dance. He went to a dance audition only to be polite to someone who had been “nice” to him. He was instantly captured by dance. He loved what he saw. He did not understand it, but it spoke to him. 

Who would have realized that this serendipitous event would be the catalyst for the Benjamin Briones Ballet company in New York City? A company that would ultimately teach us about how to be awake in the world in which we live. 

Dance was not entirely foreign to him. In Mexico, it has always been acceptable for men and women to dance socially, to participate in folk and local dances, but to become a professional dancer can still today, be deemed to be inappropriate. It was certainly frowned upon in Mexico of the 1980s. 

He was financially cut-off by his parents when he decided to change course and study dance full time. He went to several different schools to catch-up, as he had come to dance at a late age. Having enrolled in the National School of Classical Ballet, he danced ballet in the morning and contemporary in the afternoon at the National School of Contemporary Dance. He also went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dance. It was not an easy option, despite getting free tuition and scholarship, he had to find work to support himself. He became a carpenter and welder to design and build furniture at the weekends. He was quite successful. He could have become a furniture maker! However, dancing was his focus. 

After graduating from the three schools, he found work in Texas, first in El Paso and then Austin. It was the first of many transitions he made as he strove to learn and improve his skills and broaden his repertoire. He learnt about dance from teachers and other dancers, but also from choreographers and directors. Along the way, he discovered how to design and create dance costumes, mentored by a Mexican costume mistress who taught him to sew and speak English. 

Gabrielle Corrigan and Giorgia Picano

It was a wonderful 16-year dancing career, not as long as he would have liked, but he knew all along that due to his late start, that he had to make the most of every opportunity. He had loved dancing, particularly ballet. 

He made the transition from performer to ballet teacher and ballet master, by being at the right place at the right time. He had already been teaching ballet to children while still performing, when while nursing a badly broken foot, (on which he had danced 12-14 performances before he realized it was broken,) he filled in for an absent company ballet mistress. After a few days of well received classes, he took over. He also became the resident choreographer. 

He had always known that he wanted to be a choreographer. He loved this as much as dancing. He continued to work for various dance companies, but he started to chafe at the restrictions of working for others. He realized that he had to start his own ballet company. There was nothing else to do, but to just DO IT! 

He started Benjamin Briones Ballet in 2012 in New York City. He was already a choreographer and a dance master. He knew how to organize schedules, run rehearsals, design and create dances, costumes and stage sets. He had even studied lighting design along the way. He started by creating projects for dance festivals. He called on friends and students whom he knew liked his choreography. He was also supported by Fractured Atlas – an umbrella organization that provides fiscal support for artistic projects. This allowed him to get started and focus on his creative skills until he was joined by Chiara Gorodesky, as Executive Director, who came with a wealth of legal and management experience in the dance world. He has created a company that encourages collaboration and includes many choreographers (eleven currently) and guest dancers. 

left to right: Gabrielle Corrigan, Felicia Isotti, Claire Pennington, Olivia Gintel Rudkhevich, Benjamin Briones, Lana Hankinson, Chiara Gorodesky and Giorgia Picano 

The dances that Briones creates are elegant and fluid, full of emotion and storytelling. His skillful stagecraft, in setting the scene, the lighting, and dressing the dancers, enhances the movement set to the music, poetry or narration. He is an intuitive choreographer. He doesn’t preplan or outline. He just creates. He allows his needs and feelings to drive his creativity. Seeing a bird drinking out of a water bowl he would want to tell the story of a beautiful bird, but he would also be driven to highlight the issue of pollution which could be affecting the quality of the water. He believes that the arts have an “obligation to communicate what is happening in this world, by making people aware” of social, economic, and natural world issues. 

He feels this responsibility deeply and it is the motivation for his latest production, Fergus. Chiara Gorodesky, who also advises the Turtle Conservancy brought the idea to him. It is the first full length ballet about turtle conservation. A story of a mythical creature who is a cross between a land tortoise and a water turtle who experiences many adventures in search of his own identity and his role in the world. It seems to resemble Briones’ own life experiences in his quest for dance. 

Based on the children’s book Fergus the Turtus by Sebastian Morley, it is an emotional dance for the whole family, to help raise awareness of the need for wildlife conservation. Advised by the Fergus Advisory Committee which consists of leading wildlife experts and organizations, the project will come to the stage as a two-act ballet in Summer 2022. 

Briones wants you to open your eyes, see through your neighbors’ eyes and see through your heart. See how each of us can be better. His message is clear in his dances and his company, Benjamin Briones Ballet. G&S

photographs by Hisae Aihara –

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