Alumnus Expresses Passion Through Choreography


Published: May 1, 2008

“Being a woman choreographer, let alone a woman ballet choreographer who can actually [be successful] at it and not wait tables, is very difficult.  You can still name us on one hand,” said Lisa de Ribere Larkin, FCLC ’02, choreographer and former member of the New York City Ballet (NYCB). “[George] Balanchine,” ballet master and one of the founding members of NYCB, “actually encouraged me to choreograph. He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to help you,’ but he said, ‘This is what you should do. Do this and don’t do that.’ It wasn’t an active mentoring, but he would slip me little bits of information that I would take very seriously and was part of the reason why I had a lot of success.”

Most recently de Ribere Larkin was commissioned by Dancing Through the Ceiling, a program through American Repertory Ballet (ARB) that promotes classically-based female choreographers, to create a piece for the company’s most recent production, “Sinatra, Shadows and Stars.” Her piece, which was based on three Vincent Van Gogh paintings, one of which is “Starry Night,” along with works by Graham Lustig and Twyla Tharp, premiered at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. in March and will be making its New York debut at the Peter Norton Symphony Space on May 8 and 9.

Sitting in the cafeteria of the Samuel B. and Dave Rose Building, which houses the School of American Ballet (SAB) in Lincoln Center, de Ribere Larkin gestured at the apartment building diagonally behind her.

“When I was 13, we came up [from Pennsylvania] and rented an apartment in that complex right there,” de Ribere Larkin said referring to a 30-story building on Amsterdam Avenue. “My mom stayed with, me and my dad commuted because he still worked in Pennsylvania And that was my beginning of the real heavy duty two and half years at SAB.”

And at the age of 16, Balanchine asked her to join New York City Ballet.

During her career as a professional ballet dancer, de Ribere Larkin performed in NYCB’s corps de ballet for nine years before moving on to becoming a soloist at American Ballet Theatre.  She has performed works by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov and has toured the former Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Paris, London and Copenhagen.

De Ribere Larkin, a former features editor of The Observer, knew from a very young age that she was going to be a dancer and a choreographer.

“When I was six or seven, my dance teacher in York, Penn., said to my mom, ‘I’ve taught her everything I know,’” de Ribere Larkin said. “So my parents brought me to SAB to be evaluated, and they told my parents to bring me back when I was [older].”

At the same age, de Ribere Larkin began making up dances in her living room and performing them for her family.  While training at the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, now known as The Rock School of Dance Education in Philadelphia, de Ribere Larkin learned the solos from “Donizetti Variations,” one of Balanchine’s ballets, by watching rehearsals and performances.  She reworked some of the solos and performed them in her school’s talent show.

In 1984, de Ribere Larkin ended her professional performing career and began choreographing full time.  She has choreographed everything from full-length ballets to a dance routine for a socialite’s 40th birthday celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Balanchine told de Ribere Larkin to be prolific and never turn down a job opportunity.

“Balanchine said that it was the only way [I was] going to learn my craft,” de Ribere Larkin said. “He said if you work [with] the best dancers in the world, you won’t learn anything, because you have the best dancers and you’re not being pushed.  But if you have to make someone who can’t dance look like they are dancing and make them look good, then you’re learning something.”

After taking a nine-year hiatus from combining movement with music, de Ribere Larkin began choreographing again in August 2007, but with a new method of attacking a project.

“Before I would study the score, decide the counts, come up with the steps and write everything down before the first rehearsal.  I got a lot done in a short period of time, but I can’t do that anymore,” de Ribere Larkin said. “Now, I go into the studio, and I say, ‘Okay, dancers, pay attention, I’m going to do a phrase [of movement],’ and the dancers have to grab it, because it will be out of my head the second I do it.  And that’s what they do.  That’s what their job is; they are repositories for the work.  And they get to contribute by taking the phrase further and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know…I don’t know…Okay, that’s great.’ And it will be a spring board to the next thing.”

De Ribere Larkin said that she still spends a lot of time “internalizing the music” before going into the first rehearsal.  She prefers her new method of choreographing, but said it is “scary as hell” and “really a lot of fun.”

“The Mighty Casey” is one of de Ribere Larkin’s most notable ballets and has been staged on four ballet companies including the Pittsburgh Ballet.  Another personal favorite is “Harvest Moon,” which has a 1940s ballroom theme.

De Ribere Larkin plans on continuing her work as a freelance choreographer, is a faculty member of SAB and lives with her husband, Jay Larkin, CEO of the International Fight League, and her two sons, Ryan, 15, and Gabriel, 12, in Rockland County.