Heading to the New York City Ballet

This past summer, choreographer Sidra Bell was asked by Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director at New York City Ballet (NYCB), if she was interested in creating one of five site-specific commissions for the company. With its in-person season scrapped due to COVID-19, NYCB planned to have the new dances performed and filmed around Lincoln Center and at other New York City locations, then shown online over a five-week digital season.

Bell became the first Black woman to create an original work for the NYCB when she accepted Whelan’s offer and choreographed the six-minute pixilation in a wave (Within Wires) for two female and two male dancers.

“It’s such a tremendous feeling,” says Bell, whose company, Sidra Bell Dance New York (SBDNY), was founded in 2001. “I carry all of my teachers, mentors and family in this moment. I feel so grateful to everyone who supported me for so many years.” Among those supporters was ArtsWestchester, which has given the Greenburgh-based Bell five honors, including three Arts Alive project grants.

“I feel so supported in the community, especially by ArtsWestchester,” Bell says. “I also spent a few years with Steffi Nossen as a teacher in their children’s program and was also a guest choreographer for their teen ensemble. Those early experiences were instrumental in my growth as an educator.”

Bell was asked to follow the NYCB’s coronavirus-related restrictions—for example, the dancers had to stay 10 feet apart. “Normally, I use a lot of touch in my dance,” says Bell. There was, however, one exception to the no-touch rule. “Two of the dancers were a couple who lived together, so they told me that if I used the couple they can touch,” she says, which she did.

After the choreography was completed, Bell spent a week on Zoom watching the dancers in a studio. This was followed by four days on the Lincoln Center plaza, rehearsing and overseeing the choreography as a production crew filmed.  Bell also observed the taping of the work’s original score by four members of the NYCB orchestra. “It was exciting to have so many resources, even in a time of COVID-19,” she says. “It was a very generous experience and lots of fun.”

pixilation in a wave (Within Wires) was shown as part of NYCB’s “Festival of New Choreography” at the end of October and will stream for an indefinite period on YouTube, NYCB’s Facebook page and at nycballet.com.

Bell’s interest in dance began in pre-school at Miss Patti Ann’s Dance in Riverdale, close to Inwood where she grew up. By age seven, she had earned a scholarship to study at Dance Theatre of Harlem, and within six years she was taking classes in the group’s professional division. At 14, Bell was accepted to The Ailey School, creating solo dances that she performed at student showcases both at Ailey and The Spence School, which she attended. While studying history at Yale University, Bell founded the Alliance for Dance at Yale College and believes she helped inspire the university to establish a dance studies program. Two years after graduating, Bell attended Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, earning an MFA in Choreography.

Bell has worked on more than 100 commissions, including for The Julliard School, Ailey II, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Sacramento Ballet, Ballet Austin and BODYTRAFFIC. Her pieces have been seen throughout the U.S., as well as in Aruba, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Korea, Slovenia, Sweden and Turkey.

Bell explains that SBDNY is something of a family affair. Her father, jazz pianist Dennis Bell, serves as its artistic consultant and composer, and wrote the score for pixilation in a wave (Within Wires). Executive Director Claudette Bell, her mother, is a graphic designer who also handles the group’s publicity, web design and marketing.

And for those who like to celebrate, in 2017 White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach issued a formal proclamation naming February 3 “Sidra Bell Day,” citing her “meaningful contributions to the community.”

A version of this article first appeared in the November issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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