Jessica Kilpatrick has yet to see the film she stars in. She has, however, lived it. One year ago, the Hartford, Conn., native was in New York, performing with the Amy Marshall Dance Company, and teaching at the Joffrey Ballet School when she accepted the job as head of children and adult programs for the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Kilpatrick knew her new gig would include teaching and overseeing classes of novice through pre-professional dancers, ages 2 through 82. She'd taught ballet to lots of people before.
What she hadn't done was choreograph a performance of an original work, her own, and teach it to be performed on stage by Pennsylvania Ballet Company II dancers and six teenagers with cognitive and intellectual disabilities from the St. Katherine Day School.
But that's the assignment she was given by her bosses at the Pennsylvania Ballet and by Art-Reach, a 39-year-old Philly nonprofit that connects underserved audiences with the arts.
The result: An absolutely moving performance this spring at FringeArts — and the documentary I Am by local filmmaker Glenn Holsten, set to debut to a sold-out audience at the Prince Theater on Tuesday evening. Kilpatrick talks about creating an original, heartfelt work among a dozen dancers — and testifies to the power of art to transform lives.
How'd you become a dance teacher?
I've always been a performer. Teaching was something I did to earn my keep. I assisted classes at a young age. When I was 17, I had my own classes in Hartford's community Boys and Girls Clubs. That's where I fell in love with children and developed a huge passion for teaching, and for the idea of communication and connection to one another through dance.
Had you ever taught dancers like the St. Katherine's Day School students?
Throughout my teaching career — and my normal life — I have had friends, family, and one or two students in a class that have displayed some kind of disability. I never worked primarily with a group that had been diagnosed with disabilities. But I had always wanted to. I believe dance holds so much power: the power of healing, the power of giving everyone a voice.
How did you approach the assignment?
When I'm working with people in the art world, I try to work as organically as possible. I try to stay true to the environment, the people, and the circumstances. This time, I had no idea what I was walking into. I didn't know what my students were feeling or thinking. A few weren't very verbal. I took the time to get to know each St. Katherine's student, to get a feeling of their personalities, how they express themselves.
After one or two hours in the studio with them, I shared some of my movement vocabulary with them. I observed how they took it, how they responded. That's when I came up with a phrase for each student, a four-eighths or two-eighths movement, an individual gesture that I made into a dance.
How did you pair up the dancers?
We had one more Pennsylvania Ballet II dancer than St. Katherine's dancers. I watched them interacting together: eating food, dancing — they chose themselves, in a way. Some of the dancers and students gravitated toward each other, and we let that happen.
The Pennsylvania Ballet II dancers are young — 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, maybe 21, 22 — and extremely talented. They're around the same age as the St. Katherine's students but come from a very different background.
In the ballet world, you're closed off. You're hyperfocused, because that's the way you have to be in the industry. For those of us who have such a strong focus on one discipline, it was so eye-opening to see into another person's world, how they might be experiencing something.
Working together made the [Pennsylvania Ballet II] dancers slow down and appreciate things they wouldn't otherwise notice, to find joy in things that we might not ever otherwise take a moment to recognize. Reaching your hand out to someone who is experiencing life differently, you end up learning so much from them.
How many rehearsals until you had a finished piece?
Ten rehearsals of one hour each in the Pennsylvania Ballet's studio. It was a tight fit — I'm not going to lie. But we worked very professionally. We worked our butts off, every single person. We pushed. It was a challenge for everyone.
And you haven't seen the film?
I'll see it for the very first time Tuesday. I hope — I know — that it will reflect the phases of our collaboration, the magic of the process. The filmmakers, the camera crew, myself, the dancers, the students, we all came together. Collaborating did for each person more than what the eye could see. At the end, it was more than just a beautiful performance. It was beautiful from the inside out.
What are your hopes for I Am?
I hope the film gets out there, and that people are moved by it and feel as passionately as I do that we need to do more work like this, that they believe in the arts and the power it holds for our society. When we come together, there's so much to gain: It's incredible.