Local choreographer to debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Throughout his life, Chris Emile admits he’s “always been looking for love.”

The critically acclaimed choreographer said he’s “not any different from anyone else.”

“In one form or another, we’re all looking for love,” said the Inglewood native who trained at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

Emile, 35, found amore in his latest project, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s world premiere of “Stranger Love,” described as an impossible, countercultural, six-hour operatic odyssey into the sublime.

“I’m developing it myself and having it make sense to me,” said Emile, a choreographer, performer and director based in Los Angeles. “When you read the script, and think about the two main actors — it’s simple. 

“You meet somebody, it’s going well, then after a bit longer, their wants and needs change. How does that work with a partner? Do you grow together or do you grow apart? It keeps shifting. Time can sometimes make it harder or it can make it better.  It’s all about time and love.”

“Stranger Love” is directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, resident director of the Lincoln Center Theater where she made her Broadway debut last year. She is one of three Black women to ever be nominated for a Tony Award in the “best direction of a play” category for “The Skin of Our Teeth,” her directorial debut at Lincoln Center Theater.

This is the first time Emile has worked with Blain-Cruz.

“We’ve never worked together before but I’m a big fan of hers,” he said. “I’m glad she brought me on. She, the composer, and the writer talked to me about their vision for the work. Because I’m locally based, I was able to give them advice on some people. The show is a real collaboration.”

Emile’s contribution to the show, which includes a 28-piece orchestra, singers and dancers, comes in Act 2 of the six-hour, three-act production that includes a dinner intermission.

Act I of “Stranger Love,” music by Dylan Mattingly and words by Thomas Bartscherer, tells the story of two lovers whose romance follows the rhythm of the seasons.

“In Act 2 it goes broader and depicts how love is created,” Emile said. “It’s done with six dancers. Act 3 is a micro level looking at it on a universal level. It’s abstract and specific. As I said, the reality is we are always looking for love.”

The world premiere of “Stranger Love” is set for a one-night-only performance at 4 p.m. May 20 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“When I choreograph,” said Emile, who is making his L.A. Philharmonic and Walt Disney Concert Hall debut, “my stuff is based on the space I’m in. “I’m a spatial person. Walt Disney Concert Hall is so large and the stage is small. I’m trying to find a way for humans to look bigger than what they do in that space.

“This is unique. It’s a big institution in a big city. I’m excited. There is a lot of brainstorming and visualizing that’s going into this show. When I choreograph, I see it in my head first.”

For Emile, who loves to tell stories through dance, when he’s choreographing “it’s constant daydreaming.”

“Ideas come to you in waves,” he said. “Ideas come to me while I’m driving, sitting down, or doing anything physical. In a sense, you are work-shopping yourself.”

For his part of the show, Emile is choreographing it as an improvisational contemporary dance piece.

“I’m excited to challenge myself,” he said. “It’s 90 minutes of straight dancing. It takes people a year to choreograph something that long. We don’t have that kind of time.”

Over the span of his career, Emile has choreographed numerous shows that were commissioned by Solange Knowles, Anderson .Paak, and Moses Sumney, the Kennedy Center, Sao Paolo Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Opera Omaha, the University of Southern California, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, and LA Opera.

His criteria for choreographing a project is getting “the full picture of things.”

“It’s not just about the dance portion,” he said. “If the person is inspiring or the space is inspiring, I have an interest. I like the full gamut.”

Dancing for most of his life, Emile fell in love with the art form when he was very young.

“I used to watch Michael Jackson,” he said. “My mom said I would be dancing in my room, and when people came over, I would dance for them. She put me in sports but it wasn’t my thing. 

“She took me to a concert at Crenshaw Mall and there was an African dance being done by Lula Washington’s school. I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do, so she put me in dance school.”

Emile was introduced to the world of dance at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre from the time he was 10 until he graduated from Hamilton High School.

The experience changed his life and set him on a path of creativity and passion.

“I love Lula,” he said. “She taught me how to dance and what it means to be a Black person. She taught me about being invested in the community. She taught us that dance is a fine art. It’s not just entertainment.”

Emile, whose choreographic work fluctuates between the film, stage, and commercial worlds, said he is also indebted to Debbie Allen.

“I learned about the business side of dance from her,” he said. “I learned more about the entertainment industry. The selling of it.”

Emile then moved to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Program. He holds a bachelor’s in fine arts degree in dance from the Alonzo King LINES Ballet/Dominican University BFA program as a member of the inaugural class.

“With Ailey, I learned what it is to dance outside of Los Angeles,” said Emile, who frequently teaches at CalArts, Loyola Marymount University, Pomona College and UC Irvine. “At LINES, I learned more about being an artist and what makes me unique as a performer. At LINES, it’s about what you are bringing to the table.”

While continuing his dance education, Emile said he was always choreographing in his head.

“I wanted to dance because I wanted to express myself without words,” said Emile, who has also performed with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Morphoses, BODYTRAFFIC and Luna Negra Dance Theater. “When you dance, you can be expressive and loud without saying anything. Dance makes me feel closer to God and to myself.”

When he returned to Los Angeles in 2014, after dancing in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Morphoses” and Alonzo King’s “LINES,” Emile decided to become a choreographer so he could produce his own work and transform a performance based on his own interpretations.

“That’s one of the reasons I co-founded ‘No) one. Art House,’” said Emile whose work has been presented by Hauser & Wirth, the Getty Museum, MOCA Los Angeles, and the California African American Museum. “We offered classes and performances throughout Los Angeles. 

“We were making new audiences for dance. We started educational workshops and immersive performances by performing close to the audience. It makes people feel more involved.”

An inspirational choreographer, Emile debuted his first solo exhibition, “AMEND,” in March 2020 at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Unfortunately, it was postponed by the pandemic. The work explored Black male identity through a combination of live performance and film.

A good choreographer, he said, knows what works on a body.

“When I try out a move, I have to like how it feels on my body first,” Emile said. “If it feels good on me, it might feel good on somebody else.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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