New York City Ballet premiere by Thai American dancemaker is milestone


The idea of rebirth takes wing in “Fortuitous Ash,” a dance created by 28-year-old choreographer Keerati Jinakunwiphat for the New York City Ballet. The work’s title alludes to the mythological phoenix, consumed by fire and reborn from its ashes.

Also animating the piece: an appreciative stretching of form. “I love a ballet step, but I love to stretch and pull it out in different ways,” Jinakunwiphat says. “That’s exciting for me.”

That approach has paid off. On Feb. 1, New York City Ballet premiered “Fortuitous Ash,” the first work Jinakunwiphat has choreographed for the company. Appearing on a 21st-century choreography bill alongside ballets by renowned dancemakers Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky, the piece will be performed several more times in New York through Feb. 11, as part of the company’s 2023 winter season.

Set to music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, “Fortuitous Ash” represents the first time that choreography and music by female artists of Asian heritage have entered the NYCB repertory. (The company’s winter season also includes, among other offerings, Peck’s world premiere “Copland Dance Episodes.”)

On a rare January day when she didn’t have to worry about juggling “Fortuitous Ash” with the demands of her day job — as a dancer with the esteemed contemporary troupe A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham — Jinakunwiphat spoke over Zoom about “Fortuitous Ash” and her aesthetic.

It’s an aesthetic, she says, that necessarily reflects her Thai American identity: “I want to create from an authentic or original place, [so] it has to show up, in a way.

“American culture promotes individuality, which I love, and I think is super important,” she adds, “and I always want to have my dancers shine as themselves, and be seen as themselves, onstage. And then, thinking more about my Thai culture, which is super heavy on community and family: That’s where the connectivity lies in my work. People support each other and move together, and it becomes something bigger than themselves.”

Jinakunwiphat grew up in Chicago, the child of chefs who run a Thai restaurant. Joining a youth ensemble run by the area’s Dance Center Evanston, and studying ballet, were seminal experiences. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Conservatory of Dance at the State University of New York at Purchase.

She joined A.I.M. in 2016. Her time at the company has taught her valuable lessons about nuance and presence, she says.

“The power of subtlety is something Kyle does really well and that inspires me,” Jinakunwiphat says. Fast bravura movement may have its place, she adds, “but there’s something so powerful in the slowness and subtlety of things. That’s something I’m exploring right now — and something I’m getting the dancers at City Ballet to work on.”

In addition to assisting Abraham in new commissioned work, Jinakunwiphat has developed a reputation as a choreographer in her own right, racking up commissions.

In 2019, New York City’s Battery Dance Festival showcased her “Good Island,” which she calls a riff on “adventurousness, rambunctiousness [and] sensitivity,” inspired by the books “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Lord of the Flies.”

At New York’s Joyce Theater in 2019, A.I.M. premiered Jinakunwiphat’s “Big Rings,” a tribute to the virtuosity of star athletes and her fellow A.I.M. dancers.

Abraham says that Jinakunwiphat was the first company member to choreograph a commissioned work for A.I.M. She “is a truly gifted choreographer,” he said via email, with a “unique and very necessary” voice.

New York City Ballet associate artistic director Wendy Whelan was among those who saw “Big Rings.” She recognized talent. “When you see it, you want to grab it. You want to hone it, and give it a chance,” she says.

Jinakunwiphat was invited to participate in the 2021 fall session of the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of NYCB, where she began developing the work that would become “Fortuitous Ash.”

A classical music catalogue introduced her to the scores of Du Yun, a Shanghai-born composer whose edgy opera “Angel’s Bone” won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2017. “With her stuff, the more I listen to it, the more intrigued I get,” Jinakunwiphat says.

She first choreographed to Du Yun’s “Impeccable Quake,” but as the dance evolved over the years, Jinakunwiphat changed scores. “I didn’t want to be too married to a version of myself that was creating then,” she says. “I wanted to be in tune with who I am as a creator now.”

So “Fortuitous Ash” now unfurls to the trumpets, electric guitar and electronics of Du Yun’s “Air Glow,” as well as part of “Run in a Graveyard,” for electronics and bass flute.

Five women on pointe, and four men, dance “Fortuitous Ash” to life. The piece, Whelan says, “has a very contemporary vibe, which we love as well, but [Jinakunwiphat] does know how to work with our ballet dancers, because she does understand ballet.”

Whelan is also aware of the milestone the piece represents as a work choreographed and scored by female artists of Asian heritage, saying that she and NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford have tried to make dancemaker diversity an important part of their programming.

NYCB soloist Sebastian Villarini-Velez says he has been struck by how “Fortuitous Ash” departs from the movement he is often called upon to execute.

“I feel like most of our repertoire depends on counts and positioning,” he says. “Whereas with her, it’s more driven by the feeling, the breath,” allowing “for more exploration of our limits as dancers.”

With “Fortuitous Ash” having stretched its phoenix’s wings, Jinakunwiphat will be back in dancer mode. As for other projects: “Choreographically, that’s open,” she says. “Let the world know.”

Fortuitous Ash Through Feb. 11 in New York City Ballet’s winter season (through Feb. 26). At the David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. 212-496-0600.


A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misspelled composer Du Yun’s name. The story has been updated.

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