Preview: Meet Winning Works Choreographer Derick McKoy, Jr.

Photo by Mariah Gravelin.

It’s that time of year again. Spring is almost here and as we anticipate longer, warmer days and the budding of new foliage, the Joffrey Academy of Dance presents their group of budding dancers paired with four emerging choreographers in their annual Winning Works (WW) program. After a covid cancelation in 2020 and move to digital in 2021, this year’s four world premieres will take place on the intimate stage at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) debuting this weekend over four performances March 18 – 20. I hope you have your tickets, because the shows are already sold out! That said, keep reading to meet one of the winning choreographers who you need to know. Pay attention: you will be hearing his name more and more.

Derick McKoy, Jr. is busy, talented, and ambitious. Currently he is in grad school studying performing arts administration at New York University (NYU), works full-time as the Individual Giving Assistant in the development department at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and runs his own company McKoy Dance Project. A natural choreographer who has been creating dances since he was a kid, he didn’t start his formal dance training until age 14, but earned a position in the second company of Jubilee Dance Theatre by age 15. “In middle school I thought I was going to be a t.v. actor, but my school started a dance team and I changed my mind – I’m going to do that,” McKoy said. “I quickly became dance captain and was choreographing routines with the coach. I was also student council president so I launched a talent show for the whole school.” This drive and quick rise continued through college.

He received a scholarship to the Ailey School BFA program at Fordham University. “I love ballet, Horton, and Graham. That’s the perfect place to get those three,” he said. “It was very intense. Burnout was real, but it made me strong.” He capitalized on many opportunities there including dancing in the Ailey Spirit Gala, the groundbreaking of Vessel on Hudson Yards, and on t.v. shows Conan and Pose. He then performed with Nimbus Dance for two years and freelanced with The Black Iris Project before incorporating his own company in 2020.

Photo by Mariah Gravelin.

McKoy is in Chicago this week for the premiere of his new work Road to Flames created on 20 dancers from the Joffrey Studio Company and Academy Trainees. We spoke via Zoom last week about his career and choreographic process. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

I always wanted to have a company and be an artistic director. I just thought it would be later in my career. When the world shut down during Covid, I went home to Miami for a few months to recalibrate. When I came back George Floyd’s murder happened. It was the first time I self-reflected as a Black, Queer person – that could be me. It awoken something within me. I made a commitment. I can no longer use my choreography to not say something authentic about real issues. My work before that was performative. It was still dramatic and told a story, but now I can really get to authenticity and real human stories. Humanism, but also social justice. I was commissioned to do an evening-length work. Looking Out: A Stonewall Memorial incorporated two 45-minute pieces (Bloom and Pride). We performed it with the Opus 87 Piano Quartet in 2019. The dancers said they liked dancing under the name McKoy. The next year I incorporated.

How is being the leader, the artistic director?

It’s important to me. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for people of color. Even the opportunities that do come are few and far between. You see the same choreographers getting the same opportunities. A mentor told me, “If you aren’t getting the opportunities you want, go make them.” I took that and ran with it. If no one is going to allow me to make dance, I’ll just do it. I expanded it to other people. I realized that dance is not my passion. Mentoring is my passion and dance is the vehicle in which I do it. I feel so confident in that intention. I mentor through dance. My company is big on allowing emerging choreographers the chance to work with professional dancers and dancers the option to explore other facets of their identities and talents. I like talkbacks. I like hearing the audience and the dancers conversate about the process and what they discovered about themselves. That’s the fulfilling part for me. I’m trying to create a nurturing environment.

How did you come to apply for Winning Works?

I was introduced to Winning Works fairly early. I wanted to apply when I was still in school, but couldn’t find the application. I haven’t told many people this, but when I pictured where my career track would go…Joffrey was one of the companies I was pulled to. The environment was like a company I wanted to be in, like a family. Now, I feel like I’m part of the family. I met everyone – Greg Cameron (CEO & President), the Board of Directors, the Executive Team…the Community Engagement department came and introduced themselves to me. I’ve never experienced that before. It’s usually mainly transactional. You come in, do your work, and leave. To have real conversations with people who are concerned with the field and where we’re going…it really spoke to the level of investment and wanting to do it the right way. It was apparent in the students, in the Studio Company, and the Trainees. That level of care was there from the top down. That breeded a very open and warm environment with the dancers. I think Joffrey created an environment where they can be their optimal best.

Talk about your piece Road to Flames.

It’s in three movements. I’m in a transition period in my life. A lot of my works texturally and sensationally go off of my emotions…how they feel physically in your body. How does passion feel? Your temperature rises and you feel hot, so that image of fire came up. Each section goes through a phase of fire. The first section is “Spark.” We played with the texture of combustion like the flicking of a match and then it fizzles out. There’s a lot of accented initiations with smoking or decay after. That section runs up the energy with speed. That goes in contrast to the second section “Ember,” a smoldering flame. The quality being like a candle flame that has this mesmerizing flicker or little dance that it does. The section has more partnering and romance. The last section is called “Wildfire,” It’s kind of crazy. The music is very fast and staccato, chaotic and dynamic. Then there is a pseudo fourth section (no title) that transitions to this airy, elongated sound that goes in and out like how the spark of a flame can grow into a fire and that fire can be destructive and bring chaos, but it can also bring change and rebirth. There’s always this glimmer of hope and change of good that can come out of hardship or drastic changes.

What do you want the audience to take away?

I really want them to feel the sense of energy and urgency that’s built on stage. I don’t want them to feel anxious but pressurized so that at the end they feel a sense of relief. To show that tension can build but you can also breathe. I want the audience at the end to exhale. The dancers are amazing. I’m really proud of the work they put in. I want the audience to see their power.

You can learn more about McKoy’s Road to Flames in this Inside the Studio video. And view the full piece on The Joffrey Ballet’s YouTube Channel beginning March 31st.


  • an act or process of closing something
  • a feeling that an emotional or traumatic experience has been resolved
  • (in writing) all texts have an end, a point at which the author stopped writing, a sense of an ending

This has been, at least what feels like to me, a long time coming. I wrote a post about “Unpacking” in August of 2020, and while I did unpack that suitcase full of emotions, I still haven’t put things away. That will happen in the new year. Feel free to come help. That said, I do feel like I’ve finally found some closure and wanted to write about it. That’s what I do now. That’s what I am now. That’s what I’ve always been…a writer.

Joffrey Artists Fernando Duarte & Stefan Goncalvez. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Frankly, I was shocked by how long it took me to “get over” being let go from the Joffrey. A year-and-a-fucking half! WTF? While I went back to freelance writing almost immediately (huge thanks to Lauren Warnecke) and started a podcast (you should subscribe if you haven’t yet), I felt unmoored. And frankly, I thought as soon as they got back on their feet (literally and financially) and back in the theater, they surely would hire me back. Right? That didn’t happen. They hired a new full-time person in the Marketing Department…not me. That was a harsh reality to accept. At 15+ months since my last day, it was a punch in the gut and to my ego. They didn’t want or need me. Full stop.

As much as I’d like to say “Fuck ’em,” I can’t. I love the Joffrey and those dancers. They hold a special place in my heart and I wish them only success. So, after reassessing my life one more time, I took the assignment to review their first show back for SeeChicagoDance. This was also the first show at their new home at the Lyric Opera. A bittersweet moment for me, since I thought I would be there in an official capacity, but I was going to be there anyway. HOME had different meanings as the title of the performance as I said in my review, but Joffrey was my home too. Having to work, take notes, and rough draft the review in my head helped keep me focused – be professional! – but at the end of the opening piece, Arpino’s Birthday Variations, I cried. First, it was beautiful. But it was the look of happiness, relief, and amazement on the dancers’ faces (We did it!) that did me in. They did it! I wanted to run up and give them all a huge hug. Even though I hadn’t written a review since 2013 (pre-Joffrey), it was as they say, like riding a bike. But a bike I don’t enjoy riding. I hate writing reviews! They’re really difficult and stressful. Yet it was my way to be a part of their homecoming.

Joffrey Artists Amanda Assucena & Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

True closure came when I went to see opening matinee of The Nutcracker. I interviewed Music Director Scott Speck for my podcast beforehand, but I was there as a “normal” human to just enjoy the show. Again, bittersweet, however I still love the magic of this “problematic” ballet and my holiday season always includes it. To not be at the Auditorium Theatre felt strange, more so than for the fall mixed rep. This production was built for that theatre and my only issue is that they kept the golden arches in the sets for Act 2. It didn’t feel right to me.

This past Tuesday marked two years from the night after coming home from The Nutcracker) that I fell and cracked my head open on the iron gate in front of my house. I woke up on the ground bleeding. A trip to the ER the next day confirmed a concussion and I was patched up with six staples in my head. I still have a dent in my skull, BUT I’m here. My mini tbi may have slowed me down for a bit, but I’m thankful to be healthy and ready to start new projects in the new year. I’ve got shit to do!

I know many of you lost loved ones over this last year+ and I mourn with you. I lost friends too (Liam, Sue, Christie) and it is especially difficult to process in these surreal pandemic times. At the risk of sounding cheesy, now is the time of year to reach out and tell everyone in your world that you love them. The world needs it.

Podcast Episode 17: Scott Speck

Photo by Ben Harper

With performances in London, Paris, Moscow. Beijing, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, Scott Speck has inspired international acclaim as a conductor of passion, intelligence, and winning personality.

Scott led four performances for the Chicago Symphony in 2014-15 and was immediately re-engaged for four more concerts the next season, and the next. He was named Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra in June of 2013, and has been Music Director of The Joffrey Ballet since 2010. His concerts with the Moscow RTV Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky Hall garnered unanimous praise. His gala performances with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Midori, Evelyn Glennie, and Olga Kern have highlighted his recent and current seasons as Music Director of the Mobile Symphony. This season he also collaborates intensively with Carnegie Hall for the seventh time as Music Director of West Michigan Symphony. He was invited to the White House as former Music Director of the Washington Ballet.

In past seasons, Scott has conducted at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, New York’s Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Symphony Center, Washington’s Kennedy Center, San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, and the Los Angeles Music Center. He has led numerous performances with the symphony orchestras of Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, Paris, Moscow, Shanghai, Beijing, Vancouver, Romania, Slovakia, Buffalo, Columbus (OH), Honolulu, Louisville, New Orleans, Oregon, Rochester, Florida, and Virginia, among many others. Previously he held positions as Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet; Music Advisor and Conductor of the Honolulu Symphony; and Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. During a tour of Asia he was named Principal Guest Conductor of the China Film Philharmonic in Beijing.

In addition, Scott is the co-author of two of the world’s best-selling books on classical music for a popular audience, Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies. These books have received stellar reviews in both the national and international press and have garnered enthusiastic endorsements from major American orchestras. They have been translated into 20 languages and are available around the world. His third book in the series, Ballet for Dummies, was released to great acclaim as well.

Scott has been a regular commentator on National Public Radio, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Voice of Russia, broadcast throughout the world. He has been featured in TED talks and at the Aspen Ideas Festival. His writing has been featured in numerous magazines and journals.

Born in Boston, Scott graduated summa cum laude from Yale University. There he founded and directed the Berkeley Chamber Orchestra, which continues to perform to this day. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin, where he founded Concerto Grosso Berlin, an orchestra dedicated to the performances of Baroque and Classical music in a historically informed style. He received his Master’s Degree with highest honors from the University of Southern California, served as a Conducting Fellow at the Aspen School of Music, and studied at the Tanglewood Music Center. He is fluent in English, German and French, has a diploma in Italian, speaks Spanish, and has a reading knowledge of Russian.

Podcast Episode 10: Rory Hohenstein

Rory Hohenstein was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Maryland where he began dance at the age of seven, studying tap, jazz, and modern. He joined the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., graduating from the full six-year program. At the age of 17, he joined the company Le Juene Ballet de France in Paris, France. After spending a year touring around Europe, he joined the San Francisco Ballet as a corps member in 2000, and was promoted to soloist in 2006. He then joined Christopher Wheeldon in his new company Morphoses in 2008, splitting their home season in both New York and Sadler’s Wells, London. After several seasons, he then spent a season dancing with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before joining The Joffrey Ballet as on of the leading artists in 2011. After eight seasons with the company, in 2019, he joined the Atlanta Ballet as a Ballet Master.

Over his nearly 20-year career, he has worked with such choreographers as Justin Peck, Lar Lubovitch, Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, Alexander Ekman, Yuri Possokhov, William Forsythe, Helgi Tomasson, Val Caniparoli, Stanton Welch, and John Neumeier.

Some personal highlights for Hohenstein include Romeo in Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet, dancing the role of Levin in Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, Step Sister in Antony Tudor’s Cinderella, Amor in John Neumeier’s Sylvia, The Lovers in Alexander Ekman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Monk in Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, Cassio in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello, and in Fancy Free and Riff in West Side Story Suite, both by Jerome Robbins. He has also enjoyed working in stage productions with Debbie Allen, Neumeier’s opera Orphee and Eurydice, as well as working with Wade Robson from TV’s So You Think You Can Dance.

The Bitch Is Back

Hiiiiieeeeee! It’s me. Rogue. It’s been a while…almost four years since my last post and since 2013 they have been few and far between. I suddenly find myself with a LOT of time on my hands, so look out. The Bitch Is Back. (Sorry Mom, but it’s kind of my brand.)

Rogue at Dance For Life. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

For the last seven years, I worked in the Marketing department at The Joffrey Ballet. It was the most challenging, difficult, amazing, and rewarding experience of my professional work life. Some of those memories I hope to reflect on in this space. To have that suddenly gone is personally devastating, but hopefully soon, the grieving process will end and I will be left with only happy memories (read: unlimited viewings of The Nutcracker!).

I’ve spent most of my life in some way dedicated to dance as a dancer, teacher, administrator, writer, critic, marketer, and patron. It’s what I love. So, heads up! If you’re involved in the dance community in Chicago, the U.S. or abroad, I will be reaching out for interviews. I’m almost 52, and I have a lot of shit left to do. Let’s get to it. Go rogue.