Jennifer Archibald documents Florence Waren’s life
Sounds of the SunDocumentary ballet tells story of Jewish resistance fighter

Jennifer Archibald documents Florence Waren’s life

New work will premiere at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's season opening

Dancers rehearse Jennifer Archibald’s “Sounds of the Sun,” for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s season opening. Photo by David Rullo
Dancers rehearse Jennifer Archibald’s “Sounds of the Sun,” for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s season opening. Photo by David Rullo

Jennifer Archibald believes Florence Waren’s story transcends the Jewish community.

Waren was a Jewish dancer who lived in Paris and worked with the French Resistance during World War II. Archibald, a renowned choreographer, is a graduate of the Alvin Ailey School and Maggie Flanigan Acting Conservatory and founder and artistic director of the Arch Dance Company and program director of ArchCore40 Dance Intensives. She has choreographed for the Ailey II, as well as ballets in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Memphis, Kansas City, Tulsa, Nashville and Grand Rapids and has worked with Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and MAC Cosmetics.

“There are so many communities that have suffered,” Archibald said. “I think we are honoring a woman that has been brave and has had resilience and has shown loyalty and has been hopeful through all her risk-taking decisions. I think watching that happen on stage should give people hope. She was definitely a light for a lot of people.”

“Sounds of the Sun,” about Waren, will premiere as part of Light in the Dark, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s season opener, Oct. 27-29.

Archibald said that when the PBT approached her about working on “Sounds of the Sun” it lined up with an idea in which she’d always been interested: documentary ballet.

“A lot of the stories in ballet lie in fantasy. I thought if I could create something that brought a sense of real life to the stage, you can make sure that all of the audience members sitting there could relate,” she said.

The idea, she explained, had another benefit—to be able to bring people into dance that don’t normally see dance, fall in love with dance.

“If you can see yourself on stage, which is clearly something happening in this story, it is exciting and memorable,” she said.

Archibald is invested in more than the onstage movement of the work, though.

She has pieced together a score that includes different music, including classical music and a Jewish composer who specializes in percussion.

The score will include the voice of Waren, which Archibald was able to find in a documentary made by the dancer’s son.

“It’s really like going through a memory,” she said. “It’s a memoir of her talking about what she did in Paris and dealing with the resistance. It gives a real strength of being there with her.”

Archibald has been working on the project for the last eight months. She said that working in the documentary format requires more time than a typical piece. Part of that time was spent trying to find information about Waren, something that wasn’t easy. Google didn’t have much to go by, so Archibald spent time looking for family members. She was able to contact a granddaughter who sent her the documentary she used for the work.

The choreographer said that spending so much time preparing for the work transmits energy that you bring into your body, similar to what actors do when readying for a role. It’s important, she said, to put yourself into Florence Waren’s body.
Once the preparation was complete, Archibald was able to improvise when choreographing the work.

“I choreograph on the spot,” she said. “As long as the concept is alive and full on my body before I even came here, then it’s just me living in the moment,” she said. “By the time you get here you can be very clear on how you direct and how you cue and what emotion needs to happen here when you’re looking this way or that.

The movements she choreographs combine her training in street dancing, ballet and modern dancing—blending genres and aesthetics together seamlessly.

Because of the various elements she’s involved with, Archibald sees herself as a storyteller committed to showing an emotional arc from beginning to end. She said it’s also important when working in documentary ballet to ensure the integrity behind the work is solid. All of this can be emotionally draining but it’s worth it in the end.

“You’ve got to be completely present for 30 minutes and the score has to be there, the story has to be linear, then you’ve got the movement,” she said. “As long as everything is in context then I am emotionally alive when I go into the space, and everything falls into place. That’s how I coach the dancers, as well.”

In the end, Archibald said that “Sound of the Sun” has relevance because of its subject.

“Honoring a woman that moves through life with bravery and integrity is something that needs to be celebrated,” she said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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