Hometown: Annapolis, MD
Current city: Provo, UT
College and degree: Univeristy of Utah, BFA in Modern Dance
Graduate school and degree: University of Maryland, College Park; MFA in Dance (at age 33)
How you pay the bills: Assistant Professor of Dance at Brigham Young University
All of the dance hats you wear: choreographer, director, performer, writer, teacher, mentor, improviser, advocate, student (always)
Non-dance work you do: father, homemaker
Before BYU (as in, 4 months ago) I worked for over a decade at various hotels and restaurants, hustling to support my family while building my career.
Describe your dance life in your….
My 20s began with the single goal of being hired by a professional dance company. They finished as a husband, father, co-director of an improv company, freelance performer, and adjunct faculty member.
While an undergrad I did have many great performance opportunities, but unexpectedly it was a developed passion for improvisation that would consume most of my creative energies through my 20s. I remember very specifically the moment it happened, in Stephen Koester’s workshop class sophomore year, watching groups of classmates performing an improv exercise. I was so impressed with these spontaneous performances, it just hit me “why don’t we do that on stage?” This spark started a snowball that was eventually realized in the SLC based improv company Movement Forum (MoFo). First as a group of students, eventually as grassroots professionals, we did spontaneous ad-hoc street performances as well as carefully designed presented evenings in formal theatres. We performed locally as well as in Seattle and twice in NYC. Always improvised.
Improvisation was really the inlet to my teaching career as well. Through MoFo as well as independently, I guest taught at high schools, universities, and independent workshops domestically and internationally. These experiences gave me an in to eventually be hired as an adjunct at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College.
Beyond Improvisation, I had some really great freelance performance experiences, performing and touring the work of PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER, Stephen Koester, Juan Carlos Claudio, and others. The one big choreographic endeavor I took on in my 20s was a duet with my brother Joel Brown, who is paralyzed from the chest down. We first created I’ve Had It Up To Here when I was an undergrad and he was in junior high, and continued developing and performing the piece over the years. This work amplified my interest in how we perceive what a dancer is/does/looks like. (Joel now performs with AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, CA.) From 2006-2010 I was also the primary care giver of our then two children while my wife, Erin Lehua Brown, was working full time with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (RW).
In 2010, we moved to the DC area and Lehua and I switched roles. She became the primary care giver while I began grad school and working regularly with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER and the Dance Exchange (formerly the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange). At this point my creative interests had taken a sharp turn toward choreography and theatricality. I developed an interest in making work that uses spoken text, stage design, dramaturgy, and other theatric elements as a means to more deeply convey emotional and interpersonal narratives. I actually made the first work of this nature in Salt Lake, just before moving to DC. It was a hip-hop theatre duet presented by the Sugar Space that explored the complexities of a love relationship. My time in DC was a massively productive one. I made four significant works of choreography, including two evening-length pieces. Each asked different questions regarding reconciliation with self, family, and/or community. I studied voice, acting, playwriting, and Alexander Technique in addition to all of my dance studies, teaching, and performing. I also began choreographing for theatre. I choreographed a devised work directed by Leigh Wilson Smiley at the University of Maryland (UMD), and assisted Nancy Bannon in choreographing two one act plays for The Studio Theatre in DC.
With PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER (PW), directed by Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig, I performed throughout DC, NYC, various colleges up and down the east coast, and Santiago, Chile. This work challenged me in finding the peaks of my performative capacity, from the explosive and daring to the quiet energy within the subtlest detail.
I had moved back east expecting to establish and sustain my career and family there. Upon finishing my MFA, much to my surprise, I was hired on the faculty of Brigham Young University’s Department of Dance. So, three years after driving my family across the country, we found ourselves driving all the way back to Utah, now with another baby, Elliette, and Lehua expecting our fourth.
I’m now in my second semester of teaching at BYU. I never imagined myself living in Provo, but I have really found a home in mentoring students in their artistry while furthering my creative endeavors. I have a 5th grader-Isobella, 3rd grader-Oliver, toddler-Elliette, and 2-month old baby Ana. Lehua is quickly adjusting post-pregnancy, and we are all adjusting to our new life here in Provo.
How have you landed your performance gigs over the years (auditions, seen in class, etc)?
All of my performance work has come by invite through either personal associations or from being seen in performance. I have unsuccessfully auditioned for a small handful of gigs over the years, but our lifestyle rarely afforded me the opportunity to audition for things. In hindsight, I wonder how much necessity became the mother of invention for me. I wonder if having kids forced me to approach my career in a more creative, pro-active way. Since I wasn’t able to go out auditioning as I had originally planned, I started initiating projects, such as MoFo. If we hadn’t had kids so early, I wonder if I would have gone a more traditional route.
This is a little off-topic, but I’d like to share a little more about this aspect of the journey. Lehua and I were in no way planning on having a baby so soon (I was a sophomore and she a junior when Bella was born). To be honest I was devastated when I found out. I thought my career as a dancer was over, and I had no idea what I was going to do instead. The same year Bella was born, David Dorfman came to the U of U to set a piece and he brought his young son, Sam, with him. Just seeing someone balancing dance and family was all I needed to let me know that it was possible. Now, at the time I hadn’t pieced it together that David had already established his career before his son came into the picture, but in this case, ignorance was bliss. David set a work called Familiar Moments: the Family Project which included a family member on stage with each cast member. The piece began with nearly-1-year-old Bella sitting alone on stage, stoic in a pool of light. I took the process of making and performing this piece as a message that it was not only possible to juggle dance and a family, it was literally spotlighted.
I want to say that while the initial news was a shock, my relationship with Lehua, Bella, and each subsequent kid has defined me as an individual and an artist. They have charged me with a level of maturity, love, perspective, responsibility, as well as creative drive and professional pluck that I’m sure I would not have developed otherwise. When unexpected things come your way you have to improvise, so I guess that’s what I did.
What inspired you to go to graduate school? What did you want to learn, explore, or discover?
On one hand, grad school was the ticket to eligibility for a faculty position, which I knew I wanted. On the other hand, there were many things I wanted to work on; too many to reasonably sink my teeth into in three years. Specifically I wanted to:
- develop as a choreographer
- build more tools as a teacher, particularly in areas other than improv
- further my pursuits as a scholar (I haven’t talked about this, but by then I had published a few little things and was interested in going further into dance scholarship)
- develop stronger technical and performance skills
- gain skills in theatre
- maintain a foot in the professional world, particularly through performance
I knew this was too much, so I entered grad school ready to see which areas my program would most facilitate. To a certain degree I actually did have experience and development in all of these areas, but choreography became by far my most intense area of focus. Specifically I had the unique opportunity to work within the theatric modalities I was interested, as the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies put me in direct collaboration with top tier professors and grad students in design, stage management, and dramaturgy, as well as offering faculty mentors in both Theatre and Dance.
What is on your plate for 2014?
I have received a commission through Repertory Dance Theatre’s Link series, as well as significant funding from BYU, to mount my evening-length work You at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City in January 2015. I have currently gathered most of my design team (stage manager, dramaturg, and costume, lighting, and scenic designers) and will be having auditions February 8th and 15th for the lead cast. This is a huge opportunity for me to further develop a work that I started in DC and now have the resources to fully realize. (Anyone interested in auditioning please see my website for details.)
This summer I will be touring to NYC and St Petersburg, Russia with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER, making new site-specific work, and staging the company’s most celebrated evening- Ordinary Festivals.
Beyond this, I’m just trying to keep my head above water in my new faculty role at BYU and keep track of four kids at home!
Who are your role models and inspiration in the field of modern dance right now?
By far my biggest inspiration is DV8 Physical Theatre based in the UK. I saw their show To Be Straight With You in L.A. in 2009 and it changed my life. It really was the point of inspiration for my work in integrating theatre and dance. Beyond this, here is a small list:
- Hofesh Schechter
- Jasmin Vardimon
- Akram Khan
- Crystal Pite
- Susan Marshall
- Pina Bausch
- Ohad Naharin
- There are many others
Can you talk a little about being married to a dancer? How do you support each other? Do you perform together?
I am pretty proud of how we have supported each other over the years. I think we have both adjusted elements of our careers in order to make this incredible family work. It has been chaotic, and not without a lot of tensions, but I feel we have and are fulfilling both our career and familial dreams. As I’ve talked about, we have more or less taken turns. I slowed down, or at least channeled my work into a model that would give me the flexibility necessary to support her while she toured with Ririe-Woodbury. She did the same while we were back east and now while I’m getting started at BYU. It takes a lot of passion, a little crazy, and a lot of help from family and friends to have done what we’ve done. A couple of examples: our oldest, Isobella, was born when we were both in college. My sister would basically watch her all day while we were in class and bring her to the dance building at lunchtime so Lehua could nurse. In 2011, after we had moved to DC, Lehua and I were both busy with a significant amount of touring (sometimes together, but mostly separate). She would come home just in time for me to leave or vise versa. When we were both gone, her mother would come out to take care of the kids. Out of that whole year I think we were only together as a family for like 5 months.
Do we work together? No. Not really. We’ve found that it’s just so hard because then we’ve got to find a babysitter for every rehearsal/tech/performance. There have been a couple of exceptions, but not many. We did have this great period of time when we first moved to DC, when our oldest two were in school and before our third was conceived that we did a few very cool gigs together: we did Willi Dorner’s Bodies in Urban Spaces in NYC, a guest performance in Nicholas Leichter Dance’s The Wiz when it toured to DC and VA, and Tzveta Kassabova’s evening The Opposite of Killing. Lehua has been lying low since having Elliette, and then Ana. We are surely done at four, so now she’s regrouping and starting to get back into things, which I am very excited for.
An idea from your college years that you still think about/apply:
One thing comes to mind. At the end of my four years, bubbling with excitement, ready to jump into the professional world, Eric Handman said something to me that I’ll never forget and have echoed to my students since. He said to just “enjoy the ride.” I took this to mean something like: it’s a process, don’t expect everything to all happen at once. Every step is part of an accumulation that collects to make you the artist/person you become.
Final advice to young dancers:
A trend that I see in young dancers is that of having a generally apologetic nature. This attitude presents itself in not taking one's self seriously as a contributor to a field that is societally vital, as well as offering a sense of politely waiting one's turn to get picked. No amount of social change has been brought about in this manner, nor on a personal level is that the way to get work. Dancers need to find the power of their voices and artistic perspective and be willing to express it confidently. This will help in finding work and will help the field at large to burrow out of its state of marginalization.
Graham wrote an update to this profile on October 20, 2017. Click here.