Photo: Bentley Drezner
Hometown: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Current city: Brooklyn, NY
Attended an arts high school? Yes, from 14-17 I attended the pre-professional training program at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
College and degree: The Juilliard School, BFA
How you pay the bills: Teaching at Princeton
All of the dance hats you wear: Choreographer, teacher, fundraiser, grant writer, mentor, producer, director, curriculum builder, collaborator
Non-dance work you have done in the past: Being Canadian I was unable to get a work visa for non-dance related jobs, so most of my work has been movement and body related including personal training and becoming a massage therapist. I did administrative work in exchange for classes.
Photo: Julie Lemberger
Describe your dance life in your….
20s: I found my 20s to be a professional and personal roller coaster. It took me a long time to distinguish between the goals that had evolved over years of expectations placed on me during my training and what I actually wanted to do.
After a major injury I sustained at Juilliard, I devoted myself to directing and choreographic projects. I realized how natural it felt to be at the front of the class, how much I wanted to say, teach, and give. I discovered a love of collaborating with dancers, turning off the lights in the studios and leading improvisations. I started to mentor first year students. Yet, upon graduating I felt compelled to prove myself as a performer and wanting to live up to the expectations that come with being a Juilliard grad.
The first years out of school were disorienting. I went to auditions but was not confident and it showed; I rented studio space but ended up walking around the room a lot. On the outside I was doing well — dancing with a small company, working as a personal trainer, administrating a dance festival — but on the inside I did not feel successful. I met someone on tour and decided to move in with him in Connecticut. Leaving New York was both helpful and heartbreaking.
I thought about quitting dance altogether; I thought about grad school; I thought about becoming a physical therapist. One day the phone range, and I was offered a job teaching Dance Kinesiology at The Hartford Ballet, and I said yes. (My injury had led me to study of anatomy and kinesiology extensively and to intensive work in Bartenieff Fundamentals, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais, as well as working with Irene Dowd.) The next day I was invited to audition for a dance company, and got the job. Within three years I was teaching 15 classes a week at various universities, seeing 10 massage clients per week, rehearsing with two choreographers, and making my own work. It was as if I had to be ready to drop it all to start again. It was also a safe place, to be in CT and out of the glare of NY. I could experiment, be okay with not knowing what I was doing. I produced concerts in collaboration with other choreographers and found courage in their company. Four years went by and again I received a phone call out of the blue, two in fact.
One was an invitation to teach at UCLA, the other to teach in Turkey. I jumped at the chance to move. Things hadn’t worked out with the person I went to CT for, and at 28 I drove to LA one January morning. It felt as if I was coming out of a shell. I had been working in a cocoon and didn’t know the value of my work. It was in LA I began to believe I could have a career as a choreographer/educator that was akin to my mother’s life as a research scientist who conducted experiments in her lab and taught in medical school. Although now this is a common expectation, I had no idea it was possible in dance. It was not the narrative of my training.
30s: In my 30s I hit a stride. I felt confident. UCLA offered me a full-time job and I turned it down to go to Istanbul for the year. In Turkey I taught 12 students all day, everyday for a year. I created 8 pieces with them. I call it my PhD in teaching. By the end of the year I was exhausted and exhilarated and ready to return to New York. It had been six years since I left.
I re-arrived in NY in 1999 with dreams of building a full-time company. My first evening length show was at Joyce SoHo, and over the next few years I applied for everything, went to everything, and said yes to everything. I had a terrific group of dancers I worked with, several of whom are still with me, and their commitment brought new dimensions to my choreography. We were very much a family, slightly zany and ready to work.
Then 9/11 happened and prompted me to reassess my priorities. I was 34, what did I want? I missed building relationships with students; working freelance teaching master classes was not as fulfilling as building change over the course of a semester or year. Prior to 9/11 I avoided thinking about having children but then realized, yes, I did want to see if it was possible. Within two years I had given birth to my son and accepted a part-time position at Princeton. My twins, identical girls, arrived 4 years later.
Photo: Anna Finke
40s: I’m in my mid forties. I have been at Princeton for 10 years. My son is 11, my twins are 6. I had a New York season last June with six sold-out shows and excellent reviews. I think I’ll look back on this time and wonder how I managed it all. People ask me and I have no idea how to answer. I wake up, I drink coffee, I do the work. Scheduling is the hardest. A day can consist of getting the kids ready and off to school, going to rehearsal, commuting to Princeton for a faculty meeting, teaching a class, going home to make dinner and do homework, putting the kids to bed and likely sending a few more emails or working on a grant application.
Now instead of fighting to get every gig or grant, the phone rings a bit. I still struggle with making blind phone calls and self-promoting, but I have a sustainable process to choreograph every year. While I will likely never have full-time employment for my dancers as I had once hoped, I have work and will continue to choreograph. My appointment at Princeton affords me this stability both by providing a salary and through the opportunity to apply for research funding. In many ways I feel I am emerging as a choreographer as I have been a bit of an outlier, never the "hot" one. To get produced and receive grants you need people routing for you and talking about you, and it has taken me a long time to build those relationships. I feel I am just beginning.
How has being a dancer shifted/changed since becoming a parent as well?
There is more balance but less time. It is rejuvenating to be absorbed in my children — playing with them, talking about the world, taking them to performances, watching them make choices. Conversely, it makes my time in the studio and working on projects more precious. Being a parent enables me to be more clear about my priorities in life in general. It is hard to stop tracking emails and thinking about what needs to be done when I am with my children, but I strive to keep work time separate. This means I have less time to rehearse, or promote my work, or read all of the latest research in the field, or attend every performance I would like to see. But if that was all I was doing and didn’t have children I think I would drive myself crazy and never stop with my lists! Children help me make sense of the world around me and myself and these realizations profoundly influence my art-making. My children have taught me to suspend judgment, to notice the details, and to truly be in the moment. So if now it takes me four years to have a season in New York instead of 2, it is okay. I have the gift of perspective.
Photo: Anna Finke
What do you look for in a dancer?
That is a tricky question! There is certainly a "je ne sais quoi" aspect to noticing which dancer that inspires me. I can see two equally accomplished dancers but one will be compelling to me as a potential collaborator and another will not. I tell my students there is no formula to being the best dancer at an audition. I want students to have the confidence that sometimes there isn’t anything you can do better, it isn’t about you and they shouldn’t take rejection personally. It is crippling to think every time you audition or are passed over for a project it means that you are not good enough. That isn’t it! It simply isn’t a match and that has nothing to do with their expertise. I watch some of the most fantastic dancers in the world and know I wouldn’t choose them for a project. Yes, I would love to be commissioned to choreograph with any dancer and love that challenge, but when selecting dancers for my projects there are practical factors and unexplainable elements. On the practical side I look for mastery of physical skills in an amalgam of modern forms. I also need an equal amount of abandon, fearlessness, and ability to throw one’s self off balance. I love precision and freedom. I look for people who know how to take care of themselves, can warm themselves up, and are actively taking care of their own bodies and pursing their training. Many of my dancers are also creators themselves.
You describe your company as a “project-based group.” Does that mean you do, or do not, have a core group of dancers?
I do have a core group; I have dancers who have been with me for 13 years. They may not be able to do every project, but it gives me a consistency and the ability to build on previous work. When a new dancer comes into a project where there are people who know me there is a shorthand and a passing on of process.
Photo: Anna Finke
On average, how many hours a week do you do company-related work (choreographing, rehearsing, admin)?
There are weeks where I am full-time on company related rehearsals and administration. But during the semester I teach 2-3 days per week and I try and reserve two days a week for combined self-care (taking class, swimming, gyrotonic) and administration. I would love to have a weekly rehearsal schedule but intensive work during breaks from Princeton are more common and easier to schedule.
What are 3 pieces of advice you want to give to aspiring choreographers?
- Find safe places to develop your work.
- Take time on the process, change your process, experiment with ways of working and trust every flash of new ideas no matter how outlandish.
- Research related ideas in other art forms, see as much work as possible, and develop a community of artists.
Photo: Anna Finke
What are the key skills a “modern dancer” needs in 2014?
There is a delicate balance between being able to do everything and being a master at a specific style or genre. Many people have observed that students need to be able to do "everything" now — all modern forms, ballet, yoga, African, hip hop, the list could go on — but you can see a dancer who has those things but isn’t masterful and may not work because of that, and others who are a master of one style who also cannot get work.
What is the pursuit of excellence in training now? I’ve seen many answers to this question, I do not believe there is a single training system that works for everyone. No matter the style it takes continuous work and an insane amount of dedication.
I think a key is to be able to improvise and generate compelling material. Most choreographers will ask a dancer to generate material, either in a conceptual way or physically, and this is a skill that can be cultivated. Students need more than a single improvisation or choreography course, a sense of "making" should be present in all classes. I think students need to move away from the idea that the material in technique classes is the material of choreography. It isn’t. Technique classes are training, to prepare facility, to prevent injury, to give body more choices. In rehearsals students need to be comfortable with the unknown, willing to try something new, and know how to be a collaborator in the creative process.
What is on your plate/on your calendar for the next year’s time?
I will to be on sabbatical next year and have more time to focus on my work. We have plans to tour Coming Together/Attica, the piece I presented last June at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, and develop a new piece. We will show an excerpt of our newest piece as part of La Mama Moves! Festival in New York this May, and in the summer there are possible performances in Venice and Greece. In the fall we will return to Turkey and hopefully plans for a residency in Poland will come through. In February we will plan to perform Coming Together/Attica at Shenandoah Conservatory and hope to build a few more engagements onto that tour. If all goes well we will be ready to premiere a new work in New York in June 2015. Now I have to raise some money!!!!
Can you talk a little bit about your interest in writing on dance?
Last year I began to write a book, “Question Technique,” that will share my methodology for planning technique classes in this day of integrating multiple techniques, styles, genres. It is not my goal to have people teach the same class I teach, but rather share a system and series of questions that could be applied to developing technique classes in any genre. I delivered a paper on the topic , Plan Critically to Teach Creatively, at the NDEO conference last November. I hope to return to writing soon, but while my children are young and while I still want to primarily be making work, the bulk of the book may need to wait a few more years.
In 2014, what is your relationship with technology (as a dancer, artist, marketing your work, etc)?
Aside from living with my laptop, to me technology as a dancer means staying abreast of new training methods, and to this end I continue to train. As a choreographer I use video in the rehearsal process and video editing to experiment with manipulation and sequencing outside of the studio. If I use video projection for a project, I hire professionals. For marketing I used to design everything and knew Photoshop and Final Cut, now I hire experts to do the work. They can do it much faster than I, as I have to relearn the software every time!
Final advice to young dancers:
Give yourself time. The creative act is not only choreographing or dancing but also the act of creating your career. Try to avoid “if only” thinking. If only I had such and such job, if only I got that grant, if only I performed in x theater, if only I had a great review. There is no one definition of success. Do not judge yourself as you go; give yourself a set amount of time, 3 years say, or 5, and agree to look back after that time and assess. Fear can fell the best of us. Act confidently and courageously.