Interviews with a Ballerina, a Modern-Dance B-Boy, and the New Director of Velocity
Will perform at Velocity in late May and early June.
Your choreography has a really broad dance vocabulary—ballet, hiphop, modern. Where did you learn all of that?
I grew up all over Southern California. When I got to Orange County, in fifth or sixth grade, a girl (who'd later become my girlfriend) said, "You should audition for this musical." I was like, "What the fuck is a musical?" I got cast as a dancer in Annie Get Your Gun. At the same time, I started breakdancing—I was living this split life, hanging out with my friends, and every Tuesday and Thursday I'd have to leave to rehearse for the musical. They'd ask, "Where'd you go?" I lied. I didn't want them to know. They might assume I was gay—there's that naive homophobia that goes with dancing and musical theater.
But you guys were dancing, too!
Yeah, but they saw a difference between "Oh, you got served!" and "There's no business like show business." Once my friends found out, it was no sweat! And girls liked me because I was this strapping young black dude doing musical theater and breakdancing.
How'd you get into modern dance?
I saw this piece in high school. I'd probably hate it if I saw it now, but it pulled from multiple places—there's a ballet move, there's a breakdancing move, but he's doing something funny with his feet, what's that? I thought, "I'm done with acting, this looks real to me."
You eventually came here and graduated from Cornish. Do you think you'll stay?
Yes. I have no interest in going to New York—you don't need to go out there. If you do good work, people will come to you.
What should dancers do more of?
There's a lot of the same in Seattle because everyone's training with the same people. But the new wave of people, we don't necessarily say it, but we see in each other's eyes that it's time for a shift, a change. Fucking try something new! Don't make a piece like your teacher's! Make a piece like you would!
Is the new director of Velocity Dance Center.
You chose to be a dancer at age 9. Did you ever think of doing something else?
Like any relationship, you get tested along the way—teachers told me to be a writer. I was told I was "too smart" to be a dancer, which tells you something about the culture then. When I started working with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, there was this incredibly intelligent choreography.
Famous choreographers have come from here (Cunningham, Mark Morris, Trisha Brown) but none seem to strongly claim the Northwest.
No, no, Merce was always very clear about where he was from. He choreographed RainForest and Beach Birds... Of course, Merce didn't talk very much about anything. I think the longest conversation I had with Merce was in an elevator, talking about the patterns of beach birds.
For a while, young artists felt like they had to leave Seattle and go to New York.
Now people are moving back. I went to PS122 in New York and heard people saying, "I left Seattle too soon... I'm coming back." People go to New York to kneel at the feet of icons—people come to places like Seattle to cut their own path.
How is dance doing?
Right now is a super-exciting time in dance—all of this amazing research in improvisation and somatics since the 1960s is being embraced by choreographers like William Forsythe and Ohad Naharin, and you have people like Crystal Pite with a new level of kinetic intelligence. It's the best of knowledge of ballet with the best of knowledge of somatics and improv—a dream come true for me. This new movement is separating dance from its ideology—getting away from this abstract-expressionist idea of the tortured artist—and bringing out incredible physical knowledge, pure movement. In some ways, it's an extension of what Cunningham was questioning in 1952: This isn't about self-expression, this is going to use chance operations, this is not an abstraction of anything. But the new movement looks more "lived." Merce's work was more cool, about space and time, saying no to emotion and spectacle. And dance is now so popular on YouTube—tapping into those folks reminds me of the '70s, another big dance boom.
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist, appears in Coppélia this June.
Tell me about pointe shoes—they're so iconic but also seem a little mysterious.
They could be used as a weapon, because of how hard they are! But they are so worth it. The pointe shoe is my favorite part of being a ballet dancer. I love the color, the way they smell, the line it gives a leg as you extend your foot—it's all pretty magical. I remember right before I was put on pointe when I was younger, I could not contain my excitement for the shoes. I would steal my sister's and practice turns on the kitchen hardwood floor. I do not advise anyone to do this, however!
I wear the brand Freed and my maker is "anchor." [Individual cobblers are known by symbols.] All of the shoes are handmade in London, and as dancers we pick out the maker that feels the best for our foot. Different makers make the shoes slightly differently, which is a great thing considering no two feet are alike.
One ongoing conversation in the dance world is about decentralization—the feeling that New York isn't the only place for dancers anymore.
It's true that other areas of the country are becoming stronger and more prominent in the dance world, but I have to say, in my opinion, New York still offers the best opportunities and the most exposure in the dance world. Pacific Northwest Ballet feels very far away from everything and disconnected from the dance world at times. Maybe if we toured to New York more or even internationally, we could feel a bit more connected to everything.
If you could wave a magic wand and make one misconception about ballet disappear, what would it be?
That we're all anorexic, that ballet is just a hobby, and that we are not necessarily athletes. In our upcoming program, we are performing an incredible ballet by David Dawson called A Million Kisses to My Skin... It is one of the most physical things that any of us has ever danced. The stamina required is that of any other elite athlete. I think the difference between athletes in the traditional sense and dancers is that, for the most part, we are never supposed to show that anything is hard for us, thus maintaining the artistic element and giving the impression that ballet is a breeze.