Dancers & Companies

Why I Gave Up Stardom at Cirque de Soleil to Pursue Classical Tajik Dance

Two years ago, I was touring the world as a principal dancer in Cirque du Soleil's production of Dralion. But after 1500 shows on a five-continent and 170-city tour, I left the commercial entertainment world to reconnect with the art form I'm most passionate about: Central Asian dance.

I have dedicated the last 18 years of my life to dance styles from the Central Asian Silk Road region. My fascination started when I was 13 and fell in love with the miniature paintings of Central Asian dancers and the Arabic calligraphic script I saw in museums. My mother, who is a classical Indian dancer, also danced in a Persian dance company. These influences prompted me to seek out the music, culture, dance and people of Central Asia.


People ask me, "What does that look like? It's kind of like Bellydance, right? " or "Yeah, I think I've seen that style before, isn't it kind of like Indian dance?" Central Asian dance is highly diverse and each regional style is evocative of its environment, acting as a living link to the land. Most people are surprised to learn that Tajikistan has a classical dance form called Shashmakom that is technically rigorous, and like ballet, was patronized in the royal courts of the Emirs and has been around for over a thousand years. Or Uyghur dance, for example, is highly rhythmic, with nuanced shoulder isolations, swift spins, complex footwork, knee spins, drops to the floor, backbends and fluid yet intricate hand gestures with specific finger placements. A lifetime of study in the style is not enough to learn all there is to know.

Months after leaving Cirque, I moved to Tajikistan. I had planned to stay for one month but ended up staying for a whole year and dancing as the first Westerner in Lola, the state-funded Tajik National Ensemble. The other dancers were confused, cautious and curious about me. In the beginning, I felt like a complete outsider. I was new to their culture, food and environment, and could not speak the language. My daily routine after a full day of rehearsals was to also take a private class to better understand the nuances of the different styles and to push myself technically. The other dancers observed my dedication, and over time I earned their trust and respect. By the end of the year, I learned how to speak street Tajik from vendors at the vegetable markets and made close friends with my fellow dancers.

Our company was commissioned to perform new works for state holidays on live television in large stadiums or at the opera house when the President was in attendance. We performed for heads of state and for private galas. Sometimes I had issues getting into high security buildings because of my American passport, so our director had to start carrying a certified paper clearing me for entrance. We toured within the country on poorly-maintained roads via a bus provided by the state. There were rarely enough seats for all of us, and often the men would stand for long parts of the journey so the women could sit. When people got tired we would smash four or five people to a seat depending on the length of the journey, which was sometimes up to 12 hours. Once, we travelled to the Pamir Mountains to perform a televised concert, and were taken on a state helicopter with no seats, just a shell and one long bench on either side.

During rehearsal one day, a local journalist noticed me and, thinking I was Tajik, invited me to participate in a televised dance competition which brought together dancers from every region of the country. I made it through all four rounds of cuts and amazingly, I won. I was given the title of Malika, Queen of Tajik dance, despite being an outsider to the region. I was stopped several times on the street by strangers—the produce guy at my local grocery store said he was excited to see me dance so beautifully in a style from his culture, and hoped that if a foreigner placed so much value on their art forms that local Tajiks would learn to appreciate these forms more themselves.

This year, I was selected by Forecast, an international mentorship platform, to have my work produced in Berlin under the mentorship of Richard Siegal. The piece uses ethno-contemporary Central Asian dance and music in collaboration with a 3D mapping artist and Paradise Sorouri, Afghanistan's first female rapper, to express the concepts of migration, otherness and gender inequality. The choreography pulls from my experiences living a single foreign woman dancing in the Tajik State Ensemble in Dushanbe.

By Rick Tjia, Dance Talent Scout, Cirque du Soleil Casting

The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.

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By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."

More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?

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Photo by Anne Van Aerschot

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Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.

If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.

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Ashley Ellis, photo by Albert Ayzenberg, courtesy of Ashley Ellis

Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.

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Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.

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The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?

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Dancers & Companies
Neumeier's costume rendering for Orphée et Eurydice. Photo courtesy Lyrica Opera of Chicago.

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How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?

It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.

You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?

When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.

Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.

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