From Baryshnikov to Judith Jamison, These 6 Dance Artists' Commencement Speeches Will Inspire You
Whether you're a 2018 grad, a current student or you've been in the field for years, commencement speeches offer advice and encouragement for all of us. And when they're given by dance luminaries, even better. Last Friday, Liz Lerman addressed the class of 2018 at Bennington College, and her inspirational message—that's candid and even comical at turns—left us searching for other choreographers and performers who've spoken to students through the years. Here are a few of our favorite speeches.
Liz Lerman (Bennington College, 2018)
The lesson: No matter your profession, we can all learn something by thinking like a choreographer. (Lerman's speech begins about 47 minutes into this video.)
Words of wisdom: "I'm proposing that we have something called choreographic thinking. And the reason I think that is because the world is in motion. Every single thing is moving. Our institutions are changing, our ethics are changing, the way we treat each other is changing. It is all in motion...I'm advocating that the knowledge that choreographers have is of use to everybody."
Bonus: Lerman even gave a shoutout to her longtime friend from college, our own Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine's editor at large. Both were Bennington students!
Helen Pickett (University of North Carolina School of the Arts' High School, 2016)
The lesson: Being an artist takes courage, but artists have a lot of it.
Words of wisdom: "You're facing every artists' journey...You might come up against a plethora of no's, but my gorgeous graduates, there are yes's. And because they are fewer than the no's, they feel so good. Yes, you have courage, more than you know...You have the desire to look into the unknown. Your fortitude, drive, devotion and focus will lay down the path for your steps."
Mikhail Baryshnikov (Northwestern University, 2013)
The lesson: Forget being the "best."
Words of wisdom: "Do not make your goal to be the best. 'Best' is a label. It's something someone else decides for you. 'Better' is more personal. It's a process, and in my opinion, 'better' is something more interesting than 'best.' "
Judith Jamison (Towson University, 2012)
The lesson: Find your passion. (Jamison starts speaking about 9 minutes in.)
Words of wisdom: "Passion is important...especially when you are just embarking on this journey after your graduation. For a long period of time in my life, the way I communicated was through dance, but in order for what I was doing onstage to translate to the audience, I had to be passionate about what I was doing, about life and living it in the most profound way I knew how. Embracing a spiritual enrichment that included experiences both good and bad catapulted and helped me evolve into my leadership role in the consciousness of service."
Rennie Harris (Bates College, 2010)
The lesson: Being persistent pays off.
Harris even shares the quirky but effective way he tracked his progress.
Words of wisdom: "Persistency and consistency wins out. As long as I'm persistent and consistent, I will be successful. When I was about 26 or 27...I started to think about my life a little bit. I started to ask myself, What do I want to do when I grow up? Everybody was asking me that since I was 8 or 9, and finally I asked myself. I knew I wanted to provide for my family. I wanted to be successful at whatever I did.
So I created this list: three columns. One was B.S. The other was P.M. And the other one was C.M.
At the end of the day I would log down all of the things I did that day: I talked to my brother about the Eagles and why they can't win the Super Bowl. That was B.S.; I put it in the B.S. column. I talked to a friend about a potential project for a play; that was in the P.M. column for "Potential Money." We got the grant for this play, and it moved over to the C.M. column: "Confirmed Money."
And so, as you can imagine, my B.S. column was about two pages long and I had maybe one or two things in the P.M. and C.M. columns. Eventually after logging this for about two months, I started to see that my B.S. column started to shrink and the other two columns were full. This kept me on track with what I was doing and where I wanted to go. I made that decision to do it. I made a conscious decision to say, 'This is what I want to do.' Finally."
Alonzo King (CalArts, 2007)
The lesson: In this short, casual speech captured by one of the attendees, Alonzo King gives dancers frank and unexpected advice: "Don't go begging for jobs."
Words of wisdom: "The art is within you. Keep churning it, and jobs will come. Remember to be true to you, and then you're bringing them something...Never leave the idea that the germ is within you. Don't cheat on it. Don't leave it. Stay with it."
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.