There is someone less than a foot away from me, just off of my right shoulder, observing the way I'm holding my hand strangely, but perhaps gracefully? I hope my nails are clean. My arm is starting to tremble. I'm not even sure how much time has gone by. I let my arm gently, almost imperceptibly, fall, allowing my shoulder to melt with it, and stop myself mid-breath. "I am...right here," I say to myself with my director's voice in my head. I am ON DISPLAY.
ON DISPLAY is a human sculpture court, a living gallery of individuals that experience themselves just as they are from moment to moment, without any premeditated movements. Created by Heidi Latsky, it serves as commentary on the body as spectacle and society's obsessions with body image. This piece reverts the objectifying gaze members of the fashion, disability and performance worlds are subjected to.
"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.
When I was just a little peanut, my siblings and I used to find scrap paper and use them as tickets to our makeshift dance performances at family gatherings. They were more like circus shows, really, where my brother was the ringmaster, and my sisters and I were animals; we dove through imaginary flaming hoops and showcased our best tightrope acts with the suspense of plummeting into an endless pit of sorrows. This was my first introduction to the beauty of movement as a way of communicating.
Photo by Lindsay Linton
Before I was ready for therapy, I had ballet. To be clear, dancing came with difficulty for me. But the experience—with the right teacher—was deeply healing. The thing that helped me start to unite my mind with my body was my teacher's unique use of language, of words, matched with the movement.
I had tried dancing before but it never worked out. After my first class as a kid, it was reported to my mother that I was disruptive. For years my wild woman antics were a family joke. I returned to ballet as a young teenager, then again after college, trying three or four different teachers. But my body would not do what I wanted it to do.
Dance was the first language I responded to as a toddler. I loved watching it, being around it and imitating it. I was practically raised in the studio because my older sisters were always there; so, naturally, dance was in the cards for me. Turning 6 years old was a monumental birthday because it meant I was finally old enough to take that ballet/ tap combo class I had been eyeing for some time.
Susan Stripling Photography, Courtesy Tyler Hanes
Having begun my dance career in my late teens, I successfully bypassed the student debt many Americans face when they take out loans for college. For seven seasons, I had a cushy job dancing in the corps at Pacific Northwest Ballet. During that time I put nearly $50,000 towards my 401(k), saved an additional $10,000 in my bank account and used a dancer-run grant program to fund my associate of arts degree with a business focus from a local community college. I was proud of my fiscal responsibility and felt that I could easily survive a financial shortfall. But I had no idea how much debt I would accrue as I transitioned from performing to teaching and choreographing.
Every dancer knows deep in their heart that dance is only a temporary profession, yet we devote our lives to it anyway. We feel called to it.
I never felt like I had a choice; I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I started training at 3, and became immediately obsessed, grand jeté-ing down grocery store aisles forevermore. I described myself as a dancer before even thinking of myself as female, bisexual, American, feminist or teacher.
The phrase "I am a dancer," is such a source of masochistic pride that I am not sure it reads to people outside the performing arts community, but it is often the only way we can see ourselves.
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When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.
I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.
Dear Dance Magazine,
Thank you for demonstrating a commitment to transparency and evolution during this divisive time in our country. Over the past few years I have seen the Dance Magazine content reflect increased awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity in U.S. culture. It also has highlighted the need for the dance industry culture to self-examine and pursue constant revisions (just as dancers themselves do).
Ten years ago I stood outside the New 42nd Street Studios near Times Square in New York City, freezing in a very long line, waiting to audition for Lucinda Childs. I thought about leaving after an announcement was made that dancers who did not register, like me, would not be seen. Today, I am on a plane home from Abu Dhabi where the Lucinda Childs Dance Company just gave its final performance of her 1979 masterpiece, DANCE, at The Performing Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Lucinda will be the first to say that she asked to see all the dancers waiting outside in 2008, and I am certainly grateful to my 24 year-old self for sticking around to see what would happen.
DANCE is the first piece of Lucinda's choreography I learned and it was the first piece that her newly-formed company performed. The process of learning the work presented its challenges; there were tears and much needed pep talks from family and castmates. But I fell in love with DANCE, too. For close to ten years, I was fortunate to dance this evening-length work all over the world. I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to say good-bye.
One of the most crucial responsibilities of an artistic director is the development of dancers. Sharing the benefit of my experience through daily class and rehearsals is perhaps the most gratifying part of my work at The Washington Ballet. But artistic leaders also need to help dancers in the broader navigation of their careers.
Whether it involves difficult conversations with seasoned professionals or with teenagers coping with the anxiety of an uncertain career path, advising dancers is personal because our art is personal. Dancers create their art with their own bodies—not on paper, not with instruments made of brass or wood and strings, but with themselves. This highly intimate element of the job cannot be underestimated, and as a result, every conversation about the work essentially becomes about the person. Trust is not assumed nor is it given easily, as only time and shared experiences allow for it to grow.
During a period when I was intentionally taking a step back from performing, I was especially sensitive to the question, "So, are you auditioning for things?" Besides the insecurity of being a freelancer not hustling in that way, I also rankled at the complexity of what it means for a non-binary performer to audition.
To put it bluntly, there aren't many safe opportunities for us. That's because so many audition listings include gender-exclusionary phrases, so trans and non-binary artists either aren't eligible to show up or aren't sure whether or not they'd be welcome.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
Some people believe that only new dances should be supported and seen live. By extension, they question the necessity of reconstructing older works, arguing that they should remain in the vault, or saved for archival viewings.
To some extent, I see their point. Room should be made for new voices and new works.
Dancers are more than just vessels performing set material. We make contributions to creative processes all the time. Some of these are obvious: We often improvise material or generate entire phrases to be incorporated into a work. Others are more innocuous: Dancers are sometimes asked to give feedback that ends up shaping the composition of a work.
This is choreography.
New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.
When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?
I am a ballerina. I am a feminist. This might seem to be an oxymoron. Ballerinas do what they are told by choreographers and directors—positions that we have become painfully aware of as traditionally male roles. Feminism is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. By that description, the two terms seem contradictory.
Alexei Ratmansky—now famously—expressed on Facebook last fall: "sorry, there is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point, men lift and support women. women receive flowers, men escort women offstage. not the other way around (I know there are couple of exceptions). and I am very comfortable with that."
The smell and look of a dance studio is one that will be part of every dancer's life forever. The hard work is tangible in the air. The marley floor is a plaque that marks our failures and success. Yet for me, the studio is where I learned to hide my transgender self.
I have identified as a trans female since I was under the age of ten. However, before coming anywhere close to coming out about my gender identity, I fell in love with dancing. I began studying ballet when I was eleven. Because of the rigors and strictness of my training, it was easy to ignore my true feelings.
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
In a windowless subterranean studio under the New York State Theater, I pulled back an imaginary arrow and let it fly.
"Good!" said ballet master Tommy Abbott. "I think you're ready. Tomorrow you rehearse with Mr. Robbins."
I was slated to play Cupid in Jerome Robbins' compilation of fairy tales called Mother Goose. It was a role given to the tiniest boy who could follow directions at the School of American Ballet. In 1976, that was me.
The following day, I reported to a much larger windowless studio on the fifth floor known as the main hall. The room was bristling with excitement and nervousness. About half of the dancers from New York City Ballet were on hand, plus a coterie of bustling ballet masters and Mr. Robbins. Tommy tucked me and two other boys in a corner. My first rehearsal with the legendary choreographer was underway.