In the second half of our chat, Lauren Lovette discusses choreographing for New York City Ballet and the Vail Dance Festival, the pitfalls and triumphs of honing new skills, and how she felt before her big premiere that evening. She tells us all about her favorite kind of dancer to work with, collaborating with designers, and what’s up next. If you are listening, please excuse the lawn mower and sounds of children playing- we were on a park bench!
If you are reading, right this way…
Kirsten: So, would this be your third time choreographing?
Lauren: Well, I made a lot of things in school, but technically this is my second big commission. Here in Vail.
K: So at New York City [Ballet] would’ve been your first.
L: It was, it was my first big thing…on a really big stage…with a lot of pressure…
K: …a lot of people watching you!
L: Yup! It’s so typical “New York City Ballet” to be like, “Oh, you’re an apprentice, let’s give you a principal role,” or, “Oh, you’re brand new as a principal- it hasn’t been done maybe ever- but, make a ballet! On New York City Ballet!” So the pressure was a lot, but I really had fun. It happened really fast. At the moment I don’t think I was terribly proud of what I made, I think it felt unfinished to me. But the second time it came around I made some changes and it felt more like a ballet and more cohesive and I was proud of it.
K: How long did you have to make it the first time?
L: I think about three weeks? I had a cast of 17 dancers, which I don’t know why I did that to myself. I picked the music, I picked the amount of people, everything…
K: That’s so funny, I was just talking to Jeff [Cirio] about his project [Cirio Collective], and he was like, “The first time I did it I gave myself 4 days to choreograph- I don’t know why I did that to myself!”
L: [Laughs] Yeah, like why?! I think we’re just ambitious, I don’t know. But it happened, I did it. I ended up finishing the piece the day of or the day before in the stage rehearsal. It was definitely a lot of pressure.
K: Where did your inspiration come from for that?
L: I’ve been watching and being a part of new works with the company for a while, and I have a lot of friends that support and have supported the company since Balanchine’s time, so I get a lot of feedback from people who say they’re tired of the minimal music. They miss classical music, something beautiful to really listen to and to get lost in. Kind of old ballet, how it was. Less of the new, modern, contemporary stuff and more of a classical ballet. I hadn’t seen that in a while either, just dancing in the company, so I thought that would be kind of a good place to start.
I had a timeline, which was my only restriction, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll look for classical music that’s like 15 minutes long.” That turned out to be harder than I thought. I did a lot of searching and in Spotify I found this really great Schumann piece- but it was so big. And I thought, “There’s so many instruments, this is orchestral. I can’t just have like three people onstage, it doesn’t make sense!” So, that’s where the 17 people came in.
Then I found a beautiful design that Narciso Rodriguez did and I thought, “That’s clean and classic and I feel like a lot of the costumes nowadays are getting really loud distracting.” I really wanted to do just clean ballet.
L: So it all just kinda happened that way. I didn’t have an idea of what it would look like until the end. [Laughs] And it definitely came with a lot of bumps. Learning how to lead people is hard, balancing dancing and choreography is really hard. That was probably the hardest part was learning [George Balanchine’s] Stravinsky Violin Concerto and I don’t know what else I learned that season, couple of other things- [George Balanchine’s] Liebeslieder [Walzer], I think, but I was just dancing quite a bit, less than usual, but still dancing a lot, and then putting the choreography in. It was a lot.
K: How did you manage that, time-wise, energy-wise?
L: I think it’s just a muscle. I’m used to the physical muscle being exercised, but the mental one is a different game, and it takes endurance just like anything else. Being in charge of the energy of a room is difficult for me sometimes, because I’m easy to read.
K: Not a good poker face?
L: Yeah, I’m not a good poker face, at all. [Laughs] It can be a great thing because your vulnerable with the people that are in the room and that can create beautiful art, but at the same time, if you’re having a bad day, or if you’re unsure or you’re scared or if you don’t believe in yourself that day, everybody knows. That was more of the exhausting part for me. That and speaking up- trying to understand where somebody else is coming from, explaining to them what’s in your head is really hard.
K: Putting it into words…
L: Putting it into words [laughs]. The partnering was not easy. That’s a whole nother skill that I hadn’t really thought much of up until, “Oh, make a pas de deux. What is the guy doing back there? I don’t know, I haven’t thought much about it.” [Laughs] It was only good for me, but also yeah, very stressful.
K: So how are you approaching [choreographing] coming into it again?
L: Well I’m finally ready now! At least I know what to expect. I feel like that’s half of it is I just didn’t know. Now this year I know how the Fall Fashion Gala goes, I kind of know how much time it takes me to create movement to music and how much time I need depending how large the piece is. Kind of know my mental state that I need to be in before even entering the room? I know now how much I need prepared and how much I can just do on the spot. So that’s good! [Laughs]
K: That’s always a good first step! [Laughs]
L: It’s a start!
K: Would you say that you have a style of choreography that’s your own?
L: No, I don’t think I want one yet. I feel like on purpose I kinda wanted to do something very different here in Vail than what I did in the Fall for New York City Ballet, and then what I’m gonna do this Fall with New York City Ballet is gonna be even different than that. I wanna study all of the sides of myself. To do that, I try to pick different music and different concepts. Also, it’s easier to work on multiple things at the same time if they’re different.
So this piece [for the Vail Dance Festival] was flat shoes, and poetry, and more contemporary style dancing, floor work, stuff like that- which I never do. Last Fall was classical and I think this fall will be more contemporary ballet. A little edgier, a little bit braver. I wanna experiment more with partnering and with lighting. It’s just nobody teaches you how to do that stuff! Suddenly you have to make all of these decisions and you don’t know how. You’re like, “Okay, I guess I get to decide what everybody looks like!” That’s difficult, but it’s also really fun when it’s all put together at the end and you get to watch. It feels really good.
K: Do you get nervous watching?
L: Oh yeah! [Laughs]
K: Like more nervous than dancing?
L: Yes. I’m so scared for tonight because I’m in my own work now for this summer and I don’t know how to do that really. I gave all the hardest things to myself, because I didn’t want to put them on everybody else, but now I feel like I’m in charge of making it look good. It’s not a good place to be. [Laughs]
K: No, it’ll be fine! But it’s nerve-racking.
L: It’s nerve-racking!
K: But maybe it’s better that way, because you don’t have to sit in the audience and like…
L: …just sweat. [Laughs] It does feel really connected. I’m also realizing how important it is that I pick good energies to work with instead of just talented people. It really matters in a creative process who wants to be there, who’s willing to work. That brings a positive spin to your day. At least for me it’s really important, because I’m sensitive to energy in a room. That’s been really cool this summer, just working with a lot of talented women, but also just passionate and positive women. I’ve loved that. It creates a whole other layer of creativity.
K: And it’s more fun.
L: Yeah! It’s more fun.
K: So, were you able to just pick [the dancers] you wanted?
L: Actually, no. Damian [Woetzel] chose, because there was no way I would know who was dancing here. So Damian kinda told me who was available, and I told him my concept and told him kind of what I wanted. He said I have these women available and asked if I could dance in my own. [Laughs] I was like, “Okay!” I think he wanted me to be a part of this evening, but it would’ve been too much if I was in another, there would have been no way to do the scheduling. So I got put in my own work.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in that department, I think it’s been good.
K: Yeah, a good learning experience before you move on and keep doing more choreography.
L: I don’t think I’ll keep doing that. I think I like choreographing on other people more than myself, but at least I know I can do it. [Laughs]
K: And where else to experiment but here?
L: Exactly, in Vail. And we’ll see how I feel after tonight. Maybe it’ll be the most freeing feeling ever. People say that’s the case.
K: I guess we’ll find out!
L: Yeah, who knows, the sky is the limit. I can change it in the moment if I want to, I guess! I’m the choreographer, I can do whatever I want. [Laughs]
K: That’s kinda nice! So, about tonight [Now Premieres: Celebrating Women Choreographers], what’s your take on all of that? Like I don’t want to ask you like, [pretentious reporter voice] “Why do you feel it’s important that women choreograph…”
L: I know…I never know what to say to that…
K: …because of course it’s important, but it’s not any more important than…
L: Yeah, it just needs to be normalized somehow, and I don’t think having a bunch all-female choreography evenings is normalizing it. It’s still segregating it a little bit. It’s great, I think it’s better than not having women involved at all…I don’t know. I don’t htink we should be treated any differently.
K: Yeah, I agree.
L: And I definitely don’t want to be hired because I’m a girl. I want to be hired because somebody saw my work and thought it was good or they believe in what I do.
But it’s also, you know, if that’s why people are hiring me to do work, because I’m a girl, well, I’ll take it and run with it then! [Laughs] That’s fine!
L: I’ll still make it good, I’ll make it count.
K: And you’re still getting your name out there.
L: Yeah, I’m still getting my name out there and I’m still learning a lot. I think even if I didn’t get a lot of commissions for choreography, if there’s a quiet spell after all of this hype leaves, I’ll still make stuff for myself. But I try not to think about it too much. I just do what I’m told. You want me make a ballet? Sure! I’ll make a ballet. [Laughs] And I’ll do it the way I like it and I’ll have fun in the process.
I like using different people every time. Highlighting what’s special about people is the best part. Especially my coworkers because I see them all the time.
K: Right, so you know.
L: I know, we’re a huge company- almost 100 people- so it’s easy to get lost. And I feel like a lot of dancers do, and they have these amazing gifts that never get seen. You can see them sometimes in class, but if you don’t get the role, then you don’t get challenged and you don’t get seen. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means that you haven’t had the opportunity yet. So if I can offer opportunities to those who don’t get them…
K: Even better!
L: It’s just a win for me. I like to focus there more than I focus on, “Oh, what are the dance critics gonna think?” I think about the audience- you have to think about your audience- I wanted to cater to them, too. We are in show business. [Laughs]
K: So do you think you’ll go for another big cast in the Fall [at New York City Ballet]?
L: I’m gonna go with 10 people. A little less, but still pretty big. I found that last year my work got a little too busy because I wanted to showcase all of these things that I loved about the different corps de ballet dancers and everybody. You can’t highlight people as easily in a short amount of time if the cast is too big. I still have big music, so I needed at least 10 [dancers]. I feel like it’ll be a good amount. I’m excited.
K: That seems like a good amount.
L: I’m using a great designer, Monse, their new. A man and woman duo team. Their stuff is just spectacular. It’s gonna be really cool, edgy…it definitely has its own voice. All of their shots are moving, that’s what first drew me to them. Their clothes have life through movement. There’s nothing better than to put dance in that capacity. They have feminine clothing, but it still has an edge to it that’s like, “Don’t mess with me.” [Laughs] So I think it’s gonna be really beautiful. I have my initial designs and we’re tweaking it right now.
K: Do you get to pick [whatever designer] you wanna work with?
L: Mhm. Well, out of [a list of] names. It’s so crazy, it feels like fate; I knew about Monse before they ever gave us a list of people, and I had designs of their up on my phone for a few months that I was showing everyone like, “This new designer is so cool, look at their stuff, I love this dress,” and then I had no idea what names were going to be given to me to choose from. There were five or six names on there, and Monse was the last one.
L: And I thought, “That’s insane!” I don’t know how that manifested itself into my life, but it did! Tears almost came into my eyes. I got them immediately. So that’s that plan.
The same thing kind of happened with this piece in Vail, with my poet. I knew I wanted to do spoken word but I didn’t know how it was gonna come about. Listening to a bunch of different poets on Spotify, I found Andrea [Gibson] deep through the grapevine…
K: [Laughs] In the interwebs.
L: Yeah, in the interwebs of Spotify. Their stuff was just so danceable to me, and all the words hit home. So I asked Damian, “Would this be okay? Is this an artist I can use?”, and they happen to live in Boulder…
K: No way! That’s crazy!
L: …which is two hours away from Vail! I feel like you can put things out into the universe and then you know you’re doing the right thing when that window or door opens up.
So it’s sorta the same thing with my designer in the Fall. And I have some other commissions coming up after that I can’t talk about yet, but it’s continuing on.
K: Good, there’s more on the horizon.
L: Yeah, there’s more. I wanna keep trying different things, testing myself in different ways. I think my next piece after the Fall will be more mathematical and angular, because I don’t usually do that. I usually do a lot of free arms and romantic movements. I put a lot of human elements in, so there’s a lot of drama. I don’t know if there will be in my next one, I wanna test myself in another way.
K: Cool. That’s exciting.
L: I don’t know. There not all gonna be successful, but I gotta keep exercising the cogs.
K: Yeah, put it all out there! See how it goes, why not?
K: What’s up next after Vail?
L: New York City Ballet. The Fall Fashion, then we have our season, then I go into my next project immediately.
K: So do you have time off after this?
L: [Laughs] No, I go to Mexico. Sorry I forgot to mention that! I’m going to Mexico to dance [George Balanchine’s] Rubies with Jeff Cirio. That’ll be fun. After that I have about a week before I start back [at New York City Ballet]. I’ll probably be preparing since I’ve been so busy here in Vail, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the Fall and because I know how fast it goes I wanna be ready this year.
It’ll be half rest, half mental preparations…
K: That’s good!
L: Yeah! Maybe I’ll rest my body and exercise my mind. [Laughs]
K: And stay sane somehow. So how are you feeling before [the premiere of your new piece, Angels of the Get-Through] tonight?
L: I feel good.
K: Do you feel relaxed?
L: I feel as relaxed as I ever feel before anything big? I’m not a very relaxed person, if you know me. Um, I’m kinda always- I’m high strung I guess you could say. I’m anxious a lot, especially before shows.
K: How do you calm yourself down?
L: Man, I really wish I knew! [Laughs] I’m still figuring it out. I feel like some shows are better than others. What I have loved about this summer here in Vail is the coaching has been so good, with Heather Watts and Damian Woetzel. I feel like I’ve really climbed this mountain, or crossed this barrier that’s been building up for a long time. Yeah, it felt good to just go for it. I don’t even really care what it looks like to the audience, as long as I know that I went for it.
It’s more of a personal thing for me, being on stage. Rehearsal I always give like a performance for some reason [laughs], it just feels like it. As soon as it’s show time, I usually hold back, because I want it to be perfect or I just doubt myself in the moment. When the lights go on or I know people are watching me it just takes me out of that element where I can just give the art. I had a bunch of “Aha!” moments here in Vail where I just did it. And it felt really good to just do it! And I want to carry that over into my performing back in New York City.
I don’t know how I got into the performing arts. [Laughs] I don’t know how my personality ended up here, but it did. And when I do it- when I just do it- I don’t know a greater feeling. I think that’s what keeps me in the game.
K: You just gotta keep doing that more.
L: Yeah! It’s the facing of the fear that’s kind of what I’m addicted to now. And for choreography I love it so much more because they do it, and I enjoy it. And I’m like, so supportive. I’m like, “You’re all beautiful!” I like that side of the game, but for now, I’m in the game. And I don’t wanna waste that time.
K: You have to enjoy it. Life is too short- not even the career’s too short- but life is too short.
L: Mhm, exactly. I’m lucky! I feel lucky that I am forced out of my shell all the time. It’s very uncomfortable and I feel tired a lot. [Laughs]
K: [Laughs] It’s exhausting!
L: It’s exhausting! But I’m happy about it because, I mean, home-schooled me, who’s afraid of swimming, and climbing, and any game that they don’t know, and reading in public, and talking to people in public- I talked for a baby voice for a while [laughs]- I don’t know. I just feel like I was born into this world afraid of most things and I’m lucky that this is what I do and it forces me out there. Because now I can do podcasts and interviews and I feel okay.
K: Yeah! You sound great.
L: I can go in front of a camera, and I hated that my whole life. Now it’s fine, you know, I do a lot of photoshoots. I don’t know, being on stage…comes and goes. [Laughs] Still figuring it out! But more wins than losses now. And it’s just good. I don’t know of any other way that I would get those growths as a person, other than ballet. So, I’m very grateful.
From here, Lauren and I launched into a long discussion about her recent decision to adopt a vegan diet. She has so much to share, but I think I will let you tune in to The Whole Dancer‘s upcoming workshop with Lauren for the inside scoop ;) A huge thank you to Lauren Lovette for taking the time to talk with me.