Ah, Vail Dance Festival. A beautiful whirlwind of art and connection, effervescing with life. When I wasn’t fangirling world class dancers (or holding light reflectors in their faces), I found myself wrapped up in the serenity of Vail’s mountain air. What a completely magical place for a celebration of movement and music. I feel honored and humbled by this entire experience. Some behind-the-scenes photos, if you’d like to see…
for more #bts from the Vail Dance Festival, check out @settingthebarre on Instagram.
Damian Woetzel, Artistic Director of Vail Dance Festival, photo by Erin Baiano.
On the last day of the Vail Dance Festival, I decide it’s high time I did a little dancing myself. Ballet X Artistic Director, Christine Cox, graciously welcomes me into the company class at the amphitheater. It’s been…a while since I’ve taken classes regularly (#summerslacking), but Christine’s class is exactly what I need. When Justin Beiber’s “Sorry” comes on for frappés- I know for sure I am in the right place.
Cox emphasizes the importance of dancing as a conversation with your body. The impetus on freedom of movement feels liberating compared to the strict ballet classes I am used to. Not only is taking class with Ballet X refreshing for my body, but it also makes me even more excited for their performance that evening. Closing the Vail Dance Festival is an ambitious task, but this Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet company delivers.
Chloe Perkes and Zachary Kapeluck in Jodie Gates’ Beautiful Once, photo by Erin Baiano.
While the opening piece, Jodie Gates‘ Beautiful Once missed the mark (slightly dated costumes and choreography, and a surprisingly sloppy execution), the next ballet absolutely redeemed the evening. Cayetano Soto‘s Schachmatt, was creative and original. Meaning “checkmate” in German, Schachmatt, proves that dance need not be heavy and emotional to be powerful. The dancers are like chess pieces, unified in black and grey jockey attire, moving in unison to fun mid-century music that sounds like it could soundtrack an exotic vacation for James Bond. The movements are provocative in a light hearted way, which is entirely refreshing in the world of drama-focused 21st century choreographers. Soto’s choreography is distinguished without taking itself too seriously, a rare combination that highlights this company so well.
Ballet X in Cayetano Soto’s Schachmatt, photo by Erin Baiano.
Act II presents Matthew Neenan‘s The Last Glass, an indulgent ballet set to the cinematic music of Beirut. I get such fuzzy feelings when I listen to Beirut; It’s as if I’m standing in the middle of a colorful circus- feathers and sequins and laughing faces whirling by- but at the center, where I stand, it is actually quite lonely. Neenan’s choreography reflects the generous use of horns with carnival-like characters, but also the sorrow of Beirut’s vocals. It’s an impressive layering of tone, and the dancers of Ballet X are exceptional in their ability to illustrate this intricacy.
Richard Villacerde and Ballet X in Matthew Neenan’s The Last Glass, photo by Erin Baiano.
The closing evening of the Vail Dance Festival is made even more poignant in its marking of Richard Villaverde‘s last performance with Ballet X. The audience received his final bows with the company (he is on to pursue dancing in New York City) with warm, riotous applause. It was a small demonstration of our appreciation for every evening of brilliant art brought to this stage in the past 2 weeks, if such gratitude can even be measured in applause.
James Whiteside and Devon Teuscher in White Swan Pas de Deux, photo by Erin Baiano.
Last week I caught up with American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal, James Whiteside, between rehearsals at the Vail Dance Festival. James filled me in on his longtime love of ABT, his tap background, and his upcoming travels to Tokyo.
Kirsten: How long have you been at American Ballet Theater now?
James: This will be my fifth season with ABT.
K: How did you come to your decision to leave Boston Ballet?
J: Well I had always had my eye on ABT, ever since I was a teenager. It was the first big ballet company I saw and I was immediately obsessed.
After being in Boston for 10 years, I wanted to be inspired by new dancers, new work, new challenges, and New York City itself. So I auditioned on a day off during Nutcracker season in Boston, which is insane. Sometimes we do over 40 performances of Nutcracker, so I took the red-eye Fung Wah bus, back when that was still a thing, and I took ballet class with ABT. They offered me a soloist contract.
K: What was your transition into ABT like?
J: It was foreign and familiar all at once. The ballet world is very small, so I knew a lot of the dancers from- this, that, and the other- from guest performances, from summer programs, and stuff. But the rep at ABT is completely different from the rep at Boston. We did a lot of Balanchine, a lot of neoclassical work, a lot of contemporary work [at Boston Ballet]. ABT does big classics. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, etc. So I had to learn all of ABT’s rep in an extremely short time, and I did an obscene amount of debuts that first year. Then I was promoted to Principal in the Fall.
K: Do you feel like you’ve adjusted to New York life?
J: I’m from Fairfield, Connecticut, so I spent a lot of time in the city as a kid, going to Broadway Dance Center, seeing Broadway shows with my dance teachers. I’ve had my heart close to New York City for a long time. So it feels more like a homecoming.
K: So now your address just matches your…
J: …my soul.
K: [Laughs] Now, this isn’t your first time in Vail.
J: This is my third year in Vail. My first year I only did one ballet. Last year I did a lot, this year I’m doing a lot, and I’m coming back next year.
K: So it just progresses more and more as you keep coming back?
J: Yeah, they make you work! Damn! It’s really, really ambitious. Incredibly ambitious. In a way, it feels like our New York season: putting together a large amount of things in a short amount of time. It’s crazy, this festival has gained so much visibility in the dance world. It’s become the dance festival.
K: What keeps you coming back to the Vail Dance Festival?
J: My favorite thing about this festival is the location, the setting, the nature.
K: It really is beautiful. Has the altitude been an adjustment?
J: Oh, of course. Everything is harder here, without a doubt.
K: So what are you performing in Vail this year?
J: I have danced the White Swan Pas de Deux with fellow ABT Principal Devon Teuscher. I have also danced Michelle Dorrance’s 1-2-3-4-5-6, where I had to do a lot of tapping, so that was fun. I tapped as a teenager, so it was nice to revisit it. I did a new ballet [Farewell] by Matthew Neenan on Saturday night. I danced with an old colleague of mine, Misa Kuranaga. We danced together a lot in Boston. It was so nice to dance with her again, she’s an extraordinary dancer.
I’ll be dancing in the new Michelle Dorrance ballet- I keep calling it a ballet, but it’s a dance. [Laughs] I don’t know what it’s called, but it is epic, and ambitious and daring and I just can’t believe we’re doing it tonight. I’m a little stressed out.
K: [Laughs] That’s kind what the festival is about though, right?
J: Amen to that! It all will come together, I know it will.
K: Definitely will. So that’s a big piece…
J: Yeah, it’s about 30 minutes long. It’s a big cast from all different backgrounds. We’re tapping, we’re…not tapping.
K: [Laughs] All of the in between…
J: Yes. [Laughs]
K: So what’s up next after Vail?
J: My summer has been completely booked with festivals and galas. It’s been exceptionally fun. It’s been like a tour- I feel like I’m on a rock concert tour. I’ve been a lot of places, I’m going a lot of places.
The next stops on my “summer gig tour” are Sun Valley, Idaho, which has a similar beauty to this, actually. And Tokyo.
K: No big deal. “Oh yeah, Toyko.”
J: Oh yeah, Toyko. [Laughs]
K: Have you been before?
J: I’ve been to Toyko before, yeah. It’s just so strange and wonderful. Just so different.
K: Dream destination for me.
J: And then I have my Fall season with American Ballet Theater. I have some personal projects in the works, which if you follow me on my various socials, you’ll learn of.
K: So back up for a second, though, what are you going to be doing in Tokyo?
J: In Tokyo, I am choreographing and dancing in a Disney ballet DVD release of Beauty and the Beast.
K: What? Stop! That’s awesome.
J: Yeah, it’ll be Misa and me.
K: That’s really exciting. And what are you doing in Sun Valley?
J: In Sun Valley I’m dancing [George] Balanchine’s Rubies Pas de Deux with Tiler Peck. I’m also doing a solo I created to Louis Armstrong’s You Rascal You, which I made a short film for years ago that people really liked. The premise is that I have killed my wife’s lover. I’m really excited about it, I’m dancing around in the streets. You can view it on Youtube.*
K: Great! Are you looking forward to getting back to New York after that?
J: Yes. But I actually haven’t had a day off since June, so next week from Wednesday to Wednesday, I’ll be in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
K: Ah, I love Provincetown! So beautiful.
Thank you for chatting with me, James! Enjoy some well deserved rest in P-town.
*Editor’s note: I watched James’ You Rascal You video immediately after transcribing this interview and- oh my goodness- go watch it right now. Please.
Martha Graham Dance Company in Pontus Lidberg’s “Woodland.” Photo by Brigid Pierce. Courtesy of Martha Graham Dance Company.
Even in its focus on the future, the Vail Dance Festival is not without a warm respect for the past. The Martha Graham Dance Company embodies this notion so eloquently, it seems pretty perfect to dedicate an evening of the festival entirely to this historic company.
The evening opens with Dark Meadow Suite, a meditation on Graham’s fascination with the American Southwest. An abridged arrangement of Graham’s Dark Meadows, this iconic piece reflects the eternal venture of seeking and exploring both the land around us and the urges within us. It is at once both organic and erotic. One particularly moving section features 4 couples creating scenes in unison, balancing body weights to express the changing dynamics of their relationships. At one point, they appear to be rowing a boat, the women tipped forward into masts, the men grounded paddles against the current. A few times I let my focus soften, allowing the company to bleed together into one congruent picture. Everything they do comes with significant weight, like gravity pulling paint down a canvas.
I was especially excited to see the famous Lamentation, in equal parts for its fame and for the dancer who performed it last night, the beautiful Carla Körbes. The solo is strange and angular, full of oppressed shapes and fidgety movements. Graham’s choreography and staging convey the anxiousness of true lamentation, that feeling of wanting to crawl out of one’s own skin when in mourning. Körbes is deliciously restless.
Always looking ahead, the program continues with a series of new interpretations of Lamentation. Lil Buck presents his first commission for a major company, paying tribute to Graham’s distinct bladed hands in the context of his signature smooth style. Bravo to the festival for branching out; I would love to see where Lil Buck’s choreography can take him. The next variation is an eerie duet by Aszure Barton, danced with haunting subtlety by Anne Souder and Xin Ying. My favorite of the three, this variation includes startling moments of stillness, the girls expressing exquisite distress, screaming without sound. The final variation features the entire company in a composition by Larry Keigwin. This is perhaps the closest interpretation, cupped hands caging in faces like mourning clothes, nervous energy expressed in tilting and twitching. The piece ends with the fragmented falling of the cast in an effectively grim requiem.
Act II opens with a sumptuous study of shapes. Ekstasis, danced with poise by Anne Souder, explores Graham’s discovery of the elongated hip thrust. The solo feels like its dancer is inside a cave, the hollow sound of rattling xylophone bones and mist falling around Souder.
Next up is Michelle Dorrance‘s take on the famous Satyric Festival Song, a parody piece made by Graham in reaction to criticism of the seriousness of her work. Graham’s solo makes fun of itself, a skill Dorrance seems to have in spades. Her tap-ified version of Satyric Festival Song– which she learned in the official Martha Graham style before adapting- is upbeat, playful, and funny.
The final piece is a excellent presentation of the full company, Pontus Lidberg‘s Woodland. A bit more contemporary, Woodland showcases Graham Dance Company’s strengths both in movement and in acting. It paints a beautifully theatrical picture, the classy neutral-toned costumes keeping masked dancers from creating a forest scene that is anything but cliché. A stunning solo from Xin Ying blends into a full company creation. After a long festival featuring exciting pairings of dancers who may be unfamiliar with each other’s dancing styles, it is actually a bit refreshing to see the well-oiled machine that is the Martha Graham Dance Company. The familiarity of these dancers can be sensed from the back form of the amphitheater and it is a quite welcomed kinship.
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: 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.
Seventeen-year-old Fort Worth Texas native, Roman Mejia, is having an eventful summer: graduation from The School of American Ballet in June, performing in the Vail Dance Festival in August, and the start of an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet later this month. I caught up with this charismatic newbie to see how he’s coping…
Kirsten: You’ve just recently graduated from The School of American Ballet (SAB). Was that bittersweet?
Roman: Yes, sort of, but I’m really excited because I’m starting with New York City Ballet soon, so I’m still in New York.
K: And you’re doing exactly what you wanted to be doing. That’s so great! You’re sort of the newcomer at this year’s Vail Dance Festival. How did you get involved?
R: Well, I was walking into rehearsal at the State Theater in New York and Tiler Peck stopped me and asked if I knew who Damian Woetzel was, and I told her of course I know who Damian Woetzel is. [laughs] She said, “Well, we do this little festival in the summer and Damian would love for you to be a part of it.”
K: This “little festival”, haha, I love it. And here you are. So what are you performing?
K: And how long have you been rehearsing all of that?
R: Well, the new Dorrance piece is being created here in Vail. I started the new Neenan ballet while I was still in New York a few months before SAB ended for me. After graduation I really started working on Tarantella.
K: So this is sort of the first thing you’re doing since leaving SAB?
R: This is actually the first gig I’ve ever done.
K: Ah, that’s exciting! A pretty impressive gig. What do you think of it so far?
R: I love it.
K: How has it been adjusting to the altitude and the reduced oxygen levels?
R: I was in Texas before coming here, and rehearsing Tarantella there felt so good. [laughs] Then when I came up here it was kind of a shock. And dancing outside is also a completely different story. It gets so cold at night.
K: Yikes. Can you tell me a bit about the new Neenan work you’re doing?
R: There are a lot of us in it. I dance with Lauren [Lovette] and Joe [Gordon] in the first and third movements, and then it’s James Whiteside, Misa Kuranaga and Carla Körbes in the second movement. Lauren and Joe are usually dancing together and I’m just a little ball of energy going around. The last movement is the hardest for us. Lauren starts it off, then Joe and I come on and we stay on until the end. It’s really challenging but the music is great so it keeps us going. It’s really fun to dance with Lauren and Joe.
K: Sounds really cool. What in particular excites you about Vail Dance Festival?
R: Coming from a school and having just graduated, coming here and being in class with all of these artists that I watch on YouTube is so inspiring. It’s incredible.
K: It really is. Well, congratulations and merde for the rest of your performances!
*Editor’s note: This is a retroactive post- Roman has since performed the pieces mentioned above with absolutely stellar success. To see my reviews of Roman’s performances, head here, here, and here.
Since arriving in Vail a week ago, I have been wanting to chat with Lauren Lovette. She’s a bit of a wunderkind, an enigma of what seems to be pure joy mixed with a whole lot of talent. I must admit, I was hesitant to introduce myself, not only because Lauren has been busy here in Vail- multiple performances in each program, world premiere choreography, the usual- but also because I love her dancing and was afraid of having a Wizard of Oz situation. You know, the awful let down when the curtain is lifted and someone who seems magical is just smoke and mirrors? Guys, chatting with Lauren was completely the opposite.
I was walking home from the amphitheater between rehearsals and the NOW: Premieres performance when I saw Lauren sitting on a bench by herself. My feet started walking past, but my breath stopped, and I decided to say hello. With her new piece premiering in just a few hours, I figured Lauren might wave me away with her friendly smile and leave it at that. Instead she told me to sit down and chatted me up for over an hour.
I decided to transcribe this impromptu interview in two parts, and include the audio file of our conversation, should you prefer listening to reading. Here, in part one, we discuss her introduction to dance, the surprising nature of her promotions, and how she’s opening herself up to new opportunities…
K: So, how long have you been in New York? A long time…
L: I’ve been in New York for eleven years? Maybe almost twelve?
K: Wow. So you’re, like, an official New Yorker.
L: I think I’m a New Yorker?
K: I think you’re a New Yorker.
L: I don’t know, though, because I’ve been on the Upper West Side almost the entire time I’ve been there, and I got there when I was fourteen, so I feel like in some ways I don’t know the city at all. But yeah, I’m a New Yorker.
K: You’re a New Yorker, that counts. Where are you from originally?
K: Wow, so that’s a big difference then.
L: Yeah, I’m from L.A. kind of area, Malibu Beach.
K: Was it hard to leave?
L: Yeah, yeah. It was really hard to leave. I was homeschooled my whole life, actually. SO I never left home. I was with my family all the time. And then I left for a summer program when I was thirteen, and the next year they asked me to stay and that was that. My parents said they would take it as a sign if I got a full scholarship, and my family doesn’t come from money either, so it was almost cheaper for me to leave. They paid for my room and board, my tuition, everything.
K: Kinda hard to say no…
L: It was hard to say no, so I just left. But it was a hard day. My mom, at the time, worked for American Airlines, so it wasn’t so bad. They could come in with free flights. But they haven’t been to New York in a while and I miss them.
K: Did you know about New York City Ballet as a kid? What was your childhood with dance like?
L: Not really. So, I got into dance because my cousin danced. I think I picked it up from her, I really idolized my cousin. She was four or five years older than me. My parents, since we were homeschooled, they kind of let us go and play with our cousins a lot. My family and friend like were one. [laughs]
I would hang out at [my aunt’s] dance store and that’s sort of how I got into it. I was dancing around the store and somebody saw my feet and told me I should dance. I think I gave some long explanation about how my parents couldn’t afford it or something, I don’t know.
K: How old were you?
L: I was ten. And [this woman] talked to my aunt and worked it all out that I would have free classes for a week, a month, and then a year after that.
K: And this is just someone who saw you?
L: Mhm. I have the dancer kind of bendy feet, and I think she saw my body type and was like “You look like you’ve got the long legs, you look like a dancer,” and I was Jeannette’s cousin so I think she thought I might have some talent because my cousin was really talented. I don’t know. But that was the first time anyone every told me I could be good at anything, so I was very excited about that.
K: And you obviously were already interested.
L: I was interested, yeah, I liked to move. I would always stand on my toes, even without shoes- I remember that. I would go all the way up to the tips of my bare feet. So that when I got my first pair of pointe shoes it felt good. [laughs]
K: [laughs] Yeah, you were like, “Wow, this is easier.”
L: Yeah instead of bad I was like “Wow, so much easier!” [laughs] So I think it was meant to be in that sense, but I hadn’t really thought about New York City Ballet until later. I just had videos from the library so all I saw was Julie Kent and ABT, and I wanted to be like Julie…
But there was this girl- my whole family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, almost thirteen- and I saw this local student there who was amazing. She always went to SAB [School of American Ballet] every summer. It was the first time I’d ever heard of it. I wanted to be like her so I thought “Okay, I’ll audition.” I didn’t get in the first time I tried, I was really sad. But then the next time I did and the whole thing just happened. So I didn’t even really know what it was I wanted, I just knew I wanted to be like Sally. [laughs] And then I got to New York and I was like “Oh, this is really hard! This is crazy and everybody’s really good and it’s cutthroat.” But I liked the work so…
K: Spoken like a true dancer.
L: Yeah, dancers love it. They love the impossible. Come on, correct me a million times!
L: I think I was asked to stay around the same time I learned about New York City Ballet. So I was almost living in New York before I knew anything about what I was doing. Which I think is kind of better sometimes, because I feel like you can get kinda lost in how you envision your life to go, and then the every day you kinda lose. So I knew I loved ballet, and I knew I loved working in the studio, and I knew I loved New York City, and it didn’t matter what happened after that, so I kinda just kept going.
K: It wasn’t as much about a goal as it was the present moment and just doing what you wanted to do.
L: It was the present moment. Then I just got a ton of free tickets to see New York City Ballet every night, which I took big advantage of. I went all the time. I liked to go by myself. I would sit by myself and imagine myself doing what they were doing.
K: So from your experience at SAB, how was it getting into the company? What was the transition like, what was the time like?
L: It was crazy. I did my workshop performance and six girls from my class got chosen into the company, and I wasn’t one of them. They asked me to come back another year and didn’t let me audition for companies. So it was this weird time where I didn’t know if I wanted to dance, or if I was any good. I wasn’t good enough for New York City Ballet- I thought- because, you know, six girls got picked over me. I thought maybe I must be really weak.
I auditioned for Chautauqua [Institution Summer Dance Intensive], so I ended up going there [for the summer]. I choreographed there, I liked the choreography thing. I thought, “Well maybe I’ll do a little bit more of that or just move back home and just be with my family.”
But I went back for another year at SAB, just to finish it. When I went back to the school year and I was with all of the younger class. It just felt like failure a little bit. But I choreographed that fall, too, for their choreographic workshop. I think in hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, because I went to Chautauqua and got to make two different works on a real stage with costumes and live music and all of that, it was really valuable. And then back at SAB I got a little blurb in the paper and Peter Martins saw my choreography. I think in hindsight everything went as it was meant to go, but at the time, I was really depressed and sad.
And then it was actually the day before Halloween- I remember, I had my costume all ready, I was gonna be a butterfly in class- and I got this call to go to a meeting. It was me and three really tall blondes. And I thought, “What’s this all about? This is crazy we don’t look anything alike.”
K: [laughs] Strange group!
L: [laughs] Yeah I was like, “I’m really the odd one out here!” But they gave us apprenticeships for Nutcracker, because they needed girls. It was…weird. I don’t know, I was excited, but also just…every promotion I’ve always felt this way that I’ve been sort of out of my body. Like it’s happening and I always imagined it would be this big moment, and it never felt that way. It’s always been very practical.
So I got asked into the company and I thought, “Okay what does this mean? I guess I have rehearsal tomorrow,” which I did. I didn’t need my Halloween costume anymore. [laughs] I was like, “Okay! I’m in New York City Ballet!”
K: That’s crazy, so the next day you started?
L: Yeah, they don’t prepare you or warn you, really. They just kinda throw you in. So, we were called like, “second apprentices” by some of the girls for a while, because I was behind the other girls that got in. But still in the same year, so…
K: How competitive is it actually?
L: I mean it’s not Black Swan, but it is hard. There were nine of us, nine girls as apprentices that year. So every time the schedule comes out, you look at it and you’re like, “Is my name on there?” We had every height of girl you could be, every kind of dancer. Girls that were better at long, slow, adagio things, quick movers, just every kind of dancer.
Apprenticeship is already hard: you don’t know your surroundings, you’re at the bottom, you think everyone is talking about you- they’re not- but you think that they are. You’re very self-conscious, and then you’re trying to guess what your boss wants. It was stressful and hard and some of the older girls would say, “Oh, you’re not allowed to wear warmups,” or “Oh, you’re not allowed to sit down”, which isn’t necessarily true. [laughs]
K: [Laughing]Power trip…
K: You find out later on…you’re like mmmm? Like you’re not going around saying that to people now…
L: No, not now. So I mean, the company changes every year based on how the older dancers treat the younger ones. I’m always really nice to the younger dancers if I can be, just to make them feel welcome. But that first year was hard. I think I had a head on most of the time, like some kind of costume with a giant face covering my face? [laughs]
K: That’s what I was gonna say when you were talking earlier about, you know, trying to guess what the director wants and it’s like you’re not able to really be yourself as much.
L: No, you’re trying to be something that you don’t know yet.
K: Yeah, exactly. It must be nice to now be able to be free.
L: Yeah, it is. And that’s how I felt when I got my corps contract. It was the best. You can only do so many ballets as an apprentice or else they have to hire you, full on. And they usually don’t have the money for that, so they limit what you do. You understudy a lot, but you usually don’t get put in. When I got my corps contract I thought, “Now I can dance any ballet. I can dance all day long. There’s nothing to stop me. I can do anything!” It was very freeing, just to have the validation, and the job security. [laughs] Like, okay, it’s not just a year- even though our contracts are still yearly it’s better than an apprentice contract.
All nine of us got in that year, which didn’t help with the whole “What does my boss want?” question. We were still all so different! But yeah, it was really exciting. We were all living in the same house in Saratoga, so it’s a good thing that we all got in, or else it would’ve been very sad.
K: Are a lot of you still in the company?
L: No, actually, I’d say maybe half of us are gone now.
K: Oh no, that’s sad!
L: I think maybe happier, though? A lot friends went to school. Dancers are some of the smartest people ever. Some went to Barnard some went to Harvard, Princeton, one is training for NASA. It’s crazy, dancers can do anything.
K: It’s so true.
L: So, yeah, I was still searching in the corps, for who I was. Not really sure if I liked being a ballerina, not sure if I loved the job. And then I got my soloist contract, and that was when it really felt right, because I don’t like staying in line [laughs] I’m not good at it. I’m not good at looking like other people. I try really hard, but it’s just not my gift. As soon as I was free of that, I felt like a whole nother dimension of my dancing could shine through and I could just be myself. It was a very validating moment in my career.
K: Did you see it coming at all?
L: No. I mean, I was doing a lot, I remember I had three debuts in Sleeping Beauty in a week, and I was learning two new ballets, [George Balanchine’s] Dances at a Gathering and [Peter Martins’] Zakousky for the Moves Tour, our small company tour. I was just flooded with work, I remember.
K: You weren’t really thinking about whether or not you were gonna get promoted.
L: No. I was just worried about what was in front of me. I barely had enough rehearsals for what I was doing. I think I learned Zakousky in two days. I liked it, but I was also really tired at the time. I find that before every promotion, you’re kind of put through the fire a bit.
K: And you’re kind of doing the work of both…
L: Yeah, you’re doing all of your corps ballets and you’re doing special highlighted things, it’s just a tough time. I think that’s when you know, I always tell younger dancers, I’m like, “If you feel like you’re gonna die, if you feel like you’re being worked to the bone and you’re not sure how you’re gonna do another day, you’re probably on the verge of something really great.” You just can’t give up, and you can’t let the attitude go bad. I remember when I got my soloist contract, my boss said he liked my attitude the most. He said he watched me from his office. So even when we don’t know he’s watching, he has a video camera of the stage. He said I always did every rehearsal full out, and he liked my spirit and my energy at work. So, that was a nice thing to hear from my boss.
K: That’s a great thing to hear. That’s super validating. All the work that you’re doing, all of the integrity…
K: Yeah, totally matters.
L: I tell other dancers that too when they start to get down I say, “Don’t. Enjoy the work, keep it up, You’re on the verge of something great. If you let it sour you, right at the cusp of something, then it’s not good.”
K: So did you feel sort of the same thing when you got your principal contract? That “through the fire”, or…
L: You know, it was weird. My principal contract happened in a way…I don’t know how to describe it. It was not what I pictured it to be. I’d had a lot of big moments, I had just done La Sylphide, my first full length ballet, and I felt like a ballerina, but my foot was in a lot of pain.
So I was dancing with an extra bone in my foot for like seven years I think it was, or six years- knowing about it. I was getting to this point where I felt like I wasn’t able to push the way I wanted to.
K: Because of the pain?
L: Yeah, I was in a lot of pain, I didn’t feel like a principal. I was taking it easy a lot, really going for it on stage but not warming up well because it hurt so bad. So I was really going through a lot at that time and a lot of personal stuff, too, in my life. I wasn’t really thinking about getting promoted, I was thinking about healing. I did La Sylphide and I was thinking if there was ever a moment where I might get promoted it would probably be after that, like, “Your big show! Maybe!” [laughs] But I didn’t get promoted, and I had my surgery scheduled right after that big performance, so I thought, “Alright, well, I’m not gonna get a promotion, that’s cool. That’s fine, it’s not the right time. I’m gonna go into this surgery, hopefully I’m gonna come back okay.” I had never had an injury before that put me out for a long period of time.
So I did this performance, got surgery on my foot and then two weeks later while still in a boot, I got a call to have a meeting with Peter. I thought, “Oh no, maybe it’s about the injury”, and then nobody was in the office. So I found somebody who said, “Oh yeah, go down to the stage.” The final performance of the season had just wrapped up and I hobbled across the stage in my boot, and my boss was just standing there in the wings talking to someone else. He turned around and went, [in her best Peter Martins voice] “Oh!”, slapped my on the back, “Uh, I’m promoting you!” And I thought, “What? I’m in a boot!” And he said, “You’re not surprised!” And then he left! He said, “Get a drink on me”, and then he just left and I thought, “That’s the weirdest thing, like is that real? I thought this would be a big moment like maybe he’d tell me all the great things about my dancing or what I’ve done or how proud is or just something…but instead it was like I’m doing this thing, you’re not surprised…bye! Go heal for six months. [laughs]
So it kinda did some weird things to me mentally, I didn’t know how a principal should be. I didn’t really see it in myself yet, and I knew I’d have to come back after all this time offstage and with a new title, be that thing, which I was already unsure about. So it worked out in the end…
K: Yeah, I mean, it definitely worked out!
L: It was just a different way around the issue. It never happens the same for anybody, so, that was just mine.
K: So when was that?
L: That was 2015. And then for about a year my foot was still hurting me after the surgery. I struggle with stage freight a lot and anxiety, so I was having a hard time. And then more personal stuff in my life was happening, so it was just tough.
And then around Christmas, my boss came up to me and asked me to choreograph, asked me to make a ballet. He said, [again in her best Peter Matins], “New Lovette: 2016. What do you think?”, and I just stared at him like, “Okay! Sure!” [laughs]
It was genius. It was exactly what I needed, that I didn’t even know I needed. Something to get me out of my head.
Stay tuned to hear the rest of our conversation, in which Lauren discusses choreographing, her experience in Vail and finding inspiration, coming soon.