Interview: Elizabeth Parkinson
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Q: How did you begin dancing?

I had an unusual experience. I was a really introverted child and I had a very large family and an unusual mother. My sister was dating a ballet dancer, and I was 12 and we lived in Florida in a mini condo on the beach. We would always be playing on the beach and my sister’s boyfriend said to me, “You have ballerina legs, you should take ballet.” And I said, “Okay, I will.” It just so happened there was a ballet school by my house. I started in eighth grade, a bit late. I was a late bloomer. I was 13 but looked ten, so my body had a long way to go in development. I started dancing, and the first month I took one class a week and the second and third month, three times a week, and by six months I would take class everyday. I started performing. Dance really in a lot of ways saved my life. I loved going to the studio. I didn't have to talk, and I found another way to express myself that felt so powerful to me, and it felt like my thing that no one else had control over. I was lucky in that I had a great facility for dancing. In the summers I would go to the Joffrey workshops and train with them, and after high school they invited me to join the training company. I moved to NYC, spent two years in the trainee company, and then got into the main company. I never really grew up in those years, I think, because as a classical ballet dancer you are not required to have many of your own thoughts. And so for me, in a way it felt really good and natural to go to a place where the environment was so controlled and I could slip into that and there were specific rules and structures. But after a while you grow up, and I felt like in the ballet company, I started to understand the limits and have options and creative ideas and so I left. Everyone thought I was crazy. They said, “You’re doing principal roles, why would you leave?” I felt like I was in a rut, doing the same roles over and over. I felt like there was more out there. To make a long story short, I left and came back to Joffrey a few times. I started to be an explorer, and I started to take singing and acting lessons, and I took theater dance. I took jazz class and modern in NYC. I started taking whatever I could take that was different than one I had done. People thought I was crazy, like what is this ballerina doing? I love it. I'm good at being a chameleon and picking up different styles. I love to figure out other things. At Joffrey I got to do contemporary choreography. So my rep was not that classical at Joffrey. Then I worked with Donald Byrd, who became one of my main mentors. My dad died when I was in my early twenties, and I learned a lot from Donald. I learned about love. He is someone I have a high regard for and has been a rock for me. Then at the time because I was taking so many classes, I was invited by the class teachers to join these Fosse workshops and I got to work with Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking. I worked with Ann Reinking, Chet Walker, and learned all this Fosse repertory in the course of about a year. I was still dancing with Donald. I really didn't know where I was going, just that I loved it. Then all of a sudden I was invited to be in the show. I auditioned for formality and that was my first Broadway show — and I met my husband there. ‘Movin’ Out.’ People would say, “Oh, are you a Broadway dancer now?” and I said, “No, I'm just a dancer — I dance what I like to dance.” Something that has helped me have an interesting creative life is I never say to myself, “Oh I could never do that.” I always say, “Let me try.” I enjoy that process of transpiration and discovering — putting my body into a different form. It doesn't scare me. It frightens people to do something that feels awkward with their bodies. I like the awkward, taking the awkward and making it feel whole to me. When I was in Fosse, Twayla Tharp was working with Keith Roberts and she came to see the show, and the day after she wanted to meet me. I met her in the studio and she invited me to start working with her. I started working with Twyla and left Fosse before the show closed to work with Twyla. At the time I was 36 years old. Then I joined her small company — seven people — and she choreographed five original works. We toured all over the world, and then one day she came in and said, “I'm doing a Broadway show and you will be my principals,” and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m doing another Broadway show.” And so that show became ‘Movin’ Out,’ and when I opened it, I was 38 years old, almost 39 years old. When I was younger, I would have never imagined dancing at that level with that physicality at that age. Things have really changed. We take better care of our bodies now. I was in ‘Movin’ Out’ for three years, got pregnant, had a baby, and then I went back to the show, and I also did the national tour for a little while. When my son was a year and a half we decided to move out of NYC. My husband is a Broadway performer — at that time, he was in his late forties, and he felt like he wouldn't get cast in the same way. We both had these careers that kept going with little down time. We decided to take control and we moved. My husband wanted to open a school, and we have a school now here in Connecticut called Fineline Theater Arts. This is the fifteenth year of our school. At that time I never wanted to be a teacher and I didn’t feel I was a good teacher. I didn't feel I had anything to offer. But I was wrong. When I started teaching, I started learning how to teach and learning what it means to be a teacher. It’s very creative — every student is different. Everyone has a different key that opens up their perspective to what you are teaching. I love it. I love teaching actors, singers, dancers, I love teaching ballet to jazz dancers and modern dancers, and I love teaching ballet to students who are exceptional dancers who may not have had ballet in their youth and just need to wrap their brains around it. Right now, what I am working on brings it back to COVID-19. The only constants always change. The most successful people can re-invent, and that will be a key ingredient in the moving forward of our world. It's not like you can choose a profession and stay in it for forty years. You could look at it and say “oh no”, or “huh, what can I create and find in this model?” It is nice to idealize about the way we want things to be, but ultimately we don't have as much control over that as we would like. At the end of the day it is about re-inventing and creating. In a way, every human being is an artist whether you realize or not, because you create a path through life. I am very aware of that for myself. I think, “What will I create next?” There are an endless amount of possibilities for us. That is the appropriate mindset, otherwise a situation like this can be devastating. I can choose to be devastated or be ignited by it. I'm trying to ignite. I am medicating a lot. I have not medicated so much in my whole life. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

When this started, I was co-choreographing with my husband — we are both adjunct teachers in the musical theater program at Western Connecticut University. It was so odd to be stopped in the middle of the process and all the energy. I work with my husband Scott Wise and we choreograph and co-direct. We love to create and work with the students and give them this great experience in the studio. And learning and being creative and developing art together, we had so much momentum going and it was like the carpet was pulled out. I never experienced things in that way. I have experienced a show that maybe doesn't run as long as you might think it will, or you do a workshop and then the show doesn't go on, but this is the first time I was in a process that was cut in the middle. We have many seniors and I felt badly for them, not being able to complete the final shows they were working on before they graduate. The one thing we talked about when we had a last meeting was when I look back on my career and the process of what I did, the times I remember the most are in the studio. We had six weeks of really good experience in the studio, you can't just toss that aside. I think there is value in everything — rehearsal and performance, you learn from it all. It is a good reminder to stay in the moment, and that as a performer, when we rehearse, sometimes we may not have the appropriate amount of gratitude for being in the studio. We have these opportunities to affect the people that are in the room with us and we don't always take that opportunity.

I have been teaching through Zoom. My husband and I transferred everything online, which was an interesting experience. We learned a lot. I think maybe now I have taught 12 to 15 times in an online format with dance. At first I was concerned because I love to be in the studio and feel the energy of the people around me. I can read people better live and having a screen between us is hard. I think about our training as artists — I think we are more resilient when it comes to taking on change. The first couple of classes I taught were a little awkward and now I have the hang of it. It cannot replace being in the studio but I have discovered my way through it in terms of connecting with people on the other side and being affected. I was worried about how you can teach a dance class remotely — it seemed ridiculous. But with creativity it can be done. Artists freelance, we look for opportunities, and this is a different type of opportunity. My husband is having more of a difficult time. He is a real performer and he really missed the live connection with students.

Learned from your students virtual classes? Or something surprised you?

The focus from my students seems more intense… I think a lot of dancers are concerned they will lose their training, so there is an extra effort and an extra commitment that I have noticed that has been amazing to me. I really admire that. I was worried it would be the opposite, that people would be easily distracted in their homes. Most of the students I teach are 13 and up, and I think with this age group, they are intensely focused and working really hard. They are pushing themselves even though I am not right in the room to hold the torch under their butts. I would say technically speaking, managing the technology, the way I have changed my teaching is that my exercises are shorter and easier to learn, so after I teach I can sit on the screen and really watch what people are doing. I do not want to have more than two pages of students — I don't want to have to flip between two Zoom pages even. I really am able to hold them accountable. I found my voice gets tired because I am yelling at everyone to encourage them. I am surprised I am able to correct people through the video — it surprises me that I can actually see their work and see what they are doing… As much as we like to say young people are all distracted, this situation is proving that stereotype to be wrong. I have a 15 year old and he is doing his work online and doing his music online and I am so proud because everyday he has his routine and he is participating. 

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?

In the performing arts community, people really do want to take care of one another. I think that people are creative and people are finding creative ways to support each other, not only financially but emotionally to keep our imagination going and creativity flourishing. I have seen a lot of Instagram creative challenges people are doing. People can solve a certain physical puzzle or a certain composition and post it and they are able to explore their world that way. There's a lot of generosity, so much free content out there that has been really remarkable. I teach for studios in Montana and Florida and Rochester, and I usually travel to teach, and now I offered to teach classes for these places so the students can have something new to brighten their day or something different. I have seen a lot of that — this collaboration and reaching out to support. I want to support the students. I have a lot of empathy for these students. I feel concerned for the students. I know everyone will be okay and I'm an adult and I have a lot of tools and experience to get through this, but I don't know if young people have that. I don't know what it would be like for these young people. Somebody will study this and have an amazing experience doing that. 

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I guess I would love to imagine a world where we had the time that we have right now. I have so much time, more than I have in years, because I am always working to make a living and support my family. There's very little time to be creative and to be an artist because you have to survive financially. Before this happened, I would always say I wish I had two weeks out of the year where I could do whatever I want and not worry about producing and selling, but just to make art and to be able to almost give that art away. And see how things have become and how expensive it is to see the NYC Ballet or a Broadway musical? I was shocked when I saw William Forsythe at the Shed and my ticket was $60. It was an amazing seat and I was shocked at how inexpensive it was. I don't know what tickets at the Joyce are anymore, but it feels like there is so much inequality on who has access to performance. I have a friend in Hamilton and every week they have a performance that has been funded by someone that is for high school students in the NYC tri-state area. These high schoolers can see ‘Hamilton’ for free and that is a beautiful thing. I want a world where that happens more. Maybe that is more the European model, where the arts are supported, but even in Europe the government decides who gets the money. They say we will only fund one avant garde dance company and one classical ballet company. There are still limitations to that. I do think in the U.S. there is a drive that people have, and I think that is the capitalist pressure. I know a lot of my friends who work with European dancers are so laid back. 

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