Interview: Fana Tesfagiorgis
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Q: What has been your professional dance journey?

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and I started at Ballet Madison with Charmaine Ristow. Around age 14, my mom asked me if I wanted to dance—for real. I said yes, and went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. I will never forget Earl Mosley, who is my current mentor. He taught me Horton technique. I had never had modern dance that was so technical, with so much expression. I didn't know what the body could do until I found Horton technique. Earl brought me to Ailey, and I fell in love with the Ailey company. I got to train there, and it was the first time I was around artists that look like me. That was another awakening as well. That summer, I decided I would go to Ailey for college. I got into the Ailey Fordham BFA program. I trained there for 4 years, and I eventually went on to join Ailey II. I then did a year of freelance in NYC, and primarily danced with Nimbus Dance Works and Earl Mosley Dance. After one year of freelance, I joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2006, and stayed with them for 15 years.

Later in my career, I felt this urge to explore more of my artistic voice outside of dance.  I just started opening all these possible doors in my heart, such as singing and acting.  However, it was hard to juggle that while in the Ailey Company full time. As you know, the schedule for Ailey is crazy. It’s 5-9 months out of the year, with all day rehearsals. Ailey was my dream job and company, and I felt scared leaving a secure job. It was a hard decision to make.  I realized if I wanted to pursue musical theater I really had to just do that and the time came and I made the leap. I took that leap of faith to leave Ailey. I am so grateful to Ailey for all it taught me, but knew it was time to leave.

Since I left Ailey, I performed on the Tony awards in June last year, was asked to be in Steven Spielberg’s In the Heights, an episode of Pose, and in November, I got cast in the first national tour of My Fair Lady.

Q: Do you have any mentors or important people in your life that have shaped the way you dance and/or think about dance?

My family. I come from a family of artists. My mom is an art historian and visual artist. My dad is an art administrator. My two older brothers are visual artists, and my younger brother is a saxophone player. Growing up surrounded by arts and culture inspired me daily, as well as Earl Mosley, who scooped me up out of high school, brought me to Ailey, and continued to guide and mentor me.

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference

Absolutely! As artists, it is our responsibility to reflect the world and time we are in. There are several works I've been a part of that have spoken to social justice, such as a piece called A Mother's Right which is a solo with the Black Iris Project. That piece was a 40 minute solo I got to perform. In the work, I played a mother who just lost her son to a police shooting; her son was shot for loitering, and simply fitting a description. This speaks to the Black American experience. The Black Lives Matter movement is not anti-police, but is making a statement. I think the arts reflect everyone's culture and people's experiences.

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist and a person?

Art inspires me, and being surrounded by other people who are creating and sharing. Since I was a little girl, I would hear music and my body would just move. Definitely God as well, the ultimate creator, inspires me. What moves me forward is my constant craving to grow. I used to be on the brink of stress, constantly feeling like “I have to get better”, but as I matured, I have learned to embrace the present.  I think, moving forward, I don’t have the same urgency I used to have as a young professional. But I still have a hunger for knowledge. It is a different hunger.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

Well, it’s definitely put a pause on things. As far as the My Fair Lady tour, we are paused, and it has been confirmed that we will not be performing for the next month or so. We don't have a definite start date, and I feel the whole country is waiting. We are expected to continue because we have dates booked until 2021. I feel like we are going back to work, but there is no rush. I'd rather be safe than sick.

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time?

Personally, I have been really inspired by taking these classes online. A lot of my favorite artists are teaching daily, and I feel like I am getting to know their voice and their movement even more. I love to see all the challenges coming up, like the ‘Push-Up’ challenges on social media. I am really inspired by the songs people are creating that are going around, and by people recording themselves doing famous songs and passing it along. I don't think I have ever been reached out to more than in the last week and a half. It is easy to get absorbed in your plans for the day, and the hustle and bustle, so it's nice to pause and reset and ask myself: who am I? who do I care about? what is my purpose? It’s nice to be  able to take this time.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

Well, I definitely think people are more in tune with the people who are in need. Financially, those are often people who get overlooked. People should have access to healthcare, and the attention to this issue is great and growing. Also, there are more creative platforms for reaching out. There is an organization called Reach Out Arts. They are making art for the elderly. Now, these elderly people are also getting different access to Broadway performers and different artists. I am seeing realms that don't normally have access to that kind of attention, receive access. And I love it.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic?

What I’ve noticed online is a lot of people creating art, and making art, and sharing it out. Even classical stuff is free. Art should be free. All of this access should be free, quarantine or not. People have been confident in sharing whatever they have—drawing, singing, etc. I hope this sense of freedom to share and be inspired stays.

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