Q: How did you begin dancing?
From an artistic standpoint, I come from a place of privilege. My mom is a voice teacher, an opera singer, and my father is a percussionist. I started in music and acting at eight years old, working professionally playing child roles in operas. Then I moved into theater with Summer Stock, doing the New York City hustle. I was a child actor, I had an agent. My dad was a hustler NYC artist, he played in the New York Philharmonic. My mom is from the Midwest but lived in Italy as an opera singer for a long time–– Music was the first thing my brothers and I learned how to do. I did a lot of musical theater in high school and summer programs, that’s when I started to dance more. I didn’t know what went into dance. I didn’t realize you take ballet and all this stuff. One summer, the summer before senior year of high school, they were looking for an actor to play a role in a dance performance at school; I auditioned and got cast. The first time I stood at a barre, all the dancers were so good. I was privileged early on, I was working for Toronto Dance Theater. They had Netherlands Danse Theater dancers, and at that time, I had no idea who they were, but I was just there learning. I wanted to pursue this as my life’s work, and they said, “You should go to Ailey.” I showed up and auditioned for the junior division at Ailey, I did two years there. I then knew I wanted to go to college for dance. I went to Trinity High School, and I got a scholarship to go there. I remember it was that or Laguardia for acting. But if I went to Laguardia I never would have danced. I took a year off after high school and I just trained in ballet. Then I got into SUNY Purchase and went there. I gained my foundation at Purchase and I started choreographing. I had amazing classmates, and beautiful facilities to learn in. I started dance-making there right away. It was the perfect way to pull together everything I learned. I loved connecting to people and working with people. I started my company after college. I knew it would take a long time to start a company and get gigs, but I also knew that I would mess up a lot. I didn’t want to be a performer who then makes a company, I wanted to START with one (a company).
I haven’t danced professionally for another company and haven’t been a part of too many productions as a performer either. I am a maker. I love getting the chance to educate; I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been commissioned by universities. I have a great career with my company as well. I am super fortunate and received so much support. We can’t really be mad at anything we lost out on or got rejected from. “No” is just another integral element of this, it is not personal. “No” exists in the same way ballet does; it just exists in the field of the performing arts. I can’t be mad at something I didn’t get. I have been so blessed by the people who come into my life to challenge and support what I do. I feel like I am a stained glass window, like a collage of every interaction that I have ever had. I feel like no matter if you are a deep member of my circle or I have only had a single moment with you, you are a piece of the puzzle for everything I have experienced. I think there is a great enrichment of having the depth of many integrations and connections and exchanges. I love it unconditionally, I have loved it [dance] at my best and my worst. That is what has always convinced me to keep it up.
Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?
I am lucky that I have made my living from creation. Anything I have created has afforded me the ability to live and allowed me to contribute to the family that raised me. I think there are aspects of dance for heterosexual males that a lot of people don’t think about. Yes, there are advantages; because dance has a limited number of men, I may sometimes have access to high-level training in an easier way. But there are strange social pressures as well. When I started in high school, my male friends were very confused and reacted in weird ways. They said things like, “Does this mean you are gay now?” Now, there is nothing wrong with that. But to others it was considered a bad thing. Heterosexual girls also didn’t know how to take to it, and the kids in dance would say, “Are you here to meet girls?” I had a hard time fitting in with dance kids as a teenager and had a hard time being relatable because I was so raw and new to dancing. It was hard. I had a hard time on both sides, socially and with the craft itself. The consistency of the work and the power of the craft—continuing to stick with the craft—taught me how to build bridges. Dance helped me find acceptance in myself and with others. It is what I believe in. Even in college I was so raw that my ballet teacher said, “Why are you here? If you are here to meet girls, this is not the place to be.” And I said, “I am here to dedicate myself to something greater than myself.” It was interesting to have to convince people why I was dancing. That is why so many young gentlemen who start to dance say, “I don’t know how to do this.” Support is important and encouragement goes a long way. I think it is so important to say, “Yes, yes, yes,” instead of shutting someone down. I keep encouragement alive in the studio. I try to say “yes” instead of “no.” Dance has helped me overcome “no” in that way. My relationship to the negative is a positive one.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?
Seeing the city get turned upside down is crazy. I’ve seen the impact on multiple levels. I am an independent artist and a business owner. I have been dealing with limits and constraints of this from multiple angles. It is strange because there are things as a person and creative that I am excited by as a result of this. I am proud of the way me and my teams are responding the best way we can. I have felt strange focusing on my financial and emotional loss because I am one of the many who lost so much work, so it feels weird to try and calculate and acknowledge it. This just didn't happen to me - it happened to everybody. I feel like right now, if you have your own thing, you could be at an advantage. This is a great entrepreneurial time in a strange way. Anytime rules are re-set or landscapes are re-calibrated, there is a strange advantageous part to that because technically, there are no rules right now. If you were someone who was depending on an organization or an institution where you don’t have the fluidity to call the shots, it’s harder I think, or at least you feel the pinch of this more fatalistically. If you are a property owner and you own the space you are in, this is even harder. It’s funny. I feel like the things people were bemoaning at one time in a more civil union or society could work to their advantage now, like us being more agile and having our platforms move to online and not having the overhead others have. Working with other host spaces has proven to be a little more in our favor now that we have to make adjustments on the fly.
The programs I work with like DASH and Playground have been the two points of focus for us [my team] as professionals right now. They are service-based entities, so we’re trying to figure out what we can do from a service-base standpoint, not just from training but overall support, resources, and communication. How can we help the revenue streams we are currently generating? How can we allocate percentages of those to charities or to foundations that need help? How can we keep educating through the academy program I have? This program is a youth developmental training program with children ages 9-18 so we are also looking at how we can provide support for the generation behind us both intellectually and physically. I feel like the isolation and this distancing is pushing a level of independence because you really have to find a structure now and take further initiative. Initiative is not just about how mobile you are - it's about your actions. How can you as a young person, a teenager who is used to having a schedule, now fill your day or seek out what else is available to you at this moment? How can you be your own manager or boss in seeking out more possibilities? This is across the board, not just for kids. The Playground is basically an inverse of the academy where it is a service-based organization that works for working professional (adult-age) artists. We are in partnership with Gibney in NYC. They are sort of like our host and parent company. We could not do anything without them. Through our work with them, we are able to employ all of our teachers. We pay our teachers as they teach - it is not donation-based, it is a flat fee we pay everyone. We try to employ as many people as we can right now with these workshops and again to just give more regularity to the community. Yes, this form of community looks different, but the presence of it and the need for it and accessibility to it is vital now, more than ever. Again, even though we are not making contact, we can still touch, which I think is a really important aspect of this.
From a performative standpoint, I, like many others, lost many commissions and performing opportunities that my company had. The DASH ensemble was in its 10-year anniversary. All of our seasons for that were totally wiped. We had some European touring that will obviously not be occurring. There is loss, but I always say how important it is to be multifaceted in your involvement in your field in terms of building platforms, building strong partnerships, and finding multi-pronged approaches to your branding and art, because sometimes those facets will play different roles of prominence based on the need and demand for them. I feel very lucky that even though it will still be very challenging as we continue to deal with inability and loss; we have the ability to keep trying to provide for others and the ability to grow and push our potential in this new way. I think qualities in a person are going to be the solution seekers at this time. Instead of asking, “What am I going to do?” asking, “Who am I? What am I made up of? What qualities do I have that might serve in these conditions? What characteristics or skill sets have I been applying to one modality that might actually convert to a different modality now that I am being forced to?” I think the WHO right now is almost more important than the WHAT. Who are we? Who are we next to or around? Who do we have access to? Who do we put effort into connecting to? Who are we reaching and who are we allowing to reach us?
Even something like this interview series. You and I connected even though this may not normally happen in other circumstances. You felt driven through a sense of persistence. You are clearly a driven, intelligent, bright, and passionate person and that shouldn’t be a secret. It’s these kinds of things that are creating these bridges. One of the things that has been interesting with the virtual platforms as far as training is that it opens a pool of reach in terms of compactability. No one has to fly me anywhere to teach or to train. No one has to come to me to train. This idea of reaching different levels of desire or trying different things to get more up close to what these different artists do is now a wide-open possibility. I think the ability for crossover has increased too as artists from different corners of dance and all mediums can work together now. You see more musicians link up with performance artists in different ways and create that exchange. I love to see more concert dance and commercial crossover and more contemporary and street-based artists collaborating. Those possibilities are endless right now. I hope people see these things from a standpoint of hope. Any sense of progress towards partnership can really give hope. Even right now, I think the idea of being acknowledged and supported is huge. I am finding that support when I teach virtually and I watch people really feel seen, when I’m like “Yes, Amanda; very good, Michael!” for someone who is isolated in a physical way, to have that intrinsic connection that still gets right to their heart and gives a sense of purpose to their day or to that moment for them, it means something. As we all know, when a person is purposeful, they are usually at their best. I am hoping that during this time these life principals will be highlighted so people lead and prioritize from them at all times. Now I'm not going to say, “when we get back to normal” because frankly, I am not sure if that is going to happen. Not to say that this will not subside, but I think we are entering into a time of permanent shift. We are entering into a territory that is completely unknown and will continue to grow in that direction. I worry for people who think they will wait this out. I don’t mean that negatively, I mean that from a place of awareness and a place of acknowledgement towards the conditions and to encourage people to be more user-friendly. If you are not pushing to try to adapt certain behavioral models, business models, or social models, then what you are clinging to will become obsolete in this paradigm shift. I am trying to build a sense of encouragement towards being comfortable with the unknown—getting uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.
Being involved in a niche-oriented career path has given me a beautiful openness and awareness for life’s happenings, and I feel really humbled and gracious towards that. That is why I love this so much. It is the ability it gives me to live this life that I find the biggest cherishing point of this pursuit. You have to know when you choose this that if you encounter obstacles, you cannot blame the game because you choose this game. We can make a choice in our response to things. How do we respond to this new challenge? I think helping others is huge right now. It doesn’t have to be on a global scale, it doesn’t need to be something political that will solve every major gap. But the thought and idea of making a difference can be made and defined in so many ways. Even right now, this interview is helping me share my thoughts. I’m learning more about my own standpoint while I talk to you. A huge piece of the meaning of life is how you participate in your role, how you invite difference into your life, and a big part of how life unfolds is who you place yourself around, what mentors you have, and how you relate to your family and your colleagues. Now more than ever, people have the time to connect with almost anybody. The time and access we all have now that so many jobs have been taken away is highlighting the value of what we do for others when we create the space to come into each other’s lives. Are you allowing yourself to not be the smartest person in the room? To be around people who far exceed you in their craft? If you see something desirable in a person, place yourself with them. Go to them. I think the state of things is shedding a light on this intrinsic life principle.