Interview: Jesse Obremski
Edited by: 

Q: What has your professional dance journey been like, and how did you come to dance with Gibney? What is the most recent show you have been a part of and how did you come to be a part of it?

I started dancing when I was seven. I had an amazing teacher, Ted Pollen, in the Alvin Ailey Company for two years, and then I was at the Ailey School for 10 years. I was in the boys program on scholarship from seven to seventeen. It was a beautiful experience. My last four years there, I went to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Then, I went to Juilliard for four years and graduated in 2016. While I was there, I danced for Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. I also went to Springboard Danse Montréal for three years, and various other summer programs and intensives. I was born and raised in NYC, so I connect a lot with New Yorkers. After graduating, I was working with seven companies at one time and realized it was unsustainable. I was danced for The Limón Dance Company for three years. I also performed with Brian Brooks Moving Company, Kate Weare Company, and Gallim Dance during that time. My transition to Gibney was smooth. I met Nigel Campbell, who is one of the directors of the company, some time ago because he also went to LaGuardia High School and was also a Juilliard graduate. He has an arts and social justice organization called MOVE|NYC|, and I have been supporting MOVE|NYC| since 2015 with arts administrative work, social media, assisting, stage managing, and teaching. Nigel mentioned in the fall of 2018 that there was a possibility I could be a guest artist with Gibney. Somehow, magically, it worked out that Limón was off during that time, and so I could be a guest with Gibney. After that, I was invited to audition to be part of the company as an Artistic Associate. An Artistic Associate is a dancer as well as a Community Actionist. It’s our title, but really we are the company dancers. I have been with the company for two years and I am looking forward to being with the company for a long time (if they will have me, of course).

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

I have written essays about this question and have been thinking about that a lot. I think that within Japanese culture, once someone is your teacher, they are always your teacher. I feel that all the time. My teachers are my inspirations and aspirations. I continue my career standing on  their shoulders. I recognize them all. There is Risa Steinberg, who was an Associate Director of The Juilliard School when I was there and a Limón teacher. She was also a born and raised New Yorker, she also went to what is now LaGuardia High School,  and she also studied at Juilliard, and was part of the Limón Dance Company. Risa has been an incredible mentor. She has an incredible way of viewing how movement and the language of dance affect us as people (which I think is in the Limón language, which she has been in her whole life). She has supported me, especially when it comes to my pedagogy; which is super important and something I don’t take lightly. She is always someone I can talk to with honesty and clarity. Another person is Earl Mosley, the Founder and Director of Earl Mosley's Diversity of Dance. At 15, I was a part of their summer intensive. I met him at the Ailey School. Mosley has been an artistic father to me, and an inspiration. Francesca Harper said this once and I connect with it: “When you give someone space and opportunity, you empower them.” I think this applies to Mosley because he has allowed me so much space and opportunity to go after what I am passionate about. He has allowed me to teach and choreograph at his organization. I am a social media coordinator, an arts administrator, and I am a board member with the organization. He has allowed me to dive into these spaces with guidance, reading me and checking in on me regularly. He has really allowed space for me and it feels empowering because I get to be in the space it is happening in, like in “Hamilton”: [in the] “the room where it happens.” 

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?
(Adversity as a minority artist…)

I had a difficult time near my graduation from Juilliard. Juilliard was amazing, a dream. But the transition into the field as a dancer... When it came to the reality of the field, it was hard for me to recognize the politics of it. There were some organizations that weren’t necessarily supportive of me because I was affiliated with other places. That has been complex because my passion is to support the arts community. To not be able to share that space has been hard. My affiliation is with everyone. Another challenging circumstance was auditions. My senior year of college, I auditioned for Broadway. They only saw me as an Asian-American dancer. Nothing else. For “Hamilton” and “Cats,” the less type-casted shows, I was seen in the roles, but for “American in Paris” I didn’t feel seen. It wasn’t “Asian-American in Paris.” It took time to understand and come to terms with that. It was hard, especially when people said, “There’s a ‘Miss Saigon’ audition. You should go!” I get it - but is that the only audition you are going to tell me about, because I’m Asian? It was the acknowledgement being labeled. I am proud of being an Asian-American dancer, but the reality is, it can be hindering at times. Also, some companies have an Asian-American token. If they were leaving, people would tell me to go to the audition. And I felt like they were saying, “You can audition now because the token Asian is leaving.” The dance field is very complex. I am at a bit of an impasse, I see all these different viewpoints and I acknowledge all of them––and complex is not a bad thing, it just means there are lots of layers. It can be a cake with lots of layers, and I love cake, but there can be a lot of layers you have to get through to get to the core.

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. Working with Gina [Gibney] at Gibney Company and with all the staff there, and growing up as an Eagle scout in the scouting world, taught me community action. The work of Gibney is social justice and how movement can support that. Social justice is really the dynamic between power and privilege, how people have privilege or how people have power. Movement is a catalyst to find equality within that power, because it happens to everyone. Mosley said, "Dance is for everybody and every BODY." That equality factor means that dance and movement is for everyone, and there is no power play within movement. There are ways of thinking of movement where there is no power over and under people. Also, within social justice, movement is a universal language. Those who can see have it, but those who can’t see can still feel a body that’s tense or at ease. Those who can’t hear music at all can still see this language on stage. Movement is a universal language. 

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

Other people. Other artists. I love teaching. I call myself an educator—I love working with dancers and with young, emerging dancers. As Mosley and Risa and other teachers allowed me space and opportunity, I want to make room for other people. I am always asking myself how I can support the next generation, my generation, and those that came before me. If that means me dancing in my own body, then let's do it. It could also mean creating a platform for someone else to teach or choreograph, and I’m there for it.

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

We have been talking about this within Diversity of Dance. There are so many live classes, and now we are trying to figure out how to have live performances become a regular thing. As a performing artist, I notice I have not been performing regularly. Gibney was going to have shows April 9th through the 11th with three choreographers. The program was called 'INSIDER/OUTSIDER.' I felt that opportunity has been taken away from me — that’s no one’s fault — but it is how it developed. But the taking away from me allows me to think about other opportunities to work with what is happening, rather than be pressured by it. At a lower level, our everyday lives are out of our control.

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

I think social media is great. Zoom and Instagram are two platforms that have worked really well. I wonder what this would be if we didn’t have the internet. I think people are using platforms and sharing. I’m curious in the future if these teachers teaching online will be doing it for free. As artists, there’s always the conversation that compensation should not be through exposure. I hope we can find a way to pay these artists for what they’re doing while also asking where their money is coming from.

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

Within Gibney, we have various aspects to each of our jobs. I see the Artistic Associate position is different for everyone. We have the dancing aspect and the teaching aspect. Because of social distancing, we aren’t allowed to be together. So the dancing aspect of our job is postponed––we’re still working remotely. Within Gibney, the focus is how social justice can be an opportunity for more community building. I have seen within myself what Gibney calls a shift of the “modules of priority.” That means we ask ourselves, “What is the priority right now?” Obviously, I keep my body moving, but right now we are in entrepreneurial mode and social justice mode. If a choreographer comes in for three weeks, we may spend more time on the creative process and less on our arts administrative work. Once that is over, there’s more time for us to focus on our community action and administrative work. It’s about adjusting the levels of priority to be most beneficial to everyone’s time and what the community needs.

Q: Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society? If so, how?

I believe so. When global warming was first announced, it was not a big thing. Many people didn’t believe in it. But once it started to have data and affect people, it became a real thing. I believe in global warming, and I feel it. With this pandemic, we are all feeling it. I hope people don’t take personal interactions for granted. We can acknowledge that we can still use these platforms like Zoom to have a social community and a greater connection with each other, but we can’t replace personal interaction.

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’ve been thinking a lot about how I work with space, but I haven’t really thought about how I would create the world I want to be in. To connect with what I was saying before, I hope people will continue to use online platforms to stay connected over great distances. I hope people are able to stay safe within their bodies. It is hard for me to tell someone to do something, it is more of an invitation to do it versus a command. At Gibney we say: “Treat people how they want to be treated.” As someone who is affiliated with different organizations, I’m seeing a lot of financial constraints. At Diversity of Dance, for example, we work with Hofstra University. Now that Hofstra is closed, we can’t do the summer intensive. Now the question is where is the money coming from, since Trump has taken away money from the National Endowment for the Arts? I wish more politicians and those in power had more arts-driven minds. I think it is a balancing act between art and business, but why can’t it be both? Why can’t we be seen as a business that we all need? 

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