Q: How did you become involved in the performing arts?
I grew up in Georgia and in middle school when we were all struggling to figure out who we are, I was this little strange boy in the north suburbs of Atlanta who wore plaid pants and golf polos. It was very clear I was different. I had a teacher who told my parents there was a performing arts magnet school that I should look into. I did theater in the church I grew up in. I auditioned for the magnet school as a theater major and vocal performance minor. They said that if I wanted to be in the musicals I needed to learn how to dance. So I got into the school and told my parents I need to take dance classes and my parents were all for it. I played sports as well, but I was not good. I think my parents were happy I found something I liked to do that was active. I took my first dance class at age fourteen outside of my performing arts school. I took an hour bus to school, then took an hour bus home and went to class at the Georgia Ballet. After six months of that I started my second semester of freshman year taking dance as a minor. I was so behind. I told the leaders of the school for my remaining three years I wanted to change my major to dance and the rest is history. I played catch up for all those years. I did summer programs and everything I could do. The school at the time was only intermediate and advanced. I was a beginner thrown into an intermediate class because I was a guy. I will never forget falling flat on my back in jazz class on the first day. I was with girls who danced their whole lives and it pushed me to get better and I wanted to be better. I then went to University of Arizona and got a BFA in Dance and was training with Giordano over the summers. I was very alternative/comercial looking at first, my hair was dyed black. Nan Giordano did not know what to do with me. When I came back to the summer scholarship I dressed for the job, even though I didn't work for her yet. I dressed for the job I wanted.
Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?
The easy answer is discipline. I hear all the time from people who danced growing up but didn't follow dance as a career path that when they interview, people see dance on their resume they know the discipline of that and will hire them. It has given me the discipline to succeed, not that I don't mess up, but I understand what I need to do when I fall and how I get back up. Going back to the first class in high school and falling, I just laid there and two male dancers picked me up and said, “keep going.” I graduated eleven years ago and in those eleven years I have made mistakes and done things but it has been about how I handled them and how I have continued to escalate in my career. People see the way you handle yourself and you do it with grace. It makes us problem solvers as artists. People look to us during times like these even if it is as simple as making someone laugh or smile, just plain entertainment, those are temporarily solving peoples problems. I think that is something that dance has taught me and I have integrated into how I interact in the world.
Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?
Yes and no. I have always looked at it as if it is not something I can never not do. I hear people say dance chooses you, you don’t choose dance. I say that to say I have viewed it as this awesome career that chose me and has allowed me to create. I jokingly say there is no crying in dance. It drives me crazy when people get emotional in the studio and cry. No, you need to work. We are here to work. Last summer my father died and I had to choreograph Newsies at a theater in Chicago and had I not had that opportunity lined up I don’t know how I would have handled things. I think dance saved me during that time, it gave me something to channel my energy into. I only told the director about my father. There is no crying in dance in my head. I was able to channel all that energy into dance and the show and for the hungry artists who wanted it and that was my reason to get up each day. I mean I would come home and cry and have my emotional moments, but dance gave me a purpose during one of the hardest times I’ve ever had to go through. Plenty of times I've been injured or not gotten the job and you are sad but in some ways, even though that is when you feel it isn't on your side, it is beautiful when it shows up and is there for you. It’s like this net that catches you and gives you permission to be an artist. Or maybe it isn’t a dark time but other people around you are having a dark time. There is this net that gives you permission to be an artist and channel emotions even though you may not know where to put them. Instead of people crying in the room, put it into how you move. How do you channel that into choreography and movement? I am so lucky to be here today doing this. I take that negative and put it into the positive and power that I have to be an influencer. I get to dance today, how lucky am I? That is what that art form is here for, it's your net, it is here for you.
Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside or inside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?
A lot of times when I create new works I like to create other-worldly feelings and onstage communities and that for me comes from movies and TV and art installations. A lot of other art influences my art, especially cinematic art. I remember growing up leaving the movies feeling empowered by a character or saddened by a character in the film. I remember how powerful that was. Whenever I see dance, I want it to be that way. I want to find something in dance that I can connect to. People go to empathize with characters. For me, I want to create this cinematic thing. I hate seeing dance from the side, I want to be in the center and see the whole picture. It's like an episode of something. In almost every work I do, the curtain goes up on something that is already happening. Something had to happen before and after it in my mind, just like any movie that finishes and it has the follow-up on the characters. I am always curious what happens to the characters. Especially in the visual aspect, I want it to create this cinematic, moving picture idea. If I see what is happening backstage that takes me out of it. As artists we have to take a look at what is happening in our field and other fields. On Project Runway they said “this looks like last season Dior…” and someone said, “I don’t watch other people’s runway shows, I only do what comes in my head.” And their critique was, “Well, you should be seeing what other people are doing.” That is what influences our art. We let the world come into our art so why wouldn't we let other people's art come into our art? What happens in my personal life also shows up in my work a lot. My father had a bad car accident and I made a piece about that. Then there was an all female company and I realized I was making a work about my mother and how she had a re-birth. A lot of times my personal life comes in, and I think that’s true of a lot of other artists. Writers say, “Write what you know.” And I think that applies to me and my choreography. I create about what I know and what’s happening in my world.
Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?
I think that can apply to dance and all of the arts. If you think about Aida, an old opera that became a musical, it’s a story from hundreds of years ago about interracial relationships and how slavery ended. Unfortunately, a lot of things in that story are still happening all over the world today. In some countries, it’s in the form of overt racism and slavery, but also in our country there are still people who are not accepting of interracial relationships and that’s just on a ground level. Then there are the issues with equity and diversity that persist in the arts. The performing arts show up and give people who maybe aren’t ready to handle the truth a way to handle the subject matter. Maybe it gives it to them in a way that they can go, “Wow that was touching and moving, I really felt something, why do I even have a problem with this?” Last night I was watching this documentary on Netflix where a mother had been working with gay people her whole life, but when her son came out she was upset about it and didn’t know how to handle it. She had to do a lot of reflection and dive into the “why”. I think that’s where the arts allow a buffer or catalyst to experience things in a safe space. Or maybe not a safe space, there are immersive experiences that force people to be a part of the show and that can make them uncomfortable. For the most part though, in dance or theatre, it’s proscenium so it’s still far enough away from you that you can view it, let it affect you, and take away what you will without it being forced upon you. As an artist I don’t like being front row, I don’t want to be inside of it. Dance and theatre allow that platform for us to address those issues in a way that makes people feel safe and makes them feel like they can be a part of the conversation at a safe distance. Often without realizing the safe distance becomes a full hug that brings them in, and we did it with a melody or a ball change and they didn’t even realize.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a creator and performing artist?
The biggest thing is financially. Even though I am the director of Girodano II and the Operations Manager, my job with Girodano is less than half of my income. I make more than half of my income every year as a freelance choreographer and artistic collaborator on different projects. Within the first day of things being shut down here in Chicago, I lost a $900 job. A couple weeks later I lost more. As this progressed and they finally let us know how serious it was, I was losing so much. I do a lot of work in the summer when the company is off season and I travel to conventions. They pay so I can focus on Giordano during our season. When I was dancing I worked five days a week and taught three to five days a week depending on where I was in my career. I did all these extra gigs. With my summer work, a lot of it is passion work because I love what I’m doing, but a lot of it is good money, too. COVID has cancelled conventions, judging gigs, commissions were moved to next season. Some of these things will still happen, just like a year from now. The scariest thing, and the thing that we work so hard on, is that I work to prove that I can make a living in the arts. I do this mainly for myself but of course there’s concern from family and friends like, how long can you make this work before you have to go do a real job? Since I retired from dancing and I made the transition to part-time work with the company and freelancing, I got myself in a position where I feel like I can start measuring success. I’m an adult and I’m doing everything on my own, I don’t have to call my mom anymore while I wait for my next paycheck. What the pandemic has done is stripped away that personal confidence that I’ve built up over the last eleven years of hustling to make a consistent living as an artist, one where I can pay all my bills, buy gifts, and still go out for happy hours. I’m living my life. I’m not living an exorbitant life in a mansion, but I’m an artist and I’m happy. So it took the freedom of us being able to leave our homes but it also took that freedom to be taken seriously along with other “real jobs.”
Q: What process was the Giordano Company in at the time and how have you continued to support the dancers?
Thankfully the second company had their important show at the end of February/beginning of March where they premiered several original works twice in one night. This show is kind of the pinnacle of their season, because otherwise they’re performing at festivals or covering for the main company. This night is about them, it’s their show. Thankfully that happened for them. The main company had their gala the weekend before, which financially for any company is a main way to receive donations that help the company function throughout the year. We’re really grateful that we were able to get to that point in the year. We were preparing for our spring season at the Harris Theater when things got shut down. Then our governor originally ruled that you could not have gatherings over 250 people, and the Harris had to close their doors.
Following that in April and May we do what’s called Jazz Dance: Science and Health which is our Chicago Public School outreach program. It’s a huge thing we’ve been doing for years and it integrates health and fitness into what’s already happening in third and fourth grade classrooms. Like any school, the arts and physical education are the first things to get cut, so this program allows us to go in, reinforce what kids are learning, and integrate it with movement and dance. They have a field trip at the end where all the classrooms come together and each one performs a dance that they learned. It’s a really awesome thing for these kids. That whole program was cancelled because schools are shut down. That’s another place where it hurts our dancers because we don’t hire out those teachers, those teachers are our dancers and we pay them. It's been a financial shift for everybody. I keep going back to finances because it’s a way to measure change. Thankfully all of our dancers have been able to continue teaching at studios online. They’re still earning some revenue.
We were supposed to have our summer series at the Auditorium Theatre here in June and, following that, our summer workshop. We held off on cancelling but eventually had to after our governor extended our stay at home order until May 30th. Everything has to be cancelled, we can’t put on a show in a week and even if we did, who would want to come? People aren’t going to feel comfortable sitting shoulder to shoulder with people in a theatre right now. We’ve been trying to be creative, tomorrow we have Gus Girodano Day, and we’re having a huge online class with Nan Girodano and Ray Leeper from L.A. This online virtual experience is happening, we did not ask or require people to pay, we just suggest a donation of $15 which is what it would be if you went to take class anywhere. We’re trying to stay integrated into people’s lives. Part of our company mission is to bring energy and joy to people, and there is a lot of sadness right now. People are creating art to reflect that and it’s beautiful, but something that Nan really wants to drive home is that we can still move our bodies even though we are apart and do it joyfully. That’s the point of this class tomorrow. Hopefully we will generate a bit of revenue from donations. We’re trying to be creative in that way and see what we can do to keep swimming.