Interview: Leal Zielinska
Edited by: 
Raheida Khalique

Q: What has been your professional dance journey, and how did you come to dance with Gibney Dance?

I started as a little kid by training with ballet and a lot of other styles. At 17, I was on So

You Think You Can Dance in my hometown of Poland. This opportunity propelled me to think of dance as a career and not just a hobby. I was still in high school when the show’s choreographers recommended I go to college to pursue dance seriously. I went to Codarts Rotterdam but dropped out. Later, I ended up at The Ailey School in New York City.

I started working with Sidra Bell through the Movement Invention Project . After

dancing with her for three years, I began to grow curious about other opportunities in the city. I have always been interested in social justice work and how art can be a meeting point for the performing arts and social justice. Previously, I’ve done community action training with Gibney Dance so I reached out to them about the company and what opportunities they had. At the time, Gibney was looking to hire a dancer, which worked out, and I am now in my second season with them. I absolutely love it and it has been better than I could have ever imagined.

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

Yes, I have many mentors. In no particular order of importance, they are Sidra Bell and

Alexandra Wells. Alexandra got me into the Movement Invention Project which connected me to Sidra. One of my first ballet teachers and the folks at Gibney Dance are mentors as well, including Gina Gibney, Amy Miller, and Nigel Campbell. They have been incredible mentors to me since I started my journey at Gibney- as a human, a dancer, a collaborator, and an entrepreneur. Another mentor, Bobbi Jene, is someone I look up to and have been for a long time. I take her Gaga class online every night in my room. And finally, the community itself is a mentor to me because you learn a lot from everyone around you.

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?

Mental illness has been a challenge for me. I had to drop out of school at Codarts

because I developed depression and an eating disorder from being really sick. These roadblocks have shaped a lot of how I operate within the dance world. The advocacy work that I am most interested in is mental health because I feel so strongly about it. There’s been many challenges but each experience has made me stronger and more resilient.

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. The arts can contribute to social justice in the world at large but I also feel

there is a lot of injustice within the dance world itself. I think the dancers are the best people to create programming in efforts to make more equitable communities. Art is healing and beautiful and unmatched in the ways it allows people to express themselves. In the dance community, we have the power to change and shape it to show what a healthy community can look like for the rest of the world.

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

There is no one particular thing that inspires me because I am impacted by everything

around me. In a way, my inspiration is responding to what I see and this never stops because the world never stops. Even now, while things are halted, I believe the deep need for response is already an inspiration to me. I am a really curious person and I ask questions all the time to find out more. My curiosity and the incredible people around me are what drives me.

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

The first obvious effect is the chaos and how everything is shifting. The rest of our tour in

Europe and our spring season, during April, were cancelled. One of our choreographers, pregnant at the time, was pulled out of the season because she did not feel comfortable being in New York City out of concern for her health during the pandemic. Very immediate effects like that were hard. Something else to think about ishow the entire dance community and its future will be affected. I am lucky enough to be in a full tim position at Gibney but many people that I care about all over the world do not have the same luxury. If you are freelancing or in a project base company, this is a very scary time right now. People are losing income and opportunities and things are folding. I worry about smaller projects and companies getting the worst of the financial hit. These are things that do not directly impact me but they are hard to see and cross my mind frequently. I was supposed to visit my family in Poland during our tour in Europe and not being able to see them during a stressful global situation has been strange. I know international artists in New York City who have borders shutting down on them and are unable to go home. My dad came to visit me in New York and was supposed to go back to Poland this Sunda. However, on Friday the borders to Poland closed and if he hadn’t left that night, he would not have been able to return to Poland. We went to an airport within 3 hours to make it before they closed.

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

I have been working this week to keep practicing for myself and making the most of my limited space by keeping a daily schedule like ballet barre. A good foundation can form from staying in touch with yourself and your art form before thinking about creating something new. It is beautiful watching people finding ways to keep a creative outlet possible including creating hashtags to send along a prompt and making videos at home. I have been seeing a lot happening online.

My rooftop has been my resort to let loose and create for creation’s sake. Whenever I am workshopping ideas, I like to approach creating by not focusing on the end product. Now is a good time to practice the type of creating that is not always results driven. It’s funny because dancers are always lacking resources and this makes us resourceful and crafty when it comes to overcoming obstacles. We’re used to making big things out of very limited resources and this is just another challenge for the dance community to keep going.

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

The most obvious change is the social distancing though I am disappointed at seeing

people gathering and doing things outside of the grocery stores in New York City.

What has been beautiful to watch is the selflessness and the very generous atmosphere, whether it is people giving classes or donating money to funding sites to dancers most in need. I feel there is a general collective responsibility to keep the whole community going. It can get very individualistic at times within the community but now I see people rallying for others and it's beautiful to watch. People are using whatever they have to do something positive.

Q: How have people’s priorities shifted during the pandemic?

I have been learning and watching the different ways people react to situations and I believe there is no good or bad way to react. I’ve noticed some people, myself included, being a part of the most that we can in this situation and with my anxiety, I am trying my best. I have also noticed people taking a different route by slowing down, disconnection and evaluating the situation for themselves. I think this is very valuable. The conversations with those who are welcoming this pause has been interesting because it is impossible to get to this point without having things shut down and our responsibilities taken off of us. This caused me to think a lot about my priorities and reflect on why we feel like we need to do so much all the time.

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

I believe there are many takeaways from this current situation. I read an incredible book called “Tribe” by a war zone correspondent/journalist named Sebastian Junger. He writes about life long ago, where people relied on each other in communities that were smaller and healthier. This is how we are socially programmed as humans because we need a sense of community for things not to unravel. Sebastian says the communities we have today are sustainable. One chapter describes how a natural disaster or collective trauma has been shown to bring communities together in a more tight knit and tribal way and how collective experiences bring back societies to what life was like long ago. I feel that right now - that everyone is in this together and we are relying on each other in many ways, being generous to each other and thinking about each other. If we could keep a little of this after the pandemic and slow down, things would be amazing. I’ve been blown away on the pollution reports and the drastic impact it has had on our planet. I think this is a sad and beautiful example of what it takes for people to slow down and shows us the possibility of changing our behaviors to better the climate. I hope the pandemic does not have a large economic and financial impact, but that may happen.

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.)

It is necessary to have a more structured and sustainable way to fund the arts and regardless of the pandemic, there needs to be a more equitable way for dance education and training. There is a strong sense of community right now and it would be beautiful to keep this special sense of global community. Those who are able to offer have been offering to those who cannot and this isn’t always present in the dance community. Now that we are at the peak of goodwill, I think there can be more equality within the dance community.

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