Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you first became involved in your performing art, and what that performing art is?
Right now my primary performing art is contemporary dance choreography. In the past I've done musical theater. Non musical theater. Other types of dance, a little bit of a jack of all trades in that way. And so, I first started performing when I was nine years old. I was doing musical theater. I did musical theater through high school and then I entered college in a non musical theater program. Eventually I transitioned to arts management, but during all of those programs I was independently pursuing dance and dance training and choreographing as well. Now I'm primarily a choreographer.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what dance has taught you and how you've applied that to your everyday life and how you engage with the world?
I'm an openly disabled and chronically ill dance artist and person. I love dance because it's a way into the physical experience of being in one's body that's non-medical As a disabled person oftentimes my body was being medicalized before I could even speak. I was being put in medical settings even without my consent. And so, dance is a way for me to choose to engage with the human body, and I can learn about my body as a disabled person through other people's dancing bodies that are both disabled and non disabled.
I recently wrote my undergraduate thesis on how Disability Justice principles can be applied to dance rehearsal processes to create healthier and more sustainable rehearsal processes for bodies of all abilities.
Q: Has dance specifically helped you or the performing arts helped you overcome any hardships in your life?
Yes, absolutely. Dance reminds me that I'm a human being and not just an activist, or a capital “D” Disabled person. I think the times that my mental health is the best is when I'm actively building choreography and setting movement on dancers. So when I was in my first semester at Purchase colleges as a transfer Junior, Purchase College did not have safe fire evacuation policies for students with physical disabilities. And I was left in upwards of 30 College fire alarms in the dorms, and I never knew if they were emergencies, so I had to act as though every single one was a real emergency. It was very scary. I was sort of thrust into the spotlight because I was getting news attention and doing protests on campus to try to change the policy because other disabled students were also at risk. And because of that trauma I didn't have the capacity to be actively engaging in dance work. And I was not doing well, and then once that was somewhat resolved. I based a piece of dance on that experience and really actively started creating to sort of get myself to recover from the trauma of fire alarms. And I've garnered a lot of support local to the university and that was the basis for my thesis. So, the two experiences sort of went hand in hand.
Q: How can dance or the performing arts be a platform for social justice issues?
So I think that they inherently are. I don't think there's a way to live in the world today and make art and be a-political. And so, for me, I prefer to tell narrative stories through dance. Every single piece that I conceptualize tells a story with a beginning, middle and end or portrays a bodily experience related to disability. So it has a very clear concept. And so there's no way that audiences can engage in my work without engaging in the experience, the lived experience of a disabled person. Because everything that I create, whether literally in the narrative concept, or just because my disability experience informs everything that I do. I don't know how to make work that is not based in a political reality.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about some of the work that you've choreographed and created and the process that you've used or different processes to create work and kind of who you've set the work on and kind of what that was like?
One of my earliest choreographic experiences, before I really had any formal training, was a solo completely out of a folding chair. That was contemporary and based on pop music. I used the music as an outline and just sort of started to sketch on my body. So I would say that solo work for me is an entirely different process than work for non disabled dancers. Especially non disabled groups. Because in solo work, the work is totally based on the confines and also the discoveries within a body that has a very specific type of Cerebral Palsy. Sometimes I choreograph works on dancers with and without disabilities with bodies that are totally different from myself. It can be a little bit more freeform and I can come in with the work as it is first and then set it on the other bodies in the room and expect that it's gonna translate to a certain extent. So the order at which I approach it is different. I would say that my choreographic practices are unorthodox from the non disabled majority in that I cannot improv on my own body for bodies that are not mine because, again, the picture looks entirely different. So, I have a choreographic notebook that I have on hand where I write down those specific movement descriptions in chunks of seconds. Usually based on a score that I come in with. And if I don't have a score that I'm coming in with, then I create movement tableaus in timing that I see in my head. And then once I have a list of movements, written down- very specific in tonality, quality, metaphor, like different descriptors that give the idea of what I'm saying to other English speaking dancers- I go in and I very slowly put that on them. And then once I get a picture of it on the dancers, then we work through the transitions and how to find that fluidity that I want between the movements. Because otherwise, movement that is supposed to, you know blend into one thing to the next, looks off.
Sometimes I direct by saying, “Raise your hand and put it down and raise it again now with a staccato quality.” But sometimes I don't want that exact list that I have written down. So if I'm not working with a score, or there's like a more abstract concept or a larger group of people, then it's a much more complicated notating process. Usually whenever I'm working with non disabled dancers, I have non disabled creatives check my ideas against what I say to make sure a non disabled body can do the movement safely. I can have an idea in my head, but if I haven't experienced it in my own body, I need someone else who has that experience to fact check it and say it is possible. And so in my thesis, I was the only performer with a physical disability, everyone else was traditionally non disabled. And I made sure to have a graduating senior conservatory student as my dance captain who was not a performer, but had enough experience both as a dancer and as a choreographer, to go over my movements before I set it on the larger group. They talked me through possible safety challenges before we even got in the room, so that by the time I got in the rehearsal room, I had very clear notes that I knew she could understand so I knew they were interpretable, and I had an idea of what it might look like on the human body so that when I put on less experienced dancers, or dancers who didn't have the preview. I knew that it would translate, relatively speaking.
Q: What is your dream job in the performing arts and what would you do ideally in terms of choreography dance making?
I have so many dreams. Originally when I went into the arts management program at SUNY Purchase, the dream was to be the artistic director of either a theatre company or a sort of multifaceted community arts organization that had many different types of Performing Arts akin to the Kennedy Center, maybe not as big as the Kennedy Center but, you know, an institution that I could establish as a social force in the community and then bring many different types of programming to the community. Since I have moved into choreography I'm still very interested in artistic direction and sort of artistic administrative work because I think I have a brain for that. But I would love to have a presence in the dance world that is established enough that I can regularly be commissioned by socially minded dance companies to bring sort of highly conceptual works to a repertory season. And really work with a company of dancers that know each other, are comfortable partnering, and already have those technical skills so I can come in with something wacky and narrative based and know that a story is going to translate.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected you as a person as a performing artist and the communities you are in?
The thesis that I keep referencing- the academic piece of it where I wrote about Disability Justice, the written piece, I was able to finish as planned and submit to my department. It was a 68 page paper that I based on the production piece that I've been describing a little bit. But the production piece was a six piece contemporary dance performance that I choreographed, performed, produced, costume designed, and oversaw 35 plus other Purchase College students to make that a reality for performers and designers. And I started pre production for that, in January of 2019, and it was supposed to go up at Purchase College in April of 2020. We had just had the first run of the whole show and all six pieces of original work and a score were basically finished. We were working out the kinks and editing the details but most of it was finished. We ran the first run of the show in full on like March 5. On March 10 the ticket links went live so that we could start selling tickets. And then the afternoon of March 10, we found out that all public performances had been canceled, and that the show would not go up in any iteration. The whole thing was canceled after 13 months of work.
So then we were trying to figure out what to do: maybe we could film another run of the show. But then on March 16, they said that all students had to leave campus. So in the span of like eight days my entire production was unable to assemble. So there is no performance evidence of 13 months of work by almost 40 college students. That production was supposed to be my entry into the professional dance world. I had been strategically emailing choreographers and, you know, disabled activists and disabled performers and dancers who mainly were New York City based because the college is located right outside of the city so it was convenient to be able to see my work to hopefully result in other collaborative opportunities and maybe a professional reproduction. All of that died in the span of six to eight days. I had also applied to theatrical fellowships at regional theaters and choreographic labs for that summer all over the country, most of which were postponed or canceled. So all of my job opportunities vanished much like everyone else in the performing arts, and I was still expected to finish writing the thesis on the production that had been cancelled.
I feel like it's important to note that all the production elements of the show were independently organized and produced, because the structure of Purchase College Performing Arts is not organizationally based. If you are studying one of those disciplines and want to put it up, you have to put that up. So I had done all the venue securement the costume securement the casting, you know the set pieces I had someone find on Craigslist. It was all put together, just by the tenacity of college students, and other people's belief in my ideas, and it was very low budget, the only way we were able to do it was because the college absorbed certain larger overhead costs. So the idea of reproducing it means securing grants and then professionally pursuing things that cost way more. So we're looking at what was a $1,600 dollar production being $25,000 to produce professionally. So basically I'm starting from ground zero, after having done 13 months of production work.
Q: What have you been doing during this time, in terms of the performing arts? Or what have you been seeing online during this time in the performing arts in terms of community budding during a time of social distancing?
I will preface this by saying that six months ago, I did not really identify as a dancer. I prefer choreography. To me they are two separate arts that my involvement was determined by my disability. So like... I've danced before; I've performed dance before and have been, you know, successful however you define that. But it's not what I feel comfortable doing. I think there's an incredible physical vulnerability to perform, and I much rather would like to set the movement and leave. But I realized very swiftly that if I was going to maintain any sort of dance knowledge or practice through the pandemic I had to start taking dance classes. And so, I started by just taking one private modern class with a dance teacher who is deaf herself and has worked with people with Cerebral Palsy. We are very systematically going through different frameworks of modern dance so we've started with Graham, and will eventually move to Cunningham and Gaga.
Then I found a bunch of physically integrated dance companies- professional dance companies categorized by the fact that their company dancers and their programming cater to both physically disabled and non disabled dancers- who have a series of open classes in a variety of techniques on a regular schedule virtually. I think since August I've taken between 50-60 classes. I tried to take a class a day, kind of thing. I feel very lucky to have the time and resources to do that. I converted my bedroom into a makeshift studio so I would have the space, but it's been a learning experience. Growth really is about discomfort because in the first classes I felt ridiculous. I was like “I feel like I'm playing the part of some ballerina that I'm like never gonna be.” And then I was like, “No, there's no one else here, you need to get over yourself, straighten those scarecrow arms and do it,” you know. So now I'm in the routine of it, and I'm also writing grants in the hope of being ready financially to reproduce the project, and have danced on film a little as well.
Q: What would you like to see change and shift in the performing arts world? Specifically in dance and in terms of social activism and ableism in dance?
I would love to go through a day where I walk into a room with non disabled people and say, “Hi I'm a choreographer” and nobody raises an eyebrow. I would love to be in a world where I go to a rehearsal room with dancers with disabilities who have legitimate needs to go slower and take breaks and that’s honored without pressuring them to go to a speed that's not comfortable. I would love to be able to dream bigger, but there's a part of me that's like, I don't even know how to ask for the fantastical stuff. If my expertise and my creative vision is still being discounted because I roll into a room in a wheelchair or I stand up with braces on my legs… I think that extends to dancers and choreographers and production companies that are more experienced and established than I am. Disability is seen as a separate category within dance, and Disabled liberation is seen as a separate category within social justice. Often when dance companies and arts groups talk about equity, diversity and inclusion, they're talking exclusively about racial equity. But effective social justice work is not a single issue- you cannot liberate one marginalized group without liberating everyone. But organizationally, implementing accessibility and disability awareness requires resources different from or additional to those required to achieve a culture of racial equity.
So If you don't have the capacity to work on disability issues and make your space accessible then you can't say that you're committed to a blanket equity, diversity and inclusion. It's okay to say “we're focused on racial diversity. This is what we can do right now.” But you can't say “we're committed to accessibility and including everyone” If your studio has steps going in. If you don't have an audio description at your performances, if you don't have ASL interpreters, at every audition and rehearsal. If you don't have that commitment, you can't claim true equity or inclusion.
Note 2/3/21 : Sonya was recently hired as Co-Executive Director of Dance for All Bodies (DfAB), a non-profit that offers high quality pay what you can virtual dance classes of a variety of techniques for dancers with and without disabilities. Many of the teachers have disabilities themselves. Sonya states, “Finding the community has been incredibly impactful for me. I’m so excited to step into this leadership role.” Check them out here on instagram @danceforallbodies and website https://www.danceforallbodies.org