Interview: Tara Sheena
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Q: What has been your professional dance journey?

I grew up in Southeast Michigan training at a dance studio in the Walled Lake area. It was a very intensive environment — from age 13 on, I did everything from ballroom to ballet to hip hop. I danced upwards of 40 hours a week and traveled most weekends in high school for dance. I graduated high school and knew I wanted to be a modern dancer — even though that was the only style I never trained in — and I ended up at the University of Michigan for college. It's a very modern and ballet focused program. I was a dance and English major and graduated in 2011. Two days after I graduated I moved to NYC. I knew going into college I wanted to be a professional dancer and that still hasn’t changed.

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

Clare Croft was a professor at U-M my senior year. She was doing research for her PhD and she taught a couple grad classes and she let some undergrads sneak in on her dance writing class. I was very hungry for dance writing and dance journalism. I loved writing about dance but I never had the upper insight to do so. After graduation, I worked with her on two books she wrote. One was about cultural diplomacy in dance and one was an anthology on queer dance. We’ve kept in touch after graduation. I feel like she knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk and is so humble and knowledgeable about dance. She introduced me to a lot of writers and artists that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. She was a big bridge for me between college and professional life. She has been one of my main mentors.

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

A lot of the challenges for me are what a lot of dancers go through — stability and mental health and wellness. There are a lot of narratives around the dance world where there are so few jobs and so many talented dancers, and you have to remain diligent and practice every day and look a certain way, and I think I kept getting caught up in what you should be doing versus what your personal growth trajectory in the field is. It's hard to know the direction to go in sometimes because it is such a self-directed career. It requires so much self-motivation, there is no structure. There is no boss most of the time to tell you what to do. Something I struggle with is feeling like I'm enough and on the right path for me. Over time I had to develop a strategy to check in with myself and what works for me, noticing what kinds of organizations and artists I’m drawn to. By virtue of that, I have to notice what doesn’t feel great, what projects don't work for me. [I try to] remain clear headed and maintain a large level of self reflection and agency. It is easy to lose that, so it's something I work on everyday.

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?

I do feel that. I don't think every artist needs to be a social justice organizer. Sometimes it can feel put on or fortuitous or hashtag activism, so I don’t think all artists need to engage with social justice. I think that everyone should engage with social justice in their lives but not necessarily in dance. I think dance is capable of it. I think it's one of the only art forms that can routinely respond to the current moment. Especially in modern and contemporary dance, we don't have to do the same old works like ballet has to, ones that might feel out of context in our current time. I feel dance is constantly transcending its own boundaries and responding to the urgent questions and issues of the moment. I think Black and Brown dances are the most pervasively afflicted by issues of oppression in the U.S. and I see this work a lot from those who have experienced it. I think too that dance and art in general is not meant to and only capable of changing legislation or passing a senate bill. That’s not really the role of art. The role of art is to bold and underline and spur people into action and information. Dance in of itself will not drastically shift legislation but it can be a communicator to find a path forward.

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

I think I find my inspiration comes from others — artists doing the art. Especially the contemporary and experimental dance community in NYC — I see so many amazing examples of people daily who are very persistent in their work, and the fact that any work is made and is toured is amazing to me, because it is so hard. I find inspiration from other choreographers, writers, and artists in general.

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

All of my rehearsals, touring, and shows through May are currently cancelled. Maybe out of five projects I was involved with, I know only one for sure will be rescheduled, so I'm not sure about all the other projects I was a part of and if they will be able to be rescheduled, and how far in the future I can plan for. I am also a freelance arts administrator. I’m 100 percent self employed. Part of that work is done remotely anyway, so in that respect the work has been steady. Residency and touring is not able to happen and I have no idea when any of that will pick up again. For one project I am working on, we still rehearse twice a week via Zoom. I was skeptical at first, having to use Zoom and doing everything from my bedroom. I was resistant at first to the facility of technology, but I am grateful for the rehearsals now. Not only as a space to gather with people, but also there have been so many other interesting breakthroughs that happen through discussion and writing and recording ourselves on video that would not have happened in our studio rehearsals. That has been a surprising positive to come out of this. Other than that, everything is at a halt.

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

It has been manifesting in wide ranging ways and it will continue to materialize as we move forward. In NYC, we’ve only been quarantined for two weeks, which is not that long in the grand scheme of things. But already many artists are rethinking touring schedules for the rest of the year, not just because of the pandemic but because they have an eye towards being more environmentally responsible and not flying six people all over the world for months at a time. I see independent dancers and choreographers working with coalitions in the service industry. It’s heartening to see because dance is not exempt from the service industry or from tenants rights. I think this is also a moment to partner and cooperate who are in precarious positions who are advocating for the well-being of all. We tend to stay in the dance field as dancers and are concerned with issues that affect dance only, and don't realize it's about politics, domestic workers, housing —  that there is a wider eye on partnerships and corporations because this country is not responding with any great plans or hopeful political decisions. It's happening a little with the stimulus bill, but the federal government is very messed up in their response. I’ve seen people in the dance community starting relief funds and posting classes online where the funds will go to food banks, and regenerating the way we think about resources in the dance field. They aren't waiting for organizations and institutions, which we have a lot of but they are very slow to respond. I've really been seeing the work of groups of people getting resources to others.

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 think it goes back to being artists. The level of responsiveness from the individual and freelance artist community has been urgent and informed and charged and non-stop, and I think routinely with institutions and even employers of dancers, there is a divide in the understanding of how much we are valued. I think moving forward it is the continued operation that the artist centered ethos. The collective body of people need to inform the decisions on a much deeper level. I feel this model needs to be in the wider culture. The $1,200 check from the stimulus bill won't suffice for most individuals in cities in the U.S… This is what I hope remains in a wider and deeper sense.

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