POSTED ON AUGUST 29, 2012:
Dancers Among Us
The Balancing Act of Life & Art
As Alexandra Christian and Andrew Silks slip into a local coffee shop, they could be Audrey Hepburn and James Dean on vacation. She's wearing a brown knit tank dress, orange flats, and chunky jewelry. He's in dark jeans and a black t-shirt. They order tea, veggie pizza, a nondescript sandwich. They're articulate, polite, and down-to-earth, and they'd rather talk about their work with the Animal Rescue Foundation than about ballet.
No "Black Swan" in sight. No anguished, tortured artists.
Just two twenty-somethings enjoying their lives -- lives that happen to include full-time jobs as professional dancers with Tulsa Ballet, ranked among the top ballet companies in the country.
As Christian and Silks have lunch, Jolianna Smith comes in for coffee on a break from her job at Aquarian Age. Smith studied at Cherry Street Studios for 15 years and dances with Portico Dans Theatre. She's done burlesque and theater work, too. The aerial dance skills she learned with Portico helped her win the Ms. Center of the Universe Pageant in 2011.
Smith takes class and rehearses twice or three times a week, time for which she does not get paid ("except in the occasional cupcake or glass of wine," she said). She doesn't have a car, so she shares rides with people, or takes a bus or a cab to rehearsals and performances.
Courtesy BlinkPhoto Tulsa
"It's a huge pain in the neck and can even be a bit embarrassing at times," she said. "But it's well worth it to be able to do what I do."
Smith, Christian, and Silks are dancers among us, highly trained professional or semi-professional dance artists living and working in our midst, though we may not realize who they are, what they do, or what it costs them to follow their passion.
And they represent only a few of the many faces of dance in Tulsa.
There are pre-professional students, faced with the hard fact that making a career of their art might mean they have to do it elsewhere.
There are professors in university dance departments.
There are people who have founded new companies here after having danced professionally elsewhere, and former dancers looking to get back into the art form that gave them so much when they were kids.
There are men and women from across the globe, at the peak of their careers, who find themselves adapting to a new culture thanks to a full-time position at Tulsa Ballet.
And they're all looking for the same things in their lives that dancers seek each time they enter the studio: balance and support.
Hyper awareness and appreciation for dance didn't start in Tulsa. The popularity of dance, in all it's forms, is at an all time high.
In recent memory the world hasn't been this dance-crazy since the "ballet boom" of the 1970s, when Russian superstars like Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the West and charged up the art form with their passion and their virtuoso technique. Today, particularly in Europe, choreographers like Wayne McGregor (who created Thom Yorke's dance in the "Lotus Flower" video) and Pina Bausch (the subject of a recent acclaimed film by Wim Wenders) have achieved superstar status.
Site-specific dance, dance collaborations, and dance for camera are hugely popular; a no-frills video Spike Jonze posted on YouTube of dancer Lil Buck and cellist Yo Yo Ma has reached almost 2 million views. (And of course, there was Black Swan.)
People across the country and the world tune into shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" by the millions. These days, both concert dance and popular dance are reaching more people and exciting more interest than they have in a very long time.
Invitation To Dance
Tulsa has a rich history of artists who settled here from elsewhere. In the 1920s, a Russian-born teacher named Eva Matlagova started a respected dance studio here. One of her students went on to an international career -- one that would eventually bring the best and brightest of the dance world to Tulsa.
That student was her daughter, Moscelyne Larkin.
After an illustrious career touring internationally with the Ballets Russes, Miss Larkin and her husband Roman Jasinski returned to Tulsa to raise their young son, Roman Larkin Jasinski, and to help "Miss Eva" teach.
Their return soon turned into a homegrown ballet company, now known as Tulsa Ballet. It boasts a diverse season, its own theater dedicated to new creations, and a repertory that includes cutting-edge ballets that companies of this size are rarely given the rights to perform.
Tulsa Ballet has achieved all this in part due to the quality of its dancers, who are hired through an intensive audition process that takes Artistic Director Marcello Angelini around the world in search of men and women who can perform the company's demanding mix of classical and contemporary ballets. This year there are 27 dancers on the roster, from places as close as Cincinnati and as far away as Kazakhstan.
One of those dancers is Diana Catalina Gomez, a native of Cali, Colombia, who joined Tulsa Ballet in 2009 with her husband, Andres Figueroa.
Gomez is an acclaimed ballerina. With Figueroa, she won gold at the 2012 World Ballet Competition in Orlando and danced in the 2010 Gala of International Dance Stars. They heard about Tulsa Ballet while dancing in Miami (her ballet mistress knew Angelini from years before), and decided to join the company.
But "when we told our friends we were going to Tulsa, they started joking that Tulsa was a 'ghost town.' They said, 'Diana, there is nothing to do there.'" But when we came here, I enjoyed it a lot because the city is very quiet. I really like Riverside. I love shopping, and I go very often with my husband to Woodland Hills Mall and Utica Square. I found a restaurant that now is one of my favorites."
Gomez said she loves the people she has met in Tulsa, and that she's very happy in the company. "I think Tulsa is a good place for artists. The people here really like ballet and it feels that we are supported because of that."
"I try to attend cultural events when I can because I like them," she said. "But sometimes when I get home after the ballet I just want to sleep. I'm a hard worker; I like to be better and better every day. I want to show people how beautiful ballet is without showing how hard it is."
Christian and Silks share Gomez's thoughts on the city and the hard work ballet requires, but they find nourishment in the opposite of a quiet life.
The multitalented Silks hails from a small town in New Mexico. He got into dance relatively late, and said he almost quit in high school because of the peer pressure. Soon afterwards he found himself in Edward Ellison's Professional Training Program in New York City, where, he said, "I got taken back to square one."
"We did a six-hour ballet class, starting with a three-hour barre. We memorized class Monday for the rest of the week and if someone messed up it was 50 pushups and go back to the beginning of barre," he said.
Silks joined Tulsa Ballet II in 2011 and soon found himself performing principal roles there and stepping in for injured dancers in the main company's corps de ballet, into which he was promoted this spring. He learned the entire Act Two of The Merry Widow the morning before a matinee performance.
"I was booked all day every day for a while," he said. "But it was good. I was also trying to find myself in my dance. My first year out of school, when I came to Tulsa, I was very rigid and tense because that's how my training was. Now I'm finding what works for me, and I don't have to fight myself quite so much."
Part of that growth has come from Silks' determination to "have interests outside dance."
"I was so immersed in ballet that I drove myself batty," he said. "This year it's been great to branch out. I had a band with the [Tulsa Ballet] box office manager. Alex and I just rescued and raised a litter of puppies with ARF."
Even so, Silks says there's nothing like being onstage.
"I've always been a performer, singing, music, juggling. Taking the stage and giving yourself is unbeatable. The athleticism of dance is fun, because there's always something else to push for. Then you can develop your artistry, then go back and forth. You don't reach a peak.
"I need to learn something every day. It's easy to let yourself sink into just thinking about ballet, but with a little more work, the more you get out and do, it pays off."
Christian agreed. She's a corps de ballet dancer who performed challenging soloist roles throughout this past season. "I fight to get to bed on time because I'm so busy," she said. "I'd rather be overrun than bored. Then you grow to dislike Tulsa."
Christian, who hails from Columbia, S.C., takes the view that dancing is only part of her life -- and that having a life outside of dance makes dancing more enjoyable.
"There are people who are like that -- all they have is ballet," she said. "They get kind of tense and clingy about it, because they think if anything happens they won't have anything, their life will be over.
"What if I got hit by a car walking across the street and I was in a wheelchair the rest of my life? I'd be very sad that I couldn't dance, but I'd dive straight into something else. It takes that pressure off. I'm going to dance better. This is not the be-all of my life. When I'm done it's not some failure."
Christian has always had a variety of interests, and her curiosity shows in her intelligent dancing. "I never set out to be a ballet dancer. I wanted to be an actress or a pop star. Then I wanted to be a gymnast. Then I was going to be a zoologist or a vet or an astronomer or an oceanographer or a marine biologist."
She carried that open mind into jobs at the English National Ballet (she snapped up cheap standing-room tickets and toured the great London museums), Houston Ballet (she had an active social life with "civilians" outside the company), and Nevada Ballet (she worked at a casino and a law firm to make extra money, took hip-hop classes, and hung out with Cirque du Soleil dancers).
Now she's planning to start college classes in physics. It won't be her only after-hours activity.
She still works remotely for that law firm. She's a certified Gyrotonic instructor. She volunteers with ARF. She crosstrains and teaches dance at local studios. She collaborated (along with Gomez) on an installation with filmmaker Geoffrey Hicks. Last year she converted to Judaism and found a vibrant and supportive community at the temple.
"I think there's a stereotype about ballet that we're all sitting at home in our pink shrugs watching ballet videos on YouTube," she said with a laugh. "That kind of keeps you in that teenage student mode, rather than feeling like an adult who says, 'This is my passion; it's also my job.' It's wonderful, but I need to do other things, because I'm not going to dance forever.
Still, moving to Tulsa was an adjustment. "The first few months here I thought, where am I? Everything closes at 9? There's no big clubs to go to and just sit around? You have to go to a bar? But I found all these neat little independent places, coffee shops, restaurants, which is what I missed from Houston and London.
"We have two-day weekends and get off at 6:15," Christian continued. "There's plenty of time to have a life. You have to take care of yourself -- not just your body for dancing, but for the long run, and also your mind.
"If ballet's all you know, you're only smart in one area."
The Poorest Art
Christian, Silks and Gomez have to put forth effort to have a life outside their demanding dance jobs. For other dancers in Tulsa, however, that challenge is reversed. For them, the tough part is making time for dance within their everyday lives.
The members of groups like Living Water Dance Company, Portico Dans Theatre, Soluna Performing Arts Group, and Tulsa Modern Movement create and rehearse new work on their own time, on a largely unpaid basis. Unlike dancers in Tulsa Ballet who work together five days a week on a 34-week contract, these dancers must schedule practice time in the evenings after their day jobs end, or on the weekend.
These smaller groups' limited time and money means it may take months to complete a short piece of choreography, which in turn means fewer opportunities to present new work. Company members handle all their publicity, fundraising, costumes, and performance logistics themselves, with the support of organizations like Oklahoma Performing Arts, Living Arts, and the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa.
Dancers in these companies have a wide variety of jobs. One is a Pilates instructor, one does marketing for an arts organization, one works as a nanny. There's an elementary school teacher, a writer (full disclosure: that's the author of this article), a waitress, and even a doctor. More than a few are parents.
What they have in common is extensive training in dance -- in some cases, complete with advanced degrees and big-city experience -- and a desire to continue growing as artists. It might look like a hobby, but for many of these dancers it's creative work they've trained for and refuse to live without, even when it means making tough choices.
"I dance with Portico, I'm a massage therapist and I also sing in my own band, Ichi Zero," Smith said. "All in all, I have a lot on my plate and it's quite hard to balance at times. There are days that between work, dance and band gigs I'm going for 12-15 hours straight.
"But until such a time that us dancers can be paid a livable wage for what we do, it's a sacrifice we all have to make to do what we love."
When they do get paid to perform, it sometimes barely covers the cost of preparing the show. They're not complaining -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't smart a little.
"The tech people get paid, the musicians get paid, but the dancers are the last to get paid," said Jennifer Alden, co-Artistic Director of Portico, who by day is an accountant with Williams and was named one of Oklahoma Magazine's "40 Under 40" this year. "In a dance company, that's not fair." This season, for the first time, Portico was able to pay its dancers a stipend for performances longer than 20 minutes.
Financial struggles are nothing new in dance, both in small startup companies and in established ones.
Jessica Vokoun is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Tulsa and the founder of the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival. Her life in the arts has taken her from Milwaukee to New York, from respected graduate dance programs to world-renowned modern dance troupes. Vokoun recalled that she "went to an art exhibit recently and saw several paintings sold for $10,000. I was so happy for the artist, but it did make me stop and wonder when I was last paid even a tenth of that for my performances, or any of my other dancer friends for that matter.
"Unless dance starts going commercial, it's not equally valued. Unless it can go on TV or sell a product."
Amy McIntosh, the founding director of Oral Roberts University's dance department and artistic director of Living Water, described the issue of funding as one that invites opportunities to think outside the box. "Obstacles are always present, especially the desire to pay dancers for their priceless contributions, but I find that sometimes money comes and we are dancing on a full proscenium stage and I pay the dancers, and other times we are dancing in a worship space with no funds exchanged and it isn't about money at all.
"I try to look at how we can share dance through Living Water and ORU creatively," McIntosh continued, "in terms of whether it is a fully produced concert or a free gathering out in a field somewhere, and how we can interact with the broadest audience of people, as well as partner up with folks carrying out a vision that we can come alongside and serve in."
We're Getting There
As the dance world begins to come to Tulsa, so dance in Tulsa begins to spill out into the world. Choreographer Ma Cong, who got his start making dances at Tulsa Ballet, now works on commissions for companies all over the globe. Tulsa-trained students are winning prizes in big competitions; one, Troy Herring, has ended up at Juilliard. With so much talent bubbling up among us, how much of it will get reinvested here?
Tulsa Modern Movement co-founder Nina Madsen moved here from Brooklyn, New York, in 2009 and quickly found that "dancers in Tulsa were genuinely interested and eager to learn different techniques. They have been more than welcoming. Tulsa was the perfect place for me to be and to start a modern dance company (with Tulsa native Ari Christopher)."
"In NYC, I was one of many," Madsen said, "but in Tulsa, I began to realize that my knowledge and experience as a dancer needed to be shared. I realized how often I took for granted having access to every kind of technique in New York."
In addition to co-directing and choreographing for TuMM, Madsen also has a thriving massage business and is working toward an occupational therapy degree. "Tulsa has a very entrepreneurial spirit, and I believe it is a city where the people are genuinely interested and open to new things," she said. "Every great city in the U.S. is known for its arts. Why not place Tulsa on the map as a growing hub for dance? For some of us, it has made all the difference."
Alden concurred, noting that there are benefits to living in a small pond. "I came here from Portland, where I was part of many different companies. But I could never have started my own company there like I could here."
With some exceptions, such as Portico's co-Artistic Director Michael Lopez and recent ORU grads Jenna Smith and Christina Woodrow, "students who train in dance here are leaving town after they graduate," Vokoun observed. "We're letting them go, we're sending them away. At TU, it's been challenging to keep momentum once we get it. At one time, you kind of had to go to New York. Part of what I love about the quality regional dance that's springing up is that some of these companies are going to get to go on tour. We can send our art out to the world.
"And I love the example of the Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, Idaho," she continued. "The community has said, 'We're going to embrace you. If you make home here [instead of in New York, for instance], we'll give you health care, scholarships, we'll help you find housing.' That's incredible. The goodwill spreads."
"If we thought of dancers as tax-paying adults," Lightsey Darst wrote in a recent Huffington Post essay called "The Poorest Art: Dance and Money," "if we took them seriously, then we'd have to take seriously the message common across practically all dance: that the life of the body matters. The moment matters: it matters how you feel, what you do to your body and to other bodies."
Are dance and dancers taken seriously here? The consensus among these artists is that "we're getting there."
Thanks in large part to the efforts of groups like Tulsa Ballet and Choregus Productions, more audiences and artists have more exposure to more inspiration than ever before. Those organizations bring some of the world's best dancers and choreographers to town to perform and to create new work, so that the full-time professionals at Tulsa Ballet receive the creative food they need. They educate the Tulsa audience on what's happening in the wider world of dance. They also provide master classes, Q&A sessions, and other opportunities for local artists to interact with others in the field.
For instance, when Choregus brought the Batsheva Dance Company in from Israel, Madsen was so moved by their work, and particularly by the classes she got to take with company dancers, that she cited it as a major influence on her own perspective on dance. She plans to continue training in their innovative technique.
When Angelini invited local modern dance companies to share the stage with Tulsa Ballet in its "Creations in Studio K" series this past spring, it was a powerful gesture of confidence and support.
"It was such an encouragement to us as local dancers and directors of companies that Marcello would be willing to take the risk to put modern dance on the same stage with the ballet company," said McIntosh. Angelini has described Studio K itself as a way the company has reinvested in the local arts community.
"It is priceless to engage as a choreographer/dancer/director with audiences and hear their response," she continued. "I would say that I long for more of these interactions, crossing over boundaries, breaking the rules, and exploring life together. I believe this is how culture is created and transformed."
Vokoun agrees. "I really think there is hope for a thriving dance community. There's this energy building, quality is improving, each performance is making the other companies step it up a notch, and some companies are redefining their purpose, which is all excellent. I am thrilled that here in Tulsa the dance community is still supportive of each other. We're just at the very, very beginning stages of growth.
"How is it going change from here? We need some support," she said. "We need to be presented as part of the larger community, as Marcello has done. Being on the academic side of things, I didn't realize how much time and energy it required, and so I need to plug into another network, as I've done with TuMM and Living Water, to charge me back up, for someone else to be creative on me, to let me move, to let me practice performing. I'm definitely challenged by my students, but I still want to learn, to be pushed in my own technique and creative expression."[image-7]
Several dancers echoed Vokoun's desire for more creative challenges, particularly in the area of education. Portico and TuMM both hold open modern dance classes, and the adult ballet class at Tulsa Ballet's Center for Dance Education is a popular meeting-place.
But apart from those, there aren't many opportunities for serious adult dancers to continue their training. As Smith remarked, "There are a growing number of professional dancers in this city and if there's one thing we love, it's learning diverse forms of dance."
McIntosh and Bell House Arts' Rachel Bruce Johnson also voiced their desire that Tulsans knew more about the area's rich dance history -- from the very beginnings, even before the time of Miss Larkin and Mr. Jasinski, through the work of Becky Eagleton and the LocalMotion Foundation in the 1990s.
"I wish audiences had more background about the Ballets Russes, the independent artists here, and the many dance educators who have fed the field right here in T-Town," said Johnson, who holds an MFA from the prestigious Texas Woman's University dance program. She founded the annual Exchange Dance Festival to provide a place for choreographers to share their work and talk about the hows and whys of what they do.
"I also wish there were more opportunities to appreciate dance in its richness," she continued. "This could be done in a forum where audiences could hear about process. It could also be done by dancers making better efforts to connect to audiences rather than simply pushing their own voice/agenda. The audience is telling us, 'We know artists have something to say; give us a reason to listen, or better yet, listen to us.'"
Despite the popular image of the ballerina sweating alone in a studio, dance is and always has been a fundamentally communal art. In practical terms, dancers benefit from the support and the cultural life of the community, and the community benefits from their unique gifts.
For one thing, dancers tend to be some of the most disciplined, detail-oriented people around. Christian remarked that "the law firm I work for said to me, 'Any other dancers you know? Whenever we're hiring, send them in. We know we can count on them to catch mistakes.' Show us how to do something and we'll do it the same every time."
At the same time, "creative thinkers are creative problem-solvers," Johnson said. "Artists bring new and rich perspectives the same way that engineers do. This diversity of perspective and new and different ways of moving about life brings richness and vibrancy to a community."
Perhaps because they get to do more of it, Tulsa Ballet dancers talked about what they share with their city in the context of the thrill of connecting with an audience in performance. Independent dancers and dancemakers focused more on process, collaboration, and community interaction.
But the sentiment was the same for all these artists. Just like the rest of us, the dancers among us are people with financial worries and everyday stresses. They need creative stimulation and support, and they need down time.
They're linked to non-dancers in a deeper way, too. They believe that what they do is of value, to them and to the community, because it connects with and communicates something that's fundamental to all our lives: the energy and the expressive potential of movement.
In McIntosh's words, "Dance is a lived, full body expression of art. When we dance as people or even when we watch others dance, it is powerful -- powerful to heal in all the ways we daily are in need of, over and over again."
"Dancers deliver diverse experiences in movement that we can all relate to, because we're all movers," Johnson explained. "This is the way art is perpetuated--through people. The most interesting thing to me is the relationship of artist to artist, and artist to audience, and audience to audience. If we don't have these 'people' connections, there's no point in making art."
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