Umi Akiyoshi X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

Umi Akiyoshi is a dancer, model, photographer, and native New Yorker. In her second year as a cast member of Sleep No More, she opens up to { DIYdancer } about the ridiculous economics of dance, setting priorities, being mentored by Sidra Bell, and being both in front of and behind the camera.

ON NOT BEING IN A DANCE COMPANY

I have very strong feelings about not being in a company. I was born and raised in Noho, and it is very expensive to live here and I value getting paid. I am not a huge fan of committing to eight hours of my week for a dance company that pays me less $15 per hour to be onstage for 15 minutes for one performance. 

I understand that a lot of dance is a passion project and the artist part of you accepts that, but I value the efficiency and structure of Sleep No More. You learn the choreography and you get paid for performing every night. I have friends that love the process [of a small dance company] and love spending time, and some people are willing to trade that experimentation for pay. Once you value your time, it is hard to get paid in dinner in two months time.

But everything has its pros and cons…

ON BEING CAST IN SLEEP NO MORE AND LUCK

I never dreamed of being in Ailey or any company that was super technical. I like the gritty and the guttural. When I first saw Sleep No More I thought: I have to do that before I die. I have been a cast member for two years now. My senior year of college, the only places I wanted to dance were Sleep No More and or in Sidra Bell’s company. (I would be willing to dance in a company for her.) And Sleep No More was a huge reach for me. I knew if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t dance—I would find another route, find something that pays me. 

Then I went to Springboard Danse Montreal. Maxine Doyle was there and I got cast in her piece. So when I did the audition for the show, I was able to skip the first round since I had worked with her. I threw myself into it, saying to myself: if I blow this I might not dance. I really wanted it and I was clear about that in my head, in my desires, and I hope that passion came out in my performance. People talk about being in the right place at the right time–that is luck–and there is that part of the equation; but another part of it is your own determination and being super clear about what you want, creating efforts toward that goal and the belief, however arbitrary, that something will happen. So I think it is about luck and being clear and manifesting. I am a big voucher for manifesting. 

ON FINDING CLARITY

I have to follow whatever passion is coming up in my life. There is no longevity without passion. I also do stream of consciousness journaling, so I can set my mind to actualize. If I find myself telling other people about my desires then I think there is something here. This is how I have identified what is really meaningful to me in my life—modeling, dancing, photography, fitness—and that has helped to shape my priorities. Currently, I am working on my personal training degree and I am trying to manifest a job for myself in the fitness industry. 

ON SHOOTING WITH JIM

Jim and I linked up in your traditional instagram way. Jim is well known in the dance world for really awesome photos, and though I have a full-time job dancing, I also have to spend my time curating my modeling career and setting up test shoots. Instagram has become a portfolio and a business opportunity rather than just a personal sharing experience. I use it to connect with photographers I appreciate and want to be shot by. I had contacted him and said, ‘hey, let me know if you ever need a model,’ and he was like, ‘I’ll let you know.’ Which can mean maybe or never. Requesting a test shoot is never a given because you don’t what someone’s rates are or if they want to shoot you. But someone canceled on him last minute and he dm’ed me the day of and I said, ‘absolutely, yes,’ and changed my whole day for it. We created some awesome stuff with very little expectations. Those are the times, when you don’t have an outcome in mind, that you can create really cool stuff.

ON VETTING PHOTOGRAPHERS AND AVOIDING UNSAFE SITUATIONS

Generally when you find a photographer it pops up on a friend’s feed, so there is already some base level of trust and you can follow up with your friend to see how it was. But I once had a friend call me crying after a test shoot and say it was the worst experience…these situations have the real potential of becoming dangerous. A naive part of me thinks that most of us are good people but I have had strange experiences: one in particular where a method the photographer was using to shoot, one that he insisted on as necessary for capturing vulnerability, people made me uncomfortable. But mostly, you approach the shoot with a consensual agreement and aim to have had some sort of debrief over what to wear and what to shoot, but you really don’t know the process until you get in there. With Jim, we just created whatever was coming out and it brought out different sides of me: from goofy in the fuzzy jacket to bad bitch in black. Creating these collaborations is one of the amazing benefits of connecting on Instagram. So far it overrides those weird experiences I had.

ON BEING THE PHOTOGRAPHER

I attribute so much of my work to Sidra Bell. I started shooting for her when I was 15. A flyer or trailer for one of her shows popped up on my screen. I had never seen her aesthetic before and my mom took me to an APAP show. Then when she was teaching at Blueprint at Peridance, I knew I had to take that summer intensive. I was in her piece and it was around the time I had just picked up a camera, so I asked if I could take photos of her company. I knew if I was not dancing for her yet, then I wanted to take photos. She said yes. She kept asking me to come back and take more photos…Sidra loves media. When she started posting them and tagging me, then people started reaching out. Budding and branching out from that, it became a really large hobby and people started paying me for it. I am not a tech geek, I don’t know what’s the latest hot shot Nikon model or specs, and I have never taken a lighting course, but I have watched Youtube videos and am self-taught. I don’t think I want to be the world’s best photographer, but it is really nice to be able to supplement the visual world I am in. Photography gives me the flip side, which really has informed me to be a better model. I very much owe Sidra for giving me the platform. It has been cool to be a part of it for almost eight years. She has seen me grow up and I have shot her company through many incarnations.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Umi Akiyoshi

February 2020

Doug Baum X Jobel Medina for Studio Sessions

Doug Baum is hard to miss onstage. Whether it’s his 180-degree tilt, his hyperextended legs, or his perfectly arched feet, the 31-year old Fallston, MD, native is going to catch your eye. But over the course of a career that took him from Ballets Jazz Montréal to Complexions and finally into the illustrious L.A. Dance Project, his deep love of the form has imbued his movement with a captivating something-extra as he throws himself into diverse, athletic rep. We first met back in 2006, when Doug entered the Ailey/Fordham B.F.A. program, and recently rekindled our friendship on the west coast. After meeting up to shoot these photos with L.A. dancer, choreographer, and photographer Jobel Medina during a two-week break from the company, he and Lara Wilson Townsend caught up over the phone. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

ON HIS ORIGINS

It started with sports, which was basically just a segue into dancing. I had been doing gymnastics and my coach left, so I needed something else to do. I pretty much just tried everything I could. I wrestled for eight years, I played soccer, I played baseball, I played lacrosse, I played golf, and I played tennis competitively my freshman year of high school.

I told my mom I wanted to be put in a dance class, and after my first one, I couldn’t get enough. I just wanted to keep coming back, so they sent me to the better studio to get better training. I found my way into competition and had a lot of fun traveling and competing with different numbers against different studios. I kind of felt like my life in sports had found its way into art as well. After that I went to an arts high school where I had more classical technique training, and then I ended up at Fordham.

I’m really, really thankful that I did get put into dance class so long ago. I am where I am now and I’ve had all these experiences and journeys because of dance, and it’s brought a lot of joy and opportunity to my life. It hasn’t always been rainbows and roses, but it has really helped me grow as a person, and I’m just thankful that I get to do it for a living. You know, I wanted to be a gymnast in the Olympics or a professional tennis player, or at one point I wanted to be a chef, but ever since I started dancing, it consumed everything, like that was the only thing I could do.

ON BOYS WHO DANCE

That statement that Lara Spencer made on Good Morning America was really upsetting.  I was like, I was that kid, and she’s mocking that kid. I felt insulted. I’ve been dancing since I was eleven, and you don’t think people could do this and make it into something?

But the way our community responded was amazing. I was like, please, shout from the mountaintops. Please, blow up Twitter. You have to nip it in the bud and literally call it out right away—unacceptable. Respond in kind—this is why you’re ignorant. Open your eyes. Hello, world, we’re here and we’re doing it. Have some tact. 

ON GETTING HIS START

I worked a few other jobs before Complexions after graduating. I worked at José Navas Compagnie Flak in Montréal. That was my first professional job out of school. I worked with Rasta Thomas and did Rock The Ballet for an entire year. And then I worked with Yuri Zhukov in San Francisco, project-based, a couple years on and off, and also danced for Ballets Jazz Montréal. And there was one more in Boston where I did 28 Nutcrackers for José Mateo [Ballet Theatre].

I think it was just whatever job I could get at the time so I would be working and not not dancing. I’m a firm believer that you should take the opportunities that are given to you, because you never know where else they could lead. Or what you might be able to learn or what you might experience. Every change and every time I moved or worked for somebody else, that taught me something new that I could apply to my life and my career.

ON JOINING, AND LEAVING, COMPLEXIONS

It was a learning experience for sure. When I was hired, I definitely had a lot of room to grow and a lot to learn. I was very excited to work with Dwight [Rhoden] and Desmond [Richardson], because they did teach me a lot, and I did work really hard while I was there and grew as an artist and in my craft. They would talk a lot about how performing is something universal, and how Complexions had to bring something to the table that was above the rest. It taught me a lot. Unfortunately, you could say it didn’t end ideally, but that’s life sometimes.

ON PERFORMANCE

When I dance and when I perform, it gets me out of my shell and I can be a different person. That changes from performance to performance and from piece to piece. I like any kind of work that challenges you or makes you think differently.

I feel electrified when I’m performing. It’s that natural high you get from being in front of an audience and not worrying about what’s going to happen, but going with it, like riding a wave. For me, that’s like a spiritual experience, almost being in a different head space, a different mental state. The focus is heightened. 

I feel like I’m influencing and affecting people’s lives in a hopefully positive way. After shows, you meet a lot of young aspiring dancers, or people that are just so enamored with the work and us as dancers. You constantly hear, “Oh my god, the things you guys are capable of doing,” and, you know, “What you did up there was just unbelievable, amazing, incredible,” and most of the time it is. What we’re doing is pretty fucking incredible.

ON LA DANCES

L.A.D.P. is doing 6 weeks of shows for the first time in the space, including Benjamin [Millepied]’s work. He’s brought together a ton of different pieces for the L.A. community to come and see at our wonderful space that’s being turned into a stage and a theater. We’ve performed there before [as a black box], but now it’s got the whole shebang, so it’s going to be pretty epic.

I’m doing Shannon Gillen’s piece, Run From Me, and this will be the first time I’m ever doing it, because I learned it from Nathan Makolandra, who recently left the company. The piece itself is a doozy. It’s really physical, but amazing and super challenging. Athletically, stamina, partnering, oh my god, it scares me! In the best way.

ON NY VS. LA

In New York, you see the same people all the time at the same audition and the same rehearsals. It’s so over-saturated. New York is this giant hub for dancers, which is great, because there’s a lot of art and a lot of work going on, but after a while it’s kind of like, alright, we get it. New York is very much in your face.

I definitely see myself trying to stay here as long as possible. I really enjoy living in Los Angeles and being able to do this kind of work in Los Angeles. Even right now, I appreciate the sunset out of my window looking downtown. I also like the freedom of having my car and being able to jet over to the beach if I have time off, or go visit a friend in a different part of town. The only part that sucks is the traffic, but it beats having a smelly cracked-out person next to you yelling at you on the train. Like, at least you can be in your car with A/C listening to music.

ON INDOOR ROCK CLIMBING

Every time I get a chance to go, I do, because it requires you to use your body in a way that you haven’t before. It’s different kinds of strength and flexibility, so I really like it as a dancer because it’s super physical and really challenging. It’s not just physical—when you’re climbing, you have to think about what you’re doing as you’re doing it, and execute it just like in dance.

ON BREAKING THE DRESS CODE

Oh, hell yeah! Every now and then I like to put on a pair of crazy tights. But then other days you want to wear something more relaxed or more baggy and you just don’t want to feel like that dancer that day. You want to wear something you feel good in.

Words and creative direction by Lara Wilson, images by Jobel Medina, tights by MSeam

October 2019

Juliet Burnett X Morgan Lugo for Studio Sessions

Whether she is inhabiting the work of Trisha Brown, Akram Khan, Wayne McGregor, Edouard Lock, or Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Juliet Burnett makes the act of dancing a spiritual journey. Currently a first soloist with Ballet Vlaanderen (Ballet Flanders) in Belgium, a position she has held since 2016 after many years with the Australian Ballet and a stint as a guest artist, Burnett is also a writer and activist. We caught up with her to talk about her Indonesian background, learn a little about Javanese dance, and to be inspired by how seamlessly activism is woven into her passionate life.

ON A CREATIVE INHERITANCE

My mom is from Indonesia and comes from a huge family. We grew up in Sydney, but we ended up spending a lot of our childhood there. My grandparents passed away in my infancy and so my uncle (W.S. Rendra) was the patriarch of our family. He is a well known poet in Indonesia but I didn’t realize his influence until I was well into my own career.

Most of my family members, and many of my cousins, are creative in some way, My mother was a dancer and an actress. My grandmother was a Javanese classical dancer. But I was the only ballet dancer, so my uncle took me under his wing to make sure I understood the role of art in society and was following in family’s footsteps.

ON THE ROLE OF ART

My grandmother instilled ideas about art, both spiritual and political, as a voice of the people. And so my uncle often told me, “the role of art is to be the voice of the people.” I have always read the newspaper and wanted to know what else was going on in the world. Knowing this has always given me a bit of an advantage amongst my peers. In a classical company, people tend to be more close-minded — I have found the stereotype of being consumed by ballet to largely be true.

When I am a feeling a bit despondent, which can happen in dance, and feeling a need to re-find my purpose, my grandmother’s ideas remind me of why I need to dance. Even though it is a mute art form, I need to have a outlet, I need to be a voice. I think a lot and tend to overthink about everything, you name it…life…art…

ON BECOMING A CONTEMPORARY DANCER

My first love was always contemporary dance. Sleeping Beauty didn’t speak to me and I didn’t want to be a slave to a system. At Ballet Vlaanderen, all of our repertoire is contemporary or modern ballet. The biggest challenge for me in transitioning to contemporary has been untraining and then retraining. I am excited by new ways of exploring the ballet structure, ballets like Woolf Works. People are reinventing ballet, and showing it can be modernized and be made relevant.

ON LEARNING JAVANESE DANCE

I had a traveling scholarship and so I was able to go to Indonesia and get training in Javanese dance. It is the opposite of Balinese dance. There are slow tempos, adagio, it is more like tai chi. The stance is very regal, and the dances held a spiritual purpose in the royal courts. The stories they told were often mystical. The foundation is also similar to classical ballet: first position plie, presenting the heels, elegant and lyrical arm movements. Studying it, I was finally able to reconcile why I began in classical ballet. I feel at home in classical forms. It made me feel like I hadn’t wasted years in ballet and it reconnected me to my roots.

ON THE WORK OF BALLET.ID AND DANCE AS ACTIVISM

At Australian Ballet I felt different than my peers, I was always thinking about how I could make a difference with my life. I wanted to give back to my country. When I left and was freelancing, Ballet.id contacted me and invited me to an international ballet gala. We also co-presented a master class series and did some community work with people and communities who have been marginalized, and that is how it started. Ballet.id brings the art of ballet to underprivileged children and in doing so, injects a bit of magic. As a half-Indonesian woman I can bridge the gap, and show that ballet is not just white people’s culture. I speak the language almost fluently, though not as well as I should.

We do a little intro talk and show some video footage before dancing. A video of Stella Abrera doing Sleeping Beauty had so many kids transfixed by the magic of her pointe work. Ballet.id is also able to advise communities on how a child can continue dance education if they like it but can’t afford more lessons. The idea is that I am not coming here to say ballet is something you should like, I am just here to introduce you and invite you to understand it from a different point of view.

Words by Juliet Burnett, images by Morgan Lugo, leotard by Cote Cour

September 2019

Akua Noni Parker X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

Akua Noni Parker is one of a handful of female dancers known for transitioning from a classical ballet career to a vibrant modern dance career, performing for over a decade with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Djassi Dacosta Johnson had the pleasure of meeting Parker at the Ailey studios just days before the iconic company’s 60th anniversary season at City Center. Below are some snippets from an expansive conversation where Parker and Johnson caught up like old friends about beginnings in dance, ballet vs. modern, being a black woman in the dance world and how this vegan model is also crafting a retirement plan as a ballet mistress and chef.

ON DISCOVERING DANCE

My dad says that he knew that I was going to dance by the time I could walk. He used to put me on his feet and dance. I danced all the time, I could keep a rhythm, I could pick up songs like ‘that.’ I think they had my sister and I in classes by the time I was 3 years old. I knew that I wanted to be a ballerina around the fourth grade but I didn’t go to an arts high school. I went to a regular public school and then The Academy of the Dance in Wilmington, Delaware, after school from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. It was in James Jameson’s and Victor Wesley’s house — they lived upstairs and turned the first floor into a studio. I had ballet class every day and pointe, character, or jazz from 7 p.m to 8 p.m. There was no modern. This was all about ballet. But then, that turned around.

ON REBELLING AND RETURNING

By 16, I started to want to be…a…(air quotes) “regular person.” I became rebellious. I knew I wanted to be a dancer but I hated school.

My parents were very strict and my mother didn’t let me do anything so, of course, I started sneaking out at night…underage drinking…the whole thing. Around 17, I stopped taking class — stopped dancing completely. At the same time I was having a rough time with my mother and was living with my high school boyfriend and his mother. I was intent on experiencing this sort of “regular” life. I was a receptionist at a hair salon and I had fallen into the wrong group. Finally, one day my father called me and said “Absolutely not. We’re not letting this go on any longer.” He and my mother had separated right after I graduated high school so he said, “You’re moving in with me, I’m putting you in dance classes for six months. I’m paying for them. You better go. And then, you better get a job — dancing.” He collaborated with my ballet teachers behind my back and I started back with The Nutcracker. They had filmed the performance and sent the video to Dance Theater of Harlem. I got into the ensemble off of the video and because they remembered me from the summer program in 1995, they invited me to join the ensemble. A year later I was in the first company.

ON BEING BLACK IN BALLET

You know, I was just trying to be a ballerina. I was only one of two black girls in my studio back home but at that time I was just focused on working. I don’t think I really knew that there was such a big deficit in the ballet world. I knew that my ballet teacher dealt with it with parents who had issues with me being the Snow Queen or things like that, but it still didn’t click in for me.

After DTH, I joined Cincinnati Ballet and it was Interesting because it took me outside of my comfort zone — not dancing with other people of color. However, the studio itself was in downtown Cincinnati which is… fully black. So, I went into the city everyday and would see all of these people of color and then at the studio I’m the only one [person of color] outside of one guy — cause, there was always at least one black guy. As far as casting, I danced some really great roles. But I knew then and I know now that I was stronger than some of the other dancers that were cast equal to or higher than me. But because DTH didn’t have that repertoire, so much of it was ‘new’. I had never done Swan Lake. I was one of the big swans and had to be on the other side of the stage mirroring a white girl. But if I fast forward past my time with San Jose, this IS the reason why when the job opportunity came for me to join Ailey, I accepted. The shift was less about transitioning to modern and more about dancing without the (unspoken) stress of the previous years.

ON TRANSITIONING TO MODERN

This is my 11th year with Ailey. I was one of Ms. Jameson’s last hires. She actually taught me “Fix me” and “Umbrella” (from Revelations). I remember specifically with “Fix me,” she said, “So you’re going to run down and do a tilt.” I was like, “What’s a tilt?” And she said, “Get your leg up in a la seconde and lean over!” And I was like, “Oh! Ok, I can do that.” Over the years she was really patient with me. I think that ballet companies actually really have it easy. It’s about detail. It’s a slower rehearsal process. It’s not kicking out millions and millions of pieces of repertoire [like Ailey].

Physically though, I  believe that it was the smartest transition for my body. I’ve learned so much about anatomy. I do yoga, now I have internal rotation… I think I’ve learned about changing my diet and how to maintain while touring. I was influenced by older dancers, like Renee Robinson and Matthew Rushing, who taught us all of the floor barre techniques and Gyrokinesis and were drinking green juices… which I scoffed at when I first got into the company, but, literally I AM that person now.

ON AN UNFORGETTABLE PERFORMANCE

Cry is probably the first time that I’ve ever asked for a role. I asked Mr. Chaya and Ms. Jamison to be in the room. I said, “I don’t need to perform it. I just want to be in the room because Ms. Jamison is teaching it and I want to learn it from her.” I think there were five of us who learned it together. City Center came around and I wasn’t cast, which was fine. But something said to me, “Continue to run it on your own. Continue to learn it.” And one day, Chaya said, “We want we want you to do it for the Sunday matinee, you have rehearsal with Judy on Friday.” It was Wednesday. Friday came and I had the rehearsal and Ms. Jamison was just letting me have it — she really worked me. But Sunday came and I did it and I remember right before the last hitch kick sequence, I was done. Completely pooped. There’s a picture of the downstage reaches with the left leg up and my face is like…literally…crying. I think I posted it last year for World Ballet Day: “For all those dancers that struggle, this one for us.” That was four years ago. And now I’m doing it in a few days for the 60th anniversary season.

ON FOOD AND WELLNESS

My Dad called me Rabbit because I always ate all my vegetables or Bird because I was just so skinny as a child. I always had to have a green vegetable on my plate. Now I love to experiment with vegan recipes. I mean, I love food and fresh, seasonal ingredients make all the difference. I think I’m building a side career as a chef for my skeptical meat-eating friends. I think it’s important for the environment, and us personally, to talk about healthy eating more; I have hashtags I use with my modeling shots when I post like #blackvegandancer. I’m also gluten free so I guess there’s a health and food appreciation focus in the future as well.

ON LIFE AFTER DANCING

I think I’m more interested in what’s going on in the front of the room now. I’m looking into what I can give back to the dance world. I am a class taker so I’ve given a lot of company class over the last five years and I really enjoy it. I’ve also taught for Jessica Lang’s company and Dance Theatre of Harlem. I’m looking forward to teaching more, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

ON HER OUTFIT

I’ve always wanted to model and even though I’ve always been told that I could, I never really pushed it. I’ve never been styled for a photo shoot. It’s really about the body as my art. Everything on my Instagram page, for example, is from my closet. That blue number is actually a bathing suit.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Djassi Dacosta Johnson

January 2019

Thryn Saxon X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

When Jill Randall first saw Thryn Saxon perform in October 2017 in San Francisco in Kate Weare Company’s Marksman, she was struck by her embodiment of power, clarity, elegance, and commitment. One year later, Randall had the chance to chat with Saxon about current training practices, projects, and more. Even over the phone, she could sense her engagement, curiosity, and warmth.

ON TRAINING AND MOVEMENT PRACTICES

August 2018 marked my 4-year anniversary of living and working in New York City, and I saw it as the right moment to embark on a Pilates training program. This work has become an integral part of how I care for myself mentally and physically. With some of the extreme nature of things I do and am interested in, I need to take care of myself and be specific with my training.

I am a studiohead and love being in technique classes. Recently, I’ve taken class from Jenna Riegel, Christina Robinson, Julia Ehrstrand, and Hollis Bartlett.

ON CURRENT PROJECTS AND CHOREOGRAPHY

Like many contemporary artists, I am performing with several companies, including Kate Weare Company, Julia Ehrstrand, and Ellen Sickenberger’s Depth Dance, and am also finding time for my own choreography and projects.

I choreographed BAB/E, a duet that I am currently performing with Emily Tellier, as my response to the current political arena. Choreographically, I play with the idea of impact literally and metaphorically in the work: physical impact, sensation, and bodies against bodies. This is part of my research for the five-woman piece I will be choreographing this winter. After a 3-part audition series, I was selected as an emerging choreographer for the Mare Nostrum Elements: Emerging Choreographer Series. I have five artists working with me on this new project, to be performed in late February.

Emily is an incredible friend and collaborator, and now I have to work on translating the same effect and power to five bodies. My partnering and choreography has also been touched in an extraordinary way over the past few years through my work with Kate Weare.

ON HER FIRST DANCE FILM

I just created my first screendance project, entitled All of Her. Mary Schindler and I perform an intimate duet that is captured from many angles with the lens: floorwork from above, close ups of intertwined body parts, and dancing against a wall. We support one another, push and pull, and come together for fleeting moments of unison and connection.

I gained several valuable and humbling lessons throughout the film project. I realized that I cannot expect everyone to love the choreography as much as I do, and I became more careful about sharing the work. The whole process was a big maturing process. Working alongside a photographer and cinematographer made me think about repetition and the number of shots necessary to take, again and again, to get that perfect clip.

The film will be screened at six festivals this year, including: LA Dance Shorts Film Festival, MarDel Dance Presents Dance on Film Festival, ARTS TRIANGLE Film Festival, CREATE: Art, SPARK Summer Film Festival, and Triskelion Dance Film Festival.

ON TEACHING ARTISTRY (THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN CHOREOGRAPHING, PERFORMING, AND BEING A TEACHER)

My sensibility of myself as a teacher has changed, as I understand myself more as a creator and dancer.

Risa Steinberg is a master teaching artist, who also recently coached us in Kate Weare’s rehearsals. Steinberg talks about bringing the line between performance and class closer and closer together. I crave the same thing from my students – not so much about being “on,” but connectivity to the now and what they are feeling and sensing. I aspire for this concept to become the nucleus of my classes, to draw people into the studio to explore phrase work with me.

ON A PERFORMANCE THAT STILL LINGERS

I would say the last Hofesh Shechter work at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2017, Grand Finale. Shechter created a masterful cinematic effect with the lighting, sound, and timing, as well as the very inventive movement. The piece touched upon my love of movies and the effect/quality/feeling that an edited film can provide. I am a huge fan of Shecter’s work, and he brilliantly pinpointed the audience’s eye in Grand Finale.

ON THE IDEA OF WELLNESS

The practice of enjoying has been my focus of late. “Are you enjoying things, or are they just happening to you?”

I feel like I am now doing what I want and what I believe in, and I’m slowly letting go of ideas from my past that people said I should be focusing upon as a professional dancer. Wellness includes the sloughing off of these ideas and coming into my own as a performer, choreographer, film maker, and teaching artist.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Jill Randall

December 2018

Suzie Rzecznik X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

When Sydney Burrows first came across Suzie Rzecnik, she was immediately drawn to her fluid, yet clearly isolated movement and commanding, confident presence. She has a unique range of abilities, and brings her choreographic and performative skills to her work in both the commercial and concert worlds. At the moment, Rzecnik is dancing for Amirov Dance Theater, creating her own work, and freelancing all around New York City. Despite her crazy schedule, she took the time to chat with Burrows about everything from her photo shoot experience to dancing with Phish in Madison Square Garden.

ON THE PHOTOSHOOT

Working with Jim (Lafferty) is always so fun and inspiring. Before we started shooting, we chatted shortly about what was going on in our lives and our current inspirations. I love shooting with him because he has this way of really seeing you and capturing you in your most honest moments. I think this was the third time we’ve shot together, and each time I’ve been in quite different periods of my life, so it’s been interesting to reflect on my growth though working with him. He doesn’t say much during the shoot; he just wants you to be you and move. It’s quite liberating to have this freedom to just be and trust he’s capturing this essence of you that he sees.

ON HER OUTFIT

I got the shirt in a thrift store in Berlin this summer. When I travel I like to go thrift shopping and see if I can find cool things that feel inspiring to dance in or just wear instead of souvenirs. It has these awesome big 80s shoulder pads in it!

ON DISCOVERING DANCE

I was really active as a kid and I always needed to have a lot of physical exertion. I was always playing sports but eventually, dance took priority. I realized that (dance) was what I wanted to do pretty young, and I just focused on that. As an art form, I feel like it’s an extension of our human experience in general. When I’m dancing and moving and expressing in that way, those are the moments that I feel the most alive. It’s almost like the rest of the time doesn’t matter as much as when I’m moving. I was not someone who necessarily liked to speak up or express myself, so performance has always been kind of cathartic for me. I don’t think I fully understood that part of it for myself until recently. So that’s kind of where I’m at — exploring what dance is for me now.

ON BRIDGING COMMERCIAL AND CONCERT DANCE

Navigating the commercial scenes is a little difficult, especially because I don’t have an agent or anything. I just use my network as much as I can to find the opportunities. It’s important to be able to shift and mold into what the specific project needs. I feel like I identify more in the contemporary world than in the commercial world, but they’re blending more now, so I’m trying to not limit myself to one or the other.

Process is very different in the two worlds. When you’re filming something, it’s kind of like when you’re doing high intensity interval training. You rest for a bit, but then you have to be on 120% like you’re on stage but without an audience – or with a different kind of audience. Whereas when I’m getting ready for a concert performance, I have rituals that I do that day, and I am able to properly warm up for this one burst. And then you also have the energy from the live audience. In a live performance, you have the opportunity to make split decisions, whereas when you’re filming, you can also do that, but then there’s only one shot that actually makes it in. Commercial and concert are almost like completely different lifestyles, and dancers have different attitudes and ways they express themselves. When you’re trying to do both you just have to be as malleable as possible.

ON HER CURRENT PROJECTS

I started with Amirov Dance Theater last year in November and have performed in a couple of festivals with them and in an evening length at Gibney Dance Center. Alex (Amirov)’s work is mostly based on her cultural identity. She’s an immigrant and has assimilated multiple times: from Russia to Israel to New York. Each of the works are quite different. Some of them are theatrical and some of them are more virtuosic and dancey. It just depends on what we’re working on at the moment.

I presented my first solos, of my own choreography, at a few different places over last year: Triskelion’s Improv Festival, The Craft: Performance & Brews in Brooklyn, and Spontaneous Combustion, which was a show Sara Chen (a friend of mine) held on the roof of her apartment. I’m continuing to work on that last solo, and I want to make it a film eventually.

I’m also working on a project with Tyler Gilstrap, a mentor and colleague of mine, for a corporate conference for a bunch of tech companies that’s going to be happening in Stockholm, Sweden, at the end of the month.  I’m very deep into the freelance world. It’s hard to remember all the things I’m working on.

ON DANCING WITH PHISH

Phish has played at Madison Square Garden for the past 6 or 7 years I think for multiple days in a row. On New Years Eve, they do a gag at midnight, and they try to keep it top secret from the fans. In 2017,  I was working for the Kuperman Brothers, and they created a dance with 16 or 18 of us for it, to the Phish song that’s about the rain. They made it rain on stage and we were dancing with these umbrellas that were on a rig. Being in Madison Square Garden was just totally insane and like no other stage I’ve ever been on. When it’s packed there’s like 24,000 people in the audience. Typically you would think of getting to perform in Madison Square Garden as something only commercial dancers would do, but I think most of us were contemporary or theater artists.

ON DIY DANCING

I was a little nervous for whatever you were going to ask me, but then I starting thinking about how DIYdancer aligns with my life, who I am, and why I’m even in this magazine. I think the do-it-yourself idea aligns with the way that I’ve approached my career and my training and everything. I definitely didn’t have a traditional straight shot into where I am now. I went to a performing arts high school that was just getting started. Then I went to one college and left and came to New York before going back to college and finishing my degree. At one point I thought I would do the full-time company route, but I worked on understanding what my skills are, and being flexible is one of them. I know now that I can make these extreme changes and use my network. It is a do-it-yourself kind of way to navigate the dance industry in New York.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Sydney Burrows

November 2018

Vinson Fraley X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

Vinson Fraley moves in a manner that is simultaneously super technical and completely free. Exuding a spectacular sense of articulation in his body and a commanding presence, it is no wonder he has found himself working with so many celebrated choreographers, from Bill T. Jones to Kyle Abraham to Rashaun Mitchell, since graduating from Tisch School of the Arts. After seeing these images from a photo shoot with Jim Lafferty and learning he hails from my new hometown of Atlanta, Candice Thompson had to catch up with this mover, singer, creator.

ON HIS CURRENT PROJECTS

It has been a little over one year since I joined Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. We start a new creation in May, and that is really something I’m looking forward to. At the moment, I’m very intrigued by the freelancing world and in the process of working on quite a few other projects. Since college I’ve worked primarily with the structure of a company. Lately, I’ve been a part of many outside projects and find them to be extremely fulfilling. I most recently spent two weeks in London to begin the process of creating sound design, on top of which I will sing. I hope to create an album that is specifically tailored to a full-length live show with strong emphasis on movement forms. I am also working on vocals to be featured on Berlin-based Modeselektor’s upcoming album. When I return to New York I will work on choreographing and dancing in a video for a brilliant friend and artist, Serpentwithfeet.

ON WORKING WITH AN ICON

A game changer…absolutely. Working with Bill has been overwhelmingly satisfying and enlightening. I arrived in the company at a moment that was extremely demanding. I learned five evening length works in a span of six months. That was a bit stressful, but I never felt the full weight of it because I was so eager to work with the company. Even more, I was intrigued with the responsibility of learning the style of the movement language, doing text, and singing. I’d been feeling like I wanted to do work that was multi-dimensional and layered. Dancing with Bill feels like the perfect place to grapple with identifying why I perform, while at the same time being creatively charged.

ON DEVELOPING AN ARTICULATE MOVEMENT STYLE

My connection to what happens sonically, and how I relate to my environment, are things that I’ve always connected deeply with, and I believe they are the main reasons I started to dance. I initially fell in love with dance simply because I was intrigued with watching it. Perhaps I gained a sense of articulation simply from watching so closely. I think it’s all a matter of how you use your perspective to place a sensation in the body. Clarity and freedom are two qualities that strongly influence my movement choices and aesthetic. A great deal of being able to embody this started from my work with Kyle Abraham. His movement is extremely stylized, yet pedestrian, and at the root, physically demanding; hence it forced me to really focus my efforts on detail and nuance. That’s the juice and heart of any work I seek to do and create now—the tiny pieces that bring the picture to life. Dancing with Bill has widened my lens even further. I’ve started to see movement from a more cinematic scope, and that has really allowed me to sharpen how I fulfill my desires in creation and performance.

ON HIS HOMETOWN

I miss Atlanta more and more every year that I’m away. It took me some time to really appreciate how special of a place it is. Now I can’t seem to separate my identity from it. When I initially left to study in New York City, I couldn’t imagine moving back to Atlanta. But the city is progressing rapidly and establishing a more solidified art scene.

I find it really exciting that so much original work is being developed in my city. I’ve only watched a few episodes of the show Atlanta but it is a perfect example of how much creative energy is flowing in the city. Donald Glover also went to my high school which I find pretty cool. [laughter]

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Candice Thompson

March 2018

Natasha Diamond-Walker X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

Natasha Diamond-Walker was born and raised in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, but after 14 years in the city, New York is now equally her home. We met early on in our time there as students, but it took contributing photographer Jim Lafferty and this magazine for us to catch up from opposite coasts after ten years had elapsed. Following are excerpts of our phone conversation, where we covered her electrifying red dress, Diamond-Walker’s years as a Graham dancer, and her aspirations for more self-driven, commercial work.

STATUS UPDATE

I left Graham for two years, but now I’m back… I was pursuing commercial work, acting, some print jobs. Still dancing, but dancing with an agent for films and TV. I was curious as to what that kind of life would be like. And it was great! It was just a lot of work. A lot of freelancing, that sort of lifestyle, so it was a little bit tedious.

ON WORK

I am drawn to the routine that concert work builds into your life. When you’re dancing full-time or pursuing dance full-time, it commands you to be in shape physically, and that builds a structure within your life and your days that I find rewarding. I don’t always love to do that kind of hard work, but if I commit to it—the commitment of it has amazing rewards and benefits for me across the board as a person.

The first experience I had of Graham was Denise Vale at Alvin Ailey, and she has this wild-woman, untamed, animalistic sense about her and her classes. I was really taken by her initially when she was my teacher… the more I got to know Graham, I realized that the work she created, the stories, were very psychological, and I’m an intellectual person. I am interested in the way that people think or the way they feel affecting how they behave… I was drawn to the fact that she was so raw; so many of her works are about a female killing someone or being hurt and avenging herself… there’s so much in there about feelings, and humans, and how we react when something happens.

ON DANCING GRAHAM IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Within the past two months, we’ve seen so many stories come to life about the male and female dynamic, and power, and sexual abuse, the abuse of power and its meaning, the archetypes of women and men. Those are all prevalent in Martha’s ballets. If it were up to Martha she probably would just kill these men, but, you know, that’s not always the best idea.

ON FIRST IMPRESSIONS

When I started dancing with Graham, at one of my first meetings with the rehearsal director, [they said] I was being too social… too laid-back, when really, I just pick and choose the hats I want to put on in a particular moment. In group situations it is maybe my initial thing to be like that, to kind of let things roll off my back without any real intensity or severeness about it, but underneath it all, I’m very focused, understanding, clear about what my goal is and the path I’ll take to get there.

[Now] I’ve shown myself as someone who is laid-back, who is calm, who is still able to deliver under pressure. So people are more accepting of who I am or who they think I am, even if I’m not impassioned by someone telling me that this is a very serious thing, it’s life-and-death. I’m kind of like, “yeah, I know, sure.” They trust me, they trust my process and who I am, and they know that I’m going to give them far more than what they expect as an end result in performance. That I’m professional.

Sometimes rehearsals can get really intense. People are crying, there’s a lot of competition, and I don’t let that affect me negatively. I don’t play into that, necessarily, I just try to have my own sense of myself, and I deliver.

ON EGO AND AGE

I’ve learned not to take things personally. Even if someone is coming at me in a personal way, usually it’s a projection of that person, where they’re coming from, what experiences they’re having… I try to be more sympathetic and empathetic for people, including myself, and that’s very different from how I used to be.

My understanding of the ego has evolved through the practice of meditation and my yoga practice.

The ego is very much present. I don’t think it’s a negative thing to have an ego, I just think it’s something to be conscious of.

It takes a certain presence of ego, whether you want to call it confidence or belief in yourself, to survive. And I’m saying that because of Martha Graham. If you look at who she was in public, if she had just been a relaxed, chill, laid-back lady, I’m not sure she would have forged the path that she did and been such a huge public figure… it’s a card that you need to know how to play when it’s necessary.

ON LIFE AFTER DANCE

As a dancer I’m hired to perform the work of other people, and Graham’s works have already been performed for so many years, so I am not contributing to the originality of those particular works. And that’s wonderful, I’m grateful to do it, but at the same time I also find a need to express my own voice, or the way that I see things, in a new way.

… Acting full-time, that’s my next goal. And not just acting, but also writing, creating. I also have these plans to be a director of movement, someone that works with actors to create the character’s personality based on movement, and what that person’s body language is like. It’s great because while I’m dancing I can still keep these things in front of my brain. They’re being activated by the dancing I’m doing, by walking around the city, by reading plays.

ON THE RIGOR OF NEW YORK LIVING

When I look back now on how I was from middle school to high school, my work ethic was very much regimented, in terms of dance class… There was a certain amount of routine already structured into myself that I connected to well in New York.

So diverse, so jam-packed… whereas California is very spread out, and that really changes things, in terms of design, in terms of people, and of course the weather. The elements are such a huge part of how people come to be and how we live our lives.

ON THE COLOR RED

The color of passion, desire, it incites feelings of fire and heat, warm sensations. I also think of it as a phoenix… The red [matador] cape, and love, and death; also birth, though, because inside of the womb is reddish-colored flesh.

ON HER DRESS

It’s an Italian, couture dress I got from a thrift store, and I was like, this dress is beautiful, this red color is just electric, but I didn’t try it on, right? I was like, ah, it’s great, I’m just going to look great in it. So I get it, and I put it on, and this dress does not look like what I thought it was going to look like. I didn’t like it at all. So I’ve had it in my closet for a few months now, and I thought, I’ll bring this red thing to Jim and see if something happens. And that was really the most epic part of the photoshoot when I put on the red dress… Maybe it was the color, maybe it was Jim… it’s kind of like one of the costumes I wear [for Lamentation]… but now it doesn’t have a purpose. Now I can get rid of it. It was solely so that you and I would reconnect, and Jim and I would have that moment, and I am deeply grateful for it.

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Lara Wilson

December 2017

Julie Seal X Jim Lafferty for Studio Sessions

Julie Seal grew up on Long Island and initially trained as a ballet dancer. Yet, at six foot tall, Seal knew that she would probably never find a partner tall enough for the added height that comes with pointe shoes. Shifting gears to modern dance, and moving to NYC after graduating from Hofstra University, Seal has found a welcoming home in the downtown dance scene. She got her start in experiential performance art in 2016 with Third Rail Projects in Brooklyn—an immersive dance theater company—in the production The Grand Paradise. Now, she can be found in performing the Red and White Queen in Third Rail’s Then She Fell. Photographer Jim Lafferty spent an afternoon capturing the exquisite ease and grace of her moves.

ON HER STATURE:

“My relationship with my body, it has always been a thing, I have never gone to a dance class where my height has not been mentioned, never, whether it is ‘oh your long legs’ or ‘oh my gosh, you are so tall!’ I have come to appreciate my height, as an aesthetic, I am starting to like that about myself. I love that I can eat up the same amount of space as a tall man and I like having this much spine to work with…”

ON PERFORMING IN INTIMATE SPACES:

“There is a steep learning curve, but you become very intuitive. With interactive theater, you have to get a sense of the people in the room and learn how to balance and respond to the energies coming in. My physicality plays a role in that too, and can give me a bit of status. What does it meant to be present? Questioning that is an exciting shift to make.”

ON THE PROSCENIUM STAGE:

“I always love going to the ballet and seeing concert dance. I love the virtuosity of it. The work I am doing now is up close, but I love the distance and grandeur of that perspective too. Outside of Third Rail I am developing my own work, and even though everything is in flux, I am still interested in form and the formalism of dance.”

ON HER IDOLS:

“When Doug Varone came to my college and Julia Burrer taught a workshop, I thought, ‘damn, that is what I want to look like.’”

Images by Jim Lafferty, words by Candice Thompson

October 2017

Lara Wilson X UnSequenced

“To get us out of the safe world of boundaries, for the sake of interesting dance, I thought about how our boundaries change under extreme circumstances like natural disaster.” AM co-founder Lara Wilson dives into the research and collaboration that went into her latest work, created in residency at The Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, CA.

Listen

Images by Michael Townsend, podcast produced and mixed by Stephanie Wolf

August 2019