Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Dancer's Answers

Mosaic Dancers Answer Questions on the Hows, Whys, and Wherefores of Their Relationships to Their Art 

MDTC's upcoming production of "Behind the Image: Dancing Orientalist Art to Life" (December 7-8, 2019) features a cast of talented performers, and they shared their thoughts via a series of questions posed to all of them.

 ·      What inspired you to be a dancer?

 ·      What drew you to Middle Eastern Dance?

 ·      What surprised you most about learning Middle Eastern Dance?

 ·      What folklore of the Middle East are you most drawn to and why?

 ·      What are the challenges (for you) of being a performing artist?

 ·      How has your time with Mosaic changed or enhanced your experience as a dancer?

Andrea D'Arco

Andrea D'Arco will dance with Mosaic in the 2019 production of "Beyond the Image."

I started dancing when I was 3 years old, but ended up quitting because I didn’t want to wear a tutu.  I started again when I was 5. For some reason, at that age little dancers weren’t required to wear one. Thank heavens, because I wouldn’t have discovered my passion. As I grew older, I was always in dance recitals and school performances, but when I was 10 years old, I knew in my heart I was meant to be on stage. My family are season subscribers to the Paper Mill Playhouse (NJ) and during every show I was always watching the dancers and just wanted to be on stage with them.  My mom would tell me I could be up there.

I keep dancing because I can my express myself more as an actor by telling the story through my body. Dancers are the most powerful actors because we don’t have words to tell our story. We need to give everything to our performance or the audience won’t be on the journey with us. The best part about dancing is how happy it makes me to tell stories through dance with my body and emotions, stories that you wouldn't get to tell otherwise. But, the truly best part is taking the audience on that journey with you. You allow them to release themselves into your story and come along for the ride. There’s a moment on stage in which you are so invested that you almost blackout in a sense, then you finally come off stage.

I auditioned for Mosaic for the role of Pandora because I was so excited to have a piece where I could combine my dance, acting, and storytelling. Pandora goes through a journey where she is young, naïve, and mischievous, and later learns her lesson and needs to mature. While I was not chosen for Pandora, I was fortunate to have been selected for many different pieces that I love. I am learning new styles of dance, as well as learning how to understudy and partner.

I think what surprised me the most about Middle Eastern dance is the need to be very released. This dance is sensual, light, and beautiful, and if there is tension, or the movements are too sharp, it ruins the art in the choreography, and the story gets cut off. Also, counting/timing in the music can be difficult.

Challenges for me as a performer are not “getting in my head” or questioning my worth/talent. There was a period of time where every audition defeated me, until I changed my outlook. Now, I look at every audition as a chance to perform and have fun. It’s also remembering that if you aren’t selected it doesn’t necessarily have to do with your talent, but it could be your height, hair color, etc. There are a lot of reasons why someone might not get picked, and I made the conscious decision to stop wasting my mental energy on trying to figure them out.

My time with Mosaic Dance Theater Company has been wonderful. It has allowed me to grow and expand as a dancer/performer. I would have never learned these multiple styles of dance if it weren't for this company, and I appreciate them along with the culture/history that is embedded in them. I was also never an understudy before, and understudying all 4 Troubles in The Paradise of Children is definitely a difficult task. It is also very nice to work in a more ensemble setting. Our ideas are always welcomed if something isn’t working, or we will have conversations and work together when working on a piece.

Lauren Laschuk

Lauren Laschuk will perform in MDTC's 2019 production of "Beyond the Image."

Ever since, at the age of five, I began bugging my parents by jumping on the couch to the soundtrack of Sesame Street, they knew my energy needed to be let out in a more well-suited environment.  So, they signed me up for dance classes. This was where I was able to express myself freely and feel the most like myself. Everything in my life is blocked out, and right then and there, all that matters is dancing. I quickly went onto my passion of musical theater and acting, where I am able to fully express my creative side. I am consistently trying to expand my repertoire, and keep up my training as a dancer and as an actor. I am thankful everyday to have the support of my family, friends, and fellow artists who keep me doing what I have always loved to do.

I have always wanted to explore different styles of dance and go outside my comfort zone. Being trained specifically in ballet, jazz, and tap, I have always had an interest in learning about different cultures styles of movement and expression. Seeing Mosaic’s take on different places like the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, and Greece, I was overwhelmed by my little knowledge of the dance styles of those countries. However, I saw this project as an amazing challenge for me.  Having had an interest in Greek mythology since I was little, The Paradise of Children (Pandora’s Box) piece spoke to me as if my inner child was bursting out. My audition felt like I was rehearsing and collaborating with the director, and I was supported throughout the entire process.
The technique of Middle Eastern Dance differs in ways to the technique learned in modern and classical dances (i.e ballet, jazz). I am used to holding my hips and other parts of my body differently than those who are well trained in this dance. Overcoming my “muscle memory” and habit of the posture I have developed is still an ongoing learning experience. Thanks to the help of the many insightful dancers and teachers in the company, I am learning something new everyday, and becoming a more well-rounded dancer because of them. And, because of the beautiful score we are blessed to dance to every day, I am constantly transported into the world of Middle Eastern dance and am able to full embody the expression of the music. 

There are so many reasons to get frustrated and abandon my work at times, whether it is comparing myself to other performers, feeling like I will never work another day, or simply seeing what I have created and accepting it without judgment.  It has taken me a long time to learn some lessons, and others I am still learning. Firstly, I don’t want to be close-minded to new ideas or opinions. I try not to view critiques as restrictions or obstacles, but as opportunities to express myself in new ways. Secondly, part of my mission is to continuously improve myself and my product. Inevitably I will find artists or works that are better than mine. But at the end of the day, every artist and their path of life is different. I am never competing in the same race with others. I am only in a race with myself to work to the best of my ability. Finally, It is very hard to create something, appreciate what it is I’ve created, and move on. By fretting over what could be changed, I could miss the next amazing thing that happens. Other people will see my work and have their own opinions. And that is fine. At the end of the day, I will be proud that I created it.

The supportive and welcoming atmosphere I walk into everyday at Mosaic rehearsals is truly a blessing. I am surrounded by immensely talented individuals, and I am always learning something new. I am becoming a better dancer because of the wonderful people I have the privilege to share the stage with. I love to be challenged in new and exciting ways, and Mosaic Dance Theater has definitely been an eyeopener to appreciating different dancers from around the globe, and introducing me to a style that I will continue to improve on and explore as I move forward in my career.

Nabila Nazem

Nabila Nazem will be dancing with MDTC in 2019's "Beyond the Image."

I have always been a mover. As a child, I loved to run and always heard my mom yell, “Don’t run in the house!” (Which never did any good, obviously.) Our house was filled with music too, and since my parents loved the arts, we went to the opera, the ballet, and to see the floor shows they had in fancy restaurants. Moving from the country to a small city, I noticed a dance studio en route to our new local grocery store. One day we stopped in. I still remember the exact instant: the sights, smells, and sounds ... it was glorious! Classical piano music, jazz, clattering shoes, thumping feet, a teacher’s voice from behind a door yelling out steps and counts, the smells of rosin, sweat, new dance slippers, and the sense of excitement -- a purposeful chaos. It felt familiar, and I wanted to be there more than anything.  I have kept dancing because it’s who I am. Being a dancer and performer is the essence of my being, and in one way or another, it’s going to manifest itself.

The best thing about Middle Eastern Dance is ... I can’t name just one best thing! I find the connection with the music  resonates deeply with me -- I get to be musician as well as dancer. Initially, one signs up for a few dance classes, but then, as studies progress, the musical aspect of the Dance opens up an entire additional universe to explore and learn about, informing the movement, and melding the dancer with the music. Ideally, the dancer is one of the instrumentalists of the musical ensemble, playing--no, being--an instrument that manifests itself visually rather than aurally.

Another aspect of Middle Eastern Dance that I like is that it is for everyone, everywhere! Because of its roots as social dance, almost everyone can do it, regardless of what age, size, or gender one may be. Whether done for concert performance or informally among friends, it truly is a dance of the people.

Although we lived in a rural area of Northern California, we traveled extensively, and my father commuted weekly for work in Sacramento. When I was quite young, I especially loved Zorba’s restaurant, and would beg to go there because I loved seeing the belly dancers. We’d get a stage-side table, and I would sit on my dad’s lap and give dollar bills to the dancers. One night, a dancer took off a jingly bracelet and put it on me. (I still have it, and it is one of my most treasured possessions.) Many years later, after cycling through Western dance styles, I discovered Middle Eastern Dance, and found it to be even richer and more fantastic in real life than it had ever been in my imagination.

The incredible number of variations that can be built on a relatively few basic movements took me by surprise. The same root steps can be done differently in ways that don’t resemble each other in the slightest. It’s deceptive though, because refining the movement takes as much application and discipline as any other dance form. Mastering the number of ways a single step can be done, the cultural and stylistic aspects of it, how it relates to the music, and the subtleties involved in all that can easily take a lifetime of study.

I tend to gravitate toward Turkish Roman, and a big part of my enthusiasm for it comes from the music, which often falls into 9/8 meter. It’s powerful and energetic. I also love Muwashahat, as that music is particularly appealing to me.

Scheduling is the biggest challenge for me as a performing artist. If you need a predictable routine with regular weekends and dinner at home every night, forget it. Like many of the performers here in NYC, I am a freelancer, a situation that features a few anchored appointments around which all other activities—jobs, meals, gigs, relationships, self-care, and so on—must flow. It's a demanding lifestyle with few compromises. Self-discipline, adaptability, time management, and organization are key, and staying focused and on top of all that can be wearing.

By being involved with Mosaic, I get to have more dance in my life, with high-level teachers and colleagues whom I get to work closely with. In contrast to more mainstream forms of dance, Middle Eastern Dance in a professional company setting is rare, and I love being here. Part of my responsibility as a Middle Eastern-style dancer is to be familiar with the various regional and cultural root sources of this art form.  With Mosaic, dancers have the opportunity to dive deeply into the nuances of the different folkloric styles, on an ongoing basis rather than the more common one-shot workshop experiences. The diverse stylistic repertoire of Mosaic puts my background in both Western and Oriental training to good use, which is wonderful.  It’s a win-win, as far as I’m concerned!

Danielle Hartman

Danielle Hartman, back for her second season with MDTC, performs in Raks al-Sai'id in 2018's 15th Anniversary concert.  (Photo by Gary Heller.)

My earliest childhood memories are of playing records and dancing in my living room, I can't really imagine what life would be like without dance! It really is a universal language.

I tried a Middle Eastern dance class when there was a schedule change at my regular studio, and I was immediately hooked. It is a completely different way of moving than Western dance forms, and it allows you to relate to your body in a more nuanced and internal way.

What surprised me most about this dance form is that I would love it so much! As I have been immersing myself in different dance forms over the years, I still keep coming back to Middle Eastern dance. There are many different folkloric styles within this dance form, and I am very interested in the dance rituals used as spiritual practices and for healing. But, time management is always a challenge between training, rehearsals, and a full time office job.

I was a fan of the company for several years before I was invited to join, so I'm very excited to be able to contribute to such professional performances. I also enjoy getting swept up in the theatricality of the storytelling pieces. The repertoire includes many styles of dance, which is great to be able to practice with such attention to detail.

Kaitlin Hines-Vargas

Kaitlin Hines-Vargas, in her second season with MDTC, performs Khaleegi dance from the Persian Gulf area. (Photo by Bob Greenwald)

I never could have predicted that I would become a dancer. I was focused on the quiet art form of writing until I felt the need to express myself without words. Dancing, to me, creates a place where you can live fully and deeply in the moment while uniting with music. To find and achieve that over and over again is a really wonderful goal, one that I never tire of. That, and the excitement of improv, keep me going. 

    I came to Middle Eastern Dance as a teenager, and at the time I was just eager to learn how to express myself through movement. What kept me connected was the intensely personal focus each dancer has in interpreting music. There are so many exciting choices in this rich vocabulary of dance, and so many evocative stories to tell -- I’m constantly surprised by what the dance has to offer! Over time, what has surprised me the most is how this long-standing form has been influenced by and evolved through exposure to other dance forms and dancers across the world, and still retains an earthy, communicative dynamism that is truly unique.  I enjoy most folklore but really enjoy the swing and groove of Khaleegi. 

   It’s a real challenge to balance daily life and needs with my desire to focus on dance, but that’s necessary.  It’s become mostly about managing my energy and trying to create a schedule for myself that values my creativity and health as a dancer while upholding other commitments as necessary. 

   Performing with Mosaic has been incredibly rewarding in the last year. I am grateful for the opportunity to get onstage so often at very different venues. Over and above that, I really love the mix of repertoire - it’s rewarding to perform folkloric material alongside classical oriental and modern fusion. You don’t get that variety very often!