Mon Dec 19 2011
Photograph: Anna Finke
When did you begin dancing?
I started dancing when I was 4—a little itty-bitty thing—in the Stafford--Fredericksburg area of Virginia. And loved it from the beginning.
What kind of dance was it?
It was a mixture of ballet, tap and probably like an acro-thing, although I was doing gymnastics at the time as well. It just progressed for a couple of years like that. I took everything I could.
Were you drawn to one thing in particular?
Unlike other children, I didn't want to get rid of ballet at any point. I did competitions in tap, jazz and ballet. I knew that I needed to be doing ballet more, so I also supplemented [my training] with ballet classes at a stricter ballet school, and I did summer programs. I was drawn to ballet more than anything else, even though I loved the theatrical element of jazz and the rhythms of tap.
It's so easy to malign the competition track with Dance Moms and stuff like that, but what did that give you?
It was amazing. Well, it gave us all confidence. We were a family; we worked together. I had a wonderful group of friends. We grew up together. There was no competition among us. In a way, it was team spirit, which is strange for the dance world or an art form. I wouldn't trade any of that. And I know that I definitely saw some of the hard elements, the negative elements of that. It wasn't so much present in our school.
What did it teach you about performing, because you probably started when you were...?
Pretty young. I was probably 10. Naturally, I was already an animated child. I definitely learned how to be in front of a crowd and to choose moments onstage, and that kind of spontaneity. I don't think [competitions] are for everybody. I feel like I was very lucky because I got a lot of everything. I also participated in The Nutcracker, and I went to ballet schools, so I understood the whole discipline of what it took. I'd go back to this studio and understand that you had to work really hard to do well, and then leaving all of that and going to Juilliard—I have an appreciation for that. All of the kids that did performing-arts high schools and didn't have competitions, it all makes sense; it gave us each character at Juilliard. And we all had something to bring to the table from all of those many experiences as children.
Where were you studying ballet?
I would give the most credit to Lisa Avery, who has a school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, but I also did some programs with Washington Ballet and the Joffrey. I was actually the first group of kids to go to the Kirov Academy, which was the Universal Ballet Academy at the time.
Yes. The Moonies. I only did it for a year; the Russian training wasn't for me. I loved being there and it changed my technique forever. I'm so glad I did it, but I got injured, probably from the excessive turnout—I'm not as turned out as other people. I went back to a regular high school and saw all of the catty stuff that high school brings, and I was like, Wow, I've had this other life experience where I'm 16 and I know I want to dance. I couldn't because I was injured and I was in a very competitive situation and people can't get along here. Why can't kids get along? [Laughs] It makes no sense. I went back home and was just like, Wow, okay.
How bad was the injury?
It was severe tendonitis. What had happened was I jammed my toe. It was actually a fluke situation where my toe was sticking out of my ballet shoe and I jammed it and then I just kept dancing on it—improperly—and developed such bad tendonitis in my ankle that I couldn't pli anymore. I just had no understanding that if I'd just taken time off—and that's such a long lesson to learn in the dance world, and one I still struggle with. But what was interesting from my perspective at that young age is that I felt like I was liked when I first got there, and then after my injury I had lost some sort of clout. I don't know if it was Russian or whatever, but I felt like I wasn't looked at anymore after the injury. I got very sad and I just had to go home. I felt like I shouldn't go home because I had this amazing opportunity, but I so wanted to go home. And making that choice was difficult. I actually remember the evening I made it. My dad was just like, "If you don't say anything right now, I'm bringing you home." I just felt like I couldn't ask to come home because it was this free ride to be in this prestigious school, but I was so sad because I couldn't get over this injury. It wasn't for me. Clearly. It was soon after that modern dance became a bigger part of my life. Going to Juilliard, I still was thinking possibly ballet. Because I excelled in ballet. But then I was like, I'm so tall. Doors open and close in a particular way, and I'm just so thankful now because Cunningham is where I would have wanted to be.
How did you learn about modern dance?
Juilliard. I had taken modern dance earlier than that at the ballet school, but not American modern dance.
What was the draw about Juilliard?
It was diverse and I've had a diverse upbringing. I didn't even think about going to another ballet school after the Kirov Academy because one of the things that was special was that I did have such a diversity of training. I was clear that I would like to go to a conservatory where I could still be dancing a lot, and there was also a discussion with my father about, "I would like you to go to a regular college." So we had a deal. I auditioned for CalArts and Boston Conservatory and Juilliard, and most of those were easy, but I also applied to regular universities. It was funny because I got into all of them, but my deal with my father was that if I got into Juilliard, I would go to a conservatory. It's such a hard life; it was a little bit of a struggle for my dad to say, "Go for it." And Juilliard was recommended to me by several people. I didn't know a lot about the program, but when I came to the audition, I was sold. The audition alone was so much dancing that I was like, This is where I want to be.