Fri Dec 16 2011
Photograph: Anna Finke
Did you start dancing in Illinois?
Yeah, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
So you were older. What did you do before dance? Were you involved in sports?
I did some sports when I was young. Basketball, baseball, soccer, golf in high school. Golf was probably the most intensive sport I got into. I was competitive in it. Played it in high school. We actually won our state championship in high school. Also, in high school I got into theater—first in musicals, then straight acting. I did that through college. So dancing was a natural extension of that. I remember at Christmas I would watch Holiday Inn with my grandpa and Fred Astaire danced in that, but I never thought much. And then in high school when I started doing theater and musicals, it related a little more. Like I thought, Oh that's really cool. I wonder how they do that? So for musical-theater, I took tap dancing lessons when I got to college and watched tons of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire movies and wanted to be like them. I started studying jazz and a little ballet. I took a survey class of modern dance my second semester of college for an academic requirement.
Were you a theater major?
I was in general engineering as a freshman. But after my first year, I tried to move to theater education. I probably would be a high-school theater teacher right now, but they didn't have a program for it at Illinois. I got into math education instead. I wanted to get out of engineering, and I was going to get a certificate to be able to teach theater at the same time. But halfway through my junior year of college, I had been taking more and more dance; modern dance resonated with me. So I auditioned for the program and got in. By that point, I had taken enough math that I was four classes away from having a straight math degree. So my plan was to finish the math degree while I did the dance degree, which meant I'd have to stay in college two more years. By year five, I'd finished the math, had one more year to go in dance, but realized it was better for me to go to New York. That last year, we had done a Cunningham MinEvent. Banu Ogan came and set it—we had Cunningham class that year. Paige Cunningham, also from the company, was a grad student then, so I was exposed to the work and realized it would just be better for me to study in New York at the studio. I had traveled to New York during summers and saw the RUGs [Repertory Understudy Group] working and it was like, Oh that's exactly what I want. I had a degree anyway. Why spend the money on another year of college? So I studied at the studio for a year while I was also dancing with Randy James Dance Works. I became a RUG for two years and then got in the company.
Did you have a mentor in the modern department in Illinois?
Sara Hook. She's probably my dance mother. I would go to dance concerts throughout college and I'd bump into her and she would say, "You should be a dance major." They're always looking for guys. But this is what made me audition—I happened to bump into her at a concert my junior year, and I was at the point where I was open enough to the idea. I wasn't liking wanting to be a math teacher. I was just into dance so I made an appointment to talk to her. I auditioned two weeks later to get into the program for the following semester. That was really a narrow window and how it happened was strange luck. I wanted to go see a movie playing on campus, but they had sound trouble, but there was a play. I was waiting in the lobby and Sara came in and that's how I bumped into her. Had I not—because the audition was two weeks away for the next semester—it would have been another year until I would have gotten into the dance department. That would have meant seven years in college, and I would have walked away from it.
What did you like about modern dance?
The freedom of it—the fact that the movement could be anything you wanted. It can be anything in space and time. You can put any idea up there. You're expressing it with your body and movement. That's challenging. The experience of taking class resonated with me—the musicality, the physicality. There was a lot of possibility.
You were a serious golfer. Is there any relationship between golfing and dance?
Absolutely. Especially in how you work every day to figure out one movement. In golf, it's even more tedious. It's just one swing. There are slight differences, like a sand shot and putting, and there are different techniques. But basically, it's this one movement you're trying to get down. There's mechanics, there's alignment—like your feet have to be parallel to the line of your ball and your target. The proprioception—just a lot of alignment principals—you do this, you initiate with this. Constantly looking at other people and learning from them. What are they doing in their body to make that happen? Oh, it's more from the hip. So it is about breaking down and analyzing a movement very meticulously, because a very small change in how you're trying to hit the ball can make a huge difference. It's the difference between hitting the fairway and slicing out of bounds, and that's everything in golf. So really small, minuscule differences canmake big differences and that's similar in dance. There are some big-picture types of steps that you don't so much analyze; you just do them. Then, there's a lot of minutia in dancing: You have a little tension in your hip, and that's causing you not to be able to lift your leg as easily. It's this lifelong process. You're never gonna get a perfect golf swing; you're never gonna get a perfect arabesque.
So that's the physical side. What about the mental side? Is there a relationship?
I haven't thought of that. I think the mental game was harder for me in golf than dance actually, because of the competitive side of golf. You're in a tournament and you want to win. If you make a mistake, you don't get what you want, whereas in dance, the stakes aren't as high depending on what the mistake is. Maybe it has really big consequences—maybe I embarrass myself or maybe it didn't look so good, but more often if I make a mistake in dance I'm able to let it go and move on to the next moment because all is not lost. You can't dwell on it, and this is a creative endeavor, not a competitive one. The idea of being in your head is similar—especially if you think too much, and that's a huge problem for me. That math major. I'm a left-brain person. It gets in my way. It's one of my big challenges and it was something that was also my problem in golf—being in my head, thinking too much, micromanaging and being too analytical. In dance, I'm figuring that out. But in golf, I don't think I ever won a tournament on my own. [Laughs] The closest I came was third place. I was okay. I never played in college where the stakes are big.
At the University of Illinois, who thought you had an affinity for the work? Did Banu Ogan teach technique class?
She taught us class and set the MinEvent. Janet Charleston also was in grad school. She was faculty at the [Cunningham] studio, and she and Paige taught class the rest of the semester when Banu wasn't there. But for the time Banu was around setting the piece, she did and I remember that her classes were great. Now, I love her classes. They're so difficult, and I think she's a really gifted teacher. I felt encouraged by my experience. There weren't that many guys in our program so I got their attention and I got the Scramble solo. Just having to figure that out was really hard [Laughs]. Banu had to work with me. I was hungry for it at that point. I loved it.
How did your parents take all of this?
I remember telling them when I was deciding to switch to dance. It was after a musical I did in college; we went out for dinner afterward like we always did. My dad was a high-school math teacher, and my mom, a high-school Spanish teacher. But at the time my dad was doing education finance for the state; he's a math kind of guy. I told them, "I'm thinking of switching to be a dance major—there's an audition next weekend and I think this is something I want to do." I drop this bomb and I remember that my dad's reaction was to say, "Oh my God." Not in disgust, but, Oh this is a headache. Why would you do that? It's gonna be hard. He was just more concerned—not against me doing it, but concerned as a parent that it might be a hard life because in the practical sense, it's a bad move to go into the arts. It's really tough and not a lot of people make it. It's not nearly as stable as being a math teacher and getting a job and making a living. He was concerned, but then they were both very supportive and have been nothing but supportive ever since I decided to make the change.
So you moved to New York. Were you a scholarship student at the Cunningham school?
Yes. That was in 2006. I flew to New York—it was on August 20th, right before the next quarter started at Cunningham, because I wanted to do the scholarship audition. The day after I arrived, I was taking class. I wasted no time. That was my intention: I want to go to Cunningham. The way to do it is that you have to be around him and take class every day, so that's what I did. I think that was a great approach—to just throw yourself in, be seen, show enthusiasm, show interest. It ended up working out, with a little bit of luck involved, too. [Laughs]