Krista Nelson

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Photograph: Anna Finke

When did you start dancing. You're from Illinois?
I'm from Champaign-Urbana. I went to class when I was 8, but I've been dancing since I was able to walk. My first teacher told me that I was too old and my next teacher told me that I was too tall and I just ignored them and kept going to classes because I really loved ballet. I studied ballet all the way through high school and briefly at the Milwaukee Ballet School. I took classes with their trainees and with the company sometimes. I was only there about a semester. I did one summer program after I graduated from high school. Realized that I should have been doing summer programs well before to meet people and expand my training. But that experience wasn't the right fit, so I decided to move back to Champaign and then go to the dance department at the University of Illinois. They had actually already accepted me, but I chose not to go.

Why?
Because I wanted to be a ballerina and I didn't really understand what that meant until I went to Milwaukee Ballet. I still love ballet class and dancing that style, but it just didn't fit well with me. It wasn't Milwaukee Ballet; just something about my personality wasn't right. So then I thought, Okay I'll do the modern program at the University of Illinois. I did that for one semester and dropped out because I decided to move to New York and just be a modern dancer. I lived with a boyfriend. That also was not a good fit, so luckily my professors were very kind and let me come back after one semester of living in Williamsburg.

Tell me about that. Did you take class during that time?
I wasn't taking many classes. I remember the first day I opened the map of New York and Brooklyn: I sat there and sobbed because it was so different from Illinois or Milwaukee. I mean I had been on my own in Milwaukee, living in an apartment away from my family. I was already exposed to that, but New York was just this whole other thing that I really had no idea how to get into. I went to Steps and to Broadway Dance Center and to Dance New Amsterdam and people kind of reached out—it was harsh, but like the normal New York experience. I was so young and not knowing anybody in the city was hard and, honestly, the relationship I was in was pretty bad. It was a combination of things. I had no idea how to make it in New York as a dancer and I had no idea how to make my relationship positive. He was not very supportive of me and I needed support so I realized pretty quickly that I needed more training and knowledge before I could be a viable candidate in the dance world in New York. I was not ready to be here. [Laughs]

Had someone suggested that you leave college and move to New York?

No I just thought, I don't want to do this anymore and I'm moving to New York. Which was really bull-headed, but so was not going to college. My family thought I would be going to college right away, but my mother's always been really supportive of my dance career so she said, "Whatever you want to do, do that if you think that's going to help you dance." A lot of times I think I had the wrong idea about how that might actually be accomplished.

That's funny.
It is funny. I'm really happy that I ended up here because I've made some bad decisions. Well not bad, but I've made some drastic changes.

Does anyone in your family dance?

I have a cousin who dances, but obviously she's much younger than me. My mom always wanted to be a dancer, but her family wasn't able to pay for her dancing classes, but she took classes a lot in college. But she always wishes...she had a ballerina book and she really always loved dancing. And she loves coming to see me dance.

So you went back to Illinois and did you finish school?
I finished in three and a half years—with all the people I had started with. When I was in the program, there was no head, so it was kind of an interesting time. I'm not sure how it compares to how it is now, but the professors there span a good variety of technique and approach and aesthetic value, so they really helped me open up my ideas about what is dance and what could be valuable and what I should try and what was my best effort, because some of my ballet training had closed off some areas. I was not very accepting of certain things. It's good to be discriminating, but it was really important, that process of discarding some of the strong ballet stuff.

What classes were you taking outside of ballet?
I took jazz classes with Cathy Young. She's fantastic. She really helped me open up because she's so energetic and vibrant and passionate about dance. And not judgmental. It felt really exciting to try the stuff that she was asking me to do. I did improv with Chris Aiken. They were the guest teachers during the time that I was there. I had modern with Sara Hook and Rene Wadleigh and Cynthia Oliver. And Becky Nettl-Fiol was another. Linda Lehovec. They all focused on different kinds of techniques, but I think they tried to make sure what they were teaching was different from all the other professors. I guess that's probably true at many universities for dance, because it would probably benefit the students to have a range. I took some ballet there, too.

But it was not serious?
No. And after being at Milwaukee Ballet, it was definitely not the same world. It was really interesting at the time because I was so used to triple pirouettes and really big grand allegro and at U of I, those aren't the values. Those were my favorite parts of class so trying to find new ways to enjoy ballet was interesting but good.

Did that experience make you like dance even more or did it put you off? Did you find yourself as a dancer?
I loved being able to do lots of different things, and it was the first time I'd ever done that. I went a long time without doing anything except ballet. It's not normal anymore I think in this world. I'll go and teach young girls, and they're like, "I take lyrical, ballet, jazz, hip-hop." I was really taking hard ballet. Even when I was in high school we followed the Vaganova syllabus. I've learned a lot about anatomy since then so I wouldn't make the same choices in how I did it, but the classes were hard. When I came to Cunningham, felt so at home because it was like the hard Vaganova classes.

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