The Alexander technique
The entrancing Julie Alexander talks dancing.
Thu Mar 12 2009
Photograph: Courtesy of Ana Busto
Julie Alexander is, in a word, understated. Gracing the works of a wealth of downtown choreographers—this weekend, she’ll appear in Antonietta Vicario’s Our Togetherness at Danspace Project—she radiates a mysterious, eye-grabbing aura, no matter the dance. Raised in Houston, Texas, Alexander, 28, has performed with Beth Gill, Miguel Gutierrez, Trajal Harrell, Anna Sperber and Donna Uchizono (and that's the short list). In choosing Alexander to appear in her forthcoming work, Tyler Tyler, Yasuko Yokoshi, another experimental choreographer, credits the dancer's "quiet, egoless, strong presence. Her commitment to the moment is intense." Alexander is proof that a dancer doesn't have to identify with one choreographer to cause a sensation. After a day of rehearsals, she shed some light on the way she moves.
Time Out New York: When did you start dancing?
Julie Alexander: I was three. It was ballet, tap and jazz for years and years. I loved it. I had sort of a crazy competition life. We did that whole circuit, but my teacher really presented it as, "Here's another chance to perform," rather than, once a year, having a recital or something. Luckily, I didn't have a stage mom or a teacher who was sticking safety pins into our costumes and bobby pins into our heads. We were kind of known as the weirdos in the competition circuit. [Laughs] A lot of my peers have a real ballet, conservatory background. Mine is something else: jazz.
What drew you to dance?
It was kind of just what I did and I was good at it. I liked it and I really liked the people involved. When I went to college, I wanted a place where I could also dance. My dad's a banker and my mom works in finance, so my parents are probably the most logical and practical people that I know; I'm pretty logical and practical too. I thought I would major in business and do something creative, like marketing or international business. But I also wanted to find a place that had a dance program, so I went to Washington University in St. Louis. It was a great balance. I was a business and French major and a dance minor, and I had a few teachers who were really great. One in particular opened up a whole new set of questions about dance for me, about perception and presence—things that were new to me at the time and totally intriguing. I started to see dance in a different way. I didn't come to New York because there was a choreographer I wanted to dance with, but I knew there was a whole other world of dance that I didn't know about. I moved here in 2002.
What was exciting to you at that point? Where did you study?
I was really curious about the whole ecology of the scene. Not just dancing; I was interning at Movement Research and pretty soon after I moved here I started doing administrative work, as well, for artists. I was curious, so it was cool to have my hand in a lot of things. I stage managed for Trajal Harrell in some early phases of Tickle the Sleeping Giant. But before I moved to New York, during the summer of 2002, I went to the American Dance Festival. John Jasperse had been commissioned to set a piece on the students, and I performed in that piece and Antonietta Vicario was his assistant, so that's how I met her. That piece was wildly new to me—it was a different way of making work that was much more conceptual. I had not been exposed to it.
How did you ease into performing?
I went on a few auditions. The first was for Neil Greenberg; I hadn't seen his work before but I'd heard about it and was really into it. I made it kind of far along in the audition process and then I was cut. I was like, God, this audition thing really kind of sucks. [Laughs] And Antonietta had made a couple of small things; for her first group work, she wanted to get together a group of women who she felt were strong dancers that were underexposed. I've been working with her since 2003 as a freelance dancer. There's some consistency; I've done a couple of projects with Beth Gill also, but Antonietta was my first contact in a lot of ways and she's been a pretty steady through-line to most other projects.
What did that lead to?
I was interning at Movement Research and someone was doing a project with Nancy Meehan, so I did a project with her. She's so sweet and incredible and she just keeps doing her thing every year. I did a project with Ellis Wood. And then Isabel Lewis, who I'd also met at ADF, asked me to make something for Body Blend at Dixon Place, which totally terrified me but I did it. I met Beth Gill there. She saw that performance and approached me about being in her work. It was a series of friends and performances and knowing people and knowing people's work. It was nice to feel a shift happen where I thought, Oh! I can make choices. This is as much about following what I'm interested in and whom I'm interested in working with and making specific choices about that. And finding something that works.
What works for you?
I think there could be multiple answers to that question. In Antonietta's work, there's a real interest in presence and in the performing body and that's interesting to me. As a dancer, there's a lot of meat there, and not in an ego kind of way, where it's about me and my performance, but in a way to tap into the subtlety and the tone that's present and available in this really particular theater-performance space. The space of performance and being watched where anything can happen is so peculiar. Work that attends to that is generally interesting to me. And form has become more and more interesting to me over time.
In what way?
It's not a definition of formalism. It sounds sort of antithetical to what I just said, but working from the outside in, a little bit. And allowing that to be the information instead of it necessarily having to come from the inside out, but allowing the form to inform you and give you a lot of information about what the thing is.
Did you come up with that on your own or is it from working with a choreographer?
Probably both. I'm thinking about it now because of this project with Yasuko Yokoshi. I'm learning Kabuki and I feel like a beginner all over again. I need to learn these Kabuki dances that come from a totally different tradition, that are mastered by people who spend years studying them. For me, I'm really learning from the outside in, and then trying to learn what the thing is; that's an influence. It's totally exciting to feel like a beginner all over again. The rigor and the possibility is great.
Why did you want to work with Yokoshi?
She approached me after Donna Uchizono's performance. She had curated a work that Beth made that I was in, and she had come into the rehearsal process a couple of times so I knew her peripherally, but we didn't really know each other. She said she was interested in working together.
How familiar were you with Kabuki?
Not at all. I had heard of it—and Noh and of Butoh—but honestly, in my mind, they kind of blurred together. That's terrible to say. The first three months, we really focused on learning a couple of these Kabuki repertoires. We're learning from Yasuko, as they get passed down to her from her master, her teacher in Japan. She's teaching us, and from what I understand, we're learning very differently than how she learned in Japan. There is a process of repetition and she'll break things down and we'll ask questions and we talk about things. So we're learning from her. We spent the first three months really focusing on that, and then we started working on some contemporary material more recently. Yasuko is also interested in us digging into our dance past and she wants to see our contemporary dancing bodies as well. In some ways, we've gone way back. There was one day where we were working on something and she was like, "Now think really virtuosic," and that was a tricky idea. Okay, what is virtuosic? Especially because my more recent dance training has been a process of stripping away a lot of things, and then she said, "Think way back. How about: think like jazz." [Laughs]
What did you do for her that day?
It may or may not make its way into the piece. There were some axel turns involved and some big kicks—when I think of jazz, I think of these big layouts, but I kind of think about them as moves. It's not really integrated into my body in the same way that it used to be. [Laughs]
Why was it exciting to want to start over again in terms of feeling like a beginner?
[Pauses] With every project and every dance it's a new experience, but this is just fundamentally different—even the way you use your weight. It's a little bit more of a method of training, and I feel it highlights how much possibility there is. This not only forces me to break habits, but to reimagine that there's a completely different way to use the body. I think the rigor of it is what's exciting too.
Could you teach someone what you do? How much is natural?
I don't know. Not that I'm comparing performing to yoga, but there are so many strategies that people use to achieve a different state of mind or state of being. In some ways, there are strategies, but I think that performing is really specific. And sometimes it's more built into the work than others. I feel like some choreographers direct more about performance presence. It could be taught. Could I teach someone what I do? I don't know.
What is your dream job?
It's hard to say at this point, because I feel like I'm kind of [Pauses]—I'll start by answering it indirectly. When I first came out of school, I thought, I'll dance for a couple of years and then it would be great if I could teach in a university. And now that's not appealing to me at all.
What did you think you would teach?
Dance. At the time, I think I could see that as a clear path. It was pragmatic. Now I feel a little more lost—but in a good way. I don't know if that necessarily means leaving dance or leaving performing. I've been doing administrative work and freelance dance projects for seven years, which isn't a ton of time. But I'm feeling the need for a shift, and I don't know if that means just in my job-job—if I'll make money other than just dancing—or rethinking about if I want to keep working with the body in a different way. Maybe it's not performing. I'm committed to Antonietta's project and Yasuko's project for the next year, year and a half, and now is this time of possibility to maybe allow a little more space to enter my life for something else to happen. But I don't know what that is yet. I'm getting married in July. So that's happening. [Laughs]
How many artists do you work for on the administrative side?
I work primarily for Barbara Bryan. So I work for John Jasperse, mostly, and do some bookkeeping work for Jennifer Monson and Sarah Michelson. That's pretty much it. For a while it was hairy; I was Miguel Gutierrez's company manager and then I danced in a project with him. Planning a benefit and going onstage to perform was just too much.
Well, you seem very calm.
I try to be. [Laughs] My dream job is TBD. It's a weird question to answer because dream job sounds like it needs some sort of punctuation mark or something and I don't dream of dancing in the Trisha Brown Dance Company or something like that. It's a big question mark.
How do you choose who you dance with?
Mostly it's based on the work. I feel like the situation with Antonietta is a little bit different. Not because of her work, but because of our history together. The people that I really admire in the field are people that I work with. It's about the work and then a curiosity about the working process, and it's always interesting to see how differently each choreographer and director is. I have a curiosity about how did this person get to this place?
What has fit your personality the best? What suits you?
I feel like their work is very different, but Antonietta and Beth have a real clear way of directing and such a level of trust. With Yasuko, I feel like we have the luxury of time—it's going to be a fairly long process and it's going to go through several different incarnations so I feel really glad to be involved in that at this point—to both be learning this really new thing but also for her to be interested in our physical history. It feels really appropriate.
How did you start working with Harrell?
He said that he wanted to involve some younger dancers in his work; it was a really interesting process. In Before Intermission, I feel like Trajal had a really clear idea of what he wanted. My role was so specific. I studied gymnast balance-beam material and he made some movement based on that. We each had our mission inside of this larger picture instead of, like, a "sit around and let's all talk about where this piece is going" kind of thing. It's funny, these little blips in history where projects happen. It's such a onetime experience, but it leaves such a history in your body and in your life. It's a weird cycle to be a freelance dancer. You pick up and leave and pick up and leave.
How do you cope with that? It's risky because when you choose a project, you want it to be worthwhile. Aren't you betting on yourself?
Yeah. I think it's just that. I think it's a risk every time. There have been projects where I have started and realized, This isn't a fit for me. And what do I do with that? I had a choice; I could have quit, but I didn't, and I did have to cope with it. I had to step outside of myself, which is hard for me to do. In retrospect, I'm always glad I did it, but it is a challenge.
What kind of work do you like the most?
It's hard to not sound fluffy about it.
You're not very fluffy.
No, I know I'm not very fluffy. [Laughs] I'm trying to think of a concrete way to explain this. There's not one person who comes to mind, but the kind of work that I really like is something that moves me. The best way I can explain it is something I touched on earlier: The performance gives it its life. Not that a work isn't based on some other conceptual idea or that there aren't themes, but work where I—on a performance level—can feel the tone of the piece and the tone of the bodies. I don't need to follow a narrative and I don't even need to know conceptually what it is. I felt really satisfied by Dean Moss and Yoon Jin Kim's piece [Kisaeng becomes you] for that reason. Not only structurally was I with it, but the performers allowed me to be there in it, too. I felt like they were engaged; I didn't feel distracted by them. They allowed me to really see the piece.
What else drives you to choose projects?
I feel it's about being curious about the process of the work because that's where you spend most of your time. We're putting [Donna Uchizono's] Thin Air back together to tour the Walker at the beginning of April. You spend a year on something to make a dance that's performed, like, four times. In this process, we're rehearsing for about a month; it's really different than being involved in this whole long process.
It's a very technical piece.
Yeah, thanks Hristoula [Harakas]. She's the real technician in that, and she's beautiful. We're all such different personalities—Hristoula, Antonio Ramos and me. And Donna. The four of us are so different. I think it made for an interesting working environment. Hristoula keeps everyone in check. [Snaps fingers] The discipline of dancers is impressive. There are dancers who have the discipline to tend to this form and to help nurture this practice—not only their personal practice, but for the whole field. That's what's so inspiring about a lot of the people I've worked with: They're not dancing or making work in a little bubble. They're not necessarily making political work, like, "Fuck Bush," but they're making political statements about the way that they're living or working. That's inspiring.
What was your childhood like?
I pretty much grew up as an only child. I have a half brother. And he lived with us for a couple of years when I was growing up—he's in Georgia now. Both my parents worked. It's funny; Scott and I didn't grow up together for a long period of time in the same household, so I didn't have this experience, but it's interesting for my fianc to get to know my family and to get a different perspective on my life that maybe people get with siblings. He would say that my parents adore me. And they've always been super supportive. Sometimes I've been like, "Tell me that what I'm doing is really weird and crazy, like why am going to go to New York to dance?" And they're like, "No, we trust you. Land on your feet. Do your thing!" [Laughs] I've always made my own decisions.
Do they see you perform?
Yes. My mom comes up pretty frequently. She saw Donna's piece. My dad came a couple of times when he first moved here. He's totally supportive, but he's not really interested in dance. He wishes I would dance to music. That's what he tells me. They're totally supportive and they get that I don't want to dance on Broadway, but what I'm doing is still sort of vague to them. When I started the project with Donna, the fact that she had worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov in a previous piece was something my mom could really latch onto: "Don't you remember when we went to see him?" So that was kind of landmark for her.
How do you get ready for a show?
It depends. This is weird because I'm not a runner and I don't know where this came from, but recently I have started running. Sometimes I like to run for a few minutes and then sit in the sauna. That's the treat. Just as a way to have a burst of energy or a different physical experience and then a slow warm-up on my own to release. Running isn't necessarily the best warm-up for dancing, but there's something about having a physical burst, sweating and the process of stripping that away and relaxing and focusing.
After a show, do you hide in a dressing room or come out immediately?
[Laughs] After shows it's weird, whether I'm performing or attending. I feel like, as an audience member, I tend to split. If I know someone's going to be there, I'll look for that person. There's that weird self-conscious thing of "I just performed," but also the strange transition from being in the space of performing and then, "Let's go have a beer." I don't hide in the dressing room, but I tentatively make my way back. Not that it's this whole otherworldly thing, but it's strange. I always feel like, ideally, it's not: that you're performing and that it's just as matter-of-fact as a conversation, but it's not.
How do you see yourself as a dancer?
Young. Not necessarily green, but like the more I perform or dance, the more there is to know. It's exciting, but I still feel young.
What is your part in Antonietta's piece?
The piece is called Our Togetherness, and there are only four of us, but there's a definite sense of harnessing this collective energy. There have been times when we've said, "Wouldn't it be incredible if there were 100 of us on stage right now instead of just four of us?" But I think the fact that there aren't makes it interesting, too. It feels like we're finding something outside of ourselves in the group. Our roles in the piece are similar in that way. Antonietta's not trying to make us all uniform; I think there are times in the piece when each individual can be seen, but what we're really trying to generate is something that's beyond ourselves.
Is there a type of work you avoid being in?
I'm sure that there is. There hasn't been an example of something where someone's approached me and said, "Do you want to be in this piece?" and I felt like, "Uhhh. That's the kind of work that I don't want to do." But I also feel like there are people that I make myself available to that I'm interested in working with. It's hard to define a kind of work. I don't consider myself an bertechnical dancer, but I like dancing. I'm also drawn to work that isn't "dancey" for a lot of reasons, but I also do find it to be a bold choice when people aren't afraid to work with dance and phrase material, and in a lot of ways I feel that's a strong voice. It's funny because for a long time, too, I identified myself strongly as an administrator, and so to have the conversation about dance—and I do see dance as my career—it's interesting. I realized at a point, I don't have to be an administrator or a dancer. There are a lot of people working in the field in a lot of different ways. I think it was my own personal hang-up as identifying myself.
Have you thought of quitting?
Yeah, kind of after every project. Or even at the beginning of every project—not because I don't want to do it, but like we were talking about the cycle of being a freelancer, it's like, God, here we go again. It's really intense to start from scratch in a lot of ways and for this whole cycle to repeat itself. So the answer is yes and no, all the time.
Julie Alexander performs with Antonietta Vicario at Danspace Project Thu 12--Sat 14.