The ballerina turns curator in "Emerging Creatives Collide."
Mon Aug 22 2011
Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson
When the William Bennett Gallery decided to branch out by initiating a contemporary-art series, it needed curators, and John Henninger, assistant director, reached out to an unlikely source: a ballerina known as much for her active Twitter account as for her astounding virtuosity. In "Emerging Creatives Collide," which opens on Monday 29, New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder steps into a new role. As curator, Bouder has elected to highlight the work of four contemporary artists—Chrissy Angliker, David Foox, Asher Jay and Rachael Senchoway. Bouder took a break from the studio to speak about the experience.
Did the gallery contact you through Twitter?
Yeah. John Henninger messaged me on Twitter—actually, I don't even think he messaged me. I think he just put a little "@ashleybouder" and wrote: "How would you feel about curating a show?" It startled me because I was like, I don't even know what that means. I've never done this. I've been to this gallery before on my own; I love Chagall, and they have a great collection here often. He said that they wanted to do a show with new artists and didn't want to go through the politics of other galleries; they wanted somebody in the art world, but who wasn't embroiled in the visual-art world. So they asked if I would be willing to do a show, and if I knew any artists and, I guess, if I was brave enough to try it. I said, "I'd love to." I already had some artist friends I trusted and could rely on to ask questions and to get things going from here.
Did you know any of the artists before?
I knew David Foox. I have several pieces of his. I participated in a body-painting project that he did a year or two ago. He used to date somebody in ABT, and I became friends with him. He has series of little paintings, and he always asks me, "What number do you want?" He sells them or gives them to me. He's always doing different things. He makes little plastic figurines. He just had a show at Patrick McMullan at the Sanctuary Hotel. So I knew him and trusted his opinion. That's where I got the suggestion for Asher Jay. She's really interesting: She's half Indian and half British and has this cute little accent. She was in fashion, and the way she would sketch or put things together led people to say, "You really have a knack for this. Maybe you should try painting." She did and she's amazing at it. Now she does both.
What about Chrissy Angliker?
Chrissy is a suggestion from my gay best friend. [Laughs] I went to her website, and I thought her things were so creepy. I really wanted to look at them up close so I called her and said, "Would you please do my show? I really want to see your paintings." [Laughs] She was the first one on board. She said, "How many do you want? Ten? Great. Here's ten." And Rachael Senchoway is a friend of John Henninger. I had another artist, but he dropped out. He couldn't really get it together in time for the show so John recommended Rachael. I took a look and liked it.
In terms of Angliker's work, which incorporates a dripping technique, you used the word creepy. What do you mean?
Oh my gosh. Her portraits—it's a person, but it's disfigured and melting. You look at it and go, Oof. And then you wonder how she did it and what it looked like to begin with and what the real scene was, and I think you can kind of get lost in your mind when you look at the paintings. It gives me a little chill when I look at the portraits. They look like serial killers. [Laughs]
Yeah. Something's not right. It is really intriguing.
What are you drawn to about Asher?
Well, her personality is magnetic. She's so open and she's a very colorful person even though she doesn't wear a lot of colors. And her artwork is very colorful, but she always has something in mind when she does it. I can tell what she wanted to say. Obviously, she writes things with a specific motivation in mind but it's not like starting something and having it turn into something. I really like that her stuff is very bold—this is how it is, and like it or not it's there. There's not a lot of art that makes such bold statements and is so obvious: You don't have to look for the meaning. It's really straightforward and it's very cool to look at, too. The way she puts things together—and makes a zebra morph into some zigzag pattern—is amazing, and she puts them together while making a statement and having a clear idea of what she wants you to see.
What about Foox?
He's got hair out to here [Gestures to her temples]. He's South African. He's a huge personality. He's very little. He's like a little troll, but I say that in a good way. His stuff—he always makes a statement too. He did a show with Patrick McMullan called "The Year of the Rabbit." You see his stickers on the subway. He does a lot of screen-printing and T-shirts. He's into all sorts of mediums with his art. He crosses a ton of genres. The things that he's doing for the show are human bodies with animal heads—he's really into zodiac signs, so these are animal/human/warrior/zodiac things. [Smiles] I think. That's what his idea was, but I don't know how they're going to turn out. His paintings are so detailed and specific; he paints fast. He turns out a lot of work, but there are all of these teeny, minute details. It almost looks like a drawing but it's a painting; the strokes are that thin sometimes. He makes these little dollar bills, but the background shows different things: He likes to put a lot of AK-47s and to make statements in that way. It's like the rabbit with a military jacket holding an AK-47. He has five million ideas at once, and he somehow does them all. Every time I talk to him, he's churned out another 20 paintings. He works so incredibly fast, but whenever I see him we hang out at Soho House and drink five glasses of wine and do nothing all day. I'm like, "When do you work?" He's one of those people who gets it done.
Have these artists shown their work a lot in general?
Most of the artists haven't shown in New York except for David. The Patrick McMullan thing was a huge deal for him. But most of them haven't had big things. I'm excited to give opportunities, but I also really like the stuff.
Do you go to many galleries yourself?
I wander a lot. My boyfriend and I are walkers, and we used to live in Chelsea. It was so easy. We used to zigzag through the galleries. I haven't been gallery hopping for a while actually. I moved in January, and gallery hopping in the winter isn't that great.
Have you thought about doing something like this again?
Yes. I would love to do it next year, too. It's cool and nice to do something that's outside of the dance world. It's put me in touch with a community of people that I wasn't really in before and exposed me to different things. I've had a lot of conversations that I haven't really had with artists until now. It's helped me to get inspiration in a new place and to think about how I approach my artwork in a different way and about the statements I want to make. The thought process that goes into a painting is much more specific and has to be more concrete. I think ballet is much more loose [in terms of having] intent behind it. You can get away with a lot more not knowing what your intent is and not having a concrete idea, and it's just made me think about that. And what I would like to say with my art form if I can. That's part of the reason I shy away from choreography: I don't really have a concrete statement to make. So this experience has made me think in a different way—just being in this world and talking to these artists who are young and who are doing really fascinating things and really saying something. Putting it out there. That's something that I don't necessarily think that I could do.
Sometimes when I say something through my dance, it's not always what I intended to say, or sometimes it comes across in a different way. Sometimes I say something without realizing and it's a good thing, and sometimes it's not a good thing. It's more the intent behind it that I've been thinking about a lot.
Has this experience changed your dancing?
I don't know. It's changed how I approach a role. It's changed my thought process a little bit in not letting things slide and asking myself: What is it that you want to do right here? Instead of being like, Oh, well, it's fine. It's good enough. Or, I don't really know, but I can do the step really well. That's not the point anymore. Once you get to a certain level, it's not how well you do the steps, it's about something else, and I'm trying to figure out what it is that I actually want to say and asking myself those questions instead of kind of floating along.
You've been a member of NYCB since 2000. How do you challenge yourself?
I think it's always about building on what I've done before. So I look at things that I've done or how I think a certain piece should be performed. How I feel in it, the mood—I'm reexamining and figuring out that now. I'm older, maybe I don't need to say this. Maybe I need to say something else. Or maybe it's that I actually don't feel that way anymore: I don't want the emphasis to be on this part of it—I want it to be on that part of it. Sometimes it's focusing on little in-between moments and completely throwing away all of the things that used to be so big for me. So if I don't make that triple pirouette, I don't really care. But I did this amazing pas de bourre over here, and I felt something while I did it and that means way more to me than that big jump. I'm liking going back and doing older things in a completely different way and having people go, "Well, that was different." I'm like, "Yeah I know! See? You didn't think I could do it differently."
I sort of want to apply it to something new that's similar to something that I've done before. I haven't danced Concerto Barocco, but it's similar to Square Dance physically. I'd like to try that approach on something that I haven't done before to see if I could get a different reaction out of people. To see if I can feel a difference in maturity level and in how people accept the changes and not [doing] what is expected of me.
So that you're not put into a box?
Yeah. I feel like I have been put into a box. And I've had ballet masters say maybe they need to look at me in a different way and take off the blinders, and I'm like, "Yes, you do, because I can't keep doing the same thing." So maybe branching out to different aspects of the art world will help me with that.
You mentioned conversations that you've had with people in the art world and how they were so different than in the ballet world. In what way? And how has that affected you?
When you talk about dance with people in the dance world, a lot of times it comes down to technical things. It's very easy to talk technique because ballet is such a hard art form and everyone is shooting for perfection. It's easier to talk about that than artistry. When I talk to a painter, they're not talking about the technique of painting. I've never really heard anyone talk about that—maybe it's because I'm not a painter—but they talk about their intent and their purpose and how cool this is going to be or "I want it to be scary." You don't really have conversations like that in the dance world. Everybody talks about wanting to be a great artist in the dance world, but they don't talk about how. They talk about how they want to feel something, but they don't really talk about what they want to feel or what they want the audience to feel. Maybe that's because these roles have been done over and over again. When Wendy Whelan does the second movement of Symphony in C, I feel so calm. It's like one smooth line. I once heard her talking to Craig Hall about After the Rain: How it can't be interrupted and that she needs it to be smooth and calm. There can't be any stumbles. She's very picky about that, and I think it's because she wants people to feel calm and that she wants to soothe you—and you really do feel that when she does second movement Symphony in C, After the Rain. Even Liturgy: There are passages when you feel kind of panicked, but she looks panicked and maybe that's how she wants you to feel. I think Wendy is somebody that would be interesting to have a conversation with about that because she looks as though she really wants you to feel a certain way and you do. When you talk to artists, they can talk about those things and what they want you to feel with your art, but most dancers can't. Wendy is the only one that I've heard say things like that. Not in a mean way; she was like, "No, no, no, it has to be this way. This is what we have to do." I was just walking by a rehearsal and heard that and thought, Wow. I've never said that to somebody; I've never thought about that.
Because it's like, whatever happens, happens. And that's drilled into you too, right?
Yeah. Especially at City Ballet because things get thrown together and you're like, "Let's just do the partnering right. Don't drop me. I won't kick you. We're all good." I guess with somebody like Wendy who's danced these parts so often it's really not worth it for her if she can't have that. I think we hold ourselves to a standard that's not that high. Maybe we should. And maybe you won't make it...
But you should aim that high?
So this is recent, this change of heart?
It really is. To think about all these things has been in the past few months.
Have you tested it out on the road?
It's hard to test it out on gigs because it's about the wow factor a lot and it's Stars and Stripes! I'm hoping that I get some things in the fall that I can test out. I'm hoping that my rep is going to turn over a little bit and that I can start to do some things that can put me toward that goal. It's hard with 12 principal women. Favorites are out there all the time. I sort of feel like old news.
Yeah. But it happens to everybody. I don't feel shafted. I just feel like my turn is up. Maybe it'll come again or I just need to keep reminding them that I'm here.
Over the years Wendy's turn has been up—a couple of times. You have to remember that.
I know. My boyfriend says she's a living legend and she is. She has done all of that on her own. There were times when she was barely onstage too and then there are times—now she's doing everything! My boyfriend was in the Royal Ballet and now he works with Twyla Tharp.
Yeah. He just says that Wendy's a legend. She's still dancing. People go to see her. Maybe her arabesque is 45 degrees, but I don't care. You go to see her because she's Wendy Whelan. There's no other reason, and she is whatever she does. I want to be like that.
You will be if you want to be. I've been watching you for a long time. You have all the authority you need, you just may need to make more subtle choices.
It's hard not to go for the wow factor anymore. It's hard to let it go, and every once in a while in a performance I'm just like, I need to feel good. I need to bust out some pirouettes. It's hard for me to calm down. Every time I step onstage, I have this huge amount of energy. I have to suck it back. I'm not one of those people who has to rev myself up. I could be dead asleep before I go onstage. I did Stars and Stripes in Saratoga and I literally didn't talk to anybody for two hours before I went onstage. People were like, "Are you okay?" "Conserving energy." I was so tired. It was unbelievable. I could barely put on my pointe shoes. It was standing in the wings and [partner] Andy [Veyette] was looking at me like, "Oh...I don't know." And after the show, Sally Leland was like, "That's the best Stars and Stripes you've ever done!" Peter [Martins] was like, "That was great!" Really? Razzle-dazzle. I was literally yawning on the side of the stage with my eyelashes falling off.
What do you want to dance?
I want to do Barocco, I want to do La Valse, I want to do Sonnambula, I want to do Liebeslieder Walzer. I want to do the pink girl in Dances at a Gathering. I want to do Opus 19/The Dreamer. In the Night. So many things. I do so many Balanchine ballets. That's all I did in the spring. I did nothing but Balanchine, but there are all these ones that I want to do. Duo Concertant. Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
It's so satisfying. I love that ballet.
Peter's like, "You really want to do that?" I'm like, "What makes you think I don't want to do that? You never put me in a leotard. Never." Unless it has a little skirt on it, I can't think of one leotard ballet I do right now. I did Choleric in Four Ts [The Four Temperaments] in D.C. because of an injury, but I didn't get to do it in the spring season. He told me, "I've never seen somebody so little do something so big." Choleric, she's on fire! That's what it means: She's angry. Bursts of energy. [Smiles] That was really cool.