Hot child in the city

Shila Tirabassi heats up the Stephen Petronio Company.

FLOWER GIRL Tirabassi plants herself in Bloom.

FLOWER GIRL Tirabassi plants herself in Bloom. Photograph: Sarah Silver

It’s not that surprising that Shila Tirabassi is a Floridian. The dancer, now in her seventh year as a member of the Stephen Petronio Company, is a bit exotic and sultry; she moves with a silken grace, as if gliding through tropical air. Tirabassi, who seems taller onstage than in life (she’s just 5'7", but her long limbs lend a bewitching expansiveness), appears with the company in its latest season. While there have been any number of fine Petronio dancers over the company’s 20-plus-year history, Tirabassi—a Juilliard graduate who also serves as the choreographer’s rehearsal assistant—is cut from the same mold as Petronio himself. She’s a ribbon. The dancer spoke about her career after a recent rehearsal in Manhattan.

[Editor’s note: Extended web interview]

Was dance your idea?
I was one of those who started dancing when I was two. Old enough to walk. I started in an after-school program so my mother could be at work longer. I was doing creative movement at the Montessori school.

Where are you from exactly?
I was born in St. Petersburg, but we moved to Miami for two years and then back to St. Petersburg, where I continued dancing. I didn’t do the whole jazz-tap thing. I went to the local ballet studio where I learned ballet and Russian character. We performed Russian character shows and our teacher dressed us up like little Russian dolls. We performed at international fairs. When I got a little older—I guess middle school—we did a couple of tours of children’s shows in schools, so I guess that was my first taste of performing and touring, even though we were in St. Petersburg. It set up my professional discipline. Then, I went to the performing-arts high school in St. Petersburg.

Who wanted you to become a dancer? Was it something your mother wanted you to do?
When I talk to my mother about it, she says it was me. I really don’t remember that, but I feel like it must have been because my parents never pushed me. It was just something that I always did. I went to summer programs. And it continued all the way until Juilliard; when I got into Juilliard I realized how serious dance was.

Were you on a ballet track?
I was until my first modern class. Then I threw the shoes away. I had modern dance at my performing-arts high school, but it was a little bit generic so I didn’t click with it. My first real modern dance class was traditional Graham technique. It was during a summer program at the school of the Hartford Ballet, and Peggy Lyman was my teacher. She totally inspired me; she made a piece and I clicked with it. I had never danced like that before; it felt very natural, so that’s when I knew I wanted to do modern dance.

How much did you know about Lyman, a Graham dancer from the ’70s and ’80s?
I knew nothing. I liked her and the stuff that she threw out at me was the most interesting. At that summer program, we did major ballet, Broadway jazz-type dancing and Graham. I remember the audition for her piece. She had created a solo for herself, and for the summer program she made it into a group piece. She definitely put her heart into that choreography: It came from a true place. That’s why I really clicked with it.

Was it your ambition to go to Juilliard?
I didn’t really know much about it. I knew there was weight behind the name, but I didn’t get it. But during my junior year of high school, my teacher encouraged me to audition so that Benjamin Harkarvy, who was the director at the time, could see me. He came into our town to do the audition because it was held at one of the performing-arts high schools; quite a few of the dancers from my town ended up at Juilliard. The following year, he remembered me and accepted me right away.

How did you like Juilliard?
It was the best experience of my life. I loved it.

I’ve heard so many different views.
I know. Actually, I’ve seen different things. I’ve seen the way people respond. I think you have to have a certain personality; it’s pretty rigid, traditional training and I responded well to that. I felt taken care of, I felt like all I had to do was listen to these people—and I trusted that. But those who want to be more creative or maybe rebel against that system had a hard time. And also, because there’s a hierarchy, if you—unfortunately—fell on the side [of dancers who weren’t] focused on, it wasn’t a fun experience. I was lucky. I had a good rapport with Ben.

Did Juilliard offer advice about your future?
I had a job before I graduated. I went to a Ballet Hispanico audition. I didn’t have to ask Juilliard for guidance until after Ballet Hispanico. [Laughs]

Oh no. What happened?
I had a really tough time. I think [Ballet Hispanico’s artistic director] Tina Ramirez… [Pauses] When you’re on top, and you’re pretty intertwined with your own ego, and if there’s someone out there that has any bit of weakness that you can pounce on and make yourself feel stronger? I was one of those people for her. I felt really sad for most of that year. It was only a year!

Certainly, one year can feel like ten.
And there were other issues. It was the first time that someone had talked to me about my body. That had never happened. I always heard stories about people saying, “You have to lose weight” and all of that, but it never happened to me until then.

Ramirez told you that you had to lose weight?
Yeah. It was not a good experience. She wanted everyone to conform to this really balletic look. I didn’t have enough of that for her. At the end of that year, the company invited me back, and I was kind of shocked. I felt like they appreciated my dancing, but Tina was on my case about my body, really, the whole time. She was the first director or teacher that I ever had who gave me a complex about my body. So it was pretty traumatic, and it still stands out as something that had a deep impact; it’s a sensitive issue and the fact that I never really dealt with it as a student dancer? It hit me pretty hard. It was too much for me to deal with.

Is that why you left?
I was basically in a situation where I didn’t feel I could ever be good enough for her standards, in her eyes. She would lash out often. It wasn’t healthy, and I remember at one point in the middle of the season, I was waking up every day dreading going to rehearsal and I just knew: This isn’t how life should be. I basically made that decision early in the company’s season that I wouldn’t last much longer. That’s when I went back to Juilliard and had a meeting with Benjamin Harkarvy, who advised me to talk to Christine Dakin [of the Martha Graham Dance Company]. I called her up, and she offered me a job. It was amazing, and it was also very scary. I hadn’t done Graham work in over a year, so I was ready to go back into class and to get the technique back in my system.

The Graham company folded shortly after. How long was that process of when you got the job and then found out you couldn’t perform?
That was a very fast, short process. It was only a month or two. I was like, I guess that’s not going to happen. For the first two weeks, I was at meetings with the Graham company, but it felt odd. The others had been working together for so long; they were fighting for something that they believed in. Since I hadn’t really performed or been in rehearsals with them, I didn’t feel that fighting for this was beneficial for me and my time.

Were you upset at Christine Dakin for hiring you when she knew so much other stuff was going on?
No, not really. I feel like she was rooting for the company to pull through and was highly disappointed during this period. I just felt she was a positive, optimistic person and she believed in nothing more than the dance and work of Martha Graham. So I slipped out and went to Cunningham. Banu Ogan was leaving and they held a humongous audition. I never had Cunningham technique. It wasn’t taught at Juilliard at the time. They do now and actually Banu teaches! But the audition process was a week; at the end, there were three girls. We were there, every day, working with Merce. It was kind of scary.

You were one of the three girls?
Yeah. It was actually down to the last two: Paige Cunningham and me, and she got the job. Paige went to Juilliard and was a dear friend of mine, so it was bittersweet. I was really so thrilled for her. But that was the one point where I was like, Great. I really don’t have a job now. They invited me to stay in the Repertory Understudy Group. At least it was a paycheck, and it was getting the opportunity to work with Merce, which I’ve always valued as something extremely precious.

What pieces did you work on?
Way Station. The piece that we performed for the outreach program was Septet, and that was incredible to work on because it was so old; we worked closely with Viola Farber. And we also did Native Green, which seemed more lyrical, less choppy, more organic—it was cool because it was the task of the second company to bring that piece back. We knew little details because we worked with Robert Swinston very closely. It was incredible. I loved that experience.

Do you remember specifics about working with Viola?
Just that you could sense the history. She worked so closely with Merce. That’s what’s special about working with experienced dancers across the board—with dancers that worked closely with Martha Graham and Merce and Paul Taylor. You get a taste of the history—where it came from, where it all originated. It’s like the beginning, when all the flavors were marinating in the stew.

You were in the RUG group for one year. Why were you drawn to Petronio’s work after that?
I saw the company perform for the first time at the Joyce. They were doing Strange Attractors, and I was really impressed and excited. Stephen, I noticed early on, sees things in a unique way. He sees energy. He sees the space around the dancer. When a dancer moves, he doesn’t see the limb or the body part; it’s almost as if he sees a trail of light that pushes through the space beyond the body. We’re not a company that creates shapes with our bodies—it’s more like we’re constantly in motion, so if that gives off the right line of energy, it’s correct.

When did you realize that?
[Laughs] Very early on. When I was being taught phrases after I first joined the company, I noticed how everyone did them slightly differently. I thought that was really cool, and I kind of took it as, Okay, this is how the company works. There is one section in Strange Attractors that has a very difficult balance on one leg. It’s challenging, and it was on my bad leg. So I thought, I’ll just do it on the other leg, and he’ll never know because everyone does things differently here! Little did I know that it was the biggest mistake that I ever could have made, because it is the energy of the correct leg that sweeps around and makes all the dancers exit. Stephen was furious. He came backstage—it was my first show— and said, “Why did you do that on the other leg?” And I said, “Oh, I can balance so much better on this leg—it’s better.” He said, “That leg sweeps across stage and everyone exits from that leg!” I had no idea that it was that important. That was a defining moment. I was like, Okay, now I know how you see things. You couldn’t care less if I’m balancing.

As his rehearsal assistant, what does Petronio hate to see?
I’ll tell you what he loves to see: everyone’s own interpretation. Stephen is not classically trained. He started late, in college. We create movement a lot of time with something he calls “readings,” in which he’ll do a few seconds of movement, and we just have to copy it, however we see it. And if we ask to see it again, he says, “Nope!” We just have to give it. He doesn’t want us to do exactly what he did—he wants to see the mistakes. He gets a lot of information from our mistakes and he loves our mistakes, but when we codify what it is, he’ll take one person’s version and say, “Okay, everybody learn it Amanda’s way.“

How do you keep it straight?
When we go through that process, I take very special note of what he said he liked. And then when, say, a year later, we’re performing the piece and we look nothing alike doing that step, I have to go back and remember: What was it about Amanda’s way? So that we can at least have the same fields of energy moving around each of us, even if it’s not exactly the same movement. A lot of it has to do with initiation, like, “It was the fingertips moving to this diagonal that caused your leg to do that.” So if you can go back to what initiated the movement, then usually we come to an agreement. When he’s gazing at us, looking very intently, I’m trying to understand what he’s seeing, and then he’ll give me notes to write down. Slowly, I’ve started to see these notes even before he tells me. I’m just starting to put the lenses of Stephen Petronio’s eyes—like a pair of glasses—over mine. But it’s a very fine line of keeping the integrity of that initial step and allowing the dancer to be totally unique, which is what he loves. A lot of times, a choreographer will have a story or a direction that is very clear, but Stephen is exploring his as we go along. But I also think that on a subconscious level he has an understanding of exactly where he wants it to go. I always feel like he has a larger picture in his head, and somehow he’s moving toward something that he doesn’t know exists. I don’t feel there’s a lot of work out there in which the movement is actually that unique. And he doesn’t always pick the “best” dancer. Sometimes he picks an awkward dancer. He said something in an interview once that always stuck with me: “Most people like to see the ripe apple. I like to see the apple as it rots.”

What would you change about his work?
I would maybe take his phrases that are so intricate and simply slow them down. Sometimes his work is so fast that, as a dancer, you don’t get to fully experience all the edges of space. I feel that the audience might miss it, too. And a lot of times when he does create an adagio quality, the work is very stationary. The feet are kind of like in a block of cement, and it’s the upper body that’s moving, It would be interesting to see what would happen if he varied the tempo to a slower speed. I think that would be awesome.

Have you ever considered quitting dance? Perhaps after your experience with Ballet Hispanico?
No. But I did almost give up about three years ago. I even gave Stephen notice. [Laughs] It was pretty traumatic for both of us, but I guess it had to happen. Stephen and I crossed a hurdle that opened our relationship.

What were you working on then?
It was four or five years into the company, and I was really feeling the burden of being a struggling artist. The whole financial thing. My friends were leaving the company, and I kind of saw that as an opportunity for change in my own life. I realized, It’s not a change in my surroundings that I need, but maybe it’s my attitude. It was a life lesson. I thought I would really enjoy being a senior member and all that; and now I realize that it’s not that important. I mean what’s really nice about being a senior member in a company is that you understand the work. That’s all. It’s not like an egotistical thing of being on top. I understand what Stephen wants when he can’t articulate it. The older members can do that. So I thought I wanted a change, but I really didn’t.

What happened after you gave your notice?
He said, “No! I have plans for you.” This was right before The Rite Part. He said, “I’m bringing back the Rite of Spring, and I’m bringing it back for you.” And he talked to me about his experience of seeing so many dancers come in and out of his company. He knew. He said, “You’re not ready yet.” And I listened to him.

Did you believe him?
Yeah, yeah. Because we were able to see eye to eye. We got on the same level in terms of communication. It wasn’t like he was somewhere way far away and untouchable. We were able to really meet each other. But also to add to part of my frustration is just being in New York. It’s kind of tough and I still fantasize about ending up in the tropics.

Do you ever feel trapped?
No. In fact I feel like I have a lot of freedom and that’s one of the assets. That’s what I keep thinking about whenever I do feel a little down. A hidden gift in having a part-time schedule is that I was able become a yoga teacher. My best friend is in Mark Morris, and she pointed out to me: “At least you have the skill now. When you’re done, you’re going to be able to do this. I’ll have to start from scratch.” Because they rehearse all day long. So there’s always a little gift in what could seem a bad situation. The little blessing in disguise is that I do have the time; every now and then we have a month or two off. And I’m able to do continuing education, like take an anatomy class. Right now I’m working on my Pilates certification. So I don’t feel trapped in that way.

Do you think about when you’ll stop dancing?
It’s interesting because this year I’m 30. People say it and it’s true—when you hit 30, your body starts to creep a little more. It’s starting to happen. I never felt my body as a hindrance. I use to work to gain abilities, and now I feel there are certain things that I might not ever do the same way in terms of flexibility and spunk. [Laughs] Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I’ve been in the company for seven years, and I think the average number of years that dancers dedicate to Stephen’s work is somewhere around eight to ten. But it will be hard. Because when I leave this company I feel like I’ll be leaving everything that I always worked for.

What do you want to change about the dance world?
The dance world needs recognition and funding. In every other art form, there is at least the potential for money and for people to be successful and make it on every level: fame or fortune. With dance, there isn’t any potential. It just doesn’t exist, but it’s not just about the money. It’s not available here. People don’t think about going to see dance. It’s not out there. Only dancers go to see dance. That’s the audience. It’s kind of sad. I’m sure you know. You meet someone new, and they ask you what you do. You say, “I’m a modern dancer.” “What is that?” “Have you ever heard of Alvin Ailey?” “No.” “Martha Graham?” “No. Is it like MTV?” So I always describe it like, “In visual art, you have your classical paintings and then you have your modern paintings—it’s all abstract, it’s a dab of paint and you don’t know what it is but it’s still art. That’s what we’re doing with modern dance. It could be anything. It’s more open.” But people have no idea that it even exists.

Has yoga changed your dancing?
I think it’s just affected my existence. Dance falls under that. Just having the opportunity to practice yoga and to get centered— it’s a moving meditation. There’s no story line behind the poses. It’s just pure. But as far as my technique is concerned it’s hard to say, because as I introduced more yoga, I was also trying to get rid of technique. I don’t mean get rid of it; I mean get rid of the rigid thing that maybe you see in some of us. I want to be able to hold a line or be on my center but not muscle it. So in a way, I think it has helped my technique because I’m able to feel my center more. [Laughs] It’s helped my sanity.

Stephen Petronio Company performs at the Joyce Theater Apr 1–Apr 6, 2008.