From Sole to Soul: A Choreographer's Journey, Part 1

By Ryan P. Casey

When I made the great transition from suburban Massachusetts to Manhattan in the fall of 2009 to begin my studies at New York University, I was thrilled to learn that my Fifth Avenue residence hall, unlike the others, had its own dance studio. While some of my peers were out drinking and carousing, I envisioned myself spending late nights sweating it out in the studio, the thrill of new rhythms and musical explorations a more practical and useful endeavor than beer pong. I was rather disappointed to discover that the studio was no bigger than my own room, with a slippery tile floor, crooked ballet bar, and no sound system. And it was typically invaded by study groups or student theatre companies. While I did fulfill my dream of late-night choreography sessions, shuffling in my sneakers to avoid a wipeout, I knew I needed a better space in which to practice.

I soon decided to cash in on some of the hours of studio time I had accrued from my part-time position at the American Tap Dance Center. I penciled myself into the schedule for two hours and showed up on a Friday afternoon with the full use of a brand new studio at my fingertips – or toes, really – complete with sound system and sprung wood floor.

But after half an hour, I was bored. Finally, I had the perfect practice space, space I had earned, and I was uninspired to use it. I found myself putting on different songs and growing thoroughly disappointed with my improvisation. I would experiment with choreography I had planned in my head or in my sneakers and find that it didn’t fit the music or was not interesting at all. I ended up letting my iPod play while I walked around in frustration, trying to let myself be inspired by something, anything. What was wrong with me?

Five years ago, in high school, when I had set out to choreograph my first solo, I hadn’t encountered any mental barricades like this. My teacher, Thelma Goldberg, and I had selected a song together, and agreed that I would work alone in the studio every day for a week and then show her what I had created. It was a slow process, I remember, and not just because I spent a lot of time raiding the studio cabinets, trying to find something to eat (all I could find were strawberry NutriGrain bars, though I could hardly complain). But at the end of the week, I had a pretty good rough draft of my routine, which turned out to a big hit at Tap City that year. Okay, so there are no granola bars in the ATDC studios. But that could hardly explain my lack of motivation.

Part of it, I know, was related to a revelation I had had in Barbara Duffy’s improvisation class earlier that year: I am a very self-conscious tap dancer. No doubt this characteristic is a result not only of my generally anal ways, but of my continuing quest, sparked by Thelma, to be the best dancer that I can be. I had earned a reputation for being a very clean, clear tap dancer, and I felt pressured to live up to that expectation all the time. As a result, I was being too careful, ironically limiting my abilities in my attempts to perfect them. It was when Barbara encouraged me to let go, let loose, BREATHE, and ignore my mistakes for once that I realized I do not have to be careful in order to sound good; my technique is polished enough that I am confident I always will.

After experiencing this same frustration and failure a second time, leaving halfway through my scheduled three-hour session, I decided that I was truly bored with myself. I was not seeing my technique improve; I was not creating anything new and interesting; and I was effectively wasting my time in the studio. As discouraging and upsetting as it may be to fail others, I think it feels worse to fail yourself, and ultimately I was doing just that. Where was my mettle, my drive, my confidence? Surely I had not abandoned them back home in Lexington, MA.

While struggling with my lack of productivity, I was also battling the typical demons of the first semester of college: homesickness, loneliness, an obnoxious roommate, and the absence of purpose and identity in my new environment. As these were not emotions that I knew – nor, it seems, was able – to confront through my dancing, I resorted instead to words.
Playing the stereotypical struggling writer, I found myself, one brisk fall afternoon, sitting at the window of a Starbucks on the Upper West Side. From within the toasty, coffee-scented confines of my favorite hangout, I scribbled in my notebook, a gift from my best friend after graduating high school. I had a front row seat to an urban comedy of people hunkering against the wind and grappling with unwieldy umbrellas on Broadway, while I somewhat guiltily sipped hot cocoa that, while satisfying my caffeine craving and keeping me warm, did little to quell the first-year jitters dancing inside me. For several hours, I expunged my emotions through my pen – writing in cursive; crossing out; rewriting in shorthand; tapping the cap contemplatively against my front teeth, adorning the margins with question marks and alternative words. When at last I had drained my cup of cocoa, I had completed the final draft of my poem. Eager, in what I now recognize as a puerile, self-indulging sort of way, to share my distress with the world, or whatever small percentage of it would read what I had to say, I published the poem online.

I see a dance in the making with your voice and a musician as accompanists,” Thelma wrote. “Beautiful... an image I can imagine and embrace! Thank you for sharing!”

I agree...merge the dance with the poetry. It can be done,” one of my cousins concurred. “So, go to a recording studio in New York and record one of your poems, then choreograph to your own voice.”

But the poem I had written, as proud of it as I was, was too short to become a dance. So, what could I write about? The answer could not have come to me at a different time. As a pilgrim to Manhattan and a new student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I began to envision not just one dance, but a series of dances inspired by my impressions of and experiences with the city. I started writing other poems, sketching a storyline, and contacting fellow dancers and musician friends who might be interested in collaborating with me.

When applications for my school’s arts festival were posted, I recognized my first opportunity to experiment with and present my ideas to the ideal audience. Its acceptance gave me the confidence that my idea was feasible and had a future, and that I could take charge of my own creation and develop it further with successful collaboration.

Prior to the arts fest, I had only seen a few attempts at fusing tap with poetry, but never in a setting where the two forms were performed simultaneously so that the rhythms of one could interact with the rhythms of the other. As a dancer who has been trained rhythmically in all disciplines for so long – for which I am endlessly grateful to the instruction of Billy Siegenfeld and Jeannie Hill, and to Thelma, for introducing me to them – I thought that this was a severe injustice to both art forms, which are inherently rhythmic.

A big part of this project, therefore, derived from my desire to create something that was uniquely mine, and to discover who I am as an artist in the process. Fusing writing with dance seemed to be the best way to showcase my skills both as a writer and a dancer, as well as an appreciator of all kinds of dance, and respect the rhythmic roots therein.
My following sessions in the studio were more productive and rewarding than ever. Following Brenda Bufalino’s advice, “First thought, best thought,” which I hold as a key tenet of the creative process, I choreographed a solo to the first New York-related poem I had written, “When Push Comes to Shove.” My advisor, Kathryn Posin, helped me through the process, and her late husband John helped me produce a professional recording of the poem. The experience forced and allowed me to find an authentic voice for myself – literally.
Aside from hating my own voice, like most people, I also dislike reading my own work – but with this project, I had no choice. Recording the poem reconnected me with my work, brought a new level of personal meaning to my writing and my routine, and was a process of self-discovery and experimentation.

The final product was a success. Praise from friends, family, and faculty assuaged all fears I had had of whether the audience would understand or appreciate what I was trying to accomplish. It renewed my inspiration and confidence as a soloist, and allowed me, as Barbara Duffy had encouraged me, to let go and explore more of myself, rather than feel caged in by some recorded jazz groove or Michael Jackson song. So pleased was I with its reception that I immediately proposed an independent study for the following semester that would allow me to produce more pieces in the same style. Little did I know just how far out of my comfort zone it would take me. . . .

Stay tuned for Part 2 next month!

1 comment:

Beth Megill said...

Your struggles are so familiar and make me smile and frown at the same time. I think all dancers who have high hopes and delusions of what being a dancer or choreographer should look and feel like can relate to being in the studio and wondering what the hell to do. On the those days, I say at least I practiced getting to the studio. That is the most important step. Practice practicing. Thanks for sharing,


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