Happy Birthday Andrew Palermo!

 by Danny Foner

Andrew Palermo (whose birthday is this month) is the co-founder and Artistic Director of dre.dance, a contemporary dance company in New York City. For nine years, dre.dance has created critically acclaimed works, described by the likes of the New York Times as 'powerful', 'athletic', 'gifted', 'passionate', 'propulsive', 'unexpected', 'weird', 'abstract', and 'wonderful.’ Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with him about his career.

DF: What inspired you to pursue dance? Were there any people or experiences that especially influenced you?
AP: I started dancing when I was 5 years old. I'm from Newark, NY, a little town outside of Rochester. What's crazy was, back then, the local ballet studio didn't take boys! Can you imagine? Everyone kills to get young boy dancers in their ranks now. So, my mom brought me to the next town over to take dance in the home-studio of Diane Ladd (not the Diane Ladd), where I studied ballet and tap for 5 years. I was inspired to dance by watching Fred Astaire. I don't know what movie it was, or if it was more than one (it was a loooong time ago). But I do know that I saw the man glide, and I wanted to as well.

DF: You've been on both sides of the curtain line, as a performer, a choreographer, and an instructor. How does your experience as an actor and dancer influence your choreography and your teaching style? 

photo by Paul Kennedy
AP: Every day, in every situation, I draw from my years performing as I now direct, choreograph and teach. I think there can be a big difference in both the work and the work atmosphere when the person 'running' the show knows what it's like to be IN the show. I'm very aware of what it's like to be a performer. I consider how movements will feel on the dancer/actors, if they'll feel connected to them or just enjoy the aesthetic, will they be able to sustain the work over a long run. If there are vocals, will they be able to do what they need to do at a 10AM student matinee, etc. I'm also careful in rehearsals to ensure performers are well-treated, getting appropriate breaks, not abusing their time, maintaining as positive an atmosphere as possible. On the flip side, because I performed for quite a while, I may be a bit harder on dancer/actors with whom I work. When I was coming up, I feel like there was much less entitlement in our culture. I was taught to work hard, and do everything you need to do to get the result the director, choreographer or teacher was looking for. Accomplishing that brought a great sense of pride to my performances. So, I hold performers to very high levels of expectation, and expect them to do the work with a smile. As the old adage goes, there are 200 people, very similar to you, right behind you in line.

DF: You co-founded, and are now the Artistic Director of dre.dance. In what ways has the organization grown or changed since it was created in 2005? 
dre.dance - photo by Steven Schreiber
AP: I think, as with any artist or in any career path, your perspective changes, continues to refine itself, maybe broaden, who knows. But I do know that, you've got to keep growing. Taye [Diggs, cofounder] and I are both hybrid kind of 'artists'. We came up equally through dance and theatre, so our aesthetic and storytelling mechanisms either straddle that line or flip flop over it. That said, it's been interesting to me to approach movement and physical storytelling from different angles, and look at the work through different lenses. If the piece I'm working in is more abstract or interpretive, I may yearn to move into a straight dance piece next. If I'm using pop music, I'm probably next looking to work to something that's more left of center, more experimental. Change is good. I like when people say that something looks very 'dre' or 'Andrew' or 'Taye'. That's a compliment I think, to have your own vibe. But within that vibe, if you stop growing, that's death. The company is currently on an extended hiatus as my wife and I recently relocated to California. I'm now Assistant Professor of Drama (teaching dance) at University of California Irvine. It's been a beautiful blessing to be able to bring ALL of my work to my students. One day, I'll give them a dre.dance combination, the next, something from West Side Story, the next just a fun contemporary/jazz piece. 

Fortunately, my work in the theatrical world is keeping me quite busy these days. Right now, I'm in New York rehearsing The Other Josh Cohen, a new musical, at Papermilll Playhouse. After that, UCI is presenting a new theatrical work of mine entitled Nickel Mines, centering on the 2006 Lancaster, PA Amish schoolhouse shooting. Those two pieces are kind of a perfect example of the yin yang that my career has become. Josh Cohen is a hilarious, small, endearing show that utilizes musical staging, less choreography. Nickel Mines is more of a 'downtown' piece that will entail completely interpretive modern dance elements within the choreography. All this is to say that, even when dre.dance is 'quiet', I'm still pulling from my experience with the company and utilizing the aesthetic that has grown from working within that element.

DF: Reading your resume, I was especially fascinated by beyond.words, a piece which "examines the spectrum of autism with sympathy and wonder." Can you tell me more about that? Specifically, where did the idea come from? How did exploring autism through the lens of dance impact how you think about it?
AP: beyond.words germinated from a video made by a woman named Amanda Baggs. The piece is called 'In My Language', and it's a snapshot of 'a day in the life', followed by a description of that day, and a look into this woman's philosophy on autism. Amanda is non-verbal and considered 'low functioning', within the autism spectrum. She speaks through typed text on her computer. The thrust of the video is that, while she 'speaks' differently, interacts differently, and maybe appears different than much of the population, it doesn't mean that her differences make her disabled, impaired or any kind of misfit. She appears to love who she is and how she interacts with her world. In 2007, I found this fascinating. I knew nothing of autism and certainly had never heard this side of the story. So, we embarked on a piece that endeavors to shed some light on autism with Ms. Baggs' perspective as a strong part of the discussion. Beyond.words developed over 2 years through multiple residencies and remains, possibly, our most 'complete' work. In addition, I've become a bit of an advocate, lecturing on the arts and special needs and teaching creative movement to children on the spectrum. As we know, dance is a powerful tool. That's part of what I learned through watching 'In My Language'. Amanda never stopped moving. She communes with her space moment to moment through, what I think, is beautiful improvised choreography. That's the point of my classes with kids on the spectrum; to take an inherent love of movement, maybe harness it a bit, connect it with some concept and a bit of structure, and then empower the kids to tell stories with their bodies. It's been a wonderful journey, working with students across the country, and one that fills me with joy.

DF: What's the next project we can look forward to from you?
AP: Josh Cohen, then Nickel Mines, then Allegiance at The Old Globe, a new musical about the Japanese internment of WWII is looking to land on Broadway in the fall (fingers crossed).
Allegiance, choreographed by Andrew Palermo

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