ChoreoFest Interview: Nicole Harris interviews Nicole Harris!

Interview by and starring Nicole Harris

Introduction by Aisha Cruse

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Photo by Stephanie Sune

ChoreoFest ends TODAY!! We are 2 hours away from the first of this years ChoreoFest performances. To commemorate this wacky festival we've come to love, and finish up our choreographer interview series, we are delighted to bring you Nicole Harris, final third of ChoreoFest super group Paranarium House, interviewed by Nicole Harris, Monkeyhouse Engagement Director and the glue that holds our company together.

Nicole: What made you want to make the move from being a dancer to a choreographer?
Nicole: I've always been interested in choreography. (I can remember some pretty amazing dances to Janet Jackson songs in my back yard way back when. Just ask Monkeyhouse's resident photographer, Jon Keith of JK Photo. He was witness to my genius and did some lip-syncing of his own. It was even caught on film. Too bad VHS went out of style, huh?) I was lucky enough to choreograph my very first professional piece at only 19 years old, thanks to Karen Krolak and Monkeyhouse. Karen has been a mentor to me in many ways over the years, but especially as a choreographer.
In 2011, after suffering a series of strokes, I got out of the hospital with a very hazy sense of what the future of my life as a dancer might look like. While I was determined to do all the things I was once able to do, I also knew it was going to be a long road. I began to really focus on who I am as a choreographer during the initial year of recovery. While I am back to dancing 100% (yay!) I am still enjoying figuring out new approaches to choreography, playing with ways of collaborating with other artists and negotiating the balance of how to coax what you are looking for out of a performer while truly valuing their own voice. 

NQ: What are you most nervous about regarding ChoreoFest?
NA: Holy Cow. The Paranarium House collaboration is feeling SO daunting! Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly excited for the opportunity, but like all new things, it's also scary! Not only will I be co-choreographing with two (incredible) people I have never worked with, but we are going to have 14 dancers. Yes, you read that right. FOURTEEN! That's a whole lot of bodies and voices to negotiate!

NQ: Have you participated in ChoreoFest before?
NA: This is Monkeyhouse's fourth ChoreoFest, although it's only my third. 

NQ: If so, what is your favorite memory of that experience?
NA: I think my favorite memory is from my first year (2013) when I was working with the beautiful Shannon Sullivan. Our piece had a folding table in it, which we found lurking somewhere at the Dance Complex. (Have I mentioned how awesome the Dance Complex is for hosting this shindig? Thanks, guys!) We started the piece sitting at the table playing cards. During our dress rehearsal (after I slept for all of 30 minutes the night before) we started the piece and the table collapsed, sending cards flying everywhere. I am not sure I did more than three shuffles for the rest of the piece I was laughing so hard. It was a complete disaster! Luckily the performances were significantly better and the piece turned out pretty good, despite our technical problems...!

NQ: What advice do you have for new ChoreoFest choreographers?
NA: Give yourself permission to relax. The goal of the festival is NOT perfection. It's about community and the choreographic process. Talk to other companies. See what other people are doing. Give and take feedback. You don't need to pound out 15 minutes of technically perfect movement. Take chances! Have fun! And for goodness sake... SLEEP!

NQ: Are there things you hope to do differently this time?
NA: That's hard to say because every year has been very different for me. The first year I was creating a duet and we were very equally choreographers. The second year I actually didn't even end up performing. I helped Karen with some choreographic bits. And I threw a ball of yarn at Sam Mullen's head. This year is a whole new ball of different, with the Paranarium House collaboration. I'm just excited to see what we get!

NQ: Since this is a very controlled creative space (in terms of time and topic) where do you see yourself starting when you get in the space?
NA: We have already talked about wanting to use lots of improvisation and writing exercises to get us going. Plus, since we are combining three companies, we are going to have lots of getting to know you time at the start! We will also be doing some music making. Everyone has been asked to bring an instrument/something that makes noise. (Watch out, other companies, there are 17 of us and we're bringing kazoos!) So I'm guessing those will come into play real early in the process!

NQ: In creating a new work, what in the relationship between you and your dancers? Do they participate in the creative process? If so, how?
NA: Personally, I try to have a lot of input from dancers. My work is almost always a collaboration. Since we are all different personalities and bodies I don't find it to be useful to make everyone mimic me! (Besides, an army of Nicole's sounds terrifying, doesn't it!?) I always tell my students that I want them to be humans first, dancers second. So my process involves lots of talking and feedback and bouncing ideas around.

NQ: Knowing that Karen Krolak will be on hand as "choreographic guru", what things do you hope she can help with in the overnight process?
NA: I cannot tell you how much I value Karen's guru skills. As I mentioned earlier, she has had a profound impact on my life. She has an incredible ability to ask the right questions to make you look at things in a way you hadn't considered before. Especially with the Paranarium House collaboration, I'm really looking to her as an outside eye/voice to help our trio of choreographers see what we might be missing.

NQ: Who are some of your favorite choreographers?
NA: Oh my. Where to begin? Well, most obviously, my partner in crime, Karen Krolak. However, to keep from sounding like a fanatical broken record I'm going to talk about some other people instead.
First and foremost, I HUGELY admire Michelle Dorrance. Anybody who has ever heard me talk about tap dancing - or dancing of any sort - or choreography - or who have just been in a room with me for more than 20 minutes - has heard me talk about Michelle. She has a brilliant use of rhythm and sound, but more than that she has a true choreographic voice/style. Many tap choreographers can create incredible sounds and rhythmic phrases, but don't capture the breadth of what a piece of choreography can be when it comes staging. As a modern choreographer you learn about planes and levels and character development and a million other things, which can often be incredibly difficult to transfer to the art of tap dancing. Michelle does so remarkably. Right. I was trying to stay away from fanatical... Moving on!
Sticking with tap choreographers for a moment, in recent years I have been following the work of Nicholas Young. He too is telling a story with his work and a strong one at that. He also does has really fascinating electronics that he has been playing with. I strongly recommend you check him out.
I remember the first time I saw choreography that made me want to get inside the mind of the choreographer and learn how to do what he does, while watching Bill T. Jones' Still/Here. I have always been impressed with his use of multimedia/interdisciplinary arts; his willingness to constantly take chances and push boundaries; and, in the early years, to throw away the "dancer body" conventions within his company.
During a rather unpleasant freshman year of college I discovered Doug Elkins. I clearly remember saying to my friend Tina at the time, THAT is what I want to do. I had the pleasure of interviewing Doug last year and had the same thought again. I love his blending of styles, storytelling devices and use of humor. And the man is brilliant. Wow.

NQ: Who are your mentors?
NA: I've already talked about one Karen Krolak...
I have also been lucky enough to study extensively with tap dancers Lynn Schwab and Derick Grant. Both have taught me more than I can ever say and are truly brilliant and beautiful people both in the studio and out.
While there are many other people I could mention, I think I've already had the longest interview by miles, so I'm just going to say one last person.
For twelve years I had the good fortune to work beside Margaret Hagemeister during our time running the drama program at Natick High School. Why she chose to hire me to begin with, a young, nervous choreographer with no real experience to speak of, I have never fully understood. With her ever steady support and guidance, I learned to become a better, more confident teacher, how to be a director and to have a real love and appreciation for musical theatre. Thank you to you all!

NQ: How are you paying forward the things your mentor gave you?
NA: It's funny to say what you've given someone else. I would like to think that I have passed along not only technique and knowledge to my students, but that I've been able to give them the freedom to discover their own voices and the support that has been given to me as I've tried and failed and tried again. I guess you'll have to ask them, though...
No matter what, I think I try to first and foremost make my students understand that they have value. Their opinions have value. Their lives have value. Their fears and triumphs and mistakes all have value. And that I will be here to remind you of that.

NQ: Where can people learn more about you and your work?
NA: Come see me and my Monkeyhouse cohorts at the Multicultural Arts Center on October 23rd/24th! We are turning 15 and building a concert that's really remarkable!

Monkeyhouse can be found on Facebook (Facebook.com/MonkeyhouseLovesMe), Twitter (@m0nkeyhouse), Instagram (@MonkeyhouseLovesMe) and on our website (MonkeyhouseLovesMe.com) As the social media guru/Engagment Director of Monkeyhouse, I am often the voice you hear in all of the above!

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