Tag Archives: New York University Tisch School of the Arts

Q&A: Avery-Jai Andrews

Avery-Jai Andrews (bottom) in Notturno with Keyhole Dance Project. Photo: Mario Squotti

The Dallas native on coming home and starting Don’t Ask Why Dance Company, which makes its world premiere this Friday.

Plano — As in any industry, the Dallas dance market has seen its fair share of highs and lows since I moved to the city almost a decade ago. In the two years following the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the fall of 2009, the Dallas dance community saw an impressive rise in the number of professional dance companies in the area, including Avant Chamber Ballet, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group and Bruce Wood Dance. The dance scene’s next noticeable growth spurt happened around 2014 with the influx of more local dance festivals such as Dallas DanceFest, Rhythm in Fusion Festival and later, Wanderlust Dance Project. Since then the dance market has plateaued, with many dance companies and organizations struggling to find cost effective ways to increase funding and ticket sales without disrupting their bottom lines.

Now, the Dallas dance market is about due for another growth spurt and I believe it will come in the form of fresh talent like Avery-Jai Andrews, who grew up in Dallas but left to pursue dancing elsewhere and is now returning home to start her own dance company. Like many serious dancers here in Dallas, Andrews attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) before being accepted into New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating from NYU in 2014, Andrews decided to move overseas where she danced professionally with artists in Italy, Israel and Germany.

In 2016 Andrews made the decision to come home to Dallas and start making her own work, which is how her dance company, Don’t Ask Why, came into existence. The company’s first performance is this Friday, with performances at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., at the White Theater, part of the state-of-the-art facilities that make up the new Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano. Titled GESTALT, which is a German word meaning an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts, the 45-minute piece features Italian-based contemporary dance company Keyhole Dance Project.

TheaterJones talked to Avery-Jai Andrews to find out more about her European contemporary dance style, the lessons she has learned abroad and what viewers can expect to see at Don’t Ask Why Dance Company’s premiere performance.

TheaterJones: What made you decide to come back to Dallas to form your own dance company?

Avery-Jai Andrews: Dallas is such a vibrant city, and I know for me and my dance friends when we come back home there is always something new happening in the dance community, and I think that is what’s pulling a lot us [professional dancers] back to the area. With that said, I have spent the last three years traveling between New York, Europe and Israel, and I finally had enough of that and wanted to come back to Dallas with the intention of settling down and creating my own work. So, in October 2016 I made the decision to start changing things so I could start to create my own non-profit.

Avery-Jai Andrews. Photo: Courtesy

How has your perception of the dance scene in Dallas changed since leaving for college in the fall of 2010?

I remember we moved into the new section of Booker T. at the end of my Freshman year, so I really got to experience the changes happening in Arts District first hand, but by the end of my Senior year I was ready to leave home and experience being a college kid. I feel like when I left that dance wasn’t something that I wanted to do here in Dallas. I thought that I needed to be in New York in order to make it as a professional dancer. My mind wasn’t opened up to the idea until I left America and I started seeing what was happening dance-wise in other countries and as my own voice started to become more clear. During this period of time I started to have more desire to share and to create, and I think that’s when the urge to find a place to settle down and start choreographing began to take over.

I mean when I went to college I had no idea that I really wanted to create and start my own company. I was just ready to be a dancer, join a company and to be living that New York fast-paced life. Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love New York City, but I have started to realize that you are limited there. Everything is very expensive there, so when it comes to creating your own work in the city, you know outside of working to make money to pay your rent, you also have to find the free time and the money to be creative and I felt that would be more possible here. I just feel like Dallas is asking and wanting the young, different voices too. They want different flavors and there are a lot of people who want to support the arts. It’s so great to go to shows here and see an audience that is excited to be there and I feel like sometimes you miss that in the big cities where there are always dance performances happening.

Why did you chose to pursue a dancing career abroad after graduating from college?

I was blessed to study abroad over the summer to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria and that was my first taste of dance outside of the U.S. and more specifically the European contemporary style. It showed me a whole other world. I mean, just the way they use the space, sets, lights and costumes; it’s such an integrated feel that I think sometimes I’m missing out when I’m here in America. The experience opened my mind up to all that dance can be. That dance can be something more than I already see and so, when I got back and entered my last year of school I knew that I wanted to go back and felt like I needed to immerse myself in dance outside of the U.S. So, as soon as I graduated I ended up going to Israel to Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s Dance Journey program for five months.

Even with all the conflict that was happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis during this time, I still had a great time and the program helped me acknowledge that I have the tools and skills to be an artist and that I could go forth and be a professional. And because it is an international program I got to meet so many wonderful people from around the world and it is actually where I met Matteo Zamperin from Italy who started Keyhole Dance Project. I also met Elise Cleaver there, and I was in Hamburg with her in 2015 creating a new work. So, I still kept in contact with a lot of those people and that has afforded me the opportunity to travel more just from that program. The Dance Journey program really set me up to continue this deep desire of whatever was brewing in me to get out and explore the world. And just being in other cultures and living there, not just visiting or being there a week or two, but living in other countries has really expanded me as a human and had me questioning a lot about who I want to be and how I want to live my life.

As of today, how would you classify your movement style to audiences?

I am definitely not classical and I wouldn’t even say modern because I even see modern as a bit more classical so, I would say I am within the realm of European contemporary dance. What I like to focus on as a creative is, the dancers have to be physical and dynamic with their bodies but yet still relate to the people who are watching them. How can we still show that we are human, but then also be more expressive within our own bodies? So, I definitely put in those lines and we have big movements and we take the space and travel, but then I want us to be able to transition into just being human and being a body at the same time.

Can you explain Friday evening’s program to me?

The program is 45 minutes long with no intermission and I would describe it more as a performance experience.GESTALT is a collaboration with my friend Matteo and his Italian-based company, Keyhole Dance Project. He and I formed a good rapport through Kibbutz’s Dance Journey program and I knew that I wanted that again so, when I decided to produce my own show as a premiere for Don’t Ask Why I immediately reached out to him.

The theme of the show comes from its title GESTALT, which basically means the perceived whole is more important than the individual pieces that make up the whole image. That has served up very well in the creation process because Matteo hasn’t been here this whole time and just being a start-up we have been rehearsing here and there and so we were literally creating in pieces. And some of the material we worked with had been planned a year ago so most of our collaboration came into play when we started putting all these pieces of movement together. GESTALT is a very dynamic and layered piece and I’m personally enjoying that each of the seven performers is having an experience of their own throughout the work.

What is the inspiration behind the name Don’t Ask Why?

Well, when my mom came to my shows she would tell me ‘that was great, but why did that happen?’ and I would say, ‘Mom you don’t need to fully understand what I was thinking. I just want you to experience the movement.’ In my mind, as long as the show made her feel something then the job was done. I just want people to feel something when they see my work and that’s one of the reasons behind the name. The other is more personal and goes back to when my best friend Micaela White passed away right before I went to college and a year later I was in another scary situation with a close friend who was in the hospital and these experiences made me started questioning why me? Why am I in this place? At that time this felt like a very dangerous place psychologically to be in and so, I told myself that I was going to stop asking why and just keep moving forward. I have taken this philosophy with me since then and it has been a very productive thing for me to live by.

> This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com




Q&A: Catherine Ellis Kirk, Abraham.In.Motion

Kyle Abraham dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Breton Tyner-Bryan
Kyle Abraham dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Breton Tyner-Bryan

The Dallas native on finding her stride as a concert dancer and performing with Kyle Abraham’s Abraham.In.Motion which comes to town this weekend on the TITAS season.

Dallas — As the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship as well as a 2010 Princess Grace and Bessie award for performance and choreography, it’s no wonder Kyle Abraham was recently dubbed the darling of the dance world by Dance magazine. Abraham started his training at the Civic Light Opera Academy and the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School. He holds a BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase and an MFA from the New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts. His performing credits include David Dorfman Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, The Kevin Wynn Collective, Nathan Trice/Rituals, Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. For the last nine years his company Abraham.In.Motion has been captivating audiences across the U.S. and abroad with its provocative movement choices and strong social messages reflecting on current issues and attitudes.

Abraham’s raw approach to movement and eclectic dance background, which includes modern and hip-hop was a huge draw for Dallas native Catherine Ellis Kirk who joined his company two years ago. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Kirk went on to earn her BFA in dance from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She has also studied with Movement Invention Project, San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, the Gaga intensive in Tel Aviv and Springboard Danse Montreal, and has performed works by Fernando Melo, Ohad Naharin, Peter Chu, Andrea Miller, Robert Battle, Alex Ketley and Helen Simoneau. In addition to Abrham.In.Motion, Kirk also currently dances for Chihiro Shimizu and Artists and UNA Projects.

Kirk and Abraham.In.Motion will both make their Dallas debut Oct. 29-30 at the Dallas City Performance Hall as part of TITAS’ 2015-16 season. The program includes Abraham’s The Quiet Dance (2011), The Gettin’ (2014) and the world premiere of Absent Matter with live music.

Catherine Ellis Kirk talks to TheaterJones about finding her artistic voice, Kyle Abraham’s creative process and her take on his new work Absent Matter.

TheaterJones.com: What initially drew you to concert dance?

Catherine Ellis Kirk: At Booker T. I took a lot of composition and improvisation classes so I knew pretty fresh off the gate that I wanted to join a modern company and be in New York if not Europe.

Why did you chose to attend New York University vs. pursuing a dance career after high school?

I never considered cutting off my education after high school. I have always loved dance, but I have also always craved more of an academic lifestyle. For my community of concert dancers it’s more of a conservation about whether you wanted to go to a university or conservatory. I tried a couple of conservatories, but I knew I needed something else aside from dance so I studied Political Science and Art History at New York University (NYU) as well. And looking back I definitely needed those three years of training at NYU to discover my voice in dance and how I wanted to move.

Can you give me some examples of individuals or classes that have helped you define your artistic voice?

Many of my “ah ha” moments came from being at Booker T. where I took composition classes with Kyle Richards and Lily Weiss as well as modern with Garfield Lemonius. While taking these classes I decided that I could put my life and my work and passion into these forms of dance, and going to NYU really seasoned that for me. I had so many amazing teachers at NYU, including Pamela Pietro, who taught me modern and composition my second and third year there.

What stood out to you the first time you saw Kyle Abraham perform?

The first time I saw Kyle dance was at Dance Space in New York where he performed an excerpt from one of his solos and I was immediately drawn to his unique movement style. He moves so organically and there’s a wide variety of techniques that he is influenced by such as house dancing, hip-hop, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. His movement is also very contemporary and looks very improv based, so it comes out of him very organically. There’s always an openness to his movement with lots of high arches and speed, but also just very human moments and almost a sense of acting that comes across very raw. I see all of this in Pavement, which I saw for the first time in fall 2013 right after superstorm Sandy hit. Pavement has a very direct purpose in that it talks about Kyle’s neighborhood growing up and that urban lifestyle in which race and economic classes play a pivotal role. Watching all these beautiful people dancing onstage together and having the same movement quality that Kyle does was really astonishing and I just fell in love with this work.

What is it like working in the studio with Abraham?

It’s super interesting! It is pretty improv based so he’ll start moving while someone films it and then gives us the tape and we’ll learn it from there. Other times he’ll do a catch what you can thing where he dances in front of us and we pick up what we can. He moves very fast and organically and habitually. It’s also nice to have us in the room because we all interpret the movement differently so we don’t use the same movement vocabulary over and over.

Do you and the other company members have similar dance backgrounds and training?

Our backgrounds are quite varied. I probably have the least technical training. I am much more composition and modern than balletic. There’s Tamisha Guy who went to SUNY Purchase College and is technically stunning with a background in ballet, pointe and modern. Penda N’Diaye went to NYU before I did and she also has a background in ballet and her and Guy both have beautiful lines. Connie Shiau also went to SUNY Purchase but she also trained in Gaga and works with Gallim Dance, which is just very wild, deep and grounded. The boys are also all very different. Jeremy Neal was a classical singer who started dancing in college, but had danced a lot in the club scene and house, which is very similar to Kyle’s journey. Matthew Baker went to the same college as Jeremy in Michigan, but he started out in gymnastics and then went into dance when he was younger to help him get more flexible. And then we have Vinson Fraley who is just stunning and started dancing when he was 16 at a competition studio so he is all legs and turns. Our careers and lives have taken us into different places, which kind of helps the variety, but it’s also nice because you look around the room and see different skin colors, heights and body types so the movement never gets too habitual or boring.

What is your interpretation of Abraham’s new work Absent Matter?

Absent Matter was actually choreographed before Kyle brought in the live music which includes songs by Kendrick Lamar and Kayne West. For the piece Kyle pulled a lot of inspiration from the Black Lives Matter campaign and also his feelings on cultural appropriation. Being in his late 30’s he has seen things that are just completely being lost in their origin. For example, cornrows which are just plaited hair that women in Africa wore to keep their hair out of the way is now being used on the fashion runways which is great, but it’s being renamed a French twist or French braid. That’s a lighter example, but it all goes back to cultural appropriation and Kyle feeling that as African-Americans we are losing our voice. So, there is definitely a nostalgia and a large sense of anger and riot in the work which feels much more present day than The Gettin’ which will come after. The Gettin’ feels more like a pre-riot gathering while Absent Matter feels more current to me with the Black Lives Matter Campaign and any culture aside from African American just getting lost or abused or not being recognized. Kyle’s very angry about that and it shows through this work.

This Q&A was originally published on TheaterJones.com.