Photo by Dasha Yurkevich
[ID: Eleven dancers in a studio wearing casual dance clothes and masks. Dancers are arranged in two lines with hands on each others’ shoulders. The dancers on the left are standing, the dancers in the middle are kneeling, while the dancers on the right are on the ground.]
In 2021 I was hired as an artist in residence at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA), a San Francisco high school I graduated from in 2020. I was hired to choreograph a piece for their dance department, my first piece as a commissioned choreographer. I named the piece Passing. In many ways the title was a literal translation of what occurred on stage. The 35 dancers passed an imaginary ball in a series of cannons. As the piece progresses the ball turns into an energy, echoing social patterns, the passage of time and the sense of fellowship and interdependence within our communities. But with time I have seen that this piece is about more than that. It is a reflection of myself, my education, and my relationship with dance.
My parents enrolled me in rhythmic gymnastics once I was old enough to remember movement. I rehearsed routines packed full of tricks for months only to perform them in some dingy gym in front of judges, for a score on a projector. I loved performing more than anything and I always scored the most points in the “performance” category. But when it came to the tricks I always fell short, leaving me further and further down on the podium as the years went by. It felt like an uphill battle, training for competitions I would never win. Finally, at ten years old, I auditioned for the San Francisco Ballet School. It was a class solely composed of my favorite part of rhythmic gymnastics: the performance. I promptly quit my rhythmic gymnastics dreams and began training at the school.
My first years at the San Francisco Ballet School were bliss, there was no other place I would have rather spent my time other than the studio. I got to dance in the same studios, and on the same stage as my idols: Maria Kochetkova, Sofiane Sylve, and Davit Karapetyan. I was in a ballet daze, it became everything to me. All my friends were from the studio, all we spoke about was ballet. In the evenings after class I would run across the street to watch the ballet, and dream of life on the stage from the standing room of the opera house. My ballet teachers became gods, I would do anything for their approval, every word they uttered was gospel. Thousands of tendus with my hand on that wooden barre for the high of walking the hallways under the stage, the smell of the cakey stage makeup, the trill of the orchestra rehearsing, the curtain, the audience, the music, the lights, the stage. There was nothing else in the world for me other than ballet.
As the years passed the classes got more and more technical. We learned how to partner, practiced fouettes and learned variations from ballets. I watched my friends get kicked out and new, better, thinner girls take their spot. I squeezed my bleeding, blistered feet into pointe shoes. I did my plies, I worshiped technique. Eventually the teachers’ critique started to shift to things I couldn’t control. No matter how much I sucked in in the mirror and no matter how many dinners I skipped, I continued to disappoint them. But there was nothing else in the world; I had to do ballet. It was my whole life and my whole future. My relationship with my body became a battle that everyone around me was fighting. If only I looked like the other girls, then I could move to the next level. Maybe skip the hummus and just eat the carrots. Every mirror tells me something different. I cry holding onto the wooden barre. I don’t know what I look like. In the end my spot at the school was replaced by someone who could fit into their vision of a dancer.
I would have never thought that two years later I would be the choreographer at the front of a room of 35 dancers.
I had 16 rehearsals to achieve my vision.
The first rehearsals were challenging, there were so many dancers. Thirty-five bodies can be so intimidating, like a huge blank canvas, or a blank paper. What do I do with all these people? How do I make something that’s my own? I remembered how frustrating it had been to sit in rehearsals with 40 other dancers trying to get put in the front. I had empathy for my dancers, and wanted them all to be seen.
Of course, this proved to be frustrating and challenging. Many times I left rehearsals feeling defeated, but I was stubborn. I told myself I had a goal to achieve — as long as I stuck to it, it would work.
As the rehearsals went on I could see it begin to come together. The dancers began embodying the theme. When they synchronized with my imagination I jumped and shouted. It was so beautiful to see so many interpretations of my movement. It was so beautiful to see so many people moving together.
Contemporary classes had always been inferior to ballet. It was so easy compared to the rigor of ballet. My eyes couldn’t see past the absence of a placed fifth position. However, during my last summer at the San Francisco Ballet School I took choreographer and dance educator Dexandro Montalvo’s contemporary class. It challenged me like no dance class ever had. My brain strained to grasp the fast-paced combination and instantly flooded me with a dance high when I finally got it. Towards the end of one of our classes, he told us to do the combination but in a different way. He said that we could do it fluidly and connected, or to hit and finish the movements. It blew my mind. I had never experienced so much artistic freedom within such tightly choreographed movements. After that class he invited me to join the ODC teen program, a pre-professional dance program that focused on contemporary dance.
I spent the next year taking Dexandro’s class twice a week. There were only 5 other girls that were part of the ODC Dance Lab that year. With such a small class the teachers worked closely with each of us. Still, despite my teachers’ honest efforts, it was hard to shake my early experience with ballet. Every ballet class felt like a kick in the face; my leotards suffocated me, the music jeered at me, a constant reminder of my failure. But, I attended the ballet classes, so afterwards I could put on socks and shorts and go to rehearsals with ODC co-directors Brenda Way and Kimi Okada, and learn the ODC company repertoire straight from the directors. I learned to dance on different levels. With the floor, my fellow dancers and myself.
When I was a freshman at SOTA we had a weekly choreography class. Our first assignment was to create a solo. This was the first time I had ever choreographed, and it quickly became my favorite class. From that point on I choreographed whenever I had the opportunity. Over the years I made lots of short phrases in classes, learned about choreographic tools and began to develop an eye for watching dance. When I got to ODC I began to develop my own opinion on dance. What movement made me feel something, what made me sleepy, what did I dislike, what shocked me? I also listened to the people around me, who noticed what? Were they as confused as me? What evoked a reaction? I began to reflect on my opinions in my choreography. I wanted the audience to understand the movement and relate to it. I wanted to use movements that make the audience want to move. I wanted it to be clear, emotional, and unignorable. I wanted my art to be able to be seen by anyone.
Every time I watched Passing, when it was on stage, it left me shaking. Seeing the audience walk into the theater, chattering in their red chairs. The hush as the lights dim, the bright yellow light unveiling the dancers. The quiet exclamations from the people beside me. The adrenaline of knowing the choreography. This is the crescendo, the accumulation of all my work. I thought that Passing was about community, time, and social patterns but I realize that it is also a reflection of how I see dance now. The stage goes dark and there’s an eruption of applause from the audience.
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of In Dance.