“You don’t have to put yourself in the dance, you’re already there. You are enough.”
-An informal interview with guest artist Laura Peterson by Christina Williams-
Brooklyn-based Laura Peterson was warmly welcomed into our department a few weeks ago as our annual guest artist through the Student Dance Organization. Currently teaching at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Peterson also teaches in various studios around New York City. Having performed at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Inside/Out and recently funded by the 2014 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, her work has made its way around the world. For one week, we were privileged with her teaching and dance making here in Brockport, NY. Through several master classes during the week as well as a lecture-demonstration of original work she set on some of our dancers, Peterson left her artistic mark on the minds and bodies of the better part of our entire department.
During my trek to Hartwell through a few feet of stubborn snow to audition for Laura Peterson’s guest residency piece, I was not aware at the time that the woman I was about to meet would soon influence my thinking and moving in just six days. What I thought was going to simply be a short amount of time to make a long dance, became an exposure to an artistic process that opened my mind. Having such an available mind herself, walking into an foreign department and working with these hungry, unfamiliar college students for a week, provided us with an inspiration to not fear the unknown of a situation. Giving us a sense of gutsy stamina with her work, we became a stronger group of dancers through our dancing but also with our processing. She selected eighteen dancers to work with and we all benefited from her gift of confidence in our dancing and our minds as artists through this intense week. She believed in us and our ability to create this exhilarating piece of work and in return, we finished the week reciprocating that sense of advancement in ourselves. Our brief time together resulted in a sixteen minute dance; a rich breadth of unique information that would not have been possible without Peterson’s cheerfully quirky, inspiring and inimitable presence.
As the incredible week was wrapping up, and the first public showing of the work had passed, I was curious how this residency had resonated with Peterson and how her time here might have an affect on her work on a larger scale. I conducted an informal interview with her in a casual chat in the seats of Strasser Studio before her last class.
Christina Williams: With your residency here, what goals did you have for this week and how have they changed, if you had any at all?
Laura Peterson: I’ve done these choreographic residencies before and I love them, I really do. And you can confuse yourself if you have a set idea because when you walk in, you meet these people with all different skill levels and experiences to bring to it, and you have this set thing and you ask yourself how can you possibly fulfil this? These are different kinds of people so I think it’s helpful if you remove all expectations and you walk in, you’re open, and you see who is in front of you, and meet them. I think that’s for any kind of choreographic project, that you create the dance for the dancers who are in the room with you. You listen to their artistic voice and watch their artistic interpretation of a concept or a task. And you let that piece shape itself.
CW: How does your process with your company and with your solo work differ from your process here at Brockport?
LP: The people that I work with are a lot more experienced, they’re older, they’re professionals and generally around 30. I think that’s important to me; I guess that working professionally and working with people with a lot of experience can bring different viewpoints to the work. And I think that when you’ve had your body longer, not that dancers are more or less mature when they’re 30 but when you’ve been with yourself longer, there’s a sense of how to work efficiently that you just gain over time. It’s not dissimilar from working here, I mean I’m the same person, but the dancers contribute a lot more conceptually. Also we work for a long time, around eight months, and we make a lot of material and a lot of it gets thrown out. But we do more talking about it and I come in with a concept already versus when I just meet you guys here I think, “Well really can I walk in with a concept?” Because I don’t know these people in front of me. I could think about bringing something in but I don’t know how many people there will be, or maybe I go somewhere and they’re not as good as you guys are here, I mean the expectations are the main difference.
CW: How have your personal goals changed throughout your career as an artist, as a person or as a dancer?
LP: They change all the time, they really do. Sometimes I really want to have residencies, so maybe I’ll start applying for things that are directed that way for a while, or maybe I’ll shift my interest every couple of years, but when I was really young I think I was pretty confused. I had some peculiar expectations of myself that were not in line at all with reality and I don’t feel like I was particularly prepared when I left school to deal with the way New York City really is, the way dancing really is. When I was in school, nobody said to you “Okay, here’s what auditions are like, here’s what it’s like and here’s what it isn’t like”. So I felt very mixed up. So I was thinking “Should I be in a big company, but I also want to choreograph, so how would I go to an audition, am I good enough?” Just judging myself all the time. So as I got older those things fell away and I tried to focus again on what was most important to me. I remember I was in a weird situation that led me to be in that movie Across the Universe and I had this tiny dance part and I had this weird hair and I was thinking to myself should I work in commercial work? Should my goals shift to that and then I thought “No that was a fluky thing, that’s not really artistically interesting to me to be in a show”. And then I got a call to audition for this Vegas water show and I was down to the last four people, it was me and these 5’8” blondes and I asked myself again “Are those my goals really?” It would be nice to be paid really well, but I’m not going to be artistically satisfied. My goals get confused, they shift and that’s okay. I think it’s okay to shift your goals all the time.
CW: If you could give all of the students here, who range from late teenagers fresh out of high school to students in their twenties about to be set free in the dance world one piece of advice, what would it be?
LP: If you really, really, really want to dance, you can. You can make your own dances. But dance is really hard and it takes a really long time. And I would say my advice is don’t stop. Eyes on the prize. You just keep looking forward and have a short memory, so that means let go of things that were negative behind you and look straight ahead towards what you want, what your goals are and just keep doing it. And you’re going to fail and people are going to reject you all the time but if you keep your eyes on the goal, those things can just fall away, they can. It’s really hard and it takes a lot of grit, a lot of determination and perseverance to be a dancer, but if that’s the most important thing to you, you can do it, you absolutely can. But if there’s something else that you’re kind of interested in where you might actually have a job, you might want to think about how you could transition into something that would actually pay you… if you don’t really want to dance. If you don’t really, really, in your deepest part of you, really want to do this thing more than anything else, then try other things, the world is big.
Our time with Peterson was indeed short but inarguably well spent. With the laughter filled-long rehearsals, and a rigorous creative progression, the eighteen dancers are proud of our collaboration with Peterson. And proud to have represented the Department of Dance. Keeping her values of grit and perseverance in mind, it’s clear to see that she saw that drive in all of us through our high speed but crystal clear movement. She provided us with an unmatchable experience not to be forgotten when she leaves. For a taste of what Peterson and eighteen smart dancers here have created, our piece titled “Silvery” will be performing on Scholars Day on April 8th, 2015.
Photo: The cast of “Silvery.”