Choreographer Spotlight on Tara Gragg:

Photo by Clint Clemens for IMC

This week RIWCP sat down (virtually) with RIWCP 2019 Choreographer Tara Gragg. Tara is from Flint, MI and trained at the Flint School of Performing Arts. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma, where she performed works by renowned choreographers and was chosen as Outstanding Senior for the School of Dance. Professionally, she has danced with City Ballet of San Diego, Tulsa Ballet, Grand Rapids Ballet, Chicago Repertory Ballet and Lyric Opera of Chicago; her repertoire includes works by George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, and Paul Taylor. She also has a passion for education, teaching at the Newport Academy of Ballet and working with Island Moving Company (IMC)’s Junior Company. In 2019 she received a grant from the Actors Fund to attend a ballet teaching workshop at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Tara began dancing with IMC in 2014.  

A professional dance career and full time motherhood don’t stop Tara from throwing herself into education about anti-racism. We especially love the questions she poses to the dance community as we, as a society, work to dismantle white supremacy. Read on for her introspective look at how these issues are present in the dance world and more.

Photo by Clarissa Lapolla at Newport Dance Festival

RIWCP: Tell us about your dance background.

TG:  I’m very grateful for my training and professional experience so far. Looking back, there is a pattern of female leadership: Karen Mills Jennings, the director of the dance program at my home studio in Flint, MI; Mary Margaret Holt, head of the School of Dance at the University of Oklahoma; Patricia Barker, at Grand Rapids Ballet; and my current director, Miki Ohlsen, at Island Moving Company (just to name a few)!

Photo by Thomas Palmer at IMC performance

RIWCP: How did you first become interested in choreography?

TG:  In high school and in college, I had opportunities to choreograph on my peers. In both cases, these pieces were adjudicated alongside the works of other young choreographers for a chance to be performed onstage in a showcase–my work didn’t make it either time. At the moment I was crushed, and unfortunately I didn’t get much feedback, so I was left wondering how I could improve. Now I can look back and have a sense of humor about the music and themes that I chose, but I think it’s so important for everyone to have the same opportunities for second (and third, and fourth, and so on) chances, and for experienced choreographers to provide mentorship and guidance.

RIWCP: What are some of your sources of inspiration for your choreography? TG: I love combining all the elements–steps, music, costumes, and occasionally props–to create a little world within a piece. I’ve always been a history geek, so I often try to evoke a certain time and place. Mesmerized, my piece for RIWCP 2019, I envisioned as one vignette in a larger work set during the peak popularity of Spiritualism in the 19th century. Spiritualists believed people could communicate with the souls of departed loved ones (this led to our ongoing fascination with seances and Ouija boards!), and I thought it would be so much fun to make a macabre but tongue-in-cheek piece with a cast of characters all trying to reach some spirit or another. The duet that my fellow IMC dancers Emily Baker and Greg Tyndall performed at RIWCP was meant to be the most somber and emotional scene, and the scale and intimacy of the Black Box theater at AS220 ended up being a perfect setting.

Photo by Eugenia Zinovieva at RIWCP 2019 Dress Rehearsal

RIWCP: You recently gave birth to an adorable little daughter. How has the balancing act between childcare and dancing been? 

TG: COVID-19 has definitely put a wrench in my postpartum comeback, but I’m so thankful I was able to return to the stage with IMC before everything came to a halt. Once upon a time, I would’ve been really thrown off by not having the time to start my day with yoga or come home and write down notes about the choreography I’m learning, but I feel like I’ve reached a point of maturity where I can prioritize exactly what I need to do my job. My daughter comes first, but dancing is also something I need to feel complete, so now all of my time spent in the studio feels like such a privilege.

Tara and her adorable daughter Ida

RIWCP: How do you feel being a mother has changed you as an artist? 

TG: I’m still very new to motherhood, but the experience so far has given me so much more trust in my body. I’ve realized that I can rely on my technical foundation even through huge physical changes. I’m actually really glad to have gone through pregnancy right before having to shelter in place, because if I could get through that, I can get through training at home!

RIWCP: Outside of being a company member at Island Moving Company, you’ve been involved in other projects in the Newport arts community. Could you tell us a little about your other ventures?

TG: I’ve been involved with the nonprofit Newport Art House for over four years now; I’m actually stepping back into the role of Board Chair right now after taking an 8-month hiatus when Ida was born. NAH’s mission is to nurture, showcase, and promote the contemporary arts in Newport, and a long-term goal of ours is to create affordable artist housing (AS220 is a huge role model of ours). My proudest moments with NAH were producing two installments of The Rewind, a multi-genre live performance series, and bringing our very first gala fundraiser to life alongside an amazing committee of fellow artists. I cherish my partnership with Tracy Jonsson, the Founding Director of NAH, and am so excited to work with her at this time when people need the arts more than ever.

RIWCP: What advice would you give to dancers that are interested/curious about trying choreography? 

TG: It’s wonderful when you feel deeply inspired to choreograph something, but sometimes you don’t, and that’s ok! If you’re interested and have the opportunity, push yourself to give it a try because choreography skills take time to develop.

RIWCP: How have you been spending your time in isolation/quarantine? 

TG: I’ve followed a trajectory that’s probably familiar to a lot of dancers: denial, disappointment, acceptance, ballet class holding onto the kitchen counter, mask sewing, bread baking, all mixed in with suddenly becoming a stay-at-home mom. As the Black Lives Matter movement and protests have gained momentum in recent weeks, I’ve thrown everything else on the back burner to further educate myself about racism (and anti-racism), especially through the lens of the arts and dance.

Photo by Thomas Palmer at IMC performance

RIWCP: How have you benefited from participating in RIWCP- any takeaways or other thoughts? 

TG: Just the chance to have one’s work performed onstage in front of an audience is huge, because the reality is that there are many barriers and hurdles between having an idea and bringing it to life. There was also such a warm sense of togetherness on the day of the performance…backstage I saw old friends (some whom I’d met at summer intensives when I was a teenager and hadn’t seen since!) and met new ones. Hannah Klinkman and Jordan Breen both performed pieces for the NAH gala later in the summer. For a fairly young project, I was so impressed with the sense of community that RIWCP created.

RIWCP: Any other thoughts on the state of female-identifying voices in choreography and your experience? 

TG: The current movement for racial justice is throwing all sorts of light onto the intersectionality of deep-seated issues in the dance world. Why do major companies STILL not have many Black and brown dancers? Why do dancers of color in these companies still come up against racism in ways big and small? Why does classical ballet remain so painfully gendered, from the roles and costumes down to the steps we practice in class? Why are there still so few women, Black people, and people of color in leadership roles? Why do these same folks get far fewer opportunities to choreograph? Why are dancers infantilized and called “boys and girls” when we are grown adults? Why is there a culture of being seen and not heard that rewards dancers for not speaking up, but then leaves them completely unprepared to participate in healthy dialogue? Why are very thin, Euro-centric body types still held up as the ideal? I think the current generation(s) of dancers are beginning to collectively find their voice, and it’s apparent that the company system as it stands is deeply flawed. I have so many beautiful memories and experiences from my training and career as a ballet dancer, but I am learning to accept that ballet, like most institutions, is steeped in white supremacy culture. If white supremacy cannot be uprooted from the dance world, issues of gender disparity can’t be rectified either.

Thank you so much Tara! Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, where we will be posting more content including this post about Black Publishing Power.

Choreographer Spotlight on Ellen Oliver: “Believe in your curiosities”

We’re back with the second installment in our blog series. 

Up next is Ellen Oliver, a two time RIWCP Choreographer and Dancer. Ellen is an interdisciplinary artist based in Providence and Boston. Her work values cross-disciplinary collaboration and friendship. She is the Youth Program Director at TEN31 Productions and co-founder of ProviDANCE Project and 3 Spice Dance. Her professional work has been presented at venues and residencies in New England, NYC, and India. Ellen is currently a dancer in Lorraine Chapman The Company and Metamorphosis Dance Company, and she has recently performed with Ali Kenner Brodsky & Co, Fusionworks Dance Company, Cynthia McLaughlin, and Kelley Donovan & Dancers

We loved catching up with Ellen to delve deeper into her choreographic process, background in dance, what she’s been up to during this time. Enjoy reading this Q&A with Ellen Oliver: 

Photo by Jim Coleman

RIWCP: Tell us about your dance background. 

EO: I’ve been dancing since I was a little kid. Always moving and playing.  When I was a little kid I pretended that I was a lion, and danced like a wild cat at recess! I grew up dancing at Heritage Ballet in Lincoln, RI before studying dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and later Hampshire College. I studied at summer programs including Royal Winnipeg Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Kaatsbaan, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. I also studied for a few months in Havana in college. Dancing has taken me on a journey. I’ve journeyed through ballet, modern dance, contemporary, and all sorts of experimental. Dance for me is something that is constantly transforming. I try to expand my understanding of dance through other mediums- athletics, film, painting, theater.

RIWCP: How did you first become interested in choreography?

EO: I think I was 9 years old when my teacher at the time introduced a choreography class. I created a very dramatic dance solo about a lost penny in an apron. It was all set to Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” I was very into it! I drew lots of diagrams and notes to help create the piece.  I think it’s so important for young artists to be introduced to choreography at a young age. It sparks imagination and inspiration.

Photo By Ali Pierre Etienne

RIWCP: How has your thinking evolved throughout your choreography process from the beginning to now?

EO: I’m currently trying to let go of any control I have on the material. I am being open to change and spontaneity in the process. Releasing control can make room for very new and alternative happenings! At the same time, I am working on articulating choices and decisions in my work. For me, it’s a balance of chance and reason. Every project starts with a very different set of parameters and inspirations. I can only hope that my projects will continue with this momentum of curiosity and change!

RIWCP: What is it like for you to see the movement you came up with in your head translated onto dancers? How does it affect your process?

EO: It is an exciting challenge! Again, I think a lot of it has to do with letting go of control. Everyone is a unique mover and performer. My goal is to bring out the individual in the work. I want the collaborators/performers to be just as important as the concept. For me, the dancers and choreography exist together and emerge together.

Photo by Olivia Moon Photography

RIWPC: What are some of your sources of inspiration for your choreography?

EO: I am often inspired by classical music and literature. I am usually inspired by a multitude of things that all come together through journaling and improvisation. Sometimes the inspiration is clear, and sometimes I have to work to find it. I have a regular painting, film, and rock climbing practice to help find new inspirations. It is important for me to be surrounded by many people and settings.

RIWPC: What advice do you give to dancers that are interested/curious about trying choreography?

EO: Go for it! Trust in yourself, and believe in your curiosities. 

RIWCP: How have you been spending your time in isolation/quarantine? How has your work been affected by COVID-19?

EO: I have been spending a lot of time reflecting. I am slowly revisiting old ideas and reading old journals. I’m also using this time to reconnect with family, friends and my community. I think that I will return to the studio after quarantine with a fresh perspective.

Photo by Colectivo Artístico Trance

RIWCP: How have you benefited from participating in RIWCP? 

EO: RIWCP has introduced me to many creative movers in Providence! It has been a wonderful way to strengthen the Providence dance community. It also has helped me to fearlessly show my work to a full audience! I am so grateful for being part of a strong and passionate community!

Photo by Jim Coleman

Thank you, Ellen! Stay tuned to hear from a new blog post next month and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, where we will be posting more content from our RIWCP community.

Choreographer Spotlight on Dara Nicole

Welcome to our new blog and interview series! We’re catching up with RIWCP 2018 Dancer and 2019 Choreographer and Dancer Dara Nicole. We chat about everything from creativity and homemade salsa to aliens and PS4. Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Aliza Razell

RIWCP: Tell us about your dance background.

DN: I am a dancer and choreographer in my fifth season with Festival Ballet Providence. I’m originally from Florida, where I received early training with Gloria Gaither before I moved on to train with Peter Stark and Ivonne Lemus at Next Generation Ballet at the Patel Conservatory. After my training, I found freelance work for a year with Sarasota Opera and Brandon Ballet. I then joined Nashville Ballet’s second company, where I danced for two years before joining Festival Ballet Providence.

A strong recurring theme with almost all my teachers in my training was an intense focus on musicality and detail. I think that focus instilled musicality and detail as values for me as a dancer, as well as training my eye to watch for these things. I believe this is one of the things that eventually led me to choreography. The idea that you can physically create how you hear music is something that I think will always excite me.

Pictured- Dara Nicole in dress rehearsal for a workshop piece by Dominic Walsh. Photo courtesy of Amanda Tipton

RIWCP: How did you first become interested in choreography?

DN: The idea of being someone who created dance was definitely something that teenage Dara wanted for herself, but I was very focused on making my career as a dancer happen, and since I saw no clear path towards being a choreographer, I more or less wrote it off.

I took part in RIWCP the first year as a dancer and was thrilled to be a part of something that was empowering female artists and giving back to the community. Besides being one of the few projects for female-identifying choreographers, it is also one of the few projects that allows choreographers who don’t have much to put on their reel (or in my case at the time of my application, anything to put on their reel), to apply.

The second year I applied to choreograph, a little bit on a whim, a little bit feeling like I might be about to change my path, and I was freaking out. I didn’t even tell my best friend I was applying because I had never tried to choreograph, and I was afraid this might end up being one of my worst ideas. I did get accepted, and I was very happy with the piece I made, due mostly to the dancers’ focus and commitment. As thrilled as I was to have created a piece, the finished product was not the most important part for me. The most important part was that throughout the whole process– my personal work on it, rehearsals with the dancers, collaborating on costume design and lighting– I felt a sense of belonging stronger than I ever had before. So actually, as far as being a career, that’s when I got interested. That’s when I knew. (Thanks, RIWCP!)

Pictured- Katherine Bickford and Jacob Hoover during a dress rehearsal for Vivisection, photo courtesy of RIWCP

RIWCP: How has your process/thinking evolved throughout your choreography process from the beginning to now?

DN: One thing that was really daunting to me as I considered the idea of beginning to choreograph was the task of making up the actual steps. It sounds simple, but there is just so much you can do with the body that coming up with movement still seems overwhelming to me at times. Over this past summer, I was talking to family friend and sometimes mentor, choreographer Dominic Walsh, and he said, “…the steps are the least important part.” And I thought, “Uh yeah ok, you’ve been doing this for a while, easy for you to say.” But I tried to think about what he meant a few times during the making of my second piece, and he’s right (don’t tell him, I don’t want him to rub it in).

In watching the final few runs of the piece, I realized that the parts of the piece I felt the strongest about were not one arm movement here or one jump there, but how the dancers’ steps worked in tandem– how the piece flowed, intimate moments between dancers that arose. I would say that moving forward, my process will definitely be influenced by this knowledge, and less by an urgency to make up a “cool move.”

Pictured- Alex Lantz, Charlotte Nash, and Katherine Bickford in rehearsal for ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R. Photo courtesy of Dara Nicole.

RIWCP:  You were commissioned to choreograph a piece for Festival Ballet Providence this season. How did you come up with the idea for that piece? 

DN: I developed the concepts for the Festival Ballet Providence commission roughly over the course of a year. The final version ended up being titled ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R. It is an abstract piece, but when creating it, I had two concepts that I wanted the piece to deal with: a group of five aliens that get stranded on earth and what might ensue amongst them as a result, and the five stages of grief. I am fascinated with how we all experience emotion so differently, and how negative emotions, like grief, can make you feel so isolated even if you have your “crew” with you physically.

This time last year, I heard this Lesley Gore song “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows,” which is this just overwhelmingly upbeat song from the 1960s. It sounded so over the top and ended so abruptly that it felt forced to me. So, I started to see these dancers in my head trying to match this aggressively upbeat song. I then began to think about them as having the same feeling of happiness, but in a forced and almost jarring way, and it made me wonder why they would be feeling that.

Around the same time, I was workshopping a gesture phrase with the intention of figuring out a way to make myself smile without using my facial muscles, and I started to connect the two ideas. Also, when improvising, a prompt I often use is: “If I stepped into my body for the first time, and I had all the strength I’ve built but had to figure out how to use it, how would I move?” So that made me start thinking: what if there was someone that was true for? Someone who was stepping into an adult human body for the first time, who was figuring out how to use the body and also how to express (and maybe even feel) emotion. That’s around when I decided they were a crew of aliens and started to actually workshop movement for each stage of grief/character.

Pictured- Melissa Wong in rehearsal for ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R , photo courtesy of Dara Nicole.

RIWCP: What is it like seeing the movement you came up with in your head translated onto the dancers?

DN: Honestly crazy. It’s still so new that every time I think, “Wow, I made that up? And someone’s doing it? Not as a joke?” The day my first piece, Vivisection premiered at RIWCP last year, I think I said “I made a thing that went onstage!” out of the blue to my boyfriend about 10 times. But honestly, the whole process is so great. I try not to “clean” on myself, and just figure out a rough draft of a phrase on myself. Figuring out what the phrase really is on the body that’s going to be dancing it is the fun part.

My concepts for ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R definitely took on new life when I started working with the dancers. I was lucky enough to be working with some very supportive and generous coworkers. They never made me feel like it was only my second piece or that they were taking me any less seriously than they would any other choreographer. They embraced, and usually expanded upon, the material I was giving them both physically and emotionally. This led to so much nuance and play in musicality, which are two of my favorite things to look for in dance.

Pictured- Charlotte Nash and Katherine Bickford in rehearsal for ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R. Photo courtesy of Dara Nicole. 

RIWCP: What are some of your sources of inspiration for your choreography?

DN: Definitely music. Sometimes just hearing a piece of music once will give me a whole idea for something, even if it’s not the music I’m going to choreograph to. I’ll sometimes make a phrase to music I know I’m not going to use for a piece but makes me want to move and think about movement. I’ll then test the phrase on music I want to choreograph to, see if there is a timing or muscality that interests me and move forward from there.  

I’m also huge into science fiction and do draw a lot of inspiration from that. I sometimes feel that really good dance can look otherworldly or inhuman. Whether through extreme grace, or athleticism, or a bizarre collection of movements, it is usually not something you would think to do casually. I feel there’s a lot of source material with aliens, monsters, and other sci-fi creations. I’m currently workshopping a piece about a wraith.

RIWCP: What advice do you give to dancers that are interested/curious about trying choreography?

DN: Get a buddy. Get a very patient buddy. Seeing movement on another body can be super important. Some things will look better on you because you figured it out on the shape you’re working with, and some things won’t. Both options are ok.

Be prepared for dancers who do not learn the same as you. I am a super visual learner and have a really difficult time focusing when someone tries to tell me what they want verbally, so as a result, my first instinct is to each phrases the way that I would learn. I feel when I am working with people who are not visual learners, it is my responsibility to take my time preparing so that I can at least try to meet them in the middle.

Go with the idea that makes you feel the most interested in what you’re doing. The idea that makes you feel the most present, the most you, and not necessarily the idea that seems like the “best plan.” The dance world needs more original voices all the time; it’s how we grow the art.

RIWCP: How has your work been affected by COVID-19?

DN: Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced Festival Ballet Providence, like most dance companies, to close for the rest of our season. In addition to affecting me as a dancer, this delayed the premiere of ••-•F•-•R—-O-•N-T••I•E•-•R, which was also my professional choreographic premiere. The day that my piece was supposed to go onstage was kind of a low day for me. So much art has been put on hold right now, which just feels sad.

It has, however, been so exciting to see other artists take this new challenge and thrive. So much site-specific work is happening right now! In a way, I feel the dance world has never been closer; artists are sharing raw pieces of work, companies are releasing footage of rare ballets, teachers all around the world are offering free classes of all types, dancers are reconnecting with old teachers, and so much more.

RIWCP: How have you been spending your time in isolation/quarantine?

DN: Lots of PS4. My boyfriend and I have recently gotten into The Witcher: it’s an awesome, very detailed game about a medieval monster hunter (it has actually partially inspired the piece I’m workshopping right now about a wraith). I also love to cook and have been using my free time to try recipes or try to make things I’ve never made before. I made salsa from scratch yesterday, and I may never go back. The attempt at a yeast starter, however, turned into something that might be on the verge of blowing up in my garbage can.

We also moved the guest bed into a different room, so I have a space to take yoga, improv and teach my two advanced contemporary classes with Festival Ballet Providence’s school. I do have to remember to close the blinds when I’m improvising phrase work though, definitely caught a weird look from a neighbor or two.

Pictured- before I remembered to close the blinds.

Thank you, Dara! Stay tuned to hear from another RIWCP Choreographer next month, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, where we will be posting more content from our dancers and choreographers.