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.
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)!
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.
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.
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.
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.