Shifting the wonder

As a young dancer, I dreamt of joining a dance company, going on tour, performing. All I wanted was to be A Professional Dancer. I was fortunate enough to find my way to Dance Exchange right after college, and discovered a place that nurtures its dancers into mature, thoughtful artists with a critical eye and big aspirations for what dance can do. One of my curiosities that first season of touring with the company was What Happens On Tour. As a student, this part of a dancer’s life was a topic about which I always had questions: What’s it like? How do I pack? What do I eat? What happens after rehearsal?

In Burlingon, VT with Meghan Bowden before a performance of"Genome"at the Flynn in 2009.

My first big performance on tour with Dance Exchange was in Liz Lerman’s Ferocious Beauty: Genome. I understudied a part originated by Elizabeth Johnson, and was thrilled (read: terrified) when I found out I would get the chance to perform in one of the four shows at Montclair State University. We spent a week in Montclair, NJ and I spent most days there shadowing EJ: learning cues, memorizing costume changes (which were numerous and complex), receiving coaching on the character section of her role (a coy dominatrix named “Ms. TATA”–they did not tell me this was part of the deal when I signed on!), and figuring out how to partner with dancers who’d originally created movement with EJ. I was so intimidated by the senior company members—they seemed to understand the schedule of the day and the schedule of each moment, which involves a great deal of navigating personalities: Who has a joke ready to lighten the mood of a tough rehearsal? Who is coming off another tour and worn out? Who is struggling with an injury that is challenging their confidence? Who is the one that wants to run the section again? Who is the one that doesn’t?

After rehearsals, we ate in the restaurant of the hotel, we swam in the pool, we walked to Target, we bought epsom salts and Emergen-C. During my first year, these little things were at once trivial and validating: THIS is what Professional Dancers do. These small trips and small experiences all happen in a place that is not home, in an atmosphere of hard work, high expectations and, sometimes, high stakes.

The evening before I performed in the piece, I decided to sit out in the audience and watch the show. The previous evenings, I’d danced the show in the Kasser Theatre’s expansive wing space, trying to keep in time with the company onstage, but I’d never seen the show from the outside, beyond the video I’d studied. The opening moment of Genome, when Gesel Mason turns a telescope to peer into her body and jumps back, igniting a blast of light and music, startled me: all at once, the performers hurtled onstage with such energy and joy, and they maintained this for the entire show. I’m sure I teared up during the final scene, what we call “White Room”, in which the dancers are all dressed in white and move with a barely contained urgency, because it was beautiful, and because I would get to join that scene the following evening.

In performance, Genome is a challenge: moments of high-intensity dancing onstage are followed by lightning-fast costume changes, more dancing, and then waiting offstage. Stop and start, but somehow stop and start and still maintain the high energy of the performance. The performing of it becomes a series of complex tasks that create a narrative very different from the narrative flow of the show the audience witnesses. When we finished the performance, I was happy and shocked: it happened. And it wasn’t terrible! There were in fact some good moments. When I walked back to the dressing room, Liz and the company applauded.

Circled up onstage during a rehearsal at UMD of Liz's "The Matter of Origins" in 2010

So “The First Genome I Performed” becomes the way I define that show. It’s possible other dancers in the company remember that performance that way, too. It’s possible they have no recollection of it. Because, nearly six years later, having been on the side of the show where I’m welcoming someone else into a new role, I realize that in each performance we do, there are so many narratives, and so much impacting the performers: their life at home, the other work they’re doing, where they are in their careers. And all of that goes onstage for good or for bad, and I would say, mostly for good. Performing requires an odd mix of intense internal attention as well as external relationship-building: with the space, the dancers, the designers, the choreographer, the movement, and sometimes with a body that doesn’t always feel like your own, or operate in the way you think it should.

Benjamin Wegman and I before we premiered "Hammock" at the Kennedy Center in 2011

I remember being a little sad when I realized I was no longer riding the high of seeing myself as a professional dancer, and no longer saw each mid-range hotel as a five-star resort. Touring becomes part of the job. But the wonder goes to other places now: to the moments in the show you feel lucky to witness from the wings, the community you build with a cast of dancers, designers, and partners that make the show possible, the performance itself that gets to be new each night, the people you meet in a new place.

In recent years, the wonder for me often comes from the experiences that aren’t part of the formal schedule, and certainly there are many moments I never thought I’d have as a member of a dance company: a potluck dinner at the Carpenter’s Union in Sheboygan, WI; conversations with physicists at the University of Maryland about the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle; playing ukulele in Syracuse, NY; dismantling a piano on Dance Exchange’s loading dock; walking 60 miles to Harper’s Ferry; getting stuck in the woods in West Virginia; writing and recording music…

With Paloma McGregor (R) and Cassie Meador (L) on day 2 of Cassie's 500 mile walk in 2012

When I came to Dance Exchange in 2007, it was to dance. But in dancing with dancers and people who didn’t consider themselves dancers–seniors, scientists, carpenters, professors, etc.–my whole world opened up, and the role of dance in the world opened up, and now I wonder a lot if I’m a dancer or a choreographer or something else entirely. Like many who have come to Dance Exchange, I found out that I could be more than one thing in the world, that I could use all I have–all my skills, interests, and questions–to make an impact.

And to bring your whole self to make an impact in the world, it takes love. As a young dancer, one of the many things I didn’t anticipate was that this would be so central to dancing, teaching, and making work. I first heard Liz frame it as such in a very informal conversation with Keith Thompson and I after a long day of teaching at Harvard University in 2011. At the time, I was really caught off-guard when she named “love” as part of the process, but she wasn’t just talking about a general, warm-and-fuzzy kind of thing. She was talking about a love that is paired with rigor, hard questions, making mistakes, of asking people to do things they’re not sure they can because you see something in them. Of looking for the best in others in the rehearsal room, in meetings, in post-show discussions; of seeking it out when it isn’t visible right away.

So as I’m preparing to leave my full-time role at Dance Exchange, this is what is resonating with me most. Love brings you to the work, and love keeps you in it when situations change and circumstances shift, or when the money runs out, or when there seem to be more failures than successes, or when your interests surprise you. I leave Dance Exchange to pursue my MFA in Dance at The Ohio State University starting in August, and I’m looking forward to seeing what blooms when I plant myself for three years in midwestern soil. I’m incredibly grateful to Dance Exchange for giving me so many opportunities to grow, and to every person–past and present dancers, staff, and DX artists–who make this place unlike any other.

About Sarah Levitt

Sarah Levitt (Resident Artist/Communications Coordinator) is a dancer, choreographer and teacher based in Maryland.