In the Spotlight: Danielle Davidson

Danielle Davidson, one of the area’s most respected local contemporary dancers and one-half of the groundbreaking duo “Doppelgänger Dance Collective” joins the faculty of FBP’s Summer Dance Intensive 2017, which starts next week. The four-week training program is the perfect venue for Davidson’s unique choreographic style, based in classical ballet but with a contemporary flare all her own. We asked FBP School student Mizuki Samuelson to sit down with Danielle and learn about her backstory and what inspires her choreography and teaching.

Danielle Davidson. Photo by Nikki Carrara.

Hi Danielle! To start, how did you get involved in dance?

I started dancing really late compared to most. I was 12, when I discovered dance.  My parents had me try out many sports: soccer, bowling, baseball. I hated it! And I was afraid of the ball. I would be spinning and swirling out in the field. One day, a friend at school told me about this dance class she was taking–a jazz class. I was interested so I begged my mother to sign me up. On my first day, the teacher was like “Oh you have a lot of potential. We’re gonna put you in ballet and in the performance group, tomorrow.” And I fell in love. Immediately, yeah.

So once you started taking classes, did you go straight to a professional school to train?

The training I was doing age 12 – 14, was at an amateur after-school program. It was Cecchetti ballet, jazz, modern. I went many nights a week because I was crazy about it. But I realized right away I wanted to do this professionally. So I auditioned for L’École Supérieure de Danse du Québec because I speak French and because the program offered full scholarships. I was 15 when I moved away from home and, yeah, living in an apartment with a couple other dancers…that was my teenage life.

Donizetti Variations. Image courtesy Balanchine Trust

When did you first start working with contemporary dance?

When I was about 21, 22. The transition was difficult. I didn’t know anything about floor work. [Laughs] I was so bad. Just dropping my bones into the floor. There is a professional series in Montréal programming at Circuit-Est. I basically taught myself by attending class daily for 2 or 3 years, Monday through Friday, every morning I’d show up to those classes, and mangle my way through. It’s a really elevated program and I just learned through practicing. I found that there was a lot more acceptance about your depth of physicality, not that I don’t have a lot of it, hahha, but it just felt more…honest. And human, authentic, and accepting.

What other companies did you work with?

I worked with an opera company in Hamilton, Ontario with Renaud Doucet who’s a brilliant choreographer. There were six dancers. They paid to move me to Hamilton, they paid for my apartment, it was a luxurious position. We toured all over. It was my first real commercial [job]. We were treated like royalty. It was lovely. Big change from a ballet company where you, you know, you have to kind of fend for yourself.

Photo by J. A. Dupont
Photo by J. A. Dupont

Then I moved to Toronto and worked with a company called Ballet Espressivo, mostly neoclassical ballet. Lines were still appreciated but there was less of the old romantic ballet stories and more present day conflicts. Like some of the work that Festival Ballet Providence is doing now, like Viktor Plotnikov’s work.

In my 20s, I changed companies almost every other year. I was still trying to figure out where I belonged, who I was, what made sense for me. I started to realize that the prestige mattered less than the creative process itself. I realized that, the rehearsal process, the creation of new work was more important to me than the prestige of touring or dancing with a well-known company. And actually, to be honest, touring kinda sucks. When you’re living out of a suitcase, it sounds glamorous, but it sucks. You miss your cat, your friends, grocery stores.. etc..  I was happy to stop, after all my early 20s, traveling all the time. I wanted to settle down.

I went back to Montréal in 2006. I started working with Lina Cruz, with a company called Productions Fila 13. Lina makes dance-theater, so it was this whole new experience for me. I was actually a part of the creative process. Her work tours internationally, so it’s really well supported and the company– what I loved about that job, was that the members of the company were like friends, family, people that I cared about. We were a solid team.

So do you feel like when you returned to Montreal in 2006, that was the first time you found a company that was right for you?

Yeah, it was the first time I found a company that nurtured my spirit, that felt like home, and that the work was really weird [laughs] but in a really exciting way, it made sense for my personality. I performed in this one piece where we were on all fours, licking a mirror reflection of ourselves. A small company of about six dancers– three men, three women. We were all really featured, always a soloist, you weren’t just a number. I really love that company. Dance-Theater makes so much sense to me.

As a dancer, what was the transition like to becoming a teacher and a choreographer?

Well,  right before my husband and I moved to Providence, my professional ballet school contacted me and said that they’d really love for me to come and teach. I was like [surprised look]. When I attended the orientation day it was so weird to be sitting on the side with the faculty, with people who had been my teachers. It changed everything about how I understand the dynamics between teaching and being a student. Like what it means to share your life experience and your life’s passion with people, especially younger than yourself,  who perhaps don’t quite yet know themselves.

It became a practice, every class I taught I learned more about how to share the essence behind why we do a dégagé. What does it mean that your lower half is going out into the world? You know, like the conceptual and philosophical reasons to move our bodies in space. Where the joy is and where the pain is. All that stuff helped me better understand why I dance.

When they asked me if I would set a piece on the dancers, I thought , Wow. I mean I don’t know. Do you really think I’m capable?.. It was that they believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself. They trusted that I could do it, so I had to prove to myself and them that I could. It seemed that I had a gift for choreography.

I always thought I was a dancer. And I can see that in my future, I’m going to be more of a choreographer. I’m already headed down that path. But for right now it’s important that I dance, that I teach and that I choreograph because all three, they communicate with each other. My dance experience teaches me about teaching. And the teaching teaches me about choreography. And the choreography teaches me—they all speak to one another in this really cohesive way that reminds me how everything is connected. In the universe. We’re all connected. And it’s just a beautiful, spiritual experience to have, to have so many outlets to come together. I’m sorry, is this really esoteric? [Laughs]

How would you describe your choreography? What is your process like?

Well, it’s all over the place. I’ve made some pieces that are very movement vocabulary-based, that are almost like feats of technique and virtuosity. I’ve also made quiet works that are sparse and take their time in horizontal space. But the vocabulary itself is somewhere between contemporary release technique and neoclassical ballet. I’ll give my dancers a conceptual task and they will generate some material that I will then completely take apart [laughs] and re-frame, but there is still an essence of them left. I’ll give little hints about what I want their performative state to be, but I hope for them to want and to find the journey within the piece for themselves. As for conceptually what types of work I make… A lot of it is about identity, transformation, struggle, community, definitely community, anonymity. All the works I’ve done have in some way been about those concepts.

What’s it like to be a female choreographer in the male-dominated field?

I find that in order to not let that fact of life get me down, I use the knowledge of this inequality to empower me. That we as a society have men still being paid more than women in all jobs, that men are still being valued as more successful…. it’s a travesty. But, instead of seeing it like I’m a victim and I’m defeated by being a woman, I see it as a challenge for myself to be the best that I can be. Regardless of how society or the systems that are in place right now are set up, I feel it is my duty to continue striving to do my absolute best and to share that with the world in the best way that I can. I see that horrible inequality as an opportunity for me to grow, to speak my truth and to fight the systems in place.

Shura Baryshnikov and Danielle Davidson. Promotional photos for Myths, Legends & Questions. Photo by Nikki Carrara.

Do you think being a woman has any influence on your own choreography?

Absolutely. I’m very interested in the ideologies of third wave feminism, and for example, the writings of Judith Butler. I think what’s important to me is equality, and justice, and the attempt to get as close to it as possible, in every climate and environment. Whether you’re a transgender individual or a straight white female, how you identify is what matters I think, that as humans we navigate life trying to remain true to ourselves and foster relationships of equality with everyone we encounter.. that’s what is important to me. So, I would say because I do identify as a woman, it’s glorious to know who I am and to be able to remain true to that. I wish that for everyone..That’s going to be a concept explored in our piece at Festival, definitely. (Editor’s Note: This new commissioned choreography for FBP’s Summer Dance Intensive will be performed at WaterFire on July 22 and at the FBP Black Box Theatre on July 29). 

Photo by Marc Pilaro

So would you say that your experience in theater informs your work as well?

Yeah, absolutely. The other thing is I’m an entrepreneur. Shura and I co-founded a company! And this is the magical transition that happened when I moved to Providence. When I was living in Montréal my husband was doing his B.A. When it was time to do his M.A. he said he wanted to transfer to a better known university. But I wanted to stay in Montréal. I loved the company I was working with, and I was happy. So he stayed for me, he stayed in Montréal for a few more years. But then he wanted to get his Ph.D. at an Ivy League university, so we moved to Providence.

I found a company in Massachusetts called Prometheus and I work with them. I just got lucky, finding a home, a family, a group of dancers that allow me to be part of the creative process, build the vocabulary, and work with guest choreographers. At the time, I didn’t feel that there was the type of dancing I wanted to do consistently here in Providence.

Then I met Shura Baryshnikov in a technique class and we just sensed the ‘doppelgänger-ness’ immediately. We sought out our dream choreographers, began fundraising, built Doppelgänger Dance Collective  (DDC) from the ground up and it has been really successful! So, all this to say, I initially moved here thinking that my dance career was over, that I would be gardening and crying into my flowers, but then, this new opportunity came, to be an entrepreneur, to be a woman building a company. We’re doing really well and I would have never ever thought of co-founding or directing a dance company. I would have never wanted to do the administration and the websites and the learning about technical direction and production design and dealing with presenters and the media. All of that stuff, it was never something I wanted, but I’m loving it. I’m learning so much about this other side of dance- arts-administration, things that I would have never learned as just a member of a company. So, Providence, in that respect, has given me this thing that I would have never imagined for myself. A real gift in learning.

I was just going to ask about your company with Shura! So what would you say is the idea behind Doppelgänger Dance Collective?

 The day Shura and I met, we just intuitively felt and knew that we’d met our match. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, we were at the same place. We were at the same age, we had a ton of different experiences and wisdom to bring to the table, but we were mirror reflections. We wanted to push ourselves and each other past our own limitations, breaking all boundaries and just being recklessly brave about what was possible for the arts community and for ourselves in Providence. We also wanted to foster the creation and performance of live music for our concerts, and give choreographers the opportunity to have their works presented, without having to self-produce. In a sense we are also curators. We’re doing it all. It’s crazy. I mean we have some help, we have a team of people who help us: a lovely intern, an amazing social media strategist, a technical director, etc..  but yeah… it’s crazy.

What are some of your favorite pieces that you’ve worked on? Either your own choreography or things that you’ve danced.

I was a soloist in a piece choreographed by Thierry Malandain, the artistic director of Ballet Biarritz. He created a work for us called Gnossiènes, set to Erik Satie’s beautiful ‘Gymnopédies & Gnossiennes’ . I danced a trio with two men where I had to do this crazy acrobatic stuff. I was at once, a rabbit coming out of a magician’s hat, and also some sort of gymnast; I had to literally flip off the barre, I had to maneuver my hands on the barre as the guys swirled me around like a helicopter. The barre itself had on, one side the light and, on the other, the dark. I had to repeatedly try to get into the light because I was in the dark. It reflected the state of being or frame of mind, I was in at the time, and it just meant so much to me, emotionally, spiritually, physically… We performed that piece all over Europe, all over North America, that piece I have never stopped loving.

Davidson in Gnossiènes. Image courtesy Thierry Malandain, Ballet Biarritz.

Danielle Davidson will teach a master class and choreographic workshop July 8-9 at Festival Ballet Providence. Click here to learn more.

Interview conducted by FBP School student Mizuki Samuelson. In the Spotlight series edited by Kirsten Evans and Dylan Giles.

FBP School student Mizuki Samuelson

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