Interview with Danielle Rowe, Choreographer

Harmonious Beauty
Diablo Ballet

Shadelands Center for the Arts
Walnut Creek, Calif.
Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director
Danielle Rowe, Choreographer, “And Here We Are”
Feb. 1-2, 2018
Interview: Jan. 19, 2018

Having followed Australian-born Danielle Rowe’s ballet career since she was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet, and then having seen her perform with Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague, then again in British choreographer Christopher Bruce’s “Intimate Pages,” in a SF Danceworks program that included a piece of her own, “For Pixie,” I was eager to learn more about her and the work she is currently creating on Diablo Ballet for its Harmonious Beauty season. I had a chance to sit down in conversation with her at the Shadelands Center for the Arts before observing a rehearsal of a segment of her piece, “And Here We Are,” which Diablo will perform in February.

Toba Singer: How did you find your way to the United States, twice?

Danielle Rowe: The first time, Stanton Welch, Artistic Director of Houston Ballet offered me a contract. The second time, after having left Houston after one season, and then danced with Nederlands Dans Theater for four, I joined my husband Luke Ingham in San Francisco, where he is a Principal Dancer with San Francisco Ballet. Soon afterwards, I gave birth to our daughter, Agnes.

TS: Among opportunities that would be the envy of any dancer, you were offered a soloist contract at San Francisco Ballet, which you rejected in favor of pursuing what some might consider an unconventional ballet career. Why?

DR: At the time that I was offered the contract at San Francisco Ballet, I had come to the realization that being in a major company wasn’t right for me anymore. I needed time and space to figure out what I wanted to do. I still wanted to dance, so the question became how to be involved? I tried to challenge myself, and not take the easy or conventional way, so that I could be in a space where I’d feel content with what I’m doing. I also wanted to be a mother and unlike some others, I knew I couldn’t be both dancer and mother. I wanted to be a full-time mom, but after a certain point, also return to ballet. Coming back to the studio has been a gradual process. I’m lucky to have had a year and a half with Aggie. It’s still shocking how fast she’s growing up and I love it. I’ve found myself back in the studio from time to time during that period. Not being part of a company means I can do my work at home mostly, and be at the studio only when I ‘m actually in rehearsals.

TS: How do you remain in step with the styles of new choreographers coming on the scene, and stay in the mix of what’s developing in the art form?

DR: The truth is that I feel like I’m more in touch in the dance world because I’m not working a full-time schedule, where you’re performing consistently, and working all hours. When you’re working that kind of schedule and feeling exhausted, you tend not to want to see dance performances that you should be seeing. Now I have energy to research, and whatever I see or experience in dance feels fresh. Even being a mother and interacting with other mothers are new experiences for me, but after dancing with major companies and being tied to a lockstep schedule, I welcome the novelty of these interactions. Dancing in a major company means you have to be so absorbed in the work, yourself, and your role, that you have to live your life with blinders on. You have to adopt a kind of tunnel vision in order to be great, be in harness, focus on yourself and the piece you’re doing, and the choreographer you’re working with. Everyone is depending on you to be great, and the stress can be so overwhelming that you have to shut out too much. I wanted to change my focus away from me. I wanted to chat with other mothers, and when that got boring, I opened myself up to being back in the studio, after having experienced the simplicity of it not being about me all the time.

TS: Tell me about the work you are creating on Diablo Ballet.

DR: Lauren [Jonas] approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing something for Diablo. I had heard about the maturity of the Diablo dancers, and I love working with mature dancers. You can’t teach experience, and as a professional dancer, over time, you experience working with different people, gain an understanding of the body, its limitations, and what you want to show off or emphasize. I am working with six dancers, three men, three women, where the women are on pointe. I’m exploring fusing the worlds I’ve lived in and the experiences I’ve had in them. I come from a strong classical background but also danced contemporary choreography while at NDT. What drew me to ballet in the first place was the storytelling element. “And Here You Are,” won’t necessarily tell a literal story, but it provides the audience with a very clear idea of what they are taking from it, so that they don’t have to ask the question, “What was that about?” I want them to know that was definitely that for me and not this, and hopefully they will!

The piece concerns one couple. The six dancers are cast in three pairs, representing the one couple at different stages in their relationship. One of the three couples shows what it went through during a poignant, difficult time, conflicted about whether to work at away at the problems they were facing, or go it alone and separate. A lot of people tend to remain in a single relationship for a long time, with ups and downs. You have wants and needs that begin to differ from those of your partner, and how and whether you want to go on, and in this work, how to go on, is posed via the three couples representing the one.

I am asking the question, “When it’s clear that something’s never going to work out, can I go back to my earlier self?” In the piece, I can look back to tough times when it seemed like the world was ending, and where I found reassurance from a younger, maybe more forceful self. The fantasy that you could move back in time, pass on youthful wisdom, see what’s required, is present in this piece. Before I knew the dancers, I initially wanted to do something comedic. Then we weren’t able to use the music I had wanted, so it morphed into this piece with very distinct segments, and the music is by Mahler.

TS: What would you like your daughter to begin to understand about who you are and what you do in life?

DR: I would like my daughter to eventually understand that I’m a “work in progress” and that I will forever be adjusting, learning and hopefully developing in a positive way! I would love her to understand what I value in what I do, and that is communication and collaboration. Art can be so beautifully powerful and transcendent. It can unite and challenge, ignite change and provide comfort. I love that in order to create the work I wish to create I must always find a way to work harmoniously with the people around me. I hope that one day my daughter understands the value of communication and collaboration, regardless of what she does in life.

TS: If it hadn’t been ballet for you, what do you imagine it would have been and why?

DR: I was a very stubborn, ambitious child. I had to be a ballerina or an actress. There were no two ways around it! So, I guess it would have been acting. I adored performing and playing make believe. Every house guest became an audience member to one of my “productions.” If it hadn’t been ballet it definitely would have been some kind of performance art!

TS: If you could write a book about what it is like to be a girl and then a woman with a sense of her own purchase in the ballet world, especially in light of the recent declarations under the banner of “Me Too,” what would you want your readers to come away with?

DR: You know, if you all come together and say this is not OK, then something will change. What takes place behind the scenes ends up a vicious cycle. From the time you are very young in your ballet training, it is ingrained in you that you are lucky to have a job. You are told that there is always someone waiting in the wings to take that job if you do the least little thing to place it in jeopardy. But the reality is that there would be no company without dancers. The dancers are the reason the company is there. So if everyone, particularly women dancers, but men too, would say “No,” and stick together, these outrageous practices would stop. I have personally been in a few situations where I would stand up to them, and I don’t say this to brag, but I did this knowing that they had confidence in my talent, and was told by many people, “We value you!” So I felt confident enough to voice my opinion about something bigger than me.

I shut out the inner voice that we’re supposed to listen to that says, “Someone’s going to take your role, your job, your career.” The fact is that no matter how good you are, how much the audience loves you, ultimately, your career is in the hands of an artistic director, and artistic directors, like everyone else, can be subjective. No matter who else loves you, the artistic director has the final word. Knowing this, you can let that inner voice paralyze you, but if we stick together, we can find something more powerful than that inner voice! Along those lines, I was inspired recently by the words of a rabbi, offered at a shiva I attended. He said “It is beautiful to gather together to support this grieving family. Just think back to a time when we were all the best versions of ourselves, and even just a smile could have an impact on us or someone else. If we all are conscious enough to make just a small effort, we can find that we’ve tiptoed into the miraculous. By taking a little moment to express ourselves, we can tiptoe towards the bigger and the greater.” This is the beginning. All of us must stand up to say that this needs to be different.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.