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Q&A With Rebecca Lazier

Nova Scotia native Rebecca Lazier (B.F.A. ’90, dance) had trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and expected to be a ballerina—she only auditioned at Juilliard on a whim—but an injury and a paucity of jobs changed her plans.

Rebecca Lazier

Rebecca Lazier

(Photo by Bentley Drezner)

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Lazier calls her class the Mutt Generation: “We didn’t all find single companies to join for life—the ones we had trained for, Limón and Graham, were no longer in their primes, and Taylor Company auditions drew lines down the block of excellent dancers. So we patched together all kinds of projects before we found our niches.” 

After graduating, Lazier taught everything from technique and anatomy to improvisation as well as choreographing for students at the Hartford Ballet, Trinity College, Wesleyan University, an arts high school in Hartford, U.C.L.A., and the State Conservatory in Istanbul. Now a mother of three who joined the Princeton University faculty in 2003, Lazier also manages her own company and is writing a book (the working title: Question Technique: Plan Critically to Teach Creatively). In June, she produced an immersive, site-specific work in Brooklyn set to composer Frederic Rzewski’s iconic, two-part meditation on the 1971 Attica prison riots. After the performances of Coming Together/Attica, which she created with the indie-classical ensemble Newspeak, Lazier rode her bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan to speak with Ingrid Kapteyn about her multifaceted career. 

Did you always plan to be a choreographer?
It wasn’t until an injury in my third year at Juilliard that I started to shift away from thinking of myself only as a dancer [and] had to find other ways to be involved in school, so I choreographed and directed rehearsals for several productions. I also needed to retrain myself to prevent further injury. Alfredo Corvino (faculty 1954-93) told me I had been trained “so well, but so wrong,” and I think those experiences sparked my interest in choreography and teaching.

How did you find your footing after graduation? 
It took me nine years of working outside of New York’s glare before I felt ready to have my first full-evening show here. I remember feeling tremendous pressure to have something going on, and the ability to say “I’ve been rehearsing my own work” was difficult without having an impressive commission or performance attached. My advice? Don’t judge what you are doing for at least three years, probably five years, after graduation. Grant yourself time for productive floundering! You have to try everything before you can really know what you want to and should be doing. 

How did you make your way into teaching? 
The Hartford Ballet offered me a position teaching dance kinesiology and choreography in a B.F.A. program it had begun with the University of Hartford. I had regular access to free studio space and found a small community of professional dancers on which I started making work. The intensity of teaching 15 classes and rehearsing 12 hours a week gave me time and space to find my voice and gain confidence.

How is being at Princeton? 
Because it’s a research institution that values ongoing scholarship, Princeton recognizes choreography as my form of publication and I can continue to create on my company while teaching. My mother was a scientist who ran a research lab and taught, and I think I have held that as a model, only my lab is the studio. 

Can you use your “lab work” with students as research for your company? 
I would say that the work I do with my company permeates my teaching more than the other way around. But even if my choreography for students does not relate conceptually to what I do with my company—and I want to be able to give every student equal challenges and opportunities—it still allows me to use the same choreographic tools. 

How do you deal with students who want to take a dance course just for fun?
I love them! Princeton students are faced with incredible choices. If they choose to dance, they are essentially giving up taking a course with a Nobel laureate to come to the studio a few times a week. They want to learn, and whether they have professional aspirations has no bearing on their intensity and passion. We try to offer a buffet with options for all students.

You seem to thrive on process and research; how do you know when a project is ready to move to the stage? 
At first I need time closed off from sharing or showing work to play in the studio. Eventually I start hosting showings to gather feedback and observe what happens in front of an audience while continuing to balance time for rehearsals and reflection. The process for Coming Together/Attica lasted almost four years. With current funding models, taking time is problematic: you’re supposed to be raising money every year, you’re supposed to be performing consistently to stay on people’s radar and have relevant videos for grant applications, so it was hard to stretch that arc of time. It felt like we risked falling out of the world, but that’s what it took.

You work with a huge team of collaborators, but how much does who the audience is—or who you want the audience to be—play into what you’re making for them? 
For Coming Together/Attica, the music played a huge role, and as I learned more about the score, I realized that this was a chance to attract a more crossover audience, which is something I’ve put in my mission statement for years, but finding ways to actually do it is difficult. My favorite story from the show is that while a friend and I were talking afterward, he noticed another friend standing nearby. They had spoken that day, and one had said, “oh, I have to go to a music show,” and the other had said, “I have to go to a dance show.” And they were at the same show! 

Collaboration is now a daily emphasis at Juilliard—what advice do you have for students in a large pool of potential collaborators for the first time? How do you start the relationships and know who’s the one?
Do your research. Collaboration doesn’t just mean going into a studio and noodling around together—that’s one element, because you need to be able to have dialogue—but you also need to go away and think about other approaches and discover new possibilities. Go see work together, go for a walk or to a museum, assign each other reading to discuss. It isn’t necessary to love a partner’s work immediately, but it is necessary to love how they think about their work. Then you can go into the studio and start new conversations so it’s equally gratifying for both collaborators, versus “can you play this for me?” 

A line from the score of Coming Together states, “I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time.” At this point in your life, do you feel time going by especially quickly from project to project? 
Yes and no. I think that what happens as you have children or as you age is you gain a deep appreciation of a moment that’s happening. When I’m in rehearsal with these glorious dancers, a sense of deliciousness, of being involved absolutely in that moment, brings a sort of timelessness. It’s the same when I’m watching my kids go down the street. I’ll say to myself, “freeze, and remember, and enjoy this moment.” That becomes a very profound experience of time where days feel extended—whether in rehearsal or at home or in class, since those all feed each other. On the other hand, yes, my son just turned 10 and my girls just turned 6 and that’s outrageous to me. So that kind of time passing is extremely fast.

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