Upon first impression, Stephen Shropshire reminded me of a 1960s male icon. He was cool, quirkily cute, and was quietly commanding of space with an easy confidence. So it was with great surprise that I found myself and other students so comfortable chatting with him and asking questions at the December 11 installment of the Lunch With an Alum series. It quickly became obvious that our level of comfort was a natural response. Shropshire, the new director of the Netherlands-based dance company Noord Nederlandse Dans, is funny, humble, and remarkably honest. He did not jump to brag of his accomplishments (although there are many), and he was open about his experiences.
A 1994 graduate of the Dance Division, Shropshire, 37, grew up in Miami where he was trained as a singer. He had always dreamed of attending Juilliard, but the School only offered dance auditions in his home town. Nonetheless, Shropshire was determined to get in. We had a good laugh as he recounted the story of his audition, during which he performed a Martha Graham exercise as his solo and confidently told the faculty that it was a friend’s original choreography. It is easy to imagine what the faculty saw in Shropshire; he is talented and witty—now a self-proclaimed “dance geek”—with a healthy amount of determination. In fact, Shropshire was originally asked to be on a hiring panel for the Noord Nederlandse Dans when the company began its search for a director, but he told the group that he wanted to apply for the job instead. (What results!)
With his high position in the European dance world, we were curious to hear the story of how he got there, what it is like, and even more eagerly, we wanted to know how we can do it. With honesty and wisdom he calmed our frantic thoughts, reminding us, “You have to trust the path you are on. If it works, it is going to work.” He encouraged us to take charge of our own careers and know not only what we are getting into, but also what we are giving up—an important thought as we spend hours scouring lists of companies and even more exhaustingly, auditioning for them. As for living, working, and choreographing outside of the United States, Shropshire clearly stated one of the largest challenges: “To be an American is loaded these days.” With humor, he explained that he simply comes from a different perspective. Growing up in Miami, he noted, he went to Disney World every year!
Choreographically, Shropshire said that he is now realizing that he is deeply American. “You cannot avoid who you are,” he stated, while answering more America vs. Europe questions. His first piece (a duet titled Mercy) was created when he was at Juilliard in 1992. He has since choreographed works throughout the United States and Europe, although much of his time is now spent in the studio with the company. Shropshire has a very clear and, to some, seemingly ambitious artistic goal: He wants to make it O.K. to dance simply for the sake of dancing, focusing more on innovative movement rather than theatrics.
With his works, he strives to push the body to its full potential. He finds inspiration from many great choreographers, including Graham, Balanchine, and Kylian, and hopes that as a culture we can return to such legacies.
As he spoke to us—as students and the new generation of dancers—Shropshire wanted to make it clear that we do not have to go to Europe to find jobs. With the inspiring remark, “You can change it here. You are the ones that can make it different in the States,” he eased our fears and reminded us to make the choice that is right for us, encouraging us to stand up for the dance and art that we feel is important and fulfilling. For those of us still eager for European jobs and advice on being an American dancer in Europe, he wisely advised, “Just don’t talk so loudly,” referring to our often great ambition and the discomfort it can cause people from other cultures. Dance has so many forms and so many paths; it has clearly taken Shropshire on a wild ride. And so perhaps some of his best advice all afternoon was to take what we are getting from Juilliard because, as he noted, “In the hardest times, that has carried through.”