BWW Interviews: Katya Stepanov
Katya Stepanov, a Brooklyn-based actress, dancer, choreographer, and musician, was born in Minsk, Belarus, raised in New Jersey and recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama. She is a founding member of IN THE BASEMENT THEATER Co, an Andrew Carnegie Scholar, a performer and a developing poet. Her work has been published in The Oakland Review and several other literary magazines. Her curiosity pulls her towards as much travel as possible, as she derives her inspiration for choreography in experiencing and observing the traditional dances of different cultures, gesture, and studying the emotional/psychophysical qualities of communication and movement.
She trained for 9 years to be a professional Latin/Standard Ballroom dancer with Maksim Chmerkovskiy (Dancing With the Stars/Rising Stars Dance Academy), has studied at the Rhodopi International Theater Laboratory in Bulgaria, and at the Moscow Art Theater in Russia.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to talk with Ms. Stepanov.
Looking at the trajectory of your life from birth to 2013, you've travelled a long way. Where were you born?
I was born in Minsk, Belarus on August 4th, 1991. Had I been born four days earlier, it would have been Minsk, USSR. Family and friends used to call me the "liberty baby", but I think that was more of a sarcastic joke than a nickname, considering Belarus is now one of the last dictatorships in Europe, a fact that few people know.
When did your parents decide to emigrate to the United States and for what reasons?
My mother came to visit my grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States when she was 19. He was working for Kodak and lived in a beautiful house in Rochester, New York. For my mother, who was used to her tiny communist apartment in Belarus, it was a life-changing trip; she realized that everything she'd been told about the western world was false. America's streets really were paved with great opportunities. She tasted her first bagel, experienced her first supermarket, neon 80s wear, and probably tried every food you could imagine. Her stepsister, now one of my foremost supporters and sponsors, had an entire closet full of different clothing that nobody else owned and, more importantly, a bright future ahead of her: college, the chance of true self-actualization and vast professional opportunities. My mother must have been amazed staring at 30+ options for laundry detergent, when the idea of a washing machine was still considered a luxury back in Minsk.
Business dealings were also rapidly changing after the Soviet system collapsed. The Times and television news kept reporting them every other second, it seemed.
In Minsk in the late 80's, early 90's, business was entirely about getting rich as quickly as possible and was run primarily by the mafia, due to the sudden transition between economic systems. Once operations began to shift, all and any opportunities existed only within corrupt systems, and the future seemed too uncertain, cold, frantic, and unpredictable.
Your mother is Jewish, something that worked greatly in her favor in the early 1990s.
The greatest irony of all is that my mother's Jewish heritage, which for so long hindered her in the Soviet Union's anti-Semitic culture, became her ticket out of the chaos. When she understood clearly that anyone's greatest opportunities were over the ocean, she applied for our family's immigration papers.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. In '92, America re-opened its doors to Jewish refugees from Soviet bloc countries - for the first time, my mother was able to walk into a government establishment, state her maiden name, Erlikh, which means honest in German, and acquire her ticket to a new future.
I take it that growing up in the United States was easier for you than your parents. What was it like for them?
It wasn't easy for any of us in the beginning. Before leaving their home forever, my parents sold their apartment, furniture, and my father closed down both of his shops in Minsk. After purchasing the plane ticket and paying the legal dues, my parents were left with a one-way ticket and $800.00 in their pockets. We moved to Teaneck, New Jersey. My father took any job that came his way; plumber, driving teacher, factory worker, packaging, etc. My mother worked at the local Russian-Jewish day care in exchange for my attendance there. My parents were lucky to acquire a few guardian angels. Philippe, a generous professor of English in the local community college came to the apartment to teach my parents English. Naturally, I learned much faster than my parents. I also learned by watching and imitating Disney films, which were among the only non-Russian cartoons or movies that we owned.
You've said that your family's personal journey reflects a Disney cartoon.
Yes, in many ways. We faced an incredible amount of opposition and obstacles in the beginning. In the process, we learned more about ourselves and discovered what is truly important on our quest for success. Both my parents had earned degrees in Engineering from top Polytechnic institutes in Belarus; a family friend suggested that they apply for two year IT programs at local community colleges, because for two engineers learning how to speak computer language would be significantly easier than learning English. The timing was fortunate yet again, as the early 90's were the peak of the Internet bubble, and both my parents found jobs at up-and-coming technology companies such as Bell Atlantic and Verizon. One job led to another, they learnEd English and they earned their first house, and that self-actualization that my mother dreamed about on her first trip to the states.
Where did you study dance? When did you have the idea that you wanted to become a performing arts professional?
I come from a culture that appreciates both dance and form, regardless of gender. Through the years, Moscow has become an international hub for unique dance forms from around the world. Latin ballroom dance is the most popular amongst both Russian people and Russian immigrants in the United States. It's both formalist and traditionalist, which Russian people naturally appreciate, but there is an invitation and appreciation for the significance of the dramatic, precise storytelling. The physical dialogue between the couple also evokes the erotic flame within, a "double-flame" if you will. This is how I first learned to tell stories; physically, with the body rather than with text. I studied Latin Ballroom from Maksim Chmerkovskiy of Dancing with the Stars when he first founded Rising Stars Dance Academy in Saddle River, NJ. Growing up between languages, dance allowed an exploration of a wordless language; one that expresses meaning across any culture. I began to understand what kind of stories I wanted to tell. I'm interested in how to immerse the audience, slowly wrapping them in all-encompassing sensory experiences that are generated through the combination of mediums. The stories that inspire me are like the people who inspired Alan Ginsberg's "The mad ones. The ones that burn, burn, burn..." There is a reason that Broadway's Latin Ballroom extravaganza was titled "Burn the Floor".
You graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University, one of the country's leading theatre conservatories. What was it like attending the university?
For me, and for most alumni I've spoken with, attending Carnegie Mellon was a dream come true. This year Huffington Post ranked us the #4 Theater Conservatory in the world, and 7 CMU alumni won Tony awards including Best Musical Actor, Best Musical Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Scenic, and Lighting design. Attending the university was one of the most rewarding and intense experiences I have ever, experienced. CMU is very much a school of conservatories, with an average of 100 people in any major across four years, whether that is Engineering, Computer Science or Drama. This creates an environment where you are in class with 7 people, and within the school of drama this means that your professors have a direct and intimate relationship with you as you mature and evolve in your personal journey. I am thankful for my experience at school; it is where I met all of my collaborators at my company, In the Basement Theater Co. We came together out of a mutual appreciation and wanted to create our own work rather than always play in someone else's creation. At many schools that teach a very traditional, classic approach to the craft, this may be met with resistance. Carnegie Mellon fosters a true appreciation of the opposite. The school not only encourages cross-disciplinary studies, but also incites a fusion between individuals of the arts and sciences that transforms the very way we interact.
What would you say was one of the unique opportunities of studying at CMU?
CMU offers the Playground Festival of Student Work. Every year students submit anywhere from 100-300 proposals for pieces up to 45 minutes in length that could be performed anywhere in the school, using the school's incredible resources, and are reviewed by the Playground Committee. During Playground week all classes are canceled, and the accepted 50-60 pieces are given two hours of rehearsal time every single day, the ultimate stage manager challenge, and then performed at the end of the week in the culmination of the festival. Many companies such as Tenement Street Theater, Pig Pen Theater Co, my theater company, In the Basement Theater Co. all got their start as Playground collaborations.
You're a writer. As a performing artist, do you find that there are things you can express in words that are impossible in movement?
Actually, I find the exact opposite to be true. There are moments of deep significance that only affect us so deeply because there are no words to describe them. These moments live in images; the moment Orpheus turned around at the top of the mouth of the River Styx and took his final glance at Eurydice, when two lovers first trace one another's' features, a brush with a stranger that lingers in a spontaneous rush... when you witness these moments without an imposed text or story, you are invited to endow them with your own memories, which makes them more meaningful to each individual. . Words, at best, are like the waterfall describing a cliff; they brush the contours of the meaning.