BWW Interviews: Katya Stepanov

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.

You studied at the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia. How did this come about? What differentiated this training from what you received at CMU?

Carnegie Mellon has always maintained a great relationship with leading conservatory programs around the world. Peter Cooke, our current head of the school, came to us from NAIDA. The late Mladen Kiselov established CMU's connection with MXAT (The Moscow Art Theater) over 20 years ago, and the bond he forged with Anatoly Smeliansky and the art scene in Russia still holds strong. CMU and Moscow Art Theater's training programs are actually very similar, stemming from the Stanislavsky system at their core. However, I would say that the Russian training focuses more on the ensemble and that the CMU system is much more focused on the individual. The movement training in Russia stems from Droznin Technique, which uses weight sharing, partner-work, acrobatics and strength training to develop a physical connection between scene or movement partners. In my three months there, I watched students who were afraid to be upside down for even a moment doing headstands and flipping over one another's backs by the end. Also, the emphasis on ensemble is something I brought back to CMU with me. In an ensemble, you are only as strong as your weakest link, and there is a generosity that is inherent in creating work together. At first, it was incredibly frustrating to try to develop something because we had to learn how to listen to one another, and create our own system for sharing ideas.. Once we overcame the obstacle of learning how to work together, creating work as a group was exhilarating.

What was the impetus for starting your company, In the Basement (ITB)?
The original collaborators were appreciative of our conservatory training, but we also wanted to do our own work, so we began working together and never stopped. The "first" collaboration between the artists that now comprise the core of ITB was a CMU Playground project called Chien de Moi, which we revisited, redeveloped and repackaged for the 2011 NYC Fringe Festival. It was performed at La MaMa, an ideal venue for our company's work. After our first Playground collaboration, Sophia applied for a student undergraduate research grant to explore and mount a production of Jean Cocteau's Orphee in Pittsburgh that summer. During this production we stumbled upon our company name, a tribute to the basement of the apartment building where we all lived and rehearsed together. This being our first independent production, we had to develop promotional materials. We spent an afternoon in ball gowns and suits exploring the remnants of houses that people left with coats still hung on the railings in the 30's, when the steel industry in Pittsburgh really began to fall apart. After Orphee we kept developing work, building our process and trying to take as many risks as possible. For The Lady in Red Converses with Diablo we raised $18,000 in 18 days via Kickstarter, so we've definitely come a long way. The result is what you see today, and we cannot wait to see what happens.

What does ITB hope to accomplish?

We would love to develop a name for ourselves as a holistic performance group that focuses on experimenting with New Mediums of communication, whether they be a blend of Butoh dance and ballet, digging for poems with the audience in rooms full of sand, taking over abandoned spaces all over the world. Our company is definitely very New York in identity, and I attribute this claim specifically to the fact that every individual has come from somewhere unexpected, and contributes their cultural background and experience to the creation process. For example Sophia Schrank is from the mission district of San Francisco, I am from Minsk, Belarus, Jessie Shelton grew up in Minnesota, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. is an Afro-Haitian dancer from California as well. Adrian Blake Enscoe and the incredible progressive folk-rock band, Rabbit in the Rye that has written the original score for our production are from Earlville and Hamilton, in upstate New York. They are carpenters and farmers in addition to being incredible musicians. Aidaa Peerzada is half from Baltimore and half from Pakistan, and her family's latest project was to develop Sesame Street to help educate Pakistani children through art. All of the core members spent a month studying and directing work together in Bulgaria as part of the Rhodopi International Theater Laboratory. Three of us all studied in Moscow as part of the program I mentioned earlier. We hope to continue to find dialogue between all of our influences and cultures so that the art we create is reflective of many different backgrounds. Those that have travelled and seen theater in Russia and in Berlin, or other places around the world, may find some similarities between the kind of work we're creating and things they've seen abroad, but that is because we'd like to cultivate that spirit of innovation here in America.

How is your company funded?

In the Basement Theater is sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a not-for-profit organization that supports developing young artists. They select artists into their Sponsored Artist Program, which has allowed us to accept tax-deductible donations through their website. This is how we receive funding for our company to continue to collaborate together

In January of this year we decided to apply for Arts @ Renaissance's Artist Residency, which offers their 4,500 square foot former hospital basement space with 8 different rooms to artists for whatever purpose they propose. We applied with a two-part plan. First, we had been developing our current production, The Lady in Red Converses with Diablo for a year, and this location seemed like the perfect venue for the next step in our development as a company.

For our residency with Arts@Renaissance, we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, and came up with various creative self-made fundraising ventures. As we continue to expand, we hope to rely more on grants, paid residencies, and sponsorships for creating new work.

Do you find any problems performing in a basement?

Prior to this residency my colleagues Sophia, Adrian and I always developed pieces that we performed on a proscenium, and audience members would approach us after seeing one of our shows and say, "I just wish I could have been right in the center of that, so that I could experience it up close."

This basement location seemed both ironically fitting for our company and also perfect for this experiment that we were dreaming up. We also used the space as a concert venue and held after-school programs while we were rehearsing and developing Diablo. We had six Saturday concerts, bringing in local Brooklyn bands such as The Bothers, Tiny Hazard, Youngman Grand, Lily and the Parlour Tricks and even the post-rock progressive band Sons of an Illustrious Father. It was incredible. Of course a basement of an old hospital comes with its own set of challenges as well. During our second to last performance, one of the breakers nearly caused an electrical fire. And then there are the ghosts, of course.

Describe you current production.

The Lady in Red Converses with Diablo is a sensory experience, fostering experimentation with one-on-one interactive elements. Audience members walk hand in hand with an estranged orphan as she tears through a diabolical bayou in search of her desired skin. In this fully immersive and interactive dance driven theater experience, audiences individually encounter demons whispering secrets in firefly-infested marshes, manic mermaids, lonesome lovers and even a starved jaguar on the prowl. It was important to us to keep the audience very small so that everyone can have as intimate an experience as possible. On Saturdays, the show ends in a celebration with live music, a cash bar and a lot of devilish activities.

Do you receive much critical review?

We are starting to receive more and more critical review the more ambitious our projects have become. So far The Lady in Red Converses with Diablo has been a featured Kickstarter Project of the Day, Staff Pick, and also a Project of the Week through our fiscal sponsors at Fractured Atlas. Our show is listed on Time Out: New York, and has been reviewed by Posture Magazine, Huffington Post, Exposed Brooklyn and Bushwick Daily.

What can we expect from ITB in the future?

We're not entirely sure yet, but we are looking to continue creating unusually immersive work. Sophia wrote an incredible adaptation of The (Re)Collected Works of Billy the Kid for her thesis project at CMU, and we are definitely interested in re-mounting that, potentially in an immersive way with a live score. Adrian has an idea for creating a fully mobile theater-for-one that can be set up anywhere and performed for anyone walking by. I'm excited to find our next rehearsal space, and to focus on developing our process of generating work. Our core members have so many various skills and ideas that they bring to the table, and I am interested in finding how we all fit into each others' inspirations. We're also interested greatly in touring, and hope that there will be another location where we could take Diablo, perhaps even overseas. Whatever we do, we know it will be an adventure of mythological proportions. It always seems to unfold in rewarding and unexpected ways, and we look forward to those surprises.

Photograph: Tim Waltman

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