BWW Interviews: Cherylyn Lavagnino
Cherylyn Lavagnino has an MFA in Dance from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, as well as a BA in Philosophy from USC. Lavagnino toured nationally as a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has performed a range of classical repertoire and contemporary work by choreographers including Balanchine, John Butler, Hans Van Manen, and Tere O'Connor, and the diversity of these experiences has informed the dialogue between classical and contemporary in her work with Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance. Ms. Lavagnino has created over forty works in the past fifteen years, and since 2000 the platform for her choreography has been Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance. Many of those works were created in collaboration with composers Scott Killian and Jane Chung. CLD continues to support a Live Music and Dance incentive their performances. Lavagnino's choreography has been presented in New York City: by Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, Dance Theater Workshop, Symphony Space, DanceNow/NYC, Kaatsban International Dance Center and The Joyce Theatre's "Evening Stars" series. Ms. Lavagnino is an Alpert Award nominee for choreography and recipient of a space grant residency from the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Her choreography has been supported by the American Music Center's, Live Music for Dance grant and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Manhattan Creative Communities Fund.
Lavagnino was Chair of the Dance Department at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts for 81/2 years, from 2005-2014. She has been a full-time member of the NYU faculty since 1987. She teaches professional ballet locally in NYC and internationally; she is developing a creative exchange with the Beijing Dance Academy and the Conservatory and Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. In recognition of her superior work, Lavagnino won New York University's prestigious David Payne Carter Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003.
Lavagnino will be presenting her New York season, "Darkness, Shadows, Silence," June 26 through June 28 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church as part of the DANCE: Access incentive. The program, featuring three different works, will include the world premiere of RU, a new, contemporary ballet conceived and directed by Cherylyn Lavagnino in collaboration with composer Scott Killian.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Cherylyn Lavagnino.
Q. When did you first begin to dance?
A. I began to study dance when I was 7 years of age with Roselle Frey. During this time I had my first performance experience with David Lachine, who chose me to be one of the little girls for his ballet, Graduation Ball
Q. Which teachers influenced you in your career path?
A. Shortly after studying with Roselle my mom took me to study with Carmelita Maracci. What an experience that was! She began to shape my understanding of what an artist should be; I was around 9 at the time, and she wanted me to explore many things. She requested that I play the flute, take painting classes, go to the museum, understand politics and read and study in- depth. I later met Lupe Serano when I joined Pennsylvania Ballet - she was the first teacher to inform me about technique and process and the importance of anatomical alignment. I will always remember her kind guidance: "Don't worry; I reworked my technique three times during my career." I began to understand how much our work is about process and how engaging that can be.
Q. Any preferences: modern versus ballet?
A. I appreciate both forms and made a point to return to Tisch Dance's MFA program to study modern dance and develop my choreographic craft.
Q. Were there any choreographers that served as major influences?
A. From the beginning, Balanchine enchanted me. As a child I danced in his Nutcracker and Midsummer's Dream. I so appreciate his musicality and spatial design. I remember being backstage and feeling like I was in some wonderful dream or movie, feeling all the excitement and drama of being involved in his ballets.
Q. You've spent much of your career in academia. How did that come about?
A. I danced professionally for about 10 - 12 years before deciding to get an MFA. I always had the urge to choreograph and felt I should really study the craft and expand my dance technique palette to include contemporary dance.
Another tremendous influence at this time was Lawrence Rhodes. I was taking his professional ballet class and wanted very much to continue working with him. He was the Chair of Tisch Dance at the time, and he encouraged me to enter the MFA program. That was great advice, and it truly changed my perception of performance and creative work. He invited me to teach in the department a year or two after I completed my MFA. My work at Tisch has always encouraged me to develop as an artist and teacher--I honed many skills through my roles at Tisch that supported my trajectory as a choreographer and artistic director. I was also surrounded by brilliant artists that have supported and mentored my artistic pursuits; Deborah Jowitt, Phyllis Lamhut, Jaclynn Villamil and Jolinda Menendez, to name the most influential.
Q. What was it like being the Chair of the Dance Department?
A. It was a wonderful and difficult job. There were major departmental budget cutbacks during my Chairmanship, so the challenge to make the cuts and do so creatively so that the program was not compromised was very challenging. The wonderful part was developing rich and stimulating artistic and educational opportunities for our students. I introduced a somatic incentive that has now resulted with many somatic practices in the training, as well as a licensed Dance Physical Therapist and a fully equipped Physical Therapy/Pilates studio. Bringing in the many outstanding dance professionals was also an exciting and fun process.
Q. How would you compare NYU's dance department to others?
A. It is considered one of the top three in the nation, with an excellent international reputation as well. We are very involved in developing the individual artistic voice of our students as performers and creators.
Q. Obviously there was more of a stress on modern dance than ballet at Tisch. Is it because ballet schools are their own hothouses of talent?
A. We train our students daily in both ballet and contemporary technique. The choreographic work does tend to favor the use of contemporary vocabulary. However, I do feel many aspiring ballet dancers train in ballet focused schools and/or schools attached to leading ballet companies. These ballet schools do support their own talent more often than not.
Q. What made you decide to leave academia?
A. I am not completely leaving academia--I'm just stepping down as Chair so that I have more time to devote to my professional life as a choreographer and artistic director.
Q. Do you think there's going to be a big adjustment?
A. I will need to find a way to place reasonable boundaries on my time and commitment to NYU. I'll have to free up time to support the development of my choreographic career while fulfilling my Tisch Dance responsibilities. This could prove challenging.
Q. When did you first found your dance company?
A. Officially in 2000 with my first season presented by Danspace Project. I really feel that the company as a vital force began around 2005
Q. How do you go about choreographing a work?
A. I begin with either a piece of music or an idea. I then spend a great deal of time listening to music to select what will work with my ideas and to develop a movement vocabulary. I find music also leads me to design the dance space, which is something I enjoy doing with my choreography. There is often an abstract narrative to my work which is suggested, not spelled out. I also work closely with my dancers both creatively and feeding off of their individual qualities. I like to see individuals on stage.
Q. How do you choose the music for your works?
A. Often my collaborators (musicians) send me music they think I would relate to. Sometimes I have an idea and search for music that will support it. I collaborate regularly with composer Scott Killian. We have a wonderful time in the studio with the dancers. I also work with violinist Jane Chung. Dance and live Music is an incentive of Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance.
Q. Are you moved by any "themes" in the world to choreograph a dance?
A. Very much so. Recently the tremendous surge of refugees fleeing their politically stressed countries has lead to my newest dance Ru, which is in my season this year.
Q. Is this a full-time dance company? How do you select dancers?
A. It is full time in the sense that we work together many weeks of the year. I don't rehearse daily for several hours--only three days a week for three to five hours. I need the time in between to absorb and dream.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
A. I plan to spend a great deal of time doing outreach to ballet company directors, presenters and university dance programs to introduce them to my work with the hopes of setting up some commissions and some engagement/residencies for Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance, my contemporary ballet company. I will continue to teach and mentor my students at Tisch Dance and to research the impact of the Feldenkrais practice on the daily ballet class. I am currently working with a Feldenkrais lesson preceding a ballet class with the Tisch dance student body.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring dancers and choreographers?
Spend time in the studio regularly with inspiring and generous dancers. I practice every week for about 8 - 10 hours. It is a slow thoughtful process since I work and then have a day or two in-between to digest the creative output. This works for me, as I need to step away to discover what will come next.
Photograph: Travis McGee