BWW Interviews: Houston Ballet's Lauren Strongin Talks FROM HOUSTON TO THE WORLD
In this Broadway World interview, I have a very serious conversation with Lauren Strongin, soloist for the Houston Ballet. Really folks, I just could not think of one joke. But, this interview doesn't need my comedy. Lauren and I discussed FROM HOUSTON TO THE WORLD, in which she dances in all four pieces, overcoming injury, and making the move from Sarasota, Florida to Houston, Texas.
BWW: What puts the Houston in FROM HOUSTON TO THE WORLD?
Lauren Strongin: All three pieces in their own way showcase the strength of the company. I feel like the common thread is working as a group and that is something really specific to the Houston Ballet. Even though there are moments for individuals and pas de deuxs, what's really impressive about all of them is they really highlight that we can all work together and how that's really a strength.
BWW: After talking about teamwork, I'm going to ask you to describe your role in each piece.
Lauren Strongin: Working with Jorma Elo [ONE/end/ONE] was and is a great experience because he has such a unique vision. He is just really fun in the studio. This ballet especially is really challenging. The pointe work is very intricate, and it's the kind of ballet where you get shot out of a cannon at the beginning. You don't ease into it. That's always a challenge. And, I feel that his piece is something you have to prepare for mentally. You have to set yourself up properly. Also, he works with energy - how important your personal energy is, the energy of the group, and how that can change throughout a piece. I was really fortunate to be in the creation of it, to work with him, and have him make choreography on me. So, I feel comfortable in it. I feel every time we have the opportunity to perform it, it grows into something new and there are new people in the group, so that's interesting to have some different energy and personalities in it.
BWW: You say it's the kind of ballet where you get shot out of a cannon at the beginning. How did you work through this?
Lauren Strongin: It's easy to go full force with a 100% of your energy in each movement, but it's so exhausting that you can't keep that up for the entire ballet. It was a challenge to find the moments where I can be still or control the energy in more of a contained, precise way. That was a challenge to learn where the quiet moments were, where to control myself, and still have the right intention and the right motivation [Laughs] while getting everything done. The goal of the piece, at least for me, is to make sure I can maintain a level of quality and the intention throughout without exhausting myself. That has been a challenge, and I think it has been very rewarding to see that develop and be able to trust myself to know how to do that well. It's been an interesting experience.
BWW: What about MURMURATION?
Lauren Strongin: MURMURATION is a really, really special piece. I think it's a really spiritual piece, and one that not only the dancers enjoy doing but that the audience can really connect with, which makes it even more special. I was fortunate to also be part of the creation of it. Actually, the first time that we did it, last year, Edwaard Liang wanted to have two casts, but due to injury, we were only able to do one. I had one role created for me, and I was also supposed to do Karina Gonzalez's part, which is the main pas de deux. So, this time, I get to do both roles. That was really exciting for me, not only to be able to come back, but also to get to do both roles in it.
Edwaard Liang's movement is very different from Jorma's. It's very clipped, quick, and technical, but also very fluid and grounded. He is such a great mover that most of us are just trying to emulate his movement. He was also a really special person to work with. He was extremely encouraging, and he brought things out of each dancer that hadn't been brought out before. He allowed for a lot of individual input and asked each dancer to choreograph 16 counts for a solo for each person. It was a safe zone when we were choreographing. You can see each person's dance in the ballet. We were all so comfortable and able to choose movement that we felt comfortable doing. Of course, he tweaked it and refined it. I think that was an interesting experience for us because choreographers don't always allow that much freedom. At first, it was stressful for me. I thought, "Oh my God! I have to come up with 16 counts of movement. [I Laugh] I'm not competent enough to do that." Once I got over that and embraced the experience, it was actually really rewarding to know that I could do that.
BWW: Do you have any designs to choreograph now that you have a taste?
Lauren Strongin: Not exactly. Every dancer has ideas, but I don't know if that is something I would like to do in the future. It opened up the door for me to be open to that possibility. I think it's important to be open to that as a dancer and to not be so afraid of it. There are more and more choreographers open to that during the process.
BWW: Before you describe PAQUITA, I'm interested in how it felt to be part of the creation of a ballet. To feel like something was made for what you specifically brought to the table.
Lauren Strongin: It's such a gift from a choreographer to be chosen. It's humbling to know that they saw something in you that they were interested in and wanted to work with and use. Personally, I always start out in the process being really open and excited. It is such a growing experience to work with, not only Stanton Welch - I know him and kind of know how he works - but, when he brings in different choreographers, it's such a gift to be able to work with someone with a different point of view and from a different background. From each person that Stanton has brought in - thankfully, I have been involved in the creation of all the new works in the past, since I've been here - I'm always learning something new or something unexpected happens that brings something to my dancing I hadn't thought of or experienced before. I'm so hungry for that kind of experience. I'm hungry to be involved in a new process. Usually, I think there's a little bit of anxiety or fear attached to it. It's out of your comfort zone and something that you're not sure of at the beginning. You're trying to please the choreographer and do a good job. Through that process, getting to the final product, is really rewarding. You go through this range of emotions: excitement and being embarrassed. All those different things that a dancer does do, and getting to those performances, and feeling like you're giving the choreographer the ballet that he's looking for, it's a great thing that we get to do here.
BWW: I'm not even a dancer, and you're making me jealous. [I Laugh]
Lauren Strongin: [Laughs] Sorry!
BWW: You were going to talk about PAQUITA.
Lauren Strongin: I think PAQUITA is a ballet that most dancers growing up either do it in school, have seen it, or are familiar with it. I have Russian training, so I actually did it a lot growing up. I remember seeing it when I was in school. I saw the full length ballet at Pierce Opera. So, I had a lot of experience with PAQUITA going into it, not that I knew what to expect from Stanton (Welch). I didn't know exactly what he was going to do with it. I had a sense of the movement and the style. I was already comfortable with that, but, I didn't know which solo he would choose for me or which solo he thought would suit me. He chose one that I was really happy to do. It's different from the rest of the solos as far as the music goes. It's not predictable. Also, it's toward the end of the evening, so I feel like, "OK, there's already been seven or eight solos out there, how am I going to go out there and give the audience something different and keep them interested?"
I enjoy working with Stanton a lot. Over the past few years, I've had more and more experience working with him in creations. There's a level of comfort and openness from the get go. I really enjoy doing classical work. To have an evening where it's so broad in range, where you have this crazy technical contemporary piece that's en pointe. Then, you have a very modern piece that's very flat and on grounded. Then, you finish it out with PAQUITA, which is this big classical celebration. It's exciting to see. It's the range that Stanton really allows us to have and that he really promotes within the company. I'm really happy about this program and so excited to do so many roles in it. I really respect that Stanton tries to make sure that as many people have an opportunity to shine as possible. Instead of just doing four or five solos, he does nine solos. You get to see not only principals and soloists dancing, but on other nights, you get to see some of the apprentices or corp girls and boys coming up and getting a chance. I think that's also maybe part of that community that we feel for each other.
BWW: What do you think the audience will experience when they're watching this program?
Lauren Strongin: Because the range is so broad, they will definitely not be bored. It really gives them a taste of all that we can do. Hopefully, for people that don't come often, it will inspire them to come back and make them excited to see what else we're going to do. The company is performing at a really high level right now. It's just an exceptional time for the company. It's a great way to start the season out.
BWW: I have to ask questions for all the aspiring artists out there. Could you tell me about your road to soloist?
Lauren Strongin: I think I had an interesting experience because, before I was in Houston, I was dancing in Sarasota, Florida, and I was a principal there. Coming here, to a larger company, you have to work your way back up. That was a challenge at first, adjusting to everything a big company can be. With more dancers, there's less roles and there's less performances for each person. In a small company, you're on all the time, and you're dancing everything all the time. So, I think it was humbling in a way to take a step back and have to work my way up again. I'm so thankful for it. The whole reason I wanted to come here was to be able to grow and experience a really broad rep, to dance all kinds of works that I wouldn't have the opportunity to dance in a small company, and to work with a director that's a choreographer. That was a big reason that I wanted to come here. I think that that is a unique experience.
BWW: How did you adjust to the move from Sarasota to Houston emotionally?
Lauren Strongin: It wasn't easy at first because I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how much I would get to dance. When you make those decisions, you think, "Oh my God, have I made a big mistake? Is it just that I wasn't happy with what I had?" It was just an adjustment period. Stanton (Welch) really didn't waste any time giving me roles. I think there is a little bit of give and take when you make that choice. It wasn't exactly easy, but, I think, looking at where I am now, it was the right decision. I think that I have grown in ways that I really wouldn't have been able to if I had stayed where I was. It's important for dancers to be able to work in different places. It's as important as being able to work with different choreographers within a company. It's also important to work in different environments too. Being too comfortable can lead to stagnation. A little bit of apprehension is good. [Laughs] At least for me.
BWW: What you did was brave and took a lot of courage, I think.
Lauren Strongin: It's made me appreciate everything that I had, and it's definitely made me stronger. Before, I had gotten comfortable and was used to being given everything. Here, there was more of a challenge. It wasn't just me. There were a lot more people that were suited for the role. It pushed me to work harder. I think that's a good thing for me personally.
BWW: A lot of dancers were told they wouldn't make it for whatever reason. What were you told, if anything, and how did you work past it?
Lauren Strongin: During my training, I was really encouraged by my company and director, but I had an injury right after school, which was a little bit of a roadblock that really changed my plans. I had to rethink what my goals were and consider options I hadn't considered during my training, which in the end made me who I am in an unexpected way. As a young dancer, it's important to be really open and not to set yourself on one particular company or one particular path. There's so many things that can come into that and change it. I think that being open really is important. Usually things work out the way that they should. Looking back, I wish I could have seen that.
This is the last weekend to see the very wise and very gracious Lauren Strongin in FROM HOUSTON TO THE WORLD. Performances are at 7:30 pm on September 27 and 2:00 pm on September 28. For more information, please visit Houston Ballet online at www.houstonballet.org.
Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet