This Dancer's Life: NB2's MOLLY YEO
Molly Yeo began dancing at four years old, while living in North Carolina - moving overseas with her family as an adolescent, where she trained in traditional Indonesian dance, subsequently studying internationally in Jakarta, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand. Returning to the states for high school, she trained at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill and with Duke University's dance department, ultimately performing with the Chapel Hill Dance Theater and appearing in Carolina Ballet's production of Giselle.
Now, entering her second year with Nashville Ballet's NB2 company, Molly Yeo is preparing for a challenging role in the world premiere staging of Gina Patterson's 72 Steps, which focuses on the efforts of suffragists to gain the right to vote - a particularly timely and topical ballet considering the current political tenor of the country and the impact of the 2018 midterm elections, in which record numbers of women are vying for political office.
A recent graduate of the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, where she performed memorable roles in The Sleeping Beauty, the Nutcracker and George Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht, she joined Nashville Ballet 2 professionally as a company member in August 2017. With NB2, she has performed roles with Nashville Ballet in productions of Nashville's Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and George Balanchine's Western Symphony. Additionally, she originated the role of the Yellow Dragon in Dragons Love Tacos, choreographed by artistic director Paul Vasterling for a collaboration with Nashville Children's Theatre in Spring 2018.
With the debut of Gina Patterson's 72 Steps only days away, Molly found time to talk about her love of dance, her burgeoning professional career and what keeps her dancing for the return of our interview series focusing on dancers in Tennessee - This Dancer's Life, premiering today!
What was your first introduction to dance as an art form? When I was four years old my mother took me to see Carolina Ballet's production of Romeo + Juliet. It is one of my first and most clear childhood memories. I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time mesmerized; I had never seen anything like it. It was incredible to me that dancers could tell a story without ever opening their mouths. And, of course, dancing en pointe while wearing a beautiful costume, and having men lift you into the air looked like just the most glamorous thing in the world.
What was your first real job as a dancer? I joined Nashville Ballet 2 professionally in August of 2017. This is my second season.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in dance? Ever since the day I saw my first performance as a child my greatest dream was to be a professional dancer. However, two weeks after I finally got my first pair of pointe shoes, my family and I moved from the U.S. to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where there is no ballet. Leaving my ballet school and formal training behind broke my heart. For over three years I had no formal training except for an annual ballet class when we could visit the capital, but I practiced daily by myself in hopes that once I returned to America I could continue to pursue my dream of a career. It was those formative years having no access to class that instilled in me a strong sense of work ethic, but also what a gift it is to be able to train and to dance. I can truly say that every day that I get to dance is a dream come true.
Who is your dancing idol? My dancing idols have always been teachers of mine, and I could never choose just one. M'Liss Dorrance for her generous spirit and showing me how to tell a story in all that I do, Francesca Corkle for her contagious pure joy of dancing, and Debra Austin, the first African American to be a principal with a major American company, for her power, grace, and humility.
Why do you pursue your art in Nashville? What are the best parts of working here? Nashville has an arts energy that is palpable. It is so ingrained in the everyday culture, and is a city filled with people who love the performing arts and who take pride in producing excellence in the arts. Also, with it being Music City, getting to dance to live music with the Nashville Symphony is absolutely incredible. What a privileged life we dancers here lead.
What is your dream role as a dancer? If you could dance any role, what would it be and why? I would love to one day perform anything by Jerome Robbins. His range of choreography is unparalleled to me. He could do everything from Broadway to classical - West Side Story to Dances at a Gathering. Also, Serenade by George Balanchine would be a bucket list ballet for me. There must be no more beautiful music than Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and no more perfect steps.
What is the brightest spot on your resume? This past season I had the opportunity to perform Balanchine's Western Symphony which felt so fitting in Nashville, and being able to work with Victoria Simon was an immense privilege. Also, being an original dancer in Gina Patterson's new work 72 Steps on the women's suffrage movement has reminded me of how much power there is in the personal influence. Each and every one of us have women in our lives who have shaped us and helped us and raised us. We would not be who we are today without their influence. Being in this work and helping tell the story of these brave women gave me such deep gratitude for those women in my life, specifically my own mother, and gave me such pride to be a woman and a dancer.
What role/ works is your most favorite? My last year in school in New York I performed a demi soloist role in Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht. Being coached by Stacy Caddell, who danced for Balanchine himself, was so special because it reminded me that this art form is one that cannot be best studied or learned from a textbook in a classroom; it is passed on directly from person to person. There were nuances that only she could have taught me because they were first taught to her. I love that about dance.
What's the biggest misconception people have about dancers? Performing on a stage is such a small part of what we do. In fact, I would say performing is the reward. The majority of our time is spent in a studio working and rehearsing - and is what an audience will never see. Most of what we spend our time doing is the process not the product. And to be a dancer you have to continually be fascinated by that process. It is hard work, but it is so worthwhile.
What's your favorite work created for dancers to perform? Any original work choreographed specifically on a group of dancers feels so authentic both to dance and to watch.
If you could have dinner with any three figures (living or dead, real or fictional) who are part of the world if dance who would you choose and why? Christopher Wheeldon because of how much I admire his choreography, and also because I will probably always regret being too nervous to say hello when he was here setting a ballet on the company last season. I would love to meet Twyla Tharp because her work looks like no one else's. It is so uniquely Twyla, and that authenticity is so inspiring. Lastly, I would've loved to have met the late Violette Verdy. She danced with such femininity and charm and was a true ballerina, but she also had a reputation of being the most kind and giving person and teacher. Knowing that just makes her dancing all the more beautiful to me. What a lovely legacy to leave behind.
Imagine a young person seeing you onstage or seeing a production in which you played a major role coming up to you and asking you for advice in pursuing their own dream - what would you say? I would say to find a greater meaning in your dancing than doing it for yourself. Being a dancer you will experience constant disappointment, rejection, and have days when inevitably your body lets you down. Your identity was never meant to rest solely on your own performance. We were never created to be able to bear the weight of that. All art points to something or someone. Rather than dancing to glorify yourself, dance for a meaning that is larger, and for the pursuit of a beauty that is bigger than any of us.
More about the world premiere of Gina Patterson's 72 Steps
Inspired by Tennessee's vital role in the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Nashville Ballet will debut Gina Patterson's 72 Steps at Harpeth Hall School's Frances Bond Davis Theatre this Saturday, November 10, at 2 p.m. The performance is free and open to the public.
Commissioned by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Nashville and their Perfect 36 Supporters, 72 Steps explores themes of basic human rights, civic responsibility and the ongoing battle for a more equitable society through the lens of the suffrage movement.
"We always knew the League of Women Voters should be involved in telling the story of the passage of the 19th Amendment. After all, it was our own Carrie Chapman Catt who created the League in February of 1920 before traveling to Nashville in July to secure the vote," LWV of Nashville project co-chairs Cindee Gold and Debby Gould explain.
"After careful consideration, we chose ballet. For many of us, as young girls, ballet was one of the few acceptable outlets we had to express our athleticism and creativity. Dancers are beautiful, but it is their strength that is crucial to their success, as so it is with all women."
"Given that Tennessee was the 36th and final vote needed for the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the League of Women Voters [of Nashville] felt it was important to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary in a special way," Gold and Gould continue.
"Our choice to commission a ballet was very intentional. Historically, our society has discouraged girls from participating in sports; girls were meant to be delicate, but in dance we could be strong - we could flex our muscles and assert ourselves with a confidence not allowed outside the studio."
Complementary to state curriculum for middle school history classes, Nashville Ballet's Second Company, NB2, will transport entire classrooms of students and audiences to the early 1900s as the fight for women's rights is heating up.
Inspired by history, Patterson's work is a contemporary retelling of the slow flame of the suffrage movement as friends and families grapple with the terms of one of the most divisive issues of the time building to a fiery denouement in the days surrounding the Tennessee legislature's history making vote and the famed letter said to have persuaded young House Representative Harry Burn to support the proposed amendment.
Depicting a fight that began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and spanned over 72 years, Patterson's work draws parallels from the past to present in an effort to transcend time. During the creative process, Patterson called NB2 artists to reflect on the civic issues that concern them in modern society. They followed this by writing letters similar to that which Rep. Burns' mother wrote convincing him to cast that momentous vote; Patterson used these letters and conversations to shape the ballet's narrative.
"72 Steps endeavors to engage young people on the topic of inequality and illuminate the long and continuing march towards parity. It challenges audiences to contemplate their own beliefs around women's voting rights and how this extends to broader conversations of equality, whether relating to gender or other discriminations in the name of power and control," Patterson contends.
"I hope this ballet will inspire viewers to think about their rights when the time comes to go to the polls, and how they might use their own voices to make a difference in everyday life."
A feminine tour de force, 72 Steps celebrates Nashville's female creatives, with a galvanizing score composed by Jordan Hamlin which drives Patterson's narrative. Designer Jocelyn Melechinsky created the work's striking costumes merging historical influence with allusions to the future.
After its premiere, 72 Steps will enter a limited pilot engagement in Metro Nashville Public Schools as part of Nashville Ballet's Community Engagement repertoire. This special premiere is free and open to the public; limited seating is available. To learn more about 72 Steps, or reserve seating, visit www.nashvilleballet.com/72-steps.
About Harpeth Hall School
The Harpeth Hall School is an independent college-preparatory school for girls and young women in grades 5-12 in Nashville, Tennessee. Harpeth Hall educates young women to think critically, to lead confidently, and to live honorably.
About League of Women Voters of Nashville
The League of Women Voters of Nashville is a non-partisan volunteer organization promoting the informed and active participating of citizens in government. Through public programs and educational outreach, the League gives current and future citizens the information they need to be part of the democratic process.
About Nashville Ballet
Nashville Ballet is the largest professional ballet company in Tennessee. Nashville Ballet presents a varied repertoire of classical ballet and contemporary works by noted choreographers, including original works by artistic director Paul Vasterling, now celebrating his 20th year as leader of the company. Nashville Ballet and its Second Company, NB2 (a pre-professional training company), provide more than 70,000 arts experiences to adults and children annually through season performances and its Community Engagement programming. Curriculum-based Community Engagement programs bring dance education to community centers, colleges, public libraries and public elementary, middle and high schools across the state. School of Nashville Ballet brings world-class dance instruction to students age 2 to 70. Nashville Ballet receives public funding from Metro Arts, Tennessee Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. Contributions from local, regional and national institutional funders and community partners, as well as hundreds of generous individuals, provide ongoing support of Nashville Ballet's mission-critical programs.