I’d like to take a moment to apologize to anyone who sat in the front row at Sunday night’s Works & Process show. Patrons of the Guggenheim had to deal with my beating heart desperately trying to make an escape from beneath my shirt—but fortunately I had a thicker sweater to add an extra layer of protection, kind of like a heart condom, if you will, that saved the Center Stage fans, parked front and center, from seeing a bloody heart dancing on the stage before any performers had executed a pirouette.
Regardless of the fact that I’d spent time formatting note cards for myself in the week leading up to our sold-out two night engagement discussing Ethan Stiefel’s recent appointment to Dean of the School of Dance at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I still fought off nerves all day Sunday; after all, this was my first time moderating a show, and, in fact, my first time ever speaking on stage. (Contrary to popular belief, the cards were not merely a prop to make me appear Lipton-esque. I contemplated wearing a bald cap in homage to the Inside the Actor's Studio guru, but my budget wouldn’t permit.)
It wasn’t until two minutes before showtime, when I looked at Ethan, who I used to dance with at ABT, that the real moment of panic hit me; all of us, in fact. Between Ethan, choreographer Larry Keigwin and myself, we would have not a single person on stage who was primarily a speaker. How this had not occurred to us before, I have no idea, but we had no choice but to let out a sigh and hope we wouldn’t suddenly start speaking in tongues once behind the mics.
For all I know, my first few sentences were delivered in Klingon. That wouldn’t have been a total disaster, as the setup for the panel at Guggenheim bears a slight resemblance to a Star Trek set, with angular ‘60s chairs and a beige color palette. I would have fit right in. Whatever I said, it somehow led to Ethan speaking, which as the moderator, is ultimately the description of my job. So I know it couldn’t have been too unintelligible.
Once Ethan began his first portion of charming delivery, I took my first breath of the evening and tried to keep my facial muscles from twitching like I was undergoing acupuncture treatment in front of an audience of three hundred people. (Strange what your body does when nerves set in.) Before I knew it, he was introducing the first performance of the night and we were well on our way.
I felt an immense amount of pride watching students from NCSA—where I attended high school—perform to an appreciative New York audience, but I quickly found that, as a moderator, it’s almost impossible to focus only on the moment in front of you. My brain was constantly churning, planning out my introduction for our next segment, and trying to use Ethan’s answers as a jumping off point for my next question.
Having done a fair amount of interviews over the past two years, I have been subjected to all types of interviewees: those who take an open ended prompt and respond with a simple yes or no, those who have such a limited vocabulary that they use the same four adjectives repeatedly, and those who can elaborate in perfect sound bites. Fortunately, Ethan and Larry both fall into the latter category. As moderator, my biggest responsibility is to pitch the question clearly and let the speaker hit it out of the park. Despite a few stutters along the way, the first night went off relatively well.
The trick was to do it all again. Monday night’s show was, in almost all respects, a better evening than Sunday. I felt infinitely more comfortable on stage, the dancers performed with more confidence, and I dropped a few moments that didn’t land right the first time around. (Unfortunately my one Melissa Hayden story of the night was met with a few chuckles and a symphony of crickets on Sunday evening.)
That’s not to say the second show went off without a few strange moments. My favorite memory of the weekend was during Monday night’s discussion with Larry, who worked as a resident choreographer at the school during the winter session, when I was interviewing him and started speaking only to realize mid-sentence that I had no clue what I was arriving at. Somehow I finished the stream of thoughts and Larry responded with: “That’s a really interesting question.” If only I had been aware of what I’d asked!
Occasional mistakes aside, I am proud of how the three of us pulled together and gave, what I hope was, an informative show. Most importantly, I felt both evenings succeeded in giving New York audiences a taste of the incredible things Ethan is doing for UNCSA. Having danced alongside him for years, and after observing him this weekend both in social interactions with the students and as their teacher, it is clearer to me than ever before that he is the right person for this job. Not only is he an intelligent, articulate man filled with a wealth of knowledge and experience as a result of his ongoing career as a principal dancer around the world, but he has the passion and the ability to pass along that knowledge in a way that will shape artists that are not automatons, but instead human beings capable of great artistic feats.
I felt privileged to be part of such a prestigious event where I could act as a conduit of sorts for both Ethan and Larry, who is one of my absolute favorite choreographers, to share their thoughts with an audience. Fortunately, my heart stayed in my chest where it belongs.