Amplify Artist Alonzo King—Legacy and Connection

Alonzo King, choreographer, artistic director, and co-founder of Alonzo King LINES Ballet is recognized and applauded for his unique artistic vision. King’s works have a world stage in leading ballet and modern companies’ repertories. Named one of America’s “Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition, King holds an honorary Doctorate from Dominican University, California Institute of the Arts, and the Juilliard School.

In reflecting upon his early experiences of dance and his training, King shares that “movement was an internal part of my being. It was something that I did all the time. My mother was a dancer and she was an inspiration to me. And then I went to a formal academic education with School of American Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet School, and Harkness Ballet.

King further elaborates on the subject of movement and its fullness. “Movement is the principal expression of life. The heart is beating, the brain is synapsing, blood is rushing through the veins. The peristaltic process—healing—many diseases pass through our bodies that could have been fatal but they are worked out so that this machine of breath and willpower [present] signs that this thing is living. There’s a radiation from rocks and plants, so movement is the principal expression of life, whether we’re in war or whether we are being kind to each other…. There’re natural spaces that are also moving with life and they have an effect on us. Our internal world, which is the instrument we dance from because dancers are musicians.”

King shares that he doesn’t see differentiations between the styles of what one may describe as contemporary or modern from classical ballet, but instead, he respects the basic influences threading through what has always existed. “There is nothing new under the sun. And so people are often fooled by style; classical ballet or what is a more precise term, Western classical dance, is based in science and nature. It is a science of movement. It’s replete with styles that come from choreographers that come from ways of thinking and different periods that come from trends. But in its essence, it is a technique, a scientific technique of movement. I wouldn’t define ballet by the choreographic looks of certain choreographers or certain periods in history. I would define it by its origin in nature and science.”

Connecting culture to the evolution and expression of dance, King suggests the importance of the “bird’s eye view” where one “can step back and see the progression of history, what dance is, and regardless of what form it’s in or what culture or who are the masters of dance, it’s a mind-boggling study in ancient cultures…. So in its very beginning, dance arose from spirit. Dance arose from what can be experienced that is beyond the five senses. And can I get information from that experience through movement or contradict it, as it may seem, through stillness. And so this specified idea of bodies moving in space, whether they’re planetary bodies or human bodies, are connected.”

In furthering a tenet of his practice, emphasis is placed upon recognizing the full scope of history. “Every culture looks back to the golden age of a previous culture.” However, King acknowledges this is limiting, as many don’t go back to the beginning to trace the full story arc. This stilted view of history leaves out important contributions and breeds opportunities for inflection points “where racism entered to cut off the block, the legacy and connection.”

This importance of accurate representation is founded in the pursuit of truth. As King noted earlier, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” so one’s pursuit is based on an “obsession with finding truth, with stepping into what you consider to be the truth of how things are.” To impart his meaning, he provides the example of one who is “inspired by nature in its manner of operation.” If this person created a painting, they would not “imitate a flower” but “try to connote the essence of the flower, the idea and the meaning that it’s conveying. And so the look of the flower is what we would call appearance. The meaning of the flower is what we would call its conveyance.”

In transferring this idea to dance, King finds “ballets [to be] thought structures, and we can look at them, and we can argue with them, or we can agree with them…. The tuning fork used by choreographers, painters, mothers, and fathers raising children … is [asking] is this true? And if it’s true, it is therefore beautiful because truth and beauty are the same. And so that’s the obsession from the beginning of planet Earth until the end of planet Earth—is what I’m presenting and saying, is there truth emanating from this statement, this painting, this writing, this novel…”

Furthermore, “dancers have to look at everything that has ever been made: buildings, paintings, this Earth, the planets, the universes…observing everything [and] explore and challenge mainstream notions…. People have to find out who they really are. That’s the first quest.”

King’s philosophy on movement and truth is entrenched within the mission and purpose of Alonzo King LINES Ballet which functions “to nurture artistry and the development of creative expression in dance, through collaboration, performance, and education.” King’s artistic vision lives through the core ideology of his studio that “recognizes that art lives within each and every one of us; strives to balance law and intuition; believes in the full potentiality of the human being; invests in imagination and creativity.” Equally important, is the environment that “embraces a spirit of inquiry and openness to change combined with a reverence for legacy and history.”

On Wednesday, February 8, King will present an onstage master class working with Colburn Dance Academy students on new choreography that he has developed as part of his Amplify residency. This master class is open to the public and will be livestreamed.

Learn more about Alonzo King and Lines Ballet.

The Amplify Series
This series celebrates the careers of artists of color through a number of on-campus, short-term residencies that include performances, master classes, and panel discussions. Colburn supports each artist with institutional resources including recording projects, marketing support, and engagement work in the community through the Center for Innovation and Community Impact.

In addition to Alonzo King, artists for the 2022–23 Amplify Series are Thomas Mesa, cellist and first prize-winner of the Sphinx Competition, and Kris Bowers (Community School ’06), pianist and Emmy Award-winning composer. Past Amplify Artists include violist and composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama (Community School ’93), bassoonist Andrew Brady (Conservatory ’13), bassist Marlon Martinez (Conservatory ’15), and former New York City Ballet member Silas Farley, Dean of Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.

Modern Dance offers the freedom to “just be”

Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute offers instruction in various dance disciplines including ballet, modern dance, and tap dance. The Colburn Modern Dance Program is a unique offering of foundational modern dance technique not readily available nationally. Students can start as young as five years of age in Creative Dance and advance through Children’s Modern Dance (I-III) and on to Intermediate and Advanced Level instruction.

Colburn’s Modern and Creative Dance Chair, Tamsin Carlson, shares a glimpse into her past when modern dance took root and highlights the invaluable experience of a week with the Merce Cunningham Trust on campus.

Hailing from the UK, Tamsin started dancing at seven years old and attended a performing arts school that began in middle school around the age of eleven. Similar to U.S. academy programs, Tamsin lived at the school where she practiced her art form during the day intertwined with academic schoolwork. During her time at the performing arts school is when Tamsin’s love of modern dance took shape. A student from London Contemporary visited to teach the Graham Technique. This exposure to a new dance form solidified in Tamsin the power that modern presented. “I think what I loved is that I didn’t have to pretend anything. I didn’t have to smile if I didn’t feel like smiling. You literally could just be, and the drama was just in the movement. And if you’ve seen Graham, it’s very dramatic!”

Modern dance is like a strong physical expression. Whether it’s of an idea, or of a story, or of a feeling that uses space as one element and that also uses the people in the space. It’s a story about the relationship between the people to each other and to the space. Tamsin Carlson

Tamsin joined London Contemporary and later pursued Cunningham Technique training in New York where she became an understudy or “RUG” (repertory understudy group) for the Cunningham Company. Merce Cunningham recognized her talent in instruction and invited her to teach for several years. Sometime later after relocating to Los Angeles, Tamsin joined Colburn in 2014 as a Dance faculty member.

Reminiscing about her beginning at the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, Tamsin expresses how it reignited her love of teaching and brought the influence of her Cunningham background to the forefront. “The program here [at Colburn] is really unique…. I think we’re only one of the few schools that have modern. It’s not as ubiquitous as say contemporary or hip hop,” Tamsin notes. “There are only two schools that teach Cunningham to this age group, Colburn and the North Carolina School of the Arts.”

Modern at Colburn starts with the Lester Horton Technique and as students progress in age, strength, and technique, they then receive an introduction to the Cunningham Technique developed by Merce Cunningham and the Graham Technique developed by Martha Graham. Tamsin mentions that Yuka Fukuda teaches the advanced Horton classes at Colburn and Chard Gonzalez teaches both the Cunningham Technique and the Graham Technique, alternating by semester. This variance of teachers is important as Tamsin points out that “part of the Cunningham ethos is that you should have different teachers—that all teachers have a valuable viewpoint” to experience. With this in mind, the Modern Program attempts to present different Cunningham teachers and guest teachers to provide those varied perspectives to students.

In understanding the nuances of the three modern dance techniques (Graham, Horton, and Cunningham) taught at Colburn, Tamsin describes them as follows: Graham is dramatic with a lot of floor work. It’s a useful tool to really understand the pelvis. It’s very grounded and very physical. Horton is a little freer, but still very grounded and physical. Cunningham takes the ballet form in terms of working the lower half of the body, while the torso has multiple movements, in regard to tilts, twists, and curves. Cunningham is a little more abstract than Graham, but it’s still that you are a person in space relating to the other person or people in that space. For Merce, all of the space was important.

Delving into Tamsin’s specialty training and knowledge as a licensed teacher of the Cunningham Technique, she leverages the subject of space to define the technique further. For a dancer, any side they face can be front. “I liken it to a Rubik’s cube in that the body is divided into three so that it works as a whole. But then the three parts of the body can move independently: the legs can be going one way, the torso another, and then you have the pelvis which is the center.” She also mentions that Merce intentionally avoided terminology for his technique, which “makes it a very physical technique to teach because the language isn’t there.” A teacher uses other words like brush or a literal direction such as “extend the leg forward.”

As some confuse contemporary dance with modern dance, Tamsin highlights some of the differences between the two. “Modern is a bit more abstract and contemporary tends to be set to music, often popular music of the time, so it tends to rely purely on the momentum of the body and the movement.” For Cunningham, the choreography and the music are built separately. A cornerstone of the Cunningham technique is that the choreography and music come together on the stage. “The idea was that they could coexist and have a relationship, but the relationship was through chance.” Whereas the Graham Technique is based on myths, so there is a strong story or narrative connection.

In reflecting on modern and other dance disciplines, such as ballet and tap, Tamsin states, “it’s like with opera, I think modern can be really abstract … but people may be more intimidated by it. It’s a more challenging discipline; it challenges you as a viewer.” Tamsin inquires of Seth Belliston, a faculty member of ballet who is passing by, to define the difference between modern and other dance disciplines. He expresses that’s it hard to put into words as “it’s apples and oranges” in which Tamsin quips, “both are trees,” and Seth quickly follows up with “but in modern, you can be the tree.”

The Cunningham Modern Trust hosted a weeklong staging event at Colburn in late October. This was the first time that the Dance Academy and intermediate modern dancers were invited to participate with the advanced modern group. The students trained with Silas Riener, a Cunningham stager, in “TV Rerun,” “Scramble,” and “Changing Steps.” These phrases are quite challenging and Tamsin believes they empower dancers to “have more confidence in themselves because they are relying on themselves to make decisions.” She further notes that her students today are quite “bright and up for the challenge; they embrace it.” The opportunity to learn new repertory and work with and hear from another voice (the stager) are two significant takeaways for students participating in the week’s training.

Overall, Tamsin understands that modern dance gives her students “fearlessness because they have to develop confidence and strength in their body to move through space.” The value of modern dance for dancers: “it’s confidence, it’s technique, it’s strength, and the ability to really be able to travel fearlessly.” Fostering these aspects for her students is Tamsin’s goal.

Read more about Tamsin’s background here.

The Trudl Zipper Dance Institute presents the following upcoming performances:

See the Music, Hear the Dance, Saturday, November 5 at 7 pm in Zipper Hall 

Joy! A Winter Dance Celebration, Saturday, December 17 at 3 pm in Zipper Hall and Colburn Plaza

Joy! A Winter Dance Celebration, Sunday, December 18 at 2 pm in Zipper Hall

Tap Fest, Saturday, March 18 at 7 pm in Zipper Hall

Counterpointe, Saturday, March 25 at 2 pm and 7 pm in Zipper Hall

Student Choreography Workshop, Saturday, April 29 at 2 pm and 7 pm in Zipper Hall

Spring TapWorks, Saturday, May 20 at 2 pm and 7 pm in Zipper Hall

Spring Dance Festival, Saturday, May 27 at 2 pm and 7 pm in Luckman Theatre

Trudl Dubsky Zipper and Transnational Dance History

Choreography in exile

Silas Farley and I are talking about ballet. About bodies and histories. And we are talking about Trudl Dubsky Zipper.

It is a magical evening: we are at the Colburn School gala, where the patio has been transformed by lights, greenery, tables decorated with flowers and écrins Cartier, and by Colburn students performing all around us throughout the evening. Why does Trudl Zipper feel so present here tonight, in this gala mise en scène? Not only because Carol Colburn Grigor, like me, was a pupil of Trudl Dubsky Zipper—we were very special pupils. And not only because I’ve been finding gems from Trudl’s remarkable life in the Zipper Archive at the Colburn School during the week.

Trudl Dubsky Zipper in Piano DressBorn in Vienna more than a century ago, Trudl was a transnational dancer, choreographer, teacher, visual artist, costume and jewelry designer. Vienna before WWII was a hothouse both for classical ballet training and for avant-garde dance, with new ideas about women’s physical well-being and children’s imaginative space. As a teenager, Trudl joined and toured with Gertrud Bodenweiser’s modern dance company, all over Europe; later she studied with child psychologist and psychoanalyst Anna Freud, and danced with German choreographer Kurt Joos in London; she founded the Manila Ballet Moderne, performed and taught in the Philippines; and worked at the New School in New York and off-Broadway, then taught dance and composition to young people in Chicago and Los Angeles.

I want to tell Silas Farley how Trudl lives on in this dance institute named for her, and how the choices he has made resonate with hers. Like Silas, Trudl excelled both in performance and choreography; she was deeply invested in dance history, and like him, she was passionate about its transmission to young dancers. She lived in a time, however, when she did not get to live in her home country. She left Europe before the Third Reich “annexed” Austria in 1938 and traveled the world as an exile, and years later, when I was not quite five years old, my life intersected with hers in her dance classes at what is now the Music Institute of Chicago. Although I studied with her for eight years, her teaching has inspired everything I’ve done on the stage, in the classroom, and in four books of dance history.

Trudl trained in ballet, then moved into modern; she knew the theatrical potential of all dance forms. Many years later, I realized that my book French Moves, which is about how hip hop became a form of concert dance supported by socialist cultural policy in France, was inspired by the kind of community arts that Trudl and Herbert fought for in the Philippines and in the US.

As we talk, students come up to Silas and won’t let him go. I try to explain to him how Trudl chose this in her life—with Herbert Zipper; they both gave their lives to bringing young people up in the arts, and took them—me, included—very seriously as artists.

What confidence that instilled in us! What curiosity about the world! What community that created for us with our peers, with older, and younger people. It rooted us in history and training and freed us to explore powerful ideas.

The archive is a theater

Silas Farley asks me about my work in the Zipper archive. Any archive is a treasure chest: this one has precious documents, photos, scrapbooks, and artwork inside. As an archival historian of performance, I look for the traces of choreography, the living art, in these sleeping objects. But there is also content here in the Zipper archive that I think is important for dancers and faculty who work in the program named for her to know. This archive is a theater of love and war.

A few examples: look at the young Trudl Dubsky photographed in a studio around 1930. In another photo of her almost one hundred years ago: a Viennese dancer not yet 20 years old, after touring in a new modern dance group around Europe, decides to found a school, teach and perform, in London.

Trudl Dubsky Zipper with Jeannette RutherstonAnd here she is with her British friend Jeannette Rutherston, photographed by Kay Vaughn in London. With Jeannette (also a Bodenweiser dancer, daughter of the Bradford-based Rothenstein family, and later, as Jeanette Powell, a well-known critic at The Dancing Times), Trudl choreographs, chooses the music, creates some of the costumes, and performs a series of concerts for good causes. They have a clear mission as independent young artists in Europe. For their performance at Rudolf Steiner Hall on September 24, 1930, Trudl’s boyfriend, Herbert Zipper, travels to London to accompany them at the piano. At the Queen’s Hall in Bradford, January 9, 1932, he also plays for their recital “In Aid of the Bradford District Nursing Association.”

In feminist history, we assume women were oppressed in the past; but in newspapers I find in the archive, Trudl often spoke about the confidence and solidity, the well-being that dance training gave to women—especially women newly entering the work force. Dance was not only professional artistic practice, it could fuel social and personal development.

Here is Trudl again in the early 1930s. Look at the sweep of the backbend and the drop of the foot in this pose inspired by Bodenweiser—this is not Isadora Duncan, but equally new, dramatic, and different. Trudl Dubsky Zipper Satin Dress Dance PoseIt might not look like socialism to us now, but in the geometric forms she would learn from Bodenweiser and develop in later choreographies, such as Iron Foundry set to Mosolov, the lineage is clear. With an all-male corps, with bare torsos and gestures of synchronized labor, staged on a Filipino cast, the transnational scale and politics of Iron Foundry are clear in another photo.

Trudl had sailed to the Philippines on the eve of WWII to teach students new European modern dance, ballet, and rhythmic gymnastics, and to connect the European folk dancing she knew to local and indigenous dance forms, bringing both to the stage. The archive conserves her through-passenger ticket on board the SS Conte Rosso via Bombay, where she arrived on September 13, 1937. This began a chapter of her life that would last a decade.

In one of Trudl’s scrapbooks, a series of photographs show the Philippines from a biplane hovering over one of the outer islands and then documenting the deep culture of people living on their ancestral lands. I don’t remember seeing these photographs before, even when I was invited to stay over at her home as a child. Trudl drew and painted the people she lived among in the Philippines, before and after the war, representing visible differences and living-together in community. There are programs and press in this archive in English, Spanish, and Tagalog.

There are many details of Trudl’s life with Herbert Zipper that I am learning about in the archive at Colburn, and it confirms what I know about their 50 years of love together: their passionate commitment and collaboration. Their engagement with cultural development, with children and with equity, with access to creativity for all could not be more timely. And in this way, the archive is also a theater: unfolding the history of their love and survival, across wars and across continents, giving us an alternate history of music and dance. There are pictures of me in this archive, but working here, I see that the world they created for me, that better world in music and dance that has stayed with me for half a century, was something they made possible for many.

Trudl Dubsky Zipper Dance Pose in BlackGood things have been growing out of this archive. This semester, Silas tells me students choreographed Two Dances for Trudl, music composed by Herbert Zipper which was brought out by the Recovered Voices project at Colburn and recently recorded. In the archive, I find a few pages of typescript dated July 1976, in which Herbert describes his grief after Trudl has died in his arms. With the help of this archive, I want to tell her story—the dancer’s story.

Dreams of Glory

At the Colburn gala, Silas Farley and I are talking about choreography. About historical ballets, many of them unknown, with similar plots. He describes them: “there’s a pearl…there’s a river…there’s a search….” We laugh because we know about these ballets, surviving in archives as texts, librettos, paintings, cartoons, costume sketches, and newspaper reviews. An entire branch of dance history.

Why is this history important? Silas agrees with me on this, but I am trying to explain my view to him. I have written that dance is a way of knowing, and that choreography makes people think. It helps us understand our world, our embodiment, and our dreams; historically it provoked new ways of thinking about bodies. I’ve been studying ballets like this in the archive at the Paris Opera for my book One Dead at the Paris Opera Ballet. But talking to Silas makes me understand something I haven’t seen before. Until now, I hadn’t seen that this narrative of quest, of desire, is also key to the ballet Trudl Dubsky Zipper choreographed in the 1970s, her American masterpiece, Snoopy’s Dreams of Glory.

I liked to think that Trudl created this ballet for me, as I danced the role of Snoopy. What an idea, to take Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters and develop them in choreography. To tease out a new story from an old story—of a baseball knocked out of the field that will become, in Snoopy’s aspirational dreams—first a pearl deep in the ocean, then a diamond deep in the earth, and the moon shining in outer space. In the ballet, Snoopy travels under the ocean, inside the earth, out into the atmosphere:  diving for the pearl, hunting down the diamond, pawing toward the moon… This choreography was an homage to Peanuts, but it was also a send-up of American popular culture and consumerism, the conquest of space and stewardship of the planet. What an idea, to trust her choreography to a dancer barely seven years old? How could she know that all these years later, I would become, in a different medium, her storyteller?

Dance is important in world history, but it has been omitted from most mainstream accounts—those famously written by the victors. Trudl’s choreographies gain significance here in the archive, even if made for smaller stages, or smaller people—all over the world. They should enter into the kind of dance histories that my fellow researchers in the Cultural History of Dance Seminar at the EHESS graduate school in social sciences in Paris are writing.

I am trying to explain this to Silas Farley, but of course, he already knows. He laughingly calls me Dr. McCarren, and I see that I am in full teaching mode here at the gala. He says, “Sometimes talking with someone, you can feel as if you have known them your whole life.” Yes, I think, because we are dancers. Yes, because we agree that choreography makes us think. And yes, because this is the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.

Felicia McCarren
Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair, EHESS Paris, 2023
Leverhulme Visiting Professor, University of Oxford, 2022, 2023
Professor of French, Tulane University

Images from the Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive at the Colburn School; reproduced with permission from Celia Pool and Gavin Perry.

About the collection:

The Herbert and Trudl Zipper Archive consists of materials dating from approximately 1900­–1997 from the lives of Herbert Zipper (1904–1997), his wife Trudl Dubsky Zipper (1913–1977), and members of the immediate and extended Zipper family, including sister Hedwig “Hedy” Zipper Horwitz/Holt (1907–1989), and maternal uncle (by marriage) artist Arthur Paunzen (1890–1940).

The archive includes personal and professional photographs, decades of personal and professional correspondence, unpublished and published sheet music and scores, books, audio, music, and video recordings on various media, concert programs and related publicity materials, award plaques and certificates, framed and unframed artworks, a set of 1939 encyclopedias, a wood/stone sculpture and a portrait carved by Herbert Zipper, a bronze and a stone sculpture of a dancer, and more.

The collection was originally bequeathed to Crossroads School by Herbert Zipper and retrieved from Zipper’s home, garage, and office spaces by Paul Cummins after Zipper’s death in April 1997. Since then, the collection has been housed at Crossroads School and in 2019, Crossroads School donated the collection to the Colburn School.

The collection is in a state of sorting and processing and requires cataloging, digitization, conservation, and re-housing of materials. With over 400 boxes of materials, the School is currently raising funds to support the processing and conservation of this important collection.

With the support of a generous gift from Ann Mulally, we will begin this summer the multi-year project of processing the archive—cataloguing, digitizing, and making available to the world of researchers, historians, dancers, artists, and arts lovers—people like Felicia McCarren. If you would like to join Ms. Mulally in this effort by making a gift, please contact the Philanthropy Department at

For research and access inquiries, please contact

Tess McCharen on Limón2 and Her Journey to Modern Dance

Dancer Tess McCharen studied at Colburn for four years before making her way to New York City where she was recently appointed as one of the founding members of Limón2, a new dance company under the umbrella of the José Limón Dance Foundation. The original Limón Dance Company was the country’s first modern dance repertory company, and Limón2 is dedicated to the development of young professionals and to the creation of innovative programming and accessible community engagement.

“It is a big honor to be one of the founding members of the Limón2, especially with its creation being during such unprecedented and uncertain times, especially for dancers and artists,” Tess reflects. She is one of seven young women that were selected to join the inaugural group, which will share the movement and intention of José Limón while also working to discover their own artistry, embodying a variety of contemporary dance styles. This past fall, they were able to work with Gregory Dolbashian on a piece called “The Bird in Your Hand.” Tess described the freedom of creativity she experienced working on it, recalling “The process was extremely collaborative. We were given phrase work and choreography, but we were also given the space and opportunity to make everything our own.”

Tess discovered her passion for modern dance during her time here at the Colburn School. “I had seen various modern dance companies like Graham, Ailey, and Paul Taylor but had never done modern dance myself.” With the help of her mother—who was also a modern dancer—and Colburn, she discovered a new world. “Once I started working with Tamsin (Carlson), I really fell in love with Cunningham and modern dance.” She discovered Limón during this period of growth as well, and the training continues to serve her to this day.

“Colburn was the best preparation I could’ve asked for,” she asserts. “I wouldn’t be the dancer I am today if I had not gone to Colburn.” Aside from the variety of classes and access to world-class teachers and choreographers, Tess also highlighted another ongoing benefit: community. “I’m still good friends and in touch with the many people I met there…I met my best friend at Colburn when Tamsin gave us a little duet in her piece.”

Looking to the future, Tess feels a sense of optimism in her upcoming work with Limón2 but also for dance in general. “As draining mentally and physically as Zoom dance is, I have to say it has opened up accessibility in ways we hadn’t imagined before,” she says, referring to the restrictions that were put in place during the pandemic. “It opened up the world of dance a lot…Now, almost every show has a virtual viewing option. My family in LA was able to watch me perform two weekends ago.”

As she continues to develop her career in New York, Tess is certain of one constant: change. “Even when I moved to NYC, I had never really done contemporary dance before, so that was already a big learning curve…the best thing I could do and can continue to do is just be open and willing to learn.”

Follow Tess on Instagram
Learn more about Limón2
Photo by Anthony Collins (@anthonycollins_art on IG)

Ava Dhria Metzger Gains New Perspective from Student Choreography Workshop

Ava Dhria Metzger grew up in a household that embraced and celebrated dance and music. It wasn’t until she was nearly a teenager that she discovered her own passion for the performing arts. Despite her father being a professional ballet dancer and instructor, Metzger didn’t start taking ballet classes until age 12 at a small studio in Pasadena, California.

As she mastered the basic positions and graduated onto more complex techniques, Metzger sought a more challenging learning environment. That decision led her to the Colburn Community School of Performing Arts, as well as the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute Summer Intensive program. With the encouragement of instructors, including Visiting Artist Jenifer Ringer, Metzger auditioned for and was accepted into the Dance Academy.

“After doing some reflection, I decided this is something I want to learn more about,” she says.

Exploring Her Expression

Metzger, who is now 16, continues to explore her artistic capabilities. On top of Dance Academy classes, she enrolled in the Student Choreography Workshop taught by Cara Scrementi, Colburn’s stage manager. The workshop examined the many elements that come together for a live stage performance. For a capstone project, each student choreographed their own 2.5-minute solo.

“It’s a daunting thing to tell a bunch of teenagers that you have to choreograph yourselves in a relatively long piece all by yourself,” Metzger says. “When learning a well-known piece, you are told what the vision is and how to communicate it. So it is different when you are in the driver seat and have to make all the decisions. This was the first time where I had a full concert piece on my own. I picked the music, the costumes, and did the choreography myself.”

Of course, the students were guided through the creative process. Scrementi kicked it off by introducing various short-form pieces.

“We were creating smaller phrases of dance and learning about creative methods to use later when we started creating our choreography. We also examined the relationship with music, or whether there should be no relationship with the music. We learned about the different tools to expand a phrase and creating longer passages of movements,” Metzger explains.

“Cara shared notes during rehearsals and would tell us to show the progression of our steps more. But she also would stress that ‘it is your prerogative,’” Metzger continues. “I always felt we had autonomy. Cara respected our creative vision. We were in control of our vision.”

Trudl Zipper Dance Institute Dean Silas Farley and Associate Dean Darleen Callaghan lent their insights and advice, too.

“It is interesting because Silas has so much genuine passion for ballet techniques, and passing those on. That is always so cool and inspiring. He has great energy to be around,” says Metzger. “He and Darleen emphasized the idea of dancing in class. They also stressed to us to present what we created in a clear way.”

Constructing a well-choreographed performance isn’t just about assembling movements or putting together a series of steps, turns, and leaps. The class challenged Metzger to convey a narrative not only through her dance, but with the music, too. At first, she thought a traditional classical piece would fit her best. But as she worked on the choreography, Metzger realized the music simply wasn’t speaking to her. It wasn’t motivating her dance decisions.

“I did some reflecting and realized I wanted to try playing around with it. I started looking at music that was less structured, like sound scapes,” she remembers. ”I wanted to try some movements that were more contemporary, but still ballet based, but a lot that wasn’t purely classical.”

Experimenting with different musical pieces, Metzger finally found a connection with the song “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson. Nearly instantly, she recognized it was the music that supported the expression she sought for her solo.

“The idea popped into my head that this would really work. I was so inspired and connected to it,” she says. “Once I found the music that resonated with me, I was able to choreograph my solo over the span of three days. It happened so quickly. It’s like I knew it was supposed to happen. It was like these moves were always the steps and I just had to find them.

“My favorite part of that solo was how it made me feel so centered. Every time I performed it, I was in an intense space that felt so calm and within myself,” she adds. “I did the solo on pointe and the steps I had taken were from ballet, but the way I moved between them, the transitions, I feel were really inspired by modern techniques. To me, ballet feels so ethereal, and this solo felt more grounded, calm, and rooted.”

Peer Review

As a performer, designing an original solo definitely delivered a sense of accomplishment. However, throughout the process, Metzger felt like she was part of a collaborative ensemble. She leaned on the creative energy and moral support her fellow Dance Academy classmates offered each other. She says every rehearsal eventually ended with impromptu brainstorming sessions during which dancers shared ideas, suggestions, and critiques.

“In a way, it was very independent, but it was a big sense of community, too. It was encouraging. That was my favorite part. We even learned different parts of everyone else’s pieces,” she says.

A New Self-Appreciation

Now that she’s gone through the creative process, Metzger is keen for an encore.

“I think this class and performance were so enlightening. I learned so much about myself as an artist and my style of movement, my artistic fingerprint,” she explains. “I learned what I enjoy creating and performing. I like developing the technicalities of how to explain your vision. It made me think differently about myself. I’m the most authentic version of myself this year, and I want to take that into future performances.”


The Trudl Zipper Dance Institute takes pride in moving the art of dance forward by teaching and extending the great traditions of ballet, modern, and tap to all students who desire to learn, regardless of age or ability to pay. Special appreciation goes to Colburn Society members Ann Mulally, David Kobrin, Aliza and Michael Lesser, Lucy Farber and Jim Bright, Mazie and Gabriel Hoffman, Anne and Jeffrey Grausam, Meltem and Mehmet Ozpay, George and Linda Cassady, Susan Friedman, and Layla and Gac Kim, whose annual support makes dance scholarships at the Colburn School possible.

If you would like to learn more about giving to the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, contact

Dance Spotlight: Giovanna Martinez

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

How did you get started in the performing arts?
When I was younger, I would always run around the house, so my mom thought it was a good idea to put me in ballet. I started ballet when I was three at a community dance studio. Then when I was around 10, I started getting more serious about ballet, so I moved studios to a more professional one. At 12, I actually discovered musical theater. That’s when I did my first musical theater performance, Beauty and the Beast. I played Lumiere. I went on to perform more roles such as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family and Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I just enjoyed being on stage.

Something about musical theater that’s different from ballet is that you can use your voice. When you no longer have any words to say you can convey emotion through song. I like having that option. Ballet is very different. You don’t get to talk so every emotion must be conveyed through your face and body language. I love and see the value in both.

How do you see the two genres overlap?
I have seen many shows on Broadway with ballet in them. I love it when they incorporate ballet because it is the perfect mix for me. One of my absolute favorite shows that I have seen on Broadway was Carousel. It was choreographed by my favorite choreographer, Justin Peck. I was at the edge of my seat the whole show. I just could not get enough. His choreography is mesmerizing and brought in the perfect mix of ballet and theater. They also brought in some [New York City Ballet] dancers for the run of the show, which I thought was so cool because they are living my ideal life of being a dancer and on Broadway at the same time.

Elements of theater are also brought into ballets with some sort of a storyline. I love these ballets because I can bring my acting skills to them. Another one of my favorite choreographers is Jerome Robbins. His ballets are very theatrical, so I tend to gravitate towards them.

How did you find your way to Colburn?
I always loved and preferred the Balanchine technique, however my dance studio at the time was very classical, and I would often find myself wanting more leeway from the basic classical ballet so I could express myself without restrictions.

I had a friend that went to the same dance studio at the time, and she moved to Colburn. I ended up auditioning for Dance Academy and got in. I was so excited to be able to dance Balanchine technique with such amazing faculty. Once Covid hit, I ended up doing my first year of Dance Academy on Zoom. Though not my ideal year, I learned so much and felt very strong when it came time to join my friends back in the studio.

How have your classes been going so far this year?
It’s been great. It’s definitely different being back in the studio around all my peers. I feel like the energy is so much different than just being in your room by yourself. We used to have a slightly modified schedule so we wouldn’t be so hard on ourselves during Zoom, but now we’re back into the full schedule and I am loving it.

How do you think your training at the Dance Academy will help you in musical theater?
I always say that ballet is the root of all styles because it helps you with everything. Once you know ballet, you can merge into jazz, contemporary, tap, even hip hop if you want to because you learn how to find your place of center. Also, I think the more skills I have under my belt, the better, because you never know what a show calls for. So it’s great to learn as many skills as possible for the highest chance of booking a role. When I look back on the best opportunities I’ve had, it’s because of my dance training. It really does make a difference.

What are you working on right now?
Right now, we are going to be the first students to do The Goldberg Variations by Jerome Robbins. It’s very exciting because we’re some of the very few dancers that have gotten to do this material. It’s very challenging to say the least. So, we’ve been working very hard in the studios to put on a great show. I just love Jerome Robbins’ work so it’s very exciting to be able to do one of his ballets.

How would you describe The Goldberg Variations to people who might be unfamiliar with it?
It’s very fast paced, even for the pianist. The steps themselves aren’t very far off from a regular ballet class but they’ve got that classic Robbins spin on them that makes it so enticing.

There was also a student choreography show at the end of the semester. Would you speak about that?
Last Saturday, we showcased our works. I was very excited when we first heard about this project. I love choreographing. I usually choreograph for myself for fun, and I’ve even gotten the opportunity to choreograph a few numbers of Annie the musical for a local theater. I love exercising my creativity and showcasing my ideas. My piece is called City Strut with music by Benny Goodman. It’s a very jazzy solo heavily influenced by George Balanchine’s Who Cares?

What else have you been involved with recently?
In September, I had the opportunity to play Diana Morales in A Chorus Line at the GEM Theater in Garden Grove. That opportunity came out of nowhere. I saw a Facebook post saying ,”We’re looking for a Diana in A Chorus Line,” and I thought to myself, “Wait, I’m perfect for Diana.” Though I was a bit young for the role considering she is 27 and I am 16, I still went out and auditioned anyway because I had nothing to lose. I ended up getting the role on the same day that I auditioned.

We had rehearsals for about two weeks and then we went into tech for another week. We had a four-week run, and it was probably the best experience of my life. I’ve never been a part of a cast that has been just so caring towards each other and so talented. The show itself holds such an emotional place in my heart because the show was based on real stories. Singing “What I Did for Love” every night brought me and the audience to tears, and I loved feeling their energy.

That sounds incredible. What was significant about that experience?
I feel like I really grew as an actor and person during that time. My director, Damien Lorton, was absolutely amazing. He really knows how to bring out emotion from all of the actors. He took a scene and turned it into something that I had never thought of before. I’m very grateful for him and my cast mates. I’ve learned so much from just watching them perform. This is the first time I have done a show with only adults around me. I was the youngest in the cast by far; it was very different. When I first walked into the theater, I was terrified, feeling like I had to live up to their expectations, but they reassured me and built me up.

What’s your dream role?
I have a lot but to name a few dance-wise, I would love to be in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Who Cares?, and Carmen. For musical theater, I would love to play Maria in West Side Story, Nina from In the Heights, Anastasia in Anastasia, and Natalie in Next to Normal.

What drives you to keep going with your art?
When I was younger, I had a hard time with kids at my school. I was bullied a lot and made fun of for having these big aspirations. I always found that interesting because I had big dreams for my future, but other kids thought that was weird and were dragging me down for it. I ended up switching to homeschool when things got too hard at school. My dance schedule was changed to the morning, which was better for me in the end because I got more time to train that way.

There is a flame in me telling me to keep going no matter how many noes I receive and no matter how many people are trying to drag me down because there will always be people trying to drag you down in this business. What matters most is what you do about it and how you take that negativity and make something wonderful. So, I will not take no for an answer. I will keep going until I get a yes.

Do you have any advice for dancers younger than you?
Someone else’s success is not your failure. Spending all your time upset about the things you don’t receive doesn’t do you any good. You can still be a bit disappointed but don’t let that take over and define who you are. Just keep working hard and eventually everything will fall in line.

Special appreciation goes to the Colburn Society members whose annual support is directed to the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, including the extraordinary generosity of Ann Mulally, David Kobrin, Aliza and Michael Lesser, Lucy Farber and Jim Bright, Mazie and Gabriel Hoffman, Anne and Jeffrey Grausam, Meltem and Mehmet Ozpay, George and Linda Cassady, Susan Friedman, and Layla and Gac Kim. To learn more on how you can support our students, contact

Winter Countdown 2021: Students Share Fall Reflections

As part of our Winter Countdown 2021 series, we reached out to some of our students to reflect on their semester experiences and hopes for the spring semester.

Dance Academy student Samuel C. Portillo, ballet, is in his first year with Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.

As the fall semester comes to a close, would you reflect back on the past few months and share a particular memorable moment or personal triumph?
This semester here at Colburn has been an amazing experience. I felt like I have grown a lot as a person and a dancer while I have been here, and I have had many good memories made so far. A particularly memorable moment for me this semester was when the Dance Academy went to see Alonzo King LINES Ballet at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The performance was breathtaking, and a performance that I will always remember.

What are you looking forward to in the spring semester?
I am personally looking forward to performing Jerome Robbins’ The Goldberg Variations in the spring semester. I can’t wait for the opportunity to perform a piece such as this!

How are you spending your winter break?
Over winter break, I will be going back home to Colorado to spend Christmas and the New Year with my family and friends that live there. I will be resting, watching movies, and getting my wisdom teeth removed, haha!

Yirou Ronnie Zhang, violin, is in her third year at the Music Academy, following three years with the Community School.

As the fall semester comes to a close, would you reflect back on the past few months and share a particular memorable moment or personal triumph?
This past semester was even crazier than I thought. While balancing my practicing, recordings, college essays, and academic school work, the unique pandemic precautions atmosphere was also something that had always been hanging over my head. I am beyond grateful, of course, that we can safely return to in person studies. Without face-to-face interactions with my peers and teachers, I would not have the strength to cope through these challenges.

Over the past semester, my biggest accomplishment would be completing my college applications. Many friends of mine had also undergone this process, and I am extremely proud of every one of us. For myself, though, I wished I could do better for my prescreening videos. I could have been more persistent with goals that I set for myself and also have more fun with the music itself.

What are you looking forward to in the spring semester?
In the spring semester, I look forward to the new round of challenges that comes with live auditions. Preparing repertoire for that will be even more difficult because of the nature of live performances and exhaustion from traveling. I am sure, however, that things I have learned about my repertoire as well as myself during this past semester will be a great help in this process. I will also treasure with my heart the support and advice from all my teachers.

Another event I am excited for is the senior concert. I hope I will have a chance to perform then, because it would be significant for me as a violinist and as a person. That performance would mark the end of my high school experience and help me dive into more challenges in the upcoming school year.

How are you spending your winter break?
For winter break, I will stay in the Los Angeles area with my parents. I will enjoy time alone with myself and my family. I will have to keep working on my live audition repertoire so that they are prepared enough for recordings and performances once the spring semester starts. During these three weeks, I will sure miss Colburn—my friends, teachers, classes, and the campus. I will be grateful for all the time I spend at home, while at the same time be very excited for the new semester!

Conservatory of Music student John Fawcett, violin, is in his fourth year at Colburn.

As the fall semester comes to a close, would you reflect back on the past few months and share a particular memorable moment or personal triumph?
In October, I was extremely happy to be hired as Concertmaster for a new promising orchestra here in Los Angeles, called the “California Young Artists Symphony.” It’s not the LA Phil, but through the organization, in which we have just had our inaugural concert, I have met so many more wonderful people and musicians from the larger artistic community in Los Angeles. It has helped me form a more accurate picture of what the music scene looks like here and how our art is best used to contribute to the community in creating an organization like this. I look forward to several more concerts with this community, and to see it grow in what is likely to be a beautiful addition to the arts in classical music here in Los Angeles and beyond.

Aside from this opportunity I have been given, I have finished with applications to study within masters programs throughout the United States. The process of recording, applying, and reaching out to teachers, etc.… took certainly a lot of preparation, and I feel that I was able to grow significantly as a player. I feel generally happy with how I am sounding, as perhaps I am getting closer to my own conceptualization of how I would like to sound on my instrument. I have a whole world of thanks to give to my teacher here [at Colburn], Robert Lipsett, for challenging me to be at my best so that I may accomplish these goals in my playing.

What are you looking forward to in the spring semester?
One of the best things that I can do for my own future is to put a lot of time and effort into my own craft as a violinist, and I certainly intend to work a lot in this regard so that I can reach my potential as a violinist. I would also like to start thinking about my future career; I plan to apply for the Concert Artists Guild, in which the final recipients receive Concert Management. As I would certainly be incredibly honored to receive an award, my goal is simply to add to my experiences in whatever way possible. Tying into career building and professional studies, I am much looking forward to giving recitals here at the Colburn School, as is required for students throughout their time studying. I have been thinking about my program and am certainly motivated not only to share what I have to say through my music in this regard next semester, but also to come up with an engaging program for everyone that displays a wide variety of musical ideas.

How are you spending your winter break?
This break, I will be going back home to Central Oregon to spend time with my family, my two rambunctious dogs (they need exercise!!), and friends that I have not seen in too long. I will also be heading to New York with several wonderful colleagues here at the Colburn School, as we will be participating in the annual New York String Orchestra Seminar that takes place over the holidays with the violinist superstar, Jaime Laredo. But aside from this very exciting obligation and visiting my home, I also would like to spend time playing the piano and composing over the break.

Ballet Dancer Declan Wilding Cran Stars in American Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

How did you get into dancing?
When I was seven, me and my mom went to go see The Nutcracker in Glendale. And when I saw the Russian dolls dancing, I just knew that I had to dance. My mum signed me up for classes after that and I have loved it ever since.

Is there another experience that influenced you to want to dance?
Also when I was four, I watched my older cousin Finn dance, and I wanted to do it. I tried a lesson, but it was all little girls in tutus and tiaras. So that discouraged me, and then when I was seven, I knew that I could see beyond the tutus and focus on dancing.

When did you start attending classes at Colburn?
I only started coming here last year during the pandemic online. It was a rough start to a new school, but it went well once I got used to it, and now that we’re back to in person learning it’s great! I really love my teachers.

Which classes did you take when you started?
When I started, I think I just took Ballet III.

So you started attending Colburn last year. Is there anything different or unique that you’ve experienced at Colburn in comparison to your former dance studio?
My old studio was more focused on choreography, less technique, and at Colburn, it’s more about technique, which is, I’d say, better for my dancing.

And why do you say technique is better for your dancing?
I love choreography, but I feel like I wasn’t getting the full movement. I wasn’t getting the technique behind the movement.

You spoke a little about choreography versus technique. Are there other areas that maybe you weren’t aware of until you started dancing at Colburn?
I think I knew about all of ballet, but I just didn’t know that it was so in-depth, in different parts. I never knew that there are so many different things you had to learn for one move or step.

How is it balancing your dance classes and your academic classes?
I go to school in Burbank, and it can be a long drive, but it’s not [negatively] affecting things; I still get my homework done. They’re going well together.

In addition to your dance life, is there another thing that you enjoy doing?
I really like animals, and I like to ride horses. Also in school, I really like music.

Oh, that’s wonderful! What kind of music do you like?
I don’t know, like alternative rock, indie rock. Currently I’m really into Nirvana.

That’s awesome! Okay, let’s go back to dance. So you’ve discussed ballet quite a bit. Are there any other genres of dance that you are interested in?
I used to do tap, and I really want to pick it up again—hopefully in the new year. Also I want to try modern.

What do you enjoy about tap?
I just like being able to move; it’s almost like a nervous energy; with tap it’s a way to let it out.

What is it about ballet that you really enjoy?
It just makes me happy. And I feel like I can get out my emotions, and it just makes me feel happy. And I like moving around.

It’s great that dance is able to give that to you. Do you see yourself continuing in dance professionally when you’re older?
I don’t really know yet.

So you have been selected as part of the cast for The Nutcracker with American Ballet Theatre. How did that come about?
We got an email from Colburn, and it said that [American Ballet Theatre] was looking for a boy about my height and my age to dance in The Nutcracker. And I thought to myself, I’m probably not going to get it, but I said, yes, and I want to get it. And I want to do the audition.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the audition was like?
I was super nervous. I thought it was going to be me by myself on a stage with like 10 people watching. But no, it was just a class with the teachers. I think there were four other boys. One of them is my friend from Colburn, and it was actually really fun, and they just picked one of us.

What role were you cast as?
I was cast as the Nutcracker prince, the Nutcracker.

And how have the rehearsals been?
They’ve been going great. They’re really fun. It’s mainly been once or twice a week, so far. But I think it’s going to get more intense, like for the tech week, it’s going to be every day.

What are you looking forward to the most about being in The Nutcracker?
I think just the experience of being in it because it’s fun, and I’m really excited to meet the company from New York.

Back at Last! Students Share Their Back to Campus Experiences

With fall semester in full swing, students and faculty are reacquainting themselves with face-to-face instruction and interaction with their friends and teachers. Live performing arts are back on campus, and we asked students from each unit to reflect on their experiences so far.

Kaela Seltzer
I’m most excited to play in the Tuesday night Big Band... I’m really grateful to have a spot in the band this year. Kaela Seltzer

Community School student Kaela Seltzer, flute and saxophone, is a senior at LA County High School for the Arts who is in her fourth year of attending Colburn.

What are you most excited about this fall semester?
I’m most excited to play in the Tuesday night Big Band. Earlier in high school I had the opportunity to sub in the Big Band a couple of times, and each time I left feeling so inspired and eager to practice my instruments. I’m really grateful to have a spot in the band this year.

How has your experience of being back on campus been?
It has been a really positive experience being able to play with musicians I don’t see often at school [LA County High School for the Arts]. The first rehearsal back in person felt very normal and everyone seemed excited to be back and playing together.

What is a specific or personal area of focus for you this semester?
This semester I’m focused on addressing gaps in my playing. For me this includes elements of saxophone technique that I’ve yet to dig into and addressing challenges I have when improvising. My hope is to have improved these areas by early December when college prescreen recordings are due.

Sam Portillo
I believe that having the dynamics, clarity, and delicacy in my movement will strengthen me a lot as a dancer. Samuel C. Portillo

Dance Academy student Samuel C. Portillo, ballet, is in his first year with Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.

What are you most excited about this fall semester?
For this fall semester, I am most excited about learning Jerome Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations. While we won’t perform it until spring semester, we will get to learn and practice sections of it throughout this fall semester. I can’t believe we get the opportunity to learn and perform such an amazing piece of work!

How has your experience of being back on campus been?
This semester is my first time on campus, and I have been having an excellent time so far! The campus has great places to hang out, and the Colburn Café provides great food as well. It is very welcoming, and I have enjoyed it a lot here.

What is a specific or personal area of focus for you this semester?
My main area of focus this semester is working on my artistry and musicality in my dancing. I believe that having the dynamics, clarity, and delicacy in my movement will strengthen me a lot as a dancer. I’ve already started working hard at it, and I’m excited to continue throughout this entire year as well!

Yirou Ronnie Zhang
Being able to communicate with music spontaneously with my friends and teachers is something that I had been dreaming about ever since March 2020. Yirou Ronnie Zhang

Yirou Ronnie Zhang, violin, is in her third year at the Music Academy, following three years with the Community School.

What are you most excited about this fall semester?
It is really hard to pick which event I am the most excited for since basically everything is so fresh after online learning. One thing that I am totally pumped about is being able to rehearse and perform chamber music with my peers. This also includes our string ensemble—Academy Virtuosi. Being able to communicate with music spontaneously with my friends and teachers is something that I had been dreaming about ever since March 2020.

How has your experience of being back on campus been?
My experience back on campus has never been better. Words cannot describe how delighted I am to be able to watch music-making in action, regardless of the instrument and player. I had also noticed that students, faculties, and staff of our entire school are strictly observing the COVID guidelines. They make me feel safe and secure when it comes to the risk of being exposed to the virus.

What is a specific or personal area of focus for you this semester?
I am a senior this year, so the primary focus would of course be working on my prescreening and live audition repertoire for college applications. Other tasks related to it, such as writing essays and filling out applications, are also priorities that I’d like to focus on. As always, balancing solo repertoire with chamber music, Virtuosi, and keyboard repertoire is definitely a challenge. I’m sure I’ll learn from these experiences as I manage to work through this school year.

John Fawcett
Being back at Colburn this year, I am experiencing an overwhelming appreciation for the spark of inspiration that my tremendously talented and hard-working peers bring me. John Fawcett

Conservatory of Music student John Fawcett, violin, is in his fourth year at Colburn.

What are you most excited about this fall semester?
An invaluable element that comes with being at Colburn is the impact that musical excellence—and constant exposure to it—has on your own playing. During the pandemic, I felt a bit deprived of this asset involving a high-level musical training. Although I was still able to work with my teachers and see/hear my colleagues over Zoom, there was some magic that was lost to the whole process away at home.

Being back at Colburn this year, I am experiencing an overwhelming appreciation for the spark of inspiration that my tremendously talented and hard-working peers bring me. It’s almost as if you don’t fully realize how much you have cultivated inside this truly exceptional institution until you leave and interact with others outside of Colburn—then you truly realize how special your education is.

Excellence promotes excellence within this community, and we are all here for each other to demonstrate what this means for each of us and to lift each other up to our highest individual potentials. I believe this may have been a factor provided by Colburn’s education that I may have taken for granted earlier on.

How has your experience of being back on campus been?
Although it can be difficult to admit at times, I think that significant adversity we deal with in our lives always has a counteracting benefit for our future. We learn from struggle and hardship. In many ways, I think returning to Colburn from the adversity of the pandemic quarantine from home embraces this idea. Colburn is a truly unique place which gives the aspiring performing artist the tools needed to have a successful and meaningful career path. However, there are individual struggles that we all face, and inhibit us from following our own track that we intend for ourselves.

During the pandemic, I feel that I was able to discover many things about myself that helped me to build my character and potential to a higher reflection of the person I want to be… and as introspective as I might sound saying this right now, I really think that this time of reflection has helped me to make more use with what Colburn has to offer me than ever before! All that said, it seems to me that my experience on campus has been terrific, full of promise and opportunity, fun, and a positive reflection of any growth I may have attained from adversity I faced during the worst of the pandemic. I’m sure that many of us can share this sentiment.

What is a specific or personal area of focus for you this semester?
This is honestly not a straightforward question. During the past year, I have had so many creative manifestations of what I would like to see myself doing, especially with the extra time that I had to think and plan ahead last year in particular. The great thing about being a musician is that the avenues which I can see myself aspiring toward are almost never-ending. There are so many ways in which I find I might be able to express my passion for musical art. At heart, I am a violinist and in love with the violin’s sound. But I almost equally love the piano, or playing in an orchestra. I also love to write music, and was fortunate enough to record my piece, “Waltz-Fantasy on a Theme of Chopin,” recently.

Speaking of orchestra, I have an immense guilty pleasure for orchestral scores and figuring out how a large ensemble fits together—it’s just like architecture, except it’s aural and not visual! I would love to be a conductor someday; I feel that this job would be an ultimate void in fulfilling my goal to be a true servant of the music. In short, there are SO many things I want to do. For now, I am continuing to focus on my greatest passion, being the violin, and seeing what different directions that could take me (i.e. writing music for violin, meeting composers and conductors or gaining orchestral/other performance experience).

Looking Back and Looking Forward with Dean Silas Farley

This July, multi-faceted artist, educator, choreographer, and New York City Ballet alumnus Silas Farley joined Colburn as Dean of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, with Darleen Callaghan, former Director of Miami City Ballet School and North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance, as Associate Dean. We sat down with Silas to discuss his philosophy behind dance; his vision for the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute; and how that translates to repertoire and curriculum in the year ahead.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

Silas Farley
[Dance is] this mutual joy-filled enterprise. And that's really the fire that sustains us through the actual challenges and difficulty of dance training. Silas Farley

What’s your philosophy behind dance?
For me, first and foremost, dance is an experience of joy. And that’s why we all got into it as little kids, because there was something in it that sparked our imagination and brought us joy. So then it’s an opportunity to share that joy as a teacher, share that joy with the students, share that delight in the work itself with the students. And also being inspired by and catching their joy. It’s this mutual joy-filled enterprise.

And that’s really the fire that sustains us through the actual challenges and difficulty of dance training, because it’s a lifestyle of discipline and it is a long obedience in the same direction. You need people to encourage you every step of the way, and to remind you that joy is the source and the power source for the work. So joy is the first thing.

And then also a sense of real reverence and curiosity about the history and development of the art of dance. That what we do right now is not dancing in isolation, in some moment, but that we’re part of a continuum of dance training and performance, and really participating in what I like to call a historically transcended community of artists whose lives have also been shaped by this same discipline. And I call those people, in the words of one of my mentors, our dancestors.

And to the degree that we are knowledgeable and connected to those people who came before us in this particular artistic practice, then we have more rocket fuel, more inspiration, more context for the work that we do. So that’d be the second thing: a real grounding of everything we do in the present with the continuity of what came before us.

How does that translate into your vision for the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute?
[Associate Dean Darleen Callaghan] and I have thought about how here at the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, we want to honor and extend the great traditions of dance, of modern and ballet and tap, which are the genres that we have the opportunity to explore here at Colburn. And so what does that look like boots on the ground?

Whenever faculty come to teach choreography, it’s part of our practice that they also give the students a context for: What is this choreography? Who was the person who made it? What was going on in the world at that time? What was the aesthetic and philosophical worldview of the person who made it? So that we enter in as deeply as we can to the work and then know what it is that we’re now adding our voice to and our passion and our insight and our creativity to.

Another phrase I’ve used a lot talking about the vision is that we look back and we look forwards at the same time. And that really flavors all the different decisions. As we talk about programming; and we talk about See the Music, Hear the Dance; and we talk about Jumpstart; any of it, there’s always that looking in two directions at once to ground and to give vision for our present work.

Being grounded seems particularly important in today’s world.
We have roots, we have artistic roots. We didn’t fall out of the sky. I’m in a continuum, my teachers and their teachers and their teachers. It’s a genealogy. So it’s precious, and it’s exciting too, because it’s not linear, the development of the art of dance. It’s a network of relationships. And so that’s something I talk a lot about with the students.

And then with each student, their particular genealogy is totally unique to them. Because it’s not just who their teachers were, but it’s also who inspires them. Especially in the United States, in our time, an artist not only has to be a really skillful practitioner, but they have to be a philosopher who can make a case for the importance of the work that they’re doing and its contribution to the culture and its contribution to the community. Because it’s not self-evident in our country.

As you’re discussing the greater purpose in your art and work, how does that relate to being an Amplify artist at Colburn? What are you planning to do with that platform?
Oh, I just love it. It’s one of those perfect things when we can look at that overlap of looking back and looking forward. I was just thrilled to be part of the Amplify initiative from the get-go. I’m a person who talks a lot about embracing the tradition with a sense of renewal. I’m not a dismantler, I’m not a “Let’s obliterate the canon,” person. I’m a “How can we expand the canon? How can we have more voices who are going to contribute to bring richness and life from a place of devotion to the form itself?” We need more voices in the language of classical ballet.

We need more voices in the choreographers and in the teachers and in the administrators and all that kind of thing. My father is white, my mother is Black. So I’ve grown up in the overlap of those two different cultures my whole life. And it’s been such a privilege to be able to navigate both of those particular worlds pretty seamlessly throughout my journey. That’s not the case for everybody who’s from a multiethnic background. Sometimes it’s very dislocating and very disorienting. So I really don’t take for granted that I’ve seen it as a superpower my whole life, not as a liability.

But that being said, I’m excited about just being unapologetically excited about working in the language of classical ballet as a man of color. And so how is it that I’m going to be engaging with that this year?

It’s fun, because it’s a collaboration with Marlon Martinez, one of the other Amplify artists I met through a Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion that Nokuthula Ngwenyama hosted earlier this year. Marlon had this idea of doing a ballet to music by Billy Strayhorn, a brilliant composer. And I thought, “Let’s do it.”

It’s a multi-dimensional exploration. It’s not music that we normally get to see realized through the language of ballet. So that’s exciting. And it’s also an opportunity for me as the Dean working with our Dance Academy to explore the life of Billy Strayhorn with the students.

See the Music, Hear the Dance is this Saturday, October 2. What is on the program?
This is the most beautiful “looking back and looking forward from now” kind of a program. It’s a program that [former Dean Jenifer Ringer and Associate Dean James Fayette] established, this wonderful collaboration between Conservatory musicians and guest dance artists. I thought, “Let’s do something that is reflective of and celebrating our LA dance community.” Because I’m brand new to it, but I’m excited to make new connections and see what’s going on here.

So the program, I’ll actually talk about the pieces in reverse order of how they’ll appear on the program. But the last piece on the program is a new solo that I’ve choreographed for one of our current Colburn faculty members, Jasmine Perry. She’s also currently a soloist with the Los Angeles Ballet. We both trained at the school affiliated with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet).

I’ve made this solo for Jasmine set to a 10 minute solo viola piece called Sonoran Storm by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, another of the Amplify artists. Clara Bouch from the Conservatory, a magnificent violist, plays the whole 10 minutes straight, while Jasmine does four solos in the midst of the music. I’ve called the ballet Ngwenyama Variations, because it’s in the tradition of a ballet where there’re lots of different solos. It’s a conversation—a choreographic and musical conversation between the violist and the dancing.

The middle of the program is a new piece by a young woman named Ally Helman. I trained with her in New York, and she was a dancer with me in New York City Ballet. She’s now the founder and artistic director of Ballet Project OC in Orange County, which she started during the pandemic. She’s choreographing a duet for herself and a young man named Blake Lanesskog, who is a graduate of Colburn Dance Academy. He danced with Sarasota Ballet and Boston Ballet, and now he’s dancing with Ally’s company.

They’re doing a duet to a Gabrieli piece that [horn faculty] Andrew Bain has prepared with the brass ensemble. The brass ensemble is actually going to record in Zipper, and then we’re going to project the film of the brass ensemble behind the dance. So it’s going to “see the music and hear the dance” in a whole other kind of way. And I just love Gabrieli, because again, like the Strayhorn [piece], you rarely see ballets set to the brass rep. So I’m super excited about that.

And then the program is going to open looking back to Jerome Robbins, one of the great, great choreographers of all time. Co-founding choreographer of New York City ballet, great Broadway choreographer, and also an artistic force and mentor in the life of Jenifer Ringer, our former Dean.

We’re bringing down Price Suddarth from the Pacific Northwest Ballet who’s choreographed for our Dance Academy in the past. I trained with Price in New York at the School of American Ballet. He’s going to dance two solos from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, which is set to Chopin piano solo music. Paul Williamson from the Conservatory will play one etude and one mazurka for that.

One of the other big things for me and Darleen is that we want the audience to have the same rich context of what they’re watching in the same way we’re doing behind the scenes to prepare the dancers. So we’re going to have an onstage discussion about Jerome Robbins with [Jenifer Ringer] and Price. There’s going to be a separate conversation with me, Andrew Bain, Blake Lanesskog, and Ally Helman talking about the Gabrieli piece. And then I’ll also introduce the Sonoran Storm variations piece. They’re going to be like living program notes on the stage, so that it’s interactive and joyful for everybody. I’m so excited about this program.

It sounds incredible. We also launched our new Jumpstart Dance program this semester. What went into that?
The launch was the brainchild of me and Darleen in close collaboration Nate Zeisler and Jazmín Morales [in the Center for Innovation and Community Impact], we developed the new Jumpstart Dance program to build on the vision for Jumpstart that’s already existed for years in the music side.

We went over to Esperanza Elementary School a week before school started. I taught a movement class for 20 first graders. Of them, we picked five students to start immediately in either Pre-Ballet II or Ballet I.

The reason we chose a small number is because we want to give them wraparound support. We want to be able to fully support our Jumpstart students with dancewear, tuition, all the different needs that the student might have, and immediately have them be a part of our community.

There are lots of different schools of thought about how to do community engagement. Some people go out into the schools to teach. Our experience shows that the best way for dance and for ballet is to bring the students into the on-campus community from the very start. So it’s not like there are two [separate dance] tracks, there’s one. We’re all one school.

Our goal is for the students to be able to continue training for as long as they have the desire to train with us. We’re just trying to support them and help them on their journey—give them the resources and the encouragement they need to be able to thrive in this opportunity. This, and all Jumpstart programs, are fully supported by donors through their annual gifts, and we couldn’t do this without them. We are so incredibly grateful for this community of support and Colburn, and to share this vision with our donors.