Christina Tsoules moved to Rhode Island last year with a new husband and a MFA from Smith, and plunged headlong into the RI dance scene. A choreographer, dancer, videographer and teacher, she has already taught classes at Festival Ballet and Dance Forum and is currently teaching at Providence College and Trinity College (in Hartford). At Rhode Island College, she has collaborated and danced with Melody Ruffin Ward, and this weekend Ms Tsoules' choreography will be performed by the Providence College Dance Company.
Who are some of your pivotal teachers?|
Pivotal teachers at The Performing Arts School of Worcester (WEBSITE) were Kevin Milam, Maryann Mayer (now Asstistant Artistic Director of Festival Ballet) and Cindy Bernshausen. When I was in 7th grade, Kevin Milam started a youth ballet company, The Worcester Youth Ballet, and Maryann and Cindy were also teachers of mine throughout that period. From 7th-12th grade I was taking class and rehearsing up to five times a week with this company and I loved every minute...especially performing.
We always had a Nutcracker season and learned variations from several ballets for our spring concert as well. Kevin also set some more contemporary works on the company and was a real mentor. Some years, we toured a bit too. It was such a warm and supportive environment; Kevin had a knack for highlighting our strengths as dancers in performance. That was really a gift...and his teaching style is undeniably a part of my teaching today. I am constantly reminded of his catch phrase to 'sweat the details' in my dancing; that is something I think of everyday; as a choreographer, performer and teacher.
Another early teacher I studied with was Christine Carlson of the Charlotte Klein Dance Studio WEBSITE in Worcester. While PASOW had a tremendous ballet school, I sought out jazz classes elsewhere during high school years. Christine was a consummate teacher, persistent and demanding and I loved her energy in class so much. I think of her often when I teach jazz.
In college, I studied with several great teachers at Trinity College (WEBSITE): Judy Dworin, Pedro Alejandro, Lisa Matias, and Douglas Boulivar. But Judy was really my advisor and mentor and it has been a delight to be her colleague now at Trinity College.
How did Smith influence you?
Smith College's MFA program (WEBSITE) was ideal for me. In addition to taking technique multiple times a day (Modern, Ballet, Floor Barre, Jazz, Afro-Brazilian among them) I was also exposed to Improvisation, Composition, Music and Dance, Creative Theory, Nutrition, Anatomy and Kinesiology, Writing/Critiquing Dance, 20th Century History, and several technology related courses where I learned sound and video editing programs. Smith really turned me on to Dance work for the camera; a field I am continuing to study on my own.
Smith's program also offers a teaching fellowship where MFA candidates teach 3 technique classes a year in the Five College Dance Department (Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, UMASS, Amherst College). In my time there, I taught Ballet, Modern and Jazz to undergraduates and it prepared me so much to do so now at Providence College and Trinity College, Hartford. The MFA program also stressed the importance of performing regularly; in addition to creating new work every semester, we also were required to participate in faculty works and our peers work as well. The faculty and my colleagues at Smith and the Five College Dance Department are scholars and artists that taught me so much. I am indebted to them for their patience and support.
When did you get interested in choreography?
I first became interested in choreographing my freshman year in high school. Several of my friends that studied in other studios were involved in dance competitions; they would perform these three minute solos to contemporary songs in flashy costumes. PASOW did not foster that environment at all and while I didn't necessarily want to compete in dance, I did want to create dances and Mr. Milam created performance opportunities for us to do so. My first dances were solo performances to Broadway hits; On My Own, Tell Me On a Sunday. My process was completely connected to the music and it wasn't anything fabulous but I do remember how powerful it was to dance to movement that I created and ordered myself.
How does your interest in videography fit with your interest in dance?
Are you active in other art forms?
My BA from Trinity College is in Theater and Dance and I grew up involved in local theater productions all the time. I work with text a lot in my work and love the theater. I'm always fascinated to watch actors incorporate a movement sensibility or a physicality into their acting; that's when I remind myself that I'm grateful to be a dancer. I also love swimming, golfing, snowboarding and softball. I think about the graceful, agile requirements these sports call on and I find them connected to dancing very much.
When you go to a dance, what makes you sit up and take notice?
When I am surprised by a piece. I love when dance is unpredictable. And that's hard to do.
How do you warm up before a performance?
Warming up before a performance involves a series of stretches where I really elongate my body. I really need to feel tall and long and stretched before I perform. This involves a lot of floor stretching and contorting but I also need to do lots of plies and tendus. If I'm performing a solo, I also need to sit in constructive rest for a while, and sink into the floor, envisioning myself performing the dance. If it's a group work, I need to be around my fellow performers and be involved in some group dynamic exercises to get connected to the group. I always review my material before I go on stage and I always pray before I perform too. I ask for grace and support and not to fall...
What is the dumbest thing that you see dancers doing?
I guess I get really disappointed when I see a lack of focus in their performance quality. Dancers who are not aware of what the dance calls of them; they aren't engaging their spirit when they're dancing, it's only physical. Or they bring that energy into facial expressions alone (plastered smiles, etc) and not into their bodies.
What is the dumbest thing that you see choreographers doing?
Hmm, not sure I can answer this one because I'm sure I fall into several of these pitfalls too. But several traps I think choreographers today fall into are making dances too long, emulating the work of great choreographers to the point that it isn't their work but a dance in the style of someone else, working to impress an audience with some new innovation that doesn't really support the dance but is just there for the sake of being innovative and lastly, not investigating a dance's message enough before you even step foot in the studio.
How do you pick a dancer to do your choreography?
Technical prowess is certainly a part of it but who's spirit is shining and open is more important.
Do you think an MFA is essential to today's dancer?
No, it is essential to today's educators working in academia.
What kind of music do you like? Is this different then the music you choreograph to? How come? How do you find music?
I love several kinds of music; from classical piano, to rap, to jazz. My husband is really my music source; he is passionate about so many kinds of music - he introduces me to new things he has discovered and he makes CDs for me that I can use in class. I don't differentiate from what I listen to and what I might chose to use choreographically. Any and all music is possible material for a piece. So is silence, so is speaking, so is music in other languages...
How do you improve as a choreographer?
I think I improve as a choreographer the more I make new work. I find myself understanding what a dance needs more easily than I did two years ago for instance. I can't promise that I can deliver what it needs but I am starting to know the ingredients more fluidly. I also think it's really important to see lots and lots of dance, live is best of course, but also in libraries- you can study a choreographer's design on a screen.
I also think one needs to read reviews of dance and force yourself to write about dance. Writing is often a way for me to reveal what the dance's truths are. And as a creative person of any discipline, I think one needs to study creative process theory. Read other artist's accounts of his/her creative process. Read books that choreographers have written about how/why they make dance.
Since dancers have a relatively short time span in which to dance, every dance company they work with is a major commitment. What do you consider important when you collaborate (as a dancer or as a choreographer)?
Well, I plan to dance my whole life so I disagree that dancers have relatively short time span to dance. I think this may be true of dancers in some disciplines, like ballet, but modern dancers, especially those who incorporate yoga and pilates and other conditioning techniques in their training repertoire, I believe can dance longer and stronger.
In terms of selecting collaborators to work with, I think every individual involved in a collaborative process needs to remember that working together is engaging in dialogues, not monologues and patience is always a virtue. I always collaborate though, even when it is not an intentional collaboration. Dancers in my work always contribute their material, their ideas.
What don't people know about you that has influenced your dance career?
That taking a break from it entirely for about two years (1999-2000) and training for two marathons during that time instead was crucial for my return to dance. Breaking from it brought me back with a new vigor and passion.
You primarily choreograph in what is called the modern or contemporary dance form. Do you choreograph (or hope to) in other styles (such as jazz or ballet)?
My work borrows from all of these dance forms. They all borrow from each other though. I think the categories of dance styles are blurring more and more as we delve into the 21st century. I think I'm a post-modernist choreographer, but without the blank, detached dancer thing going on. I am a dance-theater choreographer living in Providence in 2004. Yeah, that says it best.
How would you describe modern dance for the vast number of people who are under the delusion that it is either about boring choreography or dancers with little technique?
Ouch. I'd say modern dance is a dance tradition that came about at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to the strict, codified language of ballet. I'd mention names like Isadora Duncan, Doris Humphrey and Ted Shawn. Then I'd take them through the history of Graham, Limon, Cunningham and their work, and I'd have to talk about Sokolow and Mary Wigman (that's where the wracked with strife comes from for me anyways but it was politically driven work), then I'd talk about the Judson Church era, and Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer most specifically and on to people like Bill T.Jones and Mark Morris.
The form of modern dance is over a hundred years old, it's hard to describe it as one type of dance form with a pervasive quality over another type of dance. We, as members of the modern dance community are products of and influenced by all of these pioneers. I think I'd have to give a short history lesson before I described what modern dance is. I suppose you could talk about ballet and some of the conventions of that form (tutus, pointe shows, right and left repitions, pas de deux) and then demonstrate how modern dance aesthetics don't fall into those ballet performance categories...
What choreographers do you admire?
My favorite choreographers are Pina Bausch, Jose Limon, and Mark Morris. I also have to say I love several of Graham's early works and Cunningham and Cage's theories of chance. I also love Bill T. Jones' solo work and William Forsythe's work in the ballet world too.
How do you choreograph? Do you start with an idea? With the music? With movement? From improv?
I vary my process all the time. Sometimes it's an idea, sometimes it's music, sometimes it's both together. Regardless, improvisation is always a tool I rely on to unveil more to me and to the dance.
Do you have times when you can't get started? If so, what do you do about them?
I always have times when I get stumped in my creative process. It's a good thing, it brings me back to my source and humbles me. That's when I revisit the music for something inspiring (if I have the music yet) seek out images from my dreams that might be material for the dance, read my journal for something I may have overlooked, revisit the original goal of the dance, or as Larry Lavender, a dance scholar and choreographer at UNC Greensboro says, the 'to be done' of the dance. Or I listen to the fact that my being stumped may just mean I need a break. So I honor that and then boom, usually something wondrous inspires me, and it might have come from allowing myself to daydream, or to watch people walk by, or to listen to music in my car with the windows down...
Do you have long term goals? What are a some of them?
I'd love to have a full time job in a college or university's dance department someday. I'd also love to perform abroad and be published. Sometimes I think I want to get a PhD, sometimes I think that's not a good idea.
Any suggestions for people interested in pursuing dance/choreography as a career?
Make sure you have another source of income. Seriously - not to sound pessimistic but most dancers cannot just rely on performance or choreography jobs to survive, they have to teach at several places in order to stay alive in a community. Teaching is so satisfying though, it isn't a chore; it informs your choreography, hones your eye...teaching teaches you to really see, and you're bringing the joy of dance to others...that is invaluable.
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