Guess Blog Post by Dahlia Denicore

My name is Dahlia Denicore, and I am thrilled to have been selected for the 2019 Kathryn Morgan Scholarship. When Kathryn’s scholarship partner, Dancewear Corner, asked me to create a blog, I had just finished a two-week Company Experience at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT), where I had the privilege of dancing in a beautiful, deeply heart-felt contemporary piece choreographed by PBT Company Member Tommie Kesten. I was also beginning the five-week PBT Intensive and had just been selected to choreograph a dance for the PBT student choreography showcase.
Knowing choreography comes from so many places, emotions, and experiences, as well as from unexpected visions alongside a lot of trials and errors, I thought it would be interesting to explore the topic with Tommie for the Dancewear Corner blog.

Hope you enjoy the interview with Tommie, as well as two videos. Both videos are a mélange of rehearsal and final performance videos. The first video is Tommie’s incredible piece, “Unsteady”. The second is my piece, “Shelter”, which was inspired by the human connections I experienced among the Haitian people during a service trip last February. In a country where it is a challenge to obtain the basic necessities of life that many of us take for granted, the love, kindness, and grace shared among the Haitians and with whomever they encounter is extraordinary. With music from Olafur Arnalds and from the motion picture August Rush, I sought to share human connections in a pointe partnering piece.
Tommie Lin is a 19-year-old Pittsburgh native, and a professional ballerina at The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She also choreographs and teaches at Millennium Dance Complex Pittsburgh.

Dancers:Rebekah Fedele, Madeline Gradle, Ally Hajduk, Wyatt Johnson, Josiah Kauffman, Grace Kimble, Luke Mosher, Brandon Silverman, Tyler Wright, Lauren Zimmerman

Interview between Tommie Kesten and Dahlia Denicore

Tell us a little bit about Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Company Experience and how you were chosen to choreograph.

Tommie: The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Company Experience is a very unique and rare program for students. This isn’t like every other summer intensive. At the Company Experience you are treated as if you are in a professional company and would have normal “work days/weeks.” This is important for students aspiring to be in a company one day because you get a real feel for what company life is like. Dancers have a class in the morning just as we company members do and then rehearsals through the day until 6 with a lunch break in between.

I was asked by Terrance Orr, my Artistic Director, to choreograph for this intensive. We had talked numerous times about my contemporary background as a dancer and how much I love to choreograph. So, when the opportunity arose, there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to work closely with so many dancers and create a larger piece than I was used to choreographing. I also want to own a studio when I retire from dancing myself, so this was a great experience for me to get a glimpse of what that may be like.

The first day of PBT’s Company Experience, the students had 5 hours of auditions with 5 different choreographers. When it was your turn to audition dancers, what were you looking for?

Tommie: Audition day is really hard for a choreographer when there are so many very talented dancers in front of them, but I definitely had a few things in mind when it was my turn. First and foremost, since I knew my piece was going to be a hard-hitting contemporary dance, I had to look for dancers who will best fit that style of dancing. There was a lot of athleticism involved, so I had to choose strong dancers that are familiar with contemporary work.

To continue, I also look for the dancers who are not afraid to show emotion. This piece was about my brother, who I tragically lost in a motocross accident 3 years ago, so if there was no emotion in it from the dancers, it wouldn’t have been as impactful for the audience. The dancers who let loose and got into the audition phrase I gave them definitely caught my eye.

Finally, and most importantly, I look for those dancers that have a little something special about them. I love the dancers that bring a rare energy and presence into a room, and I noticed that right away with Dahlia.

You now have x number of dancers, but you barely know them and only know how they dance based off of the audition. How do you begin working?

Tommie: After the long day of auditioning, all the choreographers went into the conference room and then ‘fought’ for the dancers we wanted in our piece. At the end of a very stressful hour and a half, I had my list of dancers that would perform my piece. But, from a short audition, I didn’t know anyone’s name and that list didn’t mean much of anything.

The next day, I essentially restarted the audition process to look for a lead for my dance and also get to know my smaller group of dancers better. I knew immediately, from watching her dance, that Dahlia would be the perfect lead for my piece. I then started to put together the formation for the phrase everyone knew from the audition. This was one of my favorite parts when watching ‘Unsteady’ because every single dancer in my piece was dancing this insanely hard-hitting contemporary and floor section. It was so impactful to watch almost 30 dancers all moving together in such a powerful way.

From there, it got easier because I got closer with all the dancers and learned their strengths. The first day is hard when you don’t know anyone, but from then on, every night when I went home it was so easy to brainstorm and think about what tomorrow’s rehearsal would be like and what we would accomplish. Starting with the group section really helped because they did it every single day and it got cleaner and cleaner each time.

Please share your story behind your piece.

Tommie: My piece meant the world to me. I lost my older brother 3 years ago. His name is Ty Kesten and he was leading a national Motocross Race in Georgia. In the last lap of his race, he had an accident and that day changed the course of my life forever. My family and I were so devastated by the loss of my brother that we decided to start a non-profit organization in his name. We created The 1Six Foundation (1Six being my brother’s Instagram, 16 being his racing number). We put on different events yearly and the first year we had a convention-style dance event. At the end of the day, I danced a tribute to my big brother to the song Unsteady. We have had this event every year since then (this past June being our 3rd dance event) but I have not danced at the event again. Unsteady had just come out around my brother’s passing and I really could relate to the song but dancing it that day set me back emotionally as well as everyone in the room. I decided that I would not dance at the event going forward so that I didn’t have an added emotional toll. When asked to create a piece I could not think of a better song to tell my story. To date, the 1Six Foundation has raised and donated $85,000.00 in my brother Ty’s name. More information about the foundation can be found @1sixfoundation.org.

How were you able to get your dancers to convey your story?

Tommie: From the beginning, I was very open and honest with my story and telling them. I sat them all down at the beginning of one of my first rehearsals, once they knew more of the piece, and had each and every one of them tell me what the song meant to them. Some of them would share a little, some a lot. We went around the circle and had a big heart to heart, the circle ended with me and I then shared what the song meant to me. All of us left the room that day teary-eyed and inspired. I think it was really important to take that time out of the rehearsal because the emotion behind this dance was just as important as the actual movement itself. They all came back the next day and I could tell by watching them dance again, that they thought of my piece completely differently.
This was such a beautiful process with all of them. I obviously had a lot of attachment and love for this piece of mine and I just remember when we were sharing ‘Unsteady’ with the audience, that everyone was touched in a different way. Dahlia ended the piece as the only dancer left on the stage and I just remember we made eye contact at the very end of the dance and we both had wells of tears in our eyes. And, that definitely got across to the audience. As the dancers bowed, I looked around at my dancers in front of me and the audience and I could tell everyone was touched.

Did you run into any obstacles along the way?

Tommie: I feel like with everything you do, there will be obstacles. But, you can’t let them get in your way. The biggest obstacle would be when I would have the dancers at the end of the day or something when I can just tell they were exhausted. I didn’t want to kill them, but at the same time we needed to get things done. I made sure they knew that I understood how they feel and that I have those days from time to time in my job, too. I think them hearing that gave them a little bit of hope that the struggle will all be worth it one day and they are only getting stronger by pushing through these tough days.

What did you want the audience to walk away with if anything?

Tommie: I did not outwardly tell the audience what my piece was about, but I think they all knew it was clearly about something very special. I just wanted the audience to walk away feeling moved by my piece. It could have been in any way, as long as they felt something. That’s what dance is about, for me.
Because the audience was full of people who more commonly see classical ballet, I thought this was a good chance to show what else ballerinas can do! We can be so strong and powerful, and my dancers definitely were that.

What advice would you give future choreographers?

Tommie: Hmmm… I would say don’t be afraid. Your ideas will come to life in ways you couldn’t even imagine. The ideas you were sure were going to happen, you could end up completely scratching and not even using. On the other hand, ideas you may think are too ‘out there’ or ‘different’ could be the most amazing moments of the whole piece. Also, I would tell them not to be discouraged if you hit a choreography road block and no ideas are coming. Be patient and they will come. Sometimes driving yourself crazy for more ideas when you have some extra rehearsal time will result in wasted time. You can always go back and clean with extra time and come back next rehearsal with some fresh, thought-out ideas.

And, what advice would you give aspiring professional dancers?

Tommie: Aspiring professional dancers, please never give up! There were many downs and many ups in my pre-professional life as a student, and those will happen. Don’t let a tough time discourage you, they are only making you better or getting you onto a better path. I always like to believe that if life just got a little harder, it probably means you leveled up!

Thank you so much, Tommie!

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