The Auditorium Theatre is so thrilled to bring a collection of Chicago dance professionals together for the week of June 23 – 28 to teach our first annual “Made In Chicago” Dance Intensive, a week long summer camp for dancers age 10+ with at least two years of dance experience. We kick off our “Made In Chicago” Dance Intensive blog series with a peek at Thodos Dance Chicago’s teaching artist, Tenley Dorrill!
Dancing in Chicago: As a senior in college I feared graduating without an answer to the question everyone was asking, “What are you doing after graduation?” I knew of many dance companies that I would love to be a part of, but I wasn’t sure where to audition. I had attended Hubbard Street’s dance intensive the summer before and had heard of Thodos Dance Chicago. After a few months of researching I came back to the company and discovered how well it matched what I wanted. Located in the city of Chicago, I knew that I would have the opportunity to take open class, teach dance, and be a part of a large dance community. Thodos stated that they valued dancers who were also choreographers, and they offered their own unique outlet for dancers to create, teach, and perform. The audition was intense with four cuts narrowing the group to four people (three of whom are now company members). Melissa Thodos asked those auditioning to perform a self-choreographed solo then sit for an interview. The interview questions were very thoughtful and I could tell that they knew what they were looking for, which is something I respect. I was given an offer to be a “dancer apprentice” in the company. I was thrilled! I knew how lucky I was to have the opportunity to live and dance with such a great company in this wonderful city.
I began to prepare for life in Chicago by finding two roommates from Craig’s List and applying to teaching positions. I applied all over the city and only heard back from a handful. I accepted jobs at Thodos’s youth program, North Suburban School of Dance, and Chicago Contemporary Dance Theater. Thodos started in August and I don’t think we ever stopped until our Harris show in March! Learning so many dances in such a short time proved to be a great challenge. In many of the dances I was the only person who had not performed the piece, and I needed to learn extremely fast. At SMU we had many performances but usually focused on only a few dances during a semester. At Thodos, the company was working on over ten concert works, two story ballets, and two educational shows over the course of a few months. The pressure was great but I had the most wonderful season working with the incredibly talented company members and leaders who constantly inspired and encouraged me every day.
Thodos threw me into many parts that challenged me in new ways. The most significant was the role of Helen Keller in “A Light in the Dark.” Only after my first performance did I believe I could embody this complex character. The story is very emotional with highs and lows shifting moment by moment. I got some great advice about portraying Helen from one of the members of Thodos, Natalee Cooney, who has a BFA in Theater from NYU. She told me to always think about what Helen wants. Does she want love and comfort when she thrashes in anger? Does she want to find truth when she feels her teachers’ hands? This completely changed the way I approached the emotional range of Helen. Instead of thinking, “Ok, this is when I’m supposed to be happy” I thought about why Helen would be happy. This feedback from Natalee has also influenced the way I want to perform in other non-character driven pieces. Every piece has a tone or persona to convey. I want to always pursue honesty on stage and asking why I, the dancer, want to move in a certain way. I hope to find more integrity and transparency in my performance by constantly asking myself, “What do I want for this piece?” Once this question is answered, I understand where my purpose is and how I can give myself to the roll in an authentic way.
My greatest challenge in the transition to professional life is finding joy and satisfaction in everything I do as a student, teacher, and performer. Dance is almost like a truth serum in that the observer can always tell your intention. Dancers are always on display and the constant criticism can cause damaging effects to an artist’s confidence. Throughout this year, I have at times felt lost in knowing my purpose as a dancer and teacher. The thing that gets me out of this funk is shifting my mindset from focusing on my own needs and instead working for the greater good of others. One of my favorite quotes is by Lewis Carroll, “One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” Great art and satisfaction comes from the act of giving and not taking. Dancers are, in some ways, naturally inclined to take and be selfish artists. We take instruction and criticize its impact, we take choreography and judge its value, we take the stage from others through our desire to be seen. This result is emptiness because dance is a fleeting fulfillment. If we constantly seek to give ourselves to this craft through a strong presence in class, a positive and engaged response to the choreographer, an active connector to fellow performers, we can feel more fulfilled and less selfish in our art. The career of a dancer is never stable or consistent. The task must be to find consistency in an understanding of your reason to pursue dance.
It is so important to keep reminding yourself why you dance and why you can meet the demands of performing professionally. We are constantly seeking approval from others and will rarely get the feedback we want to hear. Instead of seeking acceptance from others, seek to find satisfaction in the moment. Find what encourages you every day whether it is helping others or creating art. Whenever I begin to doubt myself in a rehearsal I often imagine that my close college friends are in the room and supporting me. It takes me back to my safe place at the SMU dance facility where I felt comfortable to do anything. I am seeking to find comfort in this new home. A dancer always needs to be improving and learning from others, while also maintaining our integrity to what makes us unique.