intervYOU – Anne Caruthers, Choreographer and Creative Director

We kick off the first of the intervYOU series with a special treat. Anne Caruthers is the President and Creative Director of “Dance From The Heart”, a Texas-based, non-profit, multi-cultural dance organization. Anne and I have known each other for a long while but fell out of touch when I moved to California. We reconnected several years ago on Facebook and it was fascinating to see how life has changed each of us; though the kernel of our initial connection has remained intact. I think her interview is a wonderful window into a creative soul powered by the desire to give.

Anne on stage in Hayati
Anne on stage in Hayati

So, we’re going to start off with some background – tell me how you became inspired to dance.

I wanted to dance since childhood, but never had the “build” for ballet.  I took the path of music and theatre instead, which I also love.  When I began dancing as an adult in a multi-cultural form, what I consider the “harsher rules of the ballet world” didn’t apply.  I was a stay at home mom that had an 11 month old toddler, and I desperately needed adult interaction.  I saw an advertisement for a belly dance class, and I went.  I fell in love with the form, and in six months I was performing with the studio’s dance company.  Looking back, it was WAY too soon for me to be performing, but my stage experience made up for my lack of crisp technique.

And with that, was there some sort of “a-ha” moment?

I think there was, yes.  I listened to so many dancers complain about not being taken seriously because they weren’t ballet/modern/contemporary dancers.  I listened to the people that saw “belly dance” shows and heard their reactions.  I was continually exposed to the misconceptions about this dance and understood how they came to be.  While in conversation with my (now ex) husband one day, it all came together – an a-ha moment of how to incorporate all of my passions (music, dance and theatre) in a way that would potentially make this form of dance more accessible and acceptable to the general public down here in the land of conservatives.

Once you realized you loved performing and creating, what happened?

I actively pursued it on every front.  There were certainly times that I STOPPED pursuing certain aspects when they just didn’t feel right, didn’t fit into my life, etc. but when I was engaged in something creative, it was absolutely with intent and purpose.

Were your parents on board with this?

My mother always encouraged me on every front.  She signed me up for piano lessons, voice lessons and acting lessons, but I had to beg for them.  She wanted to make sure I really wanted it first.  She attended every event, every recital, every play… she never missed a performance of mine unless she was out of the country or ill.  My father supports me now, but wasn’t so excited about my having a career in the arts – it was too risky and not stable enough in his mind.

Alright, so at that moment in time we have a young girl who is young and passionate with the beginnings of some training. How did you expand your training?

I attended theatre classes at the Alley Theatre, took voice lessons with Bettye Gardner here in Houston (also one of my instructors at the Alley), took piano/guitar/banjo lessons throughout my childhood/adolescence, played and sang with local bands and finally began belly dance lessons, followed by Latin Ballroom, Ballet and Flamenco lessons.  I have studied my chosen form of dance with instructors from the Middle East, N. America, Canada and Europe.  I have collaborated with other dancers in different dance forms and continue to interact with and learn from everyone with whom I work.

Is there any correlation between the things you did as a child that relate to your career as an adult?

I was always a ham… would jump at the opportunity to be the center of attention, and was spoiled rotten.  I was obviously ready to perform at a young age, and was drawn to comedy.

Through all of that, was there a teacher that inspired or influenced you?

There is – Ken Dyess (at John Foster Dulles High School in Stafford, Texas) influenced me heavily. He was one of those teachers that could get kids to work for him.  He inspired fierce loyalty and a desire to please, and was a tough love kind of teacher/Director.  My favorite memories of working with him were during “Charley’s Aunt”, for which I was the AD.  I learned a great deal going through the process with him, understanding how he staged, how he got what he wanted from his actors, etc.  Being the ear that heard his comments about what was happening onstage was instrumental to my own Directorial style.  Understanding what he saw and how he saw it … “getting into his head”, essentially, was better instruction than any class.

Well as far as influences go, it seems like you’ve had quite a few good ones. Could you name three people that have made a deep impact on you and describe how they did that?

My father instilled in me a strong work ethic.  When I was younger, it seemed I was in constant conflict with him.  As I have aged, I understand him better and appreciate the lessons he has taught me – even the hard ones I didn’t like very much.  Now, he is my hero.  He has exhibited selflessness I never thought he had and a depth of love I try to give and hope I inspire.  He’s not perfect… but I love him in spite of his serious character flaws (meaning that he doesn’t agree with every word that comes out of my mouth).

My mother passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s.  She is the primary reason I do what I do.  From my earliest childhood, she told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, could do anything I worked to accomplish.  I never doubted her, and because of that have attempted things that I probably wouldn’t have dared otherwise.  When I start my creative process for a new project (no matter how big or small), I never forget her words.  I always strive to do what would make her proud of what I’ve produced, and it is always in honor of her memory.

My Aunt (my father’s sister) passed away on my birthday in 2010, after an extended bout with Leukemia.  My Aunt was the picture of grace in this world.  Oh, she wasn’t inhumanly perfect or anything – she was stubborn, she had a temper, and she used some awfully colorful language on occasion.  She was the most giving (and FORgiving), generous, patient, loving soul I have ever known.  She was strong in her faith, and suffered more hardship than just about anyone I know except her daughter, who has had to deal with everything she did, but also had to live through her mother’s passing.  Her spirit, while sometimes battered, was never broken.  I think of her whenever I consider the people we are trying to help.  I think of her when I get frustrated with the process or an individual and start losing patience.  I put her foremost in my thoughts when creating a piece about love, faith, hope or loss as an example of how her grace made such a difference in her life, and in the lives of those around her.  If I need to approach the darker side of those topics, I think of her polar opposite.

It’s surprising and humbling the ways in which families make their mark on us. How about other artistic influences?

There is a wonderful dancer in Indiana – Leila Gamal.  She made the biggest impact on me of any dancer to date.  The moment I saw her move, I was completely captivated.  Even 20 years later, she has the presence to make the rest of the room disappear when she dances.  Earthy, fluid, beautiful, powerful, grounded, unstinting, undeniable… that is how I would describe her in dance… all that and more.

And what inspired you to found Dance From The Heart? How did that come about?

I’ve spent a lifetime organizing events.  I don’t think I ever realized it until I had to start thinking about what all I had done. Just after the tsunami in 2005, a group of dancers around the US wanted to do something to help the survivors. We decided to use our talents to raise money for the relief effort. When doing so, questions would come up about how to do different things… how to write press releases, how to get logos, how to set up a website, how to get sponsors, etc. I was answering the majority of the questions, and willing to do a lot of work to get things moving… and I just happened to have the skills to do it. It was familiar territory.  Everyone kept saying, we need to make this a non-profit. So, I did the research and figured out what needed to be done. Once the initial event was finished, I was ready to keep going… no one else was.  I found two partners that were willing to split the start-up costs with me, and we put the application together. It was a TON of paperwork, but we managed to get it done.  We put our first full scale production on stage two years after the tsunami benefit. The biggest challenge is finding people that are willing to put more time and effort in than they’ll ever get back, and still do the work required to get the job done.

What’s happening with the company currently?

We are currently working on what I call Domari Deux.  I am restaging our 2011 production, ‘Domari’, after many requests for repeat performances.  I’m adding scenes we were unable to finish the first go ‘round, and making changes to choreography that I felt didn’t work. We are currently scheduled for six shows over the first two weekends in November of this year.  And then the next show I have in planning (for 2014) is a complete fantasy, unlike Domari, which was historical fiction. The concept name for the show is Ethereality, and is the story of elemental spirits mucking about in the lives of humans, and the mess that comes from it. It will be the most ambitious project to date, but it is likely to be the dancers’ favorite.

Has there been a moment you would describe as your first “big break”?

Not yet. It seems so close, I can almost taste it.  We’re working SO hard, and the signs are there. It’s so maddening when people say things like, “What you are doing is different than anything I‘ve seen, and it’s wonderful.” I say that, because:  while those comments are so hugely appreciated and are the lifeblood that validates what we’re doing, we constantly wonder how to get that message to the people that have the ability to help us get to the next level.

It’s so tough for any arts organization to break through. There’s a lot of competition for patron attention and dollars these days.

For a non-profit, the bottom line is always funding the vision. Quality isn’t cheap. We want to succeed artistically, but we also have a philanthropic mission driven by our productions – we want to make an impact… to be a significant contributor to our beneficiaries. The non-profit is currently full of volunteers that work their asses off simply for the joy of creating, and to help those that we select as our beneficiaries. I work a full time job in technology (and most of us do work in the business sector full time on top of this). I do this because I believe in it, because I want to make a difference, and because I have more fun with these people than anywhere else outside of my relationship with my Favorite Man. All of the performers and technicians involved in this donate their time and talent to these performances and rehearsals.

Anne in rehearsal
Anne in rehearsal

Okay, so let’s talk about your process a little bit. What inspires you to create?

Music – it’s always about the music for me.  The music creates the story in my brain, and they both drive the movement that tells the story.

I agree completely. So much of what I do is driven by music as well, which I love. Once the music starts happening, what’s next? How does that unfold?

I often create alone. Choreography happens in odd places – the car, at home by the computer, in the studio… sometimes in the bloody grocery store.  What I’ve discovered in the last two years is how much I enjoy collaboration, when the mix of collaborators is just right.  I brought in an Artistic Director (Kim Piwetz) in 2011.  I create the vision, she helps implement it.

Kim and I, though she is about 17 years younger than me, seem to be on the same twisted wavelength.  We get together in a studio and first discuss the concept of the piece.  I’ll play the music for her and describe the story that I see evolving from the musical theme.  Next, we start documenting so that we don’t forget any of our brilliant ideas.  We listen to the music again and I go through moments of specific action/movement I have in my head while she notes those points on her snazzy Alienware laptop, over which I have geek envy.

Once we get through the song and I’ve given her the outline, we focus on the movement vocabulary I’ve already set.  I teach her what I have already worked out, let her know where I am not happy with my choices, or have ideas for something that I haven’t pinpointed yet.  That’s where the fun begins. We start breaking down the areas where I’m looking for improvement, and essentially play around with movement until something clicks.  Our dance backgrounds are similar, but have strong enough differences that we both know things the other doesn’t, making the creative process also a learning one.  We definitely feed off of each other. One of us will start a section, the other will do something that blends, and between the two we come up with the final landscape. Once we have the movements mapped and noted, we run it over (and over and over) and fix whatever still doesn’t work.

I really enjoy this process with Kim.  She’s amazingly talented, intelligent, outspoken and keeps me laughing during stressful times with her completely inappropriate and utterly delightful sense of humor.  And, she keeps me in check (and the dance company) when I decide to not follow my own choreography.  I couldn’t have purposefully planned for a better “Second in Command” for the production side of this endeavor.  She has become one of my closest friends, and I wouldn’t want to do this without her.  She can’t ever leave.  I’ll handcuff her if I have to.   She knows.  Her husband approves.

Is there some part of the process you dislike for any reason?

My least favorite part of the choreographic process is the notation.  It’s difficult to put three dimensional movements on paper in a way that makes sense to everyone that has to use it.

Knowing that creating can also bring stress, how do you typically deal with those moments when things are going smoothly?

It depends… sometimes we just take a break.  My stress is usually in rehearsal, when working with 10 – 20 people (dancers, musicians, actors).  I try not to yell, though on occasion that has occurred when someone is talking instead of listening (which will piss me off faster than just about anything, and they know it).  When I’m seriously stressed, I tend to get quiet.  If my voice gets low, and I speak in very measured tones, the dancers that have been with me the longest know that it is time to be very, very good.  Mostly, I try to talk to those closest to me… those on my board that are in it with me and have an equal stake in the outcome.  I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful group of people to work with – we complement each other in skill and personality, and we seem to know when to vent and when to support while someone else is dealing with stress.

I hear you on the “when my voice gets low part”. I’m not a yeller either – it’s when I get quiet that people start scurrying. Okay, speaking of stress, though, has there been a time that you believe you failed or made a significant mistake?

Oh, goodness… I have made a lot of mistakes – it’s the most important part of the learning process.   I think that I have been fortunate that none have been so significant that my career was jeopardized.  However, each mistake, while different, came back to the same realization.  Surviving the mistakes has made me calmer, even though it also raises awareness of not making the same mistakes again.

And what have you learned from those mistakes?

Stay true to the vision, even when you feel uncertain and insecure about something that’s “outside the box”.  NEVER compromise on delivering the highest level of achievable quality.  If people are investing time in you, they are doing it for a reason – trust in that, and in your instincts.  You may fall flat on your face occasionally, but you have to in order to grow.

You mentioned earlier that you work in the technology. What’s your “day job”?

Call me Ms. Disaster Recovery.  I work for a large chemical company as their Disaster Recovery Manager.  I deal with business continuity and recovery of data centers after critical incidents occur (loss of the data center due to natural or manmade disasters).

Is it challenging to balance the demands of your career(s) with the responsibilities of family?

Absolutely. I want to do too many things at once. I want to be with my honey, Paul, but I would also like to be at the studio taking a class or working on this next bit of choreography. And then there are rehearsals as we get closer to show time. When I do have actual time off, Paul and I love to try new restaurants, catch a movie, go out and spend time with his parents in the country, or just stay at home and read.  Our library is extensive, and it’s a hobby all on its own, I suppose. I’ve TRIED to get Paul to start dancing, but trust me; he isn’t having any of it.

Knowing Paul as well, I have to thank you for the mental visual on that… Going back to technology, I’m wondering what technologies you employ to be creative?

The Adobe suite helps a lot – I can edit music with Soundbooth, map out choreography movement in Photoshop, we can do our own video editing with Vegas Pro.  My Sony HD video camera allows me to record rehearsals and publish the footage privately on YouTube for dancers to use as a learning tool outside of our studio time.  It also gives me a way to understand where the weak spots are for everyone, which I can’t always see while I’m leading the rehearsal and teaching.  While these things speak to efficiency, they also speak to a new approach for our process, that we didn’t have the ability to utilize even 10 years ago because of the price point.  In addition, we can now use projected backdrops instead of going through the time and expense of having them painted.  For the next two years, I have an artist friend that will create digital images for projection.  It takes him less time to create on his digital drawing tablet and costs us all far less from a materials perspective.  We have technical concerns with regard to shadows, but we’re working through that in our new venue with more modern technology capabilities.

Very cool. Alright I have a few wrap-up questions for you. Out of your career achievements thus far, which are you the most proud of?

It would have to be the staging of ‘Domari’ in 2011.  It was such a huge risk, and it was the make it/break it point for Dance from the Heart.  I am so grateful that the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Anne on stage
Anne on stage

Aside from your creative field, what else are you passionate about?

Patient advocacy, caregivers and how to provide help to those that sacrifice time from their own lives to care for someone else.

What sort of activities/hobbies outside of your career interest you?

Cooking – it was a business for a while, and I still cater for some friends on occasion.  Though I don’t play much anymore, music is still a big interest – just in a different way.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Push your boundaries, don’t settle for less than you think is right, don’t make snap judgments without a conversation first, and don’t panic when your past catches up to you – it’s not always a bad thing!

Where do you see multi-cultural dance in ten years?

With the ever increasing Western influence on Middle Eastern Dance, I see the fusion continuing and the art form being more theatricized (I just made that word up, thank you).  There will always be cultural purists (with whom I have no argument – I started that way, and continue to be true to the cultural roots of the dance when the performance calls for it), but the need to express beyond one movement vocabulary is increasing, not decreasing.  The fusionists are still testing the boundaries, so we’re going to see some really interesting things come in the next ten years.

What qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?

Beyond skillset…for my job specifically, I would say a strong desire to help others… to make a difference; the ability to share what you are passionate about openly; to build relationships with a wide variety of people; and the desire to work very hard for an uncertain return, because you love what you do… not because you will become rich doing it.

What do you feel you have to offer those who will come after you in the way of advice?

I would say the same thing to them that my mother said to me.  You can be anything you want, and do anything you desire if you apply yourself.

Thanks to Anne for an in-depth look into her creative life. To learn more about Dance From The Heart, click on the image below.

DFTH Logo

LAUNCHING JANUARY 2013

Stay tuned. In January 2013 – cre8tivitylab will be online.

I’ve tried blogging before. They say “blog what you know”. I searched online and found blogs I liked and followed. I tried to get a sense of where there were gaps and what I might bring to the table. Then I tried blogging about photography, and I tried blogging about lighting and projection design. But I found that while doing those things inspires me, writing about doing them doesn’t. The thing that is at the center of all of my passions is creativity and I love thinking and talking about THAT. The other thing I realized was that, for me, the best blogs aren’t necessarily about the blog writer, they’re about the blog’s subjects.

cre8tivitylab will be a site about people who live a creative life. Most people interpret that to be drawing, or acting, or singing, painting, designing, dancing, directing, sculpting, writing – and people from those fields (and quite a few others) will all appear here; but it’s really about more than that – it’s about the creative spark, the urge, the desire, the passion. What drives artists to create? To contribute? To connect? To share?

Blocked? Check out the !NSPIRE section. !NSPIRE will feature articles that are meant to get your creative juices flowing again or to perhaps expose you to a different way of thinking.

Curious? Click over to intervYOU. I’m very excited about this section; featuring interviews with creatives from all walks of life, at various stages of their careers. Learn how they got started, what inspires them, how they implement their creativity and a lot more. These aren’t glossy press bios. These are in-depth interviews, allowing you to get a sense of the artist and what they’re about.

Overwhelmed? Check out DO. You can dream all you want, but at some point you have to get started. This section will feature articles about how artists manage their time and get their work done.

So please join me – I’m excited about this venture and can’t wait to share it with you.

go. do. create.

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