The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > Introducing company artist Aleksa Lawry
Introducing company artist Aleksa Lawry
With: KAYA WEAVER
Aleksa Lawry joined Glorify Dance Theatre this season as an apprentice. Read our conversation to learn about her love for movement and storytelling and about her goals for spiritual growth within her creative work this season.
Kaya: To get started, I want to ask: What inspires or motivates you to move?
Aleksa: Oh sure, a softball! [laughs] It’s always been a very innate thing for me. My mother tells me stories all the time about how I came out of the womb dancing. I had an older brother, and I wanted to learn to walk pretty quickly because he was walking around, and as soon as I could walk and run I could dance. I was dancing along to music, I was dancing to anything that was in the air, I was just dancing to dance. I played soccer for a little bit, then tried gymnastics, and that did not work. Then my parents put me in dance class, and I said, “Mommy, I will be a ballerina.” I was set, and that was my whole thing.
At first it might have just been that Barbie was a ballerina, and everybody that I looked up to was a ballerina, so I wanted to be a ballerina too, but eventually, sometime around high school, it became a true passion. This is what I could see myself doing forever.
It was a big wake-up call when I was in the college world where everything was so much more intense than it had been before, and I definitely felt the pressure there. I remember being asked this question somewhere around sophomore year and having no idea how to answer it because it seemed like, well, I just move because I move.
But the answer is that when I’m dancing, it feels…how do I say this? It feels right. When I dance well, I get goosebumps. I feel very full, and I feel like I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing. There’s that cliché saying, “When I jump I feel like I’m flying,” but it’s so true. When I’m dancing well–I don’t mean technically well; I mean I’m dancing full-bodied–I feel very full in spirit, in heart, and in connection to everything in the world and to God. A piqué turn is not just a piqué turn; it’s like I’m sailing, I’m flying, I’m turning and spinning, and it’s the best expression of art and athletics and poetry in motion.
Also, I have a storyteller brain. I like to write, and I love to read. To me, dance is words that have moved, sentences acted out with the body. That’s why I get so count-specific and movement specific, because what word we use in the sentence is very important to me in conveying whatever story we’re trying to tell.
What inspires me to move is writing and music. That storytelling and that feeling when you hear a song, and it’s so rich and full, and you think, I have to just express all of this! Maybe nobody else feels that way, but I feel like I have to express all of it with my body. Then when I do a movement that’s so full, I feel so full of the music itself.
Kaya: You’re drawing together so many things. Since I started thinking seriously about dance I’ve always thought that dance is a multimedia-medium. I love how you’re pulling together the innate physicality of it–there’s something that feels wonderful about moving–and also music, which is a non-linguistic but auditory art-form, and also words and sentences–language–and how all of that comes together in storytelling.
Aleksa: It all circles back to stories. Music is a story, even if it’s not “a hero’s journey.” And every sentence that anybody says is a story: they’re talking about a subject and a verb, an action–about somebody doing something. And dance is a story told with the body.
Kaya: Do you have a particular memory of connecting dance with a story and realizing that dance is storytelling?
Aleksa: I grew up doing a lot of dance-as-storytelling, especially ballet. I was very blessed to have a wonderful ballet teacher growing up who loved telling stories through dances, so every Christmas we did Nutcracker, and the spring show was usually some other story ballet, but it wasn’t the traditional classical ones. We did Sleeping Beauty once, but I did Star Wars as a ballet; I did Toy Story, Dr. Seuss, and so many others. I was always playing characters, and my teacher was always encouraging us to play characters during class. We were never just setting up to do an across the floor; she would say, “The stage lights are on you. You’re wearing a peasant dress; this is how long the skirt is. This is what you’re acting out…” As someone who loved to read so much, it was easy to throw myself into whatever world she was painting for me. I’m so grateful to have had that teacher who was so story-forward with her method of teaching, because that shaped the entire way I’ve looked at dance forever.
Kaya: We were talking earlier about the Bible as a story, and you said reading the Bible as a story is something you’ve been getting into recently. How does that connect with your general love for stories?
Aleksa: When I was younger I thought of Bible stories just as stories. I liked them, but I was so interested in reading stories about dragons and princesses that I wasn’t doing so much analyzing of stories as I was just getting myself lost in a whole world. Then when I was older and when I started to analyze literature in high school and college, I started to appreciate how much intention writers put into their work.
It was recently, maybe May or June of this year, that I started to apply that lens toward biblical storytelling and the Bible as a whole, and I found it to be so rich and deep with meaning, metaphor, and rhetorical devices–and not just from one author, but also these huge, overarching prophetic passages that connect and allude to other passages that are hundreds or thousands of years apart. That’s a kind of storytelling that’s completely different from any other book that I’ve read. It’s so God-blessed–of course it would be. God is the creator of the universe; why wouldn’t he be able to make the most beautiful book ever?
Being able to dissect that more has been so rewarding because then they’re so immediately applicable to life. Once you understand what the authors’–plural–intention was to give you all this messaging from God, to be like, “Man! This is what they all meant! This is how I can apply this now,” it’s so fascinating.
Kaya: It sounds like as you grew in your ability to technically analyze literary texts, that was something you were able to take to the Bible and break it down to see all the little details. Have you ever found yourself getting lost in the story of the Bible like you did with fantasy books as a kid?
Aleksa: I’ve always loved Esther, since I was young. It was my favorite Bible story and probably still is. I could get lost in that world for sure. It’s historical, too, so that it’s not a fantasy world, but it feels like I can get lost in it because the “fantasy” world is our world. The story of Esther is so magical to me because she didn’t hear a direct voice from God but heard an indirect voice through her cousin Mordecai, and she took bold, brave action to stand up for her beliefs amidst all sorts of literal danger and potential death. That kind of action is so beautiful, and I love trying to envision her headspace in all of that. How God can use anyone to accomplish his overarching goals–I think that’s so beautiful.
Kaya: I can see as you talk about Esther how the story has come to life in your imagination. It makes sense that as a dancer you’re talking about bringing stories to life in your embodied movement.
Switching gears a little bit: between your training, performing, and teaching, how have you experienced God at work through dance?
Aleksa: I have danced in Christian environments, and I have danced in secular environments, and I have found that I am more influenced by my surroundings than I thought that I would be. Whenever I return to dancing in a Christian environment, I am reminded about how much more peaceful and relaxed I can feel, because I feel more free.
When I have danced in secular environments, I find that there is a focus on self-perfection. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; we’re all trying to improve ourselves. But sometimes that focus can be detrimental to mental health because perfection is unachievable.
When I have danced in Christian environments, there is not so much a focus on self-perfection, because we’ve already been taught through the Bible that perfection is impossible to achieve, and we can just be striving for our best and then leaving the rest up to God. That’s where I feel God most. I get this image sometimes of God putting his hands on my shoulders and pressing down so that I release all of that tension. It’s like God is saying, “You’re safe here. You don’t have to be perfect. Nobody’s expecting that of you, and I’m not expecting that of you.”
Kaya: The call to excellence comes from a place of security.
Aleksa: It’s like we were talking about in the Bible study this morning [in Galatians 5]: we’re not beholden to the law, and we’re not using the law to find righteousness, but we still follow some parts, like “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because we are saved. Because we are free, we choose to do it, in celebration and because it’s the right thing to do.
Similarly, God has freed me from being a perfect dancer, but I still strive for excellence because I know that’s the most God-honoring thing to do. But I don’t have to worry that if I don’t achieve excellence I will be punished, thrown away, or forgotten. I’m still loved wholly.
Kaya: Right, because the order is, first you’re valued, and then you can pursue excellence. It’s not that I need excellence or perfection–
Aleksa: –to be valued. Exactly! That’s the difference.
Kaya: I love that connection. In that vein, as you pursue excellence to use your art for the glory of God, what do you feel that God is inviting you to this season?
Aleksa: My word that I feel like God is calling me to is “humility.” Because of my previous desires for excellence and need for perfection, that leads to prideful feelings–feeling that I have to be the best, that I am the best, or that I have to compete with everybody all the time. But I feel called to be humble and put my best foot forward to the company this year and see how that goes. In the past I may have tried too hard to make myself fit in in ways I thought I had to, thinking, “I have to get this triple turn, or else they won’t like me!” So now I need to be humble and remind myself that I’m going to fall out of some turns on a given day, and I almost prefer that, because then I can really retain who I am amidst that.
Kaya: When you make a technical mistake or experience failure, you can look around and see that nobody here thinks any less of you for it.
Aleksa: Right! I think humility is also…there’s a verse that I can’t remember in full now, but it’s like, “Less of me, more of him.”
(Editor’s note: Aleksa is referring to John 3:30, where John the Baptist says that the Messiah is coming and “He must become greater; I must become less” (NIV))
It’s not that I think of myself as less, but I think of myself less.
My goal this year is to think of myself less and to think of other people more, so that I can be giving not just to an audience but also to the people who are next to me, that I’m dancing with. How can I give to them something that they can use to bring them up and show how beautiful all these other women around me are?
Kaya: That must be really challenging as a dancer because your body, your self, is your medium for your art, so as you’re working on technical excellence, but trying to exercise humility in that, that’s a very fine line.
Aleksa: It’s already been so difficult! But I’m trying [laughs].
Kaya: Would you be willing to share a challenge that’s presented?
Aleksa. Sure. I think it all comes down to the fact that I’ve been burned before. I’ve been rejected so many times in the past year and a half. Some of the ways were really subtle, and I don’t hold ill will against anybody; they were probably very fair. But then I’ve had some experiences in the past year and a half where I was rejected in a very public, very clear manner. They were telling me that I was a bad dancer and also that I was a bad person, and that not only should I give up dance but also that I should probably just go do anything else away from them.
That’s been difficult coming into this place because I’m afraid it’s going to happen again, so I have this need to be liked by new people, and coming into this I realized, I need to find a way to present my best self, and my best self is not a self that’s afraid. I do want to be liked, and I do want to be as likable as possible because I want to be kind, loving, generous, and joyful, but doing it from a place of fear is not the correct way to do it. I wonder, “Am I saying this right now because I’m afraid that if I don’t they won’t like me, or am I saying it because it’s genuinely coming from a place of kindness?”
Kaya: Do you have any practices for training or self-assessing that?
Aleksa: Usually it just takes a thought. It’s just a moment of stepping back and asking, “What am I doing?” And then I realize, “In this moment I can be kind, not because I need to be, but because I choose to be.”
Kaya: That sounds like that freedom we talked about.
Reflecting on the first few weeks of the season, has anything surprised you?
Aleksa: How fast it’s all gone! It feels like I just moved here yesterday, but it’s already been a month. It’s gone so quickly because it’s been so much fun! I love waking up and thinking, “I get to dance today!” Not, “I have to,” but “I get to dance.” That’s so exciting, to think, “I’m going to put on my leotard and go to rehearsal, and I’m going to take class all day, and I’m going to be so sore and it’s going to be amazing! That’s the other thing–I thought, “I’m so excited, I’m so sore! I haven’t been so sore in so long!” It’s been so fun, and time flies when you’re having fun.
I’ve always enjoyed the rehearsal process. It goes back to the story thing: I love hearing new stories, and since we’re working on four or five things at once I get to do so many different things and be so many different characters. It’s new and exciting every day.
Kaya: I don’t just see the smile on your face; I see it in your eyes lighting up.
Aleksa: I almost cried today in rehearsal, thinking, “I’m a ballerina, and I’m dancing with other ballerinas! Oh my gosh!!” And then I thought, “Aleksa, you have to go on and be a mean, wayward character, and she’s not crying for joy because she loves ballet.”
Kaya: It’s challenging to portray the hard realities that form the backdrop for the beauty and goodness that you’re really experiencing and communicating through a story like that. But it’s amazing and wonderful that behind the scenes, in the studio, at home, inside–
Aleksa: –in my soul, I’m always cheering and dancing inside because I’m so excited!
Kaya: Is there anything you’re looking forward to this season or a goal that you have for yourself?
Aleksa: My goal is to be humble and to practice generosity in my movement.
Kaya: Can you say more about what “generosity in your movement” means?
Aleksa: Yeah! It all ties into when I pursue excellence in dancing because I want to present the best gift to the audience that I can. That’s how I’m starting to visualize it. I work on my tendu so that when I’m on stage people will feel more of the love that comes out of it. There’s also self-generosity: when I fail, when I fall, when I trip or stumble or forget a piece of choreography, recognizing that that was just a mistake and now I can move on and do better the next time, and there’s no need to think any more of it.
Kaya: I like how that goes both ways, towards the audience that you’re working to improve your art for, and also towards yourself to be human.
Aleksa: I think sometimes dancers forget that we’re humans. Dance is this art form where you’re not allowed to show pain or tiredness, so we’re trained from very young to not show when we’re hurt or tired because we have to present a character. As dancers who grow up in that kind of atmosphere, unintentionally we learn to not show those things and to be robots, and then it’s so hard to go back to being human and remember, sometimes humans are tired! Sometimes humans do make mistakes. And how to have grace with that: apologize if necessary, move on, and be better then next time.
Kaya: Being human instead of being a robot means that you’re growing, so you’re giving yourself room to grow.
Aleksa: I’m looking forward to all the performances. I love performing, because then you’re in the world; you are the character. It’s not just reading the fantasy books, it’s being in the fantasy books. Sharing that world with other people is my favorite thing. That’s the one place where for once I can practice true humility, because there’s none of me. I am all gone; it’s just the character left to show the audience. I can put all of me behind and not worry about me at all, and that’s the best time of my life. There’s just music and dancing, and I feel full, and I get to present something to an audience and give something to them.
Kaya: What’s it like coming back to yourself after performing?
Aleksa: I’ve never been a person who dances on stage and then hyper-analyzes afterward. In performance, because I am able to get rid of myself completely, when I come back to myself, it’s like I watched someone else dance. I can say, “Wow, that was so amazing, so beautiful, and so fun. I’m glad I got to be that character for a while.” It’s almost detached–in the best way, not a scary way.
Kaya: It sounds like coming from a posture of gratitude.
Aleksa: Yeah! Even if I make a mistake onstage, I still finish the dance thinking, “Wow, I really tried my best, and that was amazing.” I’m always so overwhelmed by the fact that I got to dance and give something to someone. I’m so honored and blessed to do that, that that’s all I need. That motivates me to do anything else.
Kaya: Everything that you’ve shared feels permeated with joy. That, along with your desire to be generous in your movement and the work that you put in, is going to be a wonderful gift to our audience this season. I can’t wait for them to get to see you onstage.
Aleksa: It will be fun!
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