For the June edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Laura Careless, an alum of Juilliard’s Dance Division. Born in the United Kingdom, Laura graduated from the Royal Ballet School in London and the Ecole-Atelier of Maurice Bejart in Lausanne, Switzerland before attending Juilliard. In addition to being a founding member and Principal Performer at Company XIV, founder of Alchemy For Nomads, and a faculty member at Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech, Laura has toured around the world as a dancer and solo choreographer.
When did you begin dancing? When did you know that dance would be your career?
Movement is my first language; I was walking six months before I said my first word, and as an infant and a toddler I was, shall we say, extremely emotionally expressive! Both my parents have an artistic background so putting me in a dance class where I would have an outlet for my need to move was an obvious idea, and it quickly became the only hour in the week when I could be guaranteed not to be throwing a tantrum. Dancing has always been one of the great loves of my life, and I never wanted to do anything else as a career except a teenage dream of being an orchestra conductor, which I now get to do by living through my husband!
Your resume contains a long impressive list of dance, teaching, and choreography credits. Is there one or two projects that stand out among the rest for you? If so, which ones and why?
It was very special for me to perform at The Metropolitan Opera recently in their new production of Rusalka. As a girl, dance was synonymous with ballet, because that was all I knew. As I grew up and branched out into other styles of movement which better suited my adult self, I always carried a little sadness around the fact that moving away from a career in ballet had also meant moving away from big productions in giant opera houses with live orchestras and fabulous costumes. In dancing at the Met I was granted, in my 30s, a childhood dream that I thought I had given up, and dancing choreography (by XIV Director Austin McCormick) that I adored. There were a few minutes in the third act where I knelt still and alone on stage, listening to the orchestra and the offstage chorus, surrounded by a magical woodland set as a conduit for the experience of thousands of opera lovers. Every performance, I felt like my heart might explode at that moment.
What project(s) are you currently working on? Can you tell our readers a little bit about them?
My creative life is a real patchwork quilt at the moment! I am writing this in transit from Switzerland, where I have been working as a visiting artist for Juilliard Global Ventures, performing and teaching in schools; I’ll be returning in July to lead the dance faculty for the Juilliard/Nord Anglia Summer Arts program in Geneva. On my return to New York City, I’ll be diving into final rehearsals for The Wild Current, a commissioned work from Eliot Feld for the students of Ballet Tech, with a premiere at The Joyce Theater on June 9. I’ve been teaching kids at the school for nine years now, so it’s been very satisfying to share my creative life with them beyond my role as their teacher. I’m really passionate about advocating for movement and creativity in 21st century life, and in this vein I’m about to launch my project Body Story, a series of short movement meditations suitable for people of all movement backgrounds which will be available for audio download starting on Memorial Day.
And I’m in the process of developing She-Wolves, my latest one-woman dance theatre extravaganza, in consultation with the historian and BBC presenter Helen Castor. She-Wolves tells the stories of the medieval Queens of England who attempted not only to reign but to rule in their own right. They are amazing, rarely told stories which demonstrate the historical difficulties of women holding power, and each queen will be represented through a different artistic collaboration (with a choreographer, playwright, visual artist or musician) for each queen to highlight the individuality of her story. Transforming a work of non-fiction into a piece for performance (and then getting it seen by anyone other than my cat) is a massive undertaking and I expect to be working on it for several years. I’ll be presenting a workshop version during a residency grant at The Church in upstate New York on August 12, and my ultimate ambition for this work is to tour it throughout the U.K., retracing the footsteps of its heroines.
It does not seem like you have very much downtime, but when you do have a few minutes to yourself, what do you enjoy doing?
My husband Ryan and I are both freelance artists and travel a lot, so our time at home together is precious. Domesticity has become extremely exotic; I dream about things like cooking dinner, painting a room, gardening, even house cleaning! We recently moved upstate to the woods outside Rhinebeck in upstate New York and are loving the opportunity to live in a house for the first time in our adult lives after many years in city apartments. The living room is big enough to double as a dance studio! Other pleasures in my life include saunas, long hikes in the mountains, playing with my nephew, adult colouring books, essential oils, flamenco, and loose-leaf tea from a teapot, preferably shared with a friend.
Since graduating in 2007, you have stayed connected to Juilliard in a variety of ways including programs not directly related to dance. For example, in February 2016, you participated in OIA’s International Alumni Panel and in March of 2017, in celebration of Women’s History Month, you were a panelist for another event called “Celebrating Diversity, Overcoming Adversity: An Inspiring Conversation with Juilliard Alumni.” Why is it important for you to stay an active member of the Juilliard community?
President Polisi’s vision of the artist as citizen was hugely formative for me during my time at Juilliard, and advocating for the importance of the arts in our culture, in our schools and in our daily living is an essential part of my artistic practice. It is always an honour to be invited to add my voice to these conversations at Juilliard, and engaging with students, faculty, staff and alumni is an important source of community for me. A freelance lifestyle can get lonely, and it is important for me to engage with others who are thoughtfully asserting their personhood through an individualized artistic path.
Additionally, I know from experience that programs such as these can greatly enrich the student experience. I would be a lesser person today if it wasn’t for the Juilliard Summer Grant program, Community Service Fellowship, Student Leadership opportunities, the mentoring program, and many other “extracurricular” activities which ensured that my social awareness and intellectual curiosity kept pace with my artistic achievements. As a student at Juilliard, I was encouraged to create my own version of success by cultivating my interests beyond the technical demands of my discipline, and that’s a gift I would like to pass along.
Graduation took place on May 19th. What advice do you have for recent Juilliard alums? Do you have any specific guidance for international graduates?
In general, my advice is, don’t ask for advice! Instead, gather as much information as you can, consult with your gut and the hairs on the back of your neck, and then appoint yourself as the authority over your own decisions! This is something that is still difficult for me, so I think the sooner you start, the better!
For international graduates, if you would like to remain in the U.S., here are some learned-the-hard-way tips from my 11 years as a non-resident alien: Start all the immigration work four-six months earlier than you think you need to. Speak with multiple lawyers before you decide to work with one of them. Juilliard’s International Advisement Office is a great resource even after you graduate, and Cory Owen rocks. Keep hard copies of all programs, reviews, and advertisements that carry your name. Be very, very careful about applying for a green card through the Exceptional Ability category; the requirements are different than for an O-1 visa and it’s safer to keep renewing the O-1 until you are sure you have the appropriate materials. And if at all possible, try to fall head-over-heels in love with a gorgeous American person who is also crazy about you.
Where in the United Kingdom are you originally from? Can you tell our readers a little about your hometown?
I grew up in the little village of Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. It’s only a few miles into the Channel, but there is no bridge and so the island has it’s own feeling: sleepy, low-key and small-scale. Some people live their whole lives there with only the occasional trip to “The Mainland”. Bonchurch is the kind of English seaside village where there is a landscaped duck pond, a Victorian hotel where Charles Dickens stayed for a few months, and where the “New Church” was built in the 19th century and the “Old Church” is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
You have lived in the U.S. for a good number of years now. Do you still experience culture shock? Do you have reverse culture shock when you return to the UK? If so, can you give some examples?
The wonderful thing about emigrating to New York City is that the population is so diverse, you can consider yourself an authentic New Yorker whether or not you were born there, and without giving up everything from the culture you came from. I don’t identify as American, but if somebody challenged my New Yorker label after 13 years in the city, I would be extremely offended! In retrospect, I believe I was drawn across the Atlantic because Juilliard encapsulates a New York idea of individuation as a way of life. So, any home comforts I missed were more than made up for by being able to create a sense of being at home in myself.
The most difficult things about integrating into the culture were more to do with growing up away from my family than about the culture specifically, such as getting a bank account, finding an apartment, and getting health insurance on my own. I’m experiencing some of this again now that I’ve moved out of the city and have a whole new set of skills to lean – driving a car, for example!
Nowadays, I feel fluent in the cultural languages of both the UK and New York. My accent is literally trans-Atlantic: I sound British to Americans, and I sound American to Brits – although my husband tells me that my English accent comes back in full force the moment my Mum picks up the phone. There are also some things that don’t feel right wherever I am: when I’m in America, I miss the comfort of polite small talk; when I’m in England, I cannot understand why people will not say what they really mean!
You describe yourself as having “nomadic tendencies.” Can you elaborate?
Living and working on the move suits the same restless streak in my nature that led me into dancing. Although I love my house, I’ve come to identify home as a feeling, not a place. There is of course a sense of liberation that comes with this, but I also find it sad in some ways; I dream of having a family and living in a community of people who know me, and eating dinner around the table every day and sleeping in the same bed every night, but my life is flowing with a different tide at the moment. So I trust that, like performing at the Met, this dream will come back to me when the time is right and in the meantime I enjoy the gifts that my travels offer to me.
When OIA contacted you about participating in Eye on Culture, an auto-reply was received that stated you were “unplugging for vacation.” These days, it is rare for someone to unplug from technology in this way. Why is this important to you?
As a freelance artist, you are a business owner as well as an artistic director and performer, and the email load can get heavy. Add in the demands of media updates, scheduling, production requirements and other planning, and you have yourself a minimum of 2-3 computer hours every day. My inbox is never empty, there is always a deadline a few days away or a double booking to negotiate, and so it can be very difficult to switch off the computer, let alone my mind. This can cause a constant, low-level anxiety which has repercussions on my mental and physical health, and my ability to create. As someone whose physical state is at the center of my identity, my work, my self-expression and my pleasure, it is essential for me to continually break the inevitable dependency I develop with my devices. While I appreciate technology – my life would not function without it – I am in a consistent state of shock at how intrusive we allow it to be. If we had a relationship with a person that was as out of our control as our relationship with email or Facebook, our friends would be staging an intervention!
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I am very excited about the release of Body Story on Memorial Day! This project was prompted by my own need for a guide to moving my body and transforming my mood when I feel stuck after long journeys, too much computer work or other stressful situations that take me out of my body. I figured I was not the only one with this need, so I drew on my work with a wide range of movers to develop ten-minute movement meditations on seven themes: Return, Flow, Command, Embrace, Express, Clarify and Surrender. They’re suitable for everyone and available through my website.