For the July 2016 edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Josh Guillemot-Rodgerson, a rising fourth year dancer from Christchurch, New Zealand. Josh began dancing at the age of five. A tap dancer for most of his life, Josh came to the U.S. at the age of 14 to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy where he shifted his focus to ballet and modern dance. During his time at Juilliard, Josh has held several leadership positions including Programming Assistant (PA), Diversity Advocate (DA), Gluck Fellow, and Student Ambassador. For the 2016-2017 academic year, Josh will be a Resident Assistant (RA) as he finishes his last year at Juilliard.
Watch TV New Zealand’s Interview with Josh here
What made you want to begin taking dance lessons? When did you decide you wanted to pursue dance as a career?
It’s a funny story actually. When I was four years old I stayed up to watch the New Zealand national soap opera/hospital drama called Shortland Street with my mum. The show has aired five days a week for the last 23 years. Its funny to me (and many other kiwis) that as a little kid I happened to watch an episode that had two characters learning how to tango. I proceeded to tell my Mum I wanted to learn that, and I have danced every day since. There hasn’t really been a moment that made me want to pursue this as a career, it has never been a question to me that I would hopefully always be dancing. I started taking it more seriously around the age of twelve when I began to be interested in other dance styles in order to have more career options.
There are rumors floating around that you danced for President Obama. Even though this is not true, you did dance at an event at the White House hosted by the First Lady. Can you tell our readers a little about this experience?
I wish I could say this was the case, but it was an incredible event nonetheless. I was only a week out from leaving home for the US and I received a message from Interlochen saying I was one of five Interlochen dancers that had been chosen to go to the White House to be a part of an invited event for young dancers around America. It was only three days after school was to begin—My family and I thought it was some sort a weird hoax, it was so surreal; background checks had to be completed and all sorts. I got to take classes from very well known American performers, and Michelle and their daughters were hosting so I was a bit star struck. Everyone from home was really excited too; it was something you never hear of happening at home.
You have an extensive dance resumé. Of all of your performance highlights, which is your favorite and why?
My favorite is actually something I don’t include on my dance resumé. Each year since getting into Juilliard, I have held a fundraising concert at home. Each one has been a really different experience but they have all been equally special. They consist of me performing a handful of solos that I have choreographed, a number of items from children that I have worked with in NZ, and usually a handful of items from longtime family friends. My Mum and I spent weeks organizing it, my little brother, Xav, helps out with some of the tech, my cousin always sings—everyone in my family always plays a part in it. The audience is always filled with familiar and supportive faces, and the environment is so unique to perform in because it is one of the only times annually on stage that I get to fully let my guard down, go out on the stage and just enjoy it. I always enjoy performing, but knowing the crowd supports me wholeheartedly from before I even step on stage is so different to the usual scenario where you have to gradually earn the audiences support throughout the course of your time on stage.
In our June edition of Eye on Culture, we spoke to Ruth Reinhardt, an alum of Juilliard’s Orchestral Conducting Program. She spoke about gender bias faced by female conductors. Do you think gender bias exists in the dance world? If so, in what ways? Growing up did you face challenges being a male dancer?
There is definitely a gender imbalance, especially as a dance student, boys are greatly outnumbered by girls. I don’t know so much about the bias. I think there’s another great imbalance on the other side of things, with males holding far more directorial positions as well as choreographic. I’m sure bias comes into play at this end, but more people are becoming outspoken, and so I hope this can change over the next few years.
Its really hard for most boys that grow up as dancers, there were many times when I was younger that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone about my passion, and that can still come into play even today when I converse with other males. Being a male dancer is generally looked at as being weak, and un-masculine—sort of everything that goes against what men ‘should’ pursue. As I grew to understand more about my craft, it has become very easy to shut these opinions down, for starters by explaining that dance is one of the most athletic things that someone can do. To this day, when someone asks me what I do it can often be a conversation stopper as many people find it difficult to relate to a professional artist, let alone a male dancer, but as I get older it becomes easier to take the conversation into my own hands.
You came to the U.S. at the age of 14 to attend Interlochen. Was it difficult to leave home at such a young age? Did you experience any culture shock when you first arrived in the U.S.? What parts of U.S. culture were most challenging/surprising to you?
It was so difficult! My Mum and I laugh looking at photos now because I was much younger than we realized at the time. Before Interlochen I would cry even having to leave my family for a week. So everyone was shocked that I decided I wanted to do it. I was shocked too because after a somewhat difficult first month, I began to feel really at home with so many like-minded people around me—I must admit I still go home at every chance I get. My city was hit by numerous large earthquakes for about a year after I left so I worried about my family a lot which also made things a bit tougher.
I think the biggest culture shock for me was how loud you have to be in the U.S. to be heard! In New Zealand everyone is extremely hard working, but we seem to think that because of this our time will come eventually and so we often step back to let others have a turn or because we don’t want to look too confident. Here there are so many people wanting the same thing as you that you can’t waste a moment worrying if you are getting too much attention or if you ‘look’ confident because your one shot could pass you by in a flash. In fact it’s a great thing to have confidence to an extent but in New Zealand I think we worry too much that any sign of confidence will make us look arrogant; I can definitely see this in youth when I am teaching at home because no one ever wants to stand at the front of class. I also had a hard time adjusting to food, and the different kind of humor, but all in all I count my blessings that I come from a place where English is the most commonly spoken language.
How did attending Interlochen prepare you for Juilliard? In what ways were you not prepared for Juilliard and how did you overcome these initial challenges?
Interlochen really prepared me for Juilliard itself. I was living closely with many different artists, I was far from home, the schedule was not too far off from Juilliard’s, and I was spoiled with incredibly invested teachers. In fact I almost felt too prepared, it was hard initially to understand many people over the first month or so because many of them were experiencing it all for
the first time, and for me it was just a further extension on life as I had known it. I also missed the friends that I had made at Interlochen that really were my stand-in family while I lived in Michigan. My mum really helped me through this by getting me to understand that it is impossible to recreate the bonds that I had made over three years in a matter of months, and that it was best to focus on creating different ones.
I was definitely not prepared for New York—I had never seen a city so big in my life. I had barely even visited Auckland, which is New Zealand’s biggest city with just one million people. So you can imagine how new everything felt in New York; buildings that never end, riding the subway, crowds of people—there is always something happening, never a dull moment, but also never a still moment. I have really grown to love it though, especially since I get to see so much dance for such a small cost.
You have held several leadership positions at St. Andrews College Ballet Academy in New Zealand, Interlochen, and now at Juilliard. What motivates you to seek leadership positions? What have you learned from being a student leader at all three institutions?
I’m motivated by two main things: one is that leadership gives you a set of skills that are useful in any area of life—it is the study of yourself as well as the study of understanding others, the second is that I have also been positively affected by many people in these positions before me, and I have first-hand experience that even the little things you can do in these positions can make someone so much happier.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, you were a Juilliard Diversity Advocate. What made you want to be a DA? What did you learn from this experience?
DA was a unique position for me, because I went in having a very small amount of knowledge but being open to learning a lot. I wanted to be a DA because the work required is very meaningful and important to making the Juilliard community a safe one. I learned so much, but I think the most important thing was that leadership is not about knowledge; to be the perfect DA is impossible because you would need first hand experience in every minority and majority that exists, instead I realized that sometimes all you can do as leader is have a great amount of sensitivity and willingness to hear things that you are unfamiliar with so that you can best evaluate and take action on any given situation. It was a great year of realization.
Sadly you will not be a DA next year (tear), because you have been offered a Resident Assistant position for the 2016-2017 academic year. What do you hope to achieve as a RA next year?
I definitely hope I can take what I learned last year as a leaner and listener and put it into action. I have heard it is a job with many curve balls so it really will require an assertiveness and patience that I hope to maintain consistently throughout the year.
Over the last few years, you have visited various schools in New Zealand as a motivational speaker. What are the themes of these speeches? What advice do you provide to the students?
Most of what I speak about is that there is more out there than meets the eye. Six years ago, I could not have imagined a world so vast. In a country with as small of a population as New Zealand we aren’t always exposed to how many opportunities there really are in the world to pursue a career that is a bit different. A lot of careers don’t seem realistic at home when they really are in the wider world. Even if you were to hear about a really great school in Michigan in the US, you would automatically think that you wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway, so it isn’t worth investigating. I try to encourage everyone to abandon wondering if something is realistic until they have researched the facts. To not give up before you have even started.
You will be graduating from Juilliard in May 2017. How do you foresee your first year out of college? Where do you see yourself in five years?
I think it is going to be a lot of patience. Juilliard is really so amazing that I am currently living a life that I hope I can continue for the rest of my life: I perform regularly in a large variety of works, I get to consistently choreograph about six or seven pieces a year, and I get a substantial amount of time each year to be in New Zealand teaching. This is exactly what I want to be doing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, and I know it is going to be a big shock next year when suddenly I don’t have access to studios whenever I want, when I can’t choreograph whenever I feel like it and when I have much less time to be returning home if I am not dancing there. So it will definitely be a big change when it is time to start over.
Anything else our readers should know about you?
If you are reading this, and want to live in New Zealand, and are passionate about teaching—one day I want to start a really prestigious arts school in the South Island of NZ like Interlochen so that kids like me in the future don’t have to go so far away from home to have a career in arts. So you should hit me up so we can keep in touch!!
Watch Josh participating in the Spicy Noodle Challenge!
Video by: Michelle Lim
Read Michelle’s Interview with Eye on Culture at here.