For this month’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Alexander Andison, a third year student in the Juilliard Dance Division. Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, a city he calls “magical,” Alexander came to Juilliard in the fall of 2014 to study contemporary dance. In addition to being a dedicated dancer, Alexander has excelled outside the dance studio in his role as a student leader. For the past two years, Alexander has been a Colloquium Peer Mentor and Diversity Advocate (DA). Don’t miss the opportunity to see Alexander perform in the upcoming Juilliard Dances Repertory. He will be performing in the 7:30 pm shows on Wednesday, March 22nd and Friday, March 24th, as well as the 2 pm show on Saturday, March 25th. Also, don’t miss the chance to celebrate Women’s History Month at Alexander’s upcoming Diversity Advocate event entitled “Celebrating Diversity, Overcoming Adversity: A Panel Discussion with Women Alumni.” This is a Foundations Program which will take place at 7pm, on Wednesday, March 29th in the Student Multipurpose Room.
At what age did you begin dancing? What attracted you to dance initially?
I have been dancing for as long as I can remember. My parents recognized my natural intuition for movement and started putting me in dance classes at age 3. I was a kid with a lot of emotions and energy, mixed with a desire to entertain, so dance seemed to be the perfect outlet.
Did you always know you wanted to study dance and pursue it professionally? Did you have other ideas for what you wanted to do when you “grew up” and if so, what were they?
Growing up, my parents were extremely supportive of my artistic ventures. I think they saw that aspect of me at a very young age. I was really interested in singing, instruments, acting, photography, as well as dancing. I was fortunate enough to get to try out these different creative mediums. Coming out of elementary school, and looking at high schools, I had to decide what program was right for me. It was at this point that I decided to narrow in and focus on dance. High school was when I started my taking my training quite seriously. It was then that I knew that I wanted to pursue dance professionally.
See Alexander dancing in a short dance film by classmate, Mikaela Kelly.
The focus of the Juilliard Dance Division is contemporary dance in which students are trained in both classical ballet and modern dance. Do you prefer one dance form over another? Are there other forms of dance in which you have been trained?
When I started dancing, I was taking creative movement, tap, jazz, even hip hop. My focus has definitely shifted since then. I started ballet later, when I was ten. I have a special place in my heart for ballet technique and it really informs my work. I think it’s important to have a strong classical base to build on. It’s contemporary dance where I really feel at home, although that can mean so many things. I think it is the vast scope of what is being generated under the domain of contemporary dance that makes it so exciting.
During the summer of 2015 and 2016, you had the opportunity to dance at the Netherlands Dans Theatre Summer Intensive (https://www.ndt.nl/en/participate/ndt-summer-intensive/homepage-summer-intensive.html) and at Springboard Danse Montreal (https://www.springboarddansemontreal.com/). In your experience, is the approach to dance and dance instruction in the Netherlands and Canada different from that here in the U.S.?
Being from Canada, I was accustomed to a more European based training. Coming to Juilliard, I had to familiarize myself with the vocabulary of American modern dance because, yes, there are differences. In the summers, it has been important for me to revisit some styles and repertory that I grew up doing. Summer also provides opportunities, not only to study, but to go out and experience things that interest you. I am glad that I can go and see the work that is happening in Canada and in Europe – to gain some perspective on the companies there. This will be important for me when looking at my career after my training.
You are originally from Vancouver, Canada. Can you tell our readers a little bit about where you are from?
It took leaving Vancouver to realize how magical it is. The landscape is unique as it incorporates both the city and nature. The West Coast is in my soul; the ocean and the rain are grounding for me. In spite of being so close, America and Canada are different places. Canada has strong European roots, as seen in things such as its official languages, French and English. There is the presence and influence of First Nations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Nations) throughout the country. America’s cultural influence can be seen in our entertainment and artistic community. At the same time, the country has some decidedly Canadian features. It is the unique combination of elements that makes it very special.
If someone was to visit Vancouver for a weekend, what would you recommend they do?
I would tell people to spend time amongst the trees and on the water, but also to enjoy what the city has to offer. Stanley Park is the an incredible city park in North America that is actually larger than Central Park; residents and visitors love to walk, run, or bike its seawall. I would also recommend that people make sure to get some of the amazing ethnic food. My favourite spot is a Lebanese restaurant called Nuba.
During your time at Juilliard you have held two student leader positions, Diversity Advocate and Colloquium Peer Mentor. What initially made you want to become a student leader? What have you gained from these experiences?
Over the last few years, I have realized how important it is to stay engaged with the world beyond the dance studio. With the demands of the schedules at Juilliard, it is easy to get caught up in your discipline. Another aspect of deciding to come to New York was to experience new people and cultures. Being a student leader has been an important way in which to interact with my peers and to engage with broader world topics. Part of my decision to come to New York and study at Juilliard was so that I could be exposed to the unfamiliar. These leadership positions have been important for my own education – to make a contribution, but, more importantly, to learn from others.
Next year will be your third year as a Diversity Advocate. What have you accomplished as a DA over the past year and a half and what do you hope to accomplish next year?
As a Diversity Advocate, I have been able to plan events that have celebrated different cultures and brought attention to backgrounds that the student body might otherwise not get the chance to learn about. Coming up this spring, I am planning a panel discussion in which alumni address the adversities faced by women in the performing arts. I find events like these particularly informative because these are experiences that I don’t have first hand exposure to. Going into the future, I want to continue to have students contribute to the diversity initiatives of the school so that we can collectively continue to explore the different facets of diversity.
Check out Alexander in the Office of International Advisement’s DA Video
When you are not dancing or being a student leader, how do you like to spend your time?
Outside of dance and civil engagement, I get a lot out of the simple pleasures in life. You can find me in a coffee shop, reading a book while drinking an Americano. I also really enjoy getting out in the neighborhoods of New York. I love going down to the East Village for a meal and to do some thrift shopping. I have also taken the time to experience many of the cultural offerings of the city. Students are encouraged to do this by the faculty, and I have been very fortunate to see some phenomenal productions.
What is one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
This is a difficult question to answer. Dancers by their nature are quite expressive. I don’t tend to talk about myself a lot, so people may be reading about some things I have alluded to here for the first time – that I played the violin, that I have formal training in singing, and that I take a lot of photographs, but I am not sure any one of those things would be surprising. Actually, people would probably be surprised if I started speaking to them in French, but I can do this, although I am admittedly rusty.
Left: Alexander with classmates Simon and Taylor
Center: Alexander and his sister at the Frick Collection
Right: Alexander out in New York City with dear friends Paige and Christina
You are expected to graduate in May 2018. What do you hope to do post-graduation?
After graduating, I hope to join a professional dance company. I want to perform different contemporary repertory to learn a variety of work. Eventually I hope to work under one choreographer, to focus in on their vision and understand the depths of their work. This is my ideal dream, but with a profession like dance, you have to be ready to roll with the punches. Kerry Nicholls (http://www.kerrynicholls.com/), a guest teacher we recently had at school, advised us to embrace the counter-narrative to our lives, because it can be the most exciting aspect. That thought really resonated, and I’ve been trying to carry it with me.
Do you have anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
I would like to extend a thank you to the people who have shaped my experience here at Juilliard: my amazing family and friends; Meg Popick and Cory Owen from International Advisement; Laura Lindsay from the Concert Office; Lawrence Rhodes, the Artistic Director of Dance, my instructors Charla Genn and Espen Giljane, and the rest of the dance faculty. There is always a risk in naming individuals, because so many people have contributed to my development and positive experience here at Juilliard.