Limitless Research: An Interview with Stephanie Troyak

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Born in Ontario, Canada, Stephanie Troyak began dancing at three-years-old. She trained in Canada before moving to Dallas, Texas, where she attended the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She later graduated with a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. While in New York, Troyak worked and created with Gallim Dance, performing works by Shannon Gillen, Cora Bos-Kroese, Alexander Ekman, and Bill T. Jones. She joined the Batsheva Dance Company Ensemble in August 2015, performing work by Ohad Naharin, Sharon Eyal, and Danielle Agami. She has worked as an actress on the Netflix Original series Greenhouse Academy, and she is currently touring with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Baush under the direction of Adolphe Binder. She is also a freelance choreographer and gaga teacher.

Troyak continues to create her own work and teach across the globe. She was selected as a 2012 YoungArts Finalist in Dance for her choreography, which later won her the title for U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts semi-finalist. In 2014, she was selected for the Young Choreographer’s Festival in New York. She most recently created a solo work for the Batsheva Ensemble Dancers Create showcase platform.

Your training began in Canada; how did it influence the artist you are today? 

I think that my training, and in general just growing up in Canada, has shaped me immensely. I lived next door to a dance teacher when I was born, and that’s how I started dancing. I had a lot of one-on-one attention from a young age; I was excelling rapidly, and was able to dive in early. I trained in everything from ballet, pointe, contemporary, jazz, tap, hip hop, musical theater, ballroom, you name it. I attended conventions, master classes, and national events all the time. I think this was a huge thing for me; I was never afraid to put myself out there early on, auditioning and learning material quickly, and being ready and available for anything that was asked of me.

In addition, I lived in a very tight knit community. I grew up with the same sixty kids in school from kindergarten to eighth grade, and was close to all my family. My friends from the dance studio were also my best friends, and their parents were my parents’ best friends. I would spend my weekends with my sister, who is also a dancer, and our friends, making up dances or plays, wearing costumes, and putting on shows for the adults. The environment I was in was cultivated by love, support, and constant creative energy. I was grounded. I think that has played a huge part in the artist I am today.  Dancing and training were the same for me — whether I was in a ballet class or making up my own dance, I was home.

Photo by Claudia Kempf

You also trained in the U.S.?

I started training in Plano, Texas, and later moved to New York City, where I trained at NYU. My first new experience was when I attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Something like that wouldn’t exist where I was from. The possibilities and opportunities in the US are mind blowing. Booker T. introduced me to a new side of dance I had never been exposed to, like traditional modern dance, contemporary dance companies, and new aesthetics in the more “concert” dance world. I was encouraged to choreograph. I started following companies like Batsheva, NDT, Cedar Lake, Pina Bausch, and studied choreographers and techniques everywhere from Forsythe to Laban notation to Limón technique. This was a whole new world for me. It just got more intense and focused from there on out.

At NYU, I not only trained in ballet, modern, and contemporary, but I also studied choreographic work, took composition, got into the “why” and “how” of things. It wasn’t just about styles of dance anymore, it was refining technique and discovering myself as an artist, how I can use myself in whatever training I take to further my mind and body for my professional career.

How did these experiences differ?

I think that the resources and access to amazing training and programs in the US are incomparable. Although my training in Canada was intense and good for starting out, I think professionally, my options would have been much more limited to either go the commercial dance route, or join a ballet company. In the US, there is a world of possibilities. I also think that dancers and companies are that much more competitive in the US. Programs are competing to be the best with the highest caliber choreographers and companies. I had direct access to the professional world and experiences early on.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Troyak

What has it been like dancing internationally?

It’s incredible. Every country and audience is so different. Sometimes there are wild audiences and extravagant theaters like in New York, Hong Kong, and many other big cities. Other times, it is a cultural experience. I’ve performed in an outdoor theater in Cyrus in 110 degree weather with occasional animals joining us on stage from the zoo next door. In Paris and New York, rioters stood outside the theater protesting as Batsheva performed. I learn so much from the public and the culture of a place, beyond just dancing. It’s amazing to do what I love and see the world at the same time.

How has your dancing / choreography changed since living internationally?

I’ve definitely been influenced by the great European and Israeli choreographers. I’ve learned “less is more,” how to edit, how to become cleaner in the expression of ideas without losing any essence of what I want to say or execute. I’m also less afraid to incorporate other elements into my work like props, text, film, or collaboration with other mediums. I also think I’m more clear on viewpoint as an artist.

Was there ever a time when you were not dancing? For how long? What went on during this period?

I don’t know that there was ever a time I completely chose to stop dancing. But there was a time last September to about mid-December where I was in transition between jobs. After I finished my season with Batsheva, I went back to the US for an unknown amount of time. It was the first time I had no structure, no insane schedule, and no planned training in the morning or studio space to create for myself at night. I taught classes and hopped around European countries taking company class here or there. I had auditions on my radar for the near future (like Pina), but it was strange having a blank schedule. I was dancing the least amount I had in my whole life those couple of months, even though I had plans to keep dancing in my career. This period was really hard for me. I learned a lot of self-discipline and what’s required to keep training and motivating yourself when you’re not in a company or in school anymore.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Troyak

Not only do you dance and choreograph, but you also act! Can you discuss how you started acting, and what role it currently plays in your life?

I was acting a bit when I was little, but never had any formal training. When I was at NYU, I took an acting class and really fell in love with it. I wanted more. When I was living in Israel, I had an agent on the side for commercial work/acting jobs just for fun. I ended up sending in a video monologue for a new Netflix series thinking I would never get it, but I got a call back and landed the role. Most of what I have learned about acting has just been by doing.

Acting is very present in my life, especially now that I work for a dance theater company. I am both physically dancing, and also speaking, or playing some kind of character or role. I definitely want to dive more into the acting side of the spectrum later on, but its helped me already become a better dancer. Dance is all about expressing with the body, but acting is narrowed down to the smallest facial movements, expressions, and body language. It’s helped me become more detailed and specific in my language as a dancer.

What was your experience like studying at NYU?

NYU was a huge transitional period of finding myself. I love the way the program is designed as a three-year, two-summer program, with the third year set up as the schedule and mindset of a real dance company. I trained everyday in ballet, modern or contemporary, and also equally in composition, choreography, all while living as a regular adult in New York City. The teachers are really there to help you, but they also give you a lot of space to grow on your own. It was exactly what I needed.

Would you recommend college to dancers? Why or why not?

I would definitely recommend college to dancers. What I tell people that always sounds crazy is that if you can make it through college in dance, you can make it through any job. The sheer rigor of the program, multi-tasking, delegating your time, dealing with people, school politics, crazy roommates, having five exams, a piece to create, a date to go on tonight, three performances next week and a schedule from 8 AM to 2 AM to fit it all in, AND being a human at the same time is a huge life experience. I feel like going through this prepared me for anything the real world had to throw at me.

How did Batsheva shape you as an artist/choreographer? What techniques/tools did you acquire from working in the company?

Batsheva was a laboratory for limitless research. Gaga is a huge platform for this. We treated both the rehearsals and performance as a chance to explore and discover new things, using gaga methodology in the way we worked on movement. I was starting to listen to my body, and use images and sensations to move, rather than just execute shapes. I approach all my work this way now.

I think this idea of research being the main goal both on and off stage was a big takeaway for me as an artist and choreographer. I also learned so much about the craftsmanship of a piece. Being inside of Ohad’s work, I could see how and why he chose to make things the way he did, and why they worked. He still sometimes makes changes to pieces he did years ago. It made me see that nothing is too precious to remain stagnant, and that good work takes time. Evolution is constant.

You are now a part of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, one of my favorite companies. What was the transition like from Ohad’s work to Pina’s?

Ohad’s work is extremely physical and almost completely movement-based, which is much different than Pina’s work; sometimes its physical, but it’s also sometimes as simple as walking across the stage. I went from taking gaga every day and putting my body in otherworldly positions to dancing in high heels and studying characters. It was a drastic transition at first. My first Pina piece to learn was “Rite of Spring,” which was not immediately natural for my body. There is definitely a clear aesthetic in Pina’s work from the wrists, to the curved back, and specifically shaped elbows that I had to focus on a lot in the beginning.

But there was also a thread with both of their work that made the transition a lot smoother than I thought. They both have a very clear point of view, and their work is cultivated by extreme detail and carefully crafted choices. In both Pina and Ohad’s work, there is always a task, emotion, fantasy, or intention behind the movement, and that is what was stressed the most in each work environment. At the end of the day, movement is just movement no matter how great its executed. Its what’s behind it that brings it to life.

For those who are not aware, Pina is no longer alive — though her work lives on. What is it like to learn Pina’s work? Perform it?

This answer could be a novel. Learning the work is a very deep and rich process. I might start by learning the movement, which is taught in extreme detail and nuance. But that is just the beginning. I will probably watch multiple videos of past performances to study my role, or learn the piece as much as I can by watching. Then I will work with people who have done my part or the piece, and they will give further details about the why, the how, the feeling behind the movement, and where it’s coming from. There is endless information.

Performing the work is really incredible. What’s so amazing to me is how different all of her works are, yet there is a clear signature to them that’s hers. I can go from “Rite of Spring,” pouring my heart into the earth, and then I can do a piece like “Viktor,” where I’m in an elegant gown and play an Italian woman who has been working in the kitchen for years and years. I find myself in constant awe of Pina’s work, how bold, and clever she was for the time she was in.

Why do you dance? Has your relationship to dance changed throughout your life?

It’s my passion. Still to this day, my body and heart tell me I have to. It’s how I research my ideas, channel emotions, tell stories, and share my point of view. In the beginning, it was something I loved to do and was good at. Now it’s my choice. It’s both my passion and my responsibility. But I think my love and relationship for it is that much deeper because of that.

Another thing that has changed is my outlook on what “dance” is. What I loved so much about Batsheva was the sheer physicality of the movement. You look at the dancers and wonder how they can move like that. In Tanztheater, we have a huge range of work. Some it is extremely physical and exhausting, like “Rite of Spring” for example, and other work is a lot more theater focused, and less dance. “Viktor” is a three-and-a-half hour piece and requires a ton of mental stamina. But that’s what I’ve learned — physicality doesn’t equal dance. Physicality is something I love. But dance has such a huge range. The body is everything from the eyes, voice, and movement, no matter how big or how subtle. I feel like I’m still learning so much about dance and it excites me.

Are you currently working on creating any new work?

I always have new ideas brewing, but have definitely put my work on the side for a bit. I’ve been really diving in to Pina’s work, which has been an extremely rich process of self-discovery. That being said, I feel ready to focus on me again. I hope to create a new piece this coming summer, and further develop a solo I created last year. I feel best when I’m in a creative zone.

Photo by Alvin Collantes

Who inspires you?

I’m highly influenced by strong female artists who make bold choices. I love the work of Sylvia Plath, extremely poetic and dark, unwilling to compromise her ideas. I’m hugely inspired by Pina Bausch, even more so now that I work for her company. I think she’s a genius. I’ve always been drawn to the surrealistic lenses of film maker David Lynch. I love collaborating with musicians, singers, actors, lighting designers, writers; it brings me new ways of seeing things. I’m also constantly inspired by the colleagues I work with, my boyfriend who I often collaborate with, and my mom, dad, and sister, to whom I constantly bounce ideas off. I feel lucky to work with such brilliant individuals in my close circle.

What’s next?

I think for the first time ever, my “next” is actually to stay in the now. I’m extremely happy and challenged investing in Pina’s work, and also extremely excited about the things we can and will do as a company in the future. I definitely want to continuing developing my own creations, and down the road, focus more on choreographing and potentially acting. That being said, I do have a lot of big ideas for the future … sometimes I can envision it already. But I’m soaking in each day right now, and it feels very good.

Lead photo by Alvin Collantes

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