Does dance have a sense of place to you? Do you connect it with certain spaces, buildings, towns? Does it have certain cultural, national or family connections for you? Yasmeen Audi seems to have many different influences of place and space in her life — as a first-generation Lebanese-American, long-time dancer, Harvard graduate and now student at London’s Royal Academy of Music — yet dance appears to be a connecting thread through them all. As she’s moving through these spaces and places, she’s growing and exploring in her art form, such as in creating the videography project, Milwaukee is a Lonely Place, an exploration of love, loneliness, immigration and the meaning of belonging.
The video conveys these themes through spare, yet somehow multifaceted, movement and supporting aesthetic elements. Audi has a very nuanced understanding of how to develop movement that affects her audience. A man and woman move together, connecting and separating, with strength yet a striking fluidity — with a soulful, sad score, describing loneliness and rare connection, underlying their dancing. She and composer Cynthia Meng, a fellow Harvard alumna and first-generation American, worked together closely on the piece. Dance Informa spoke with Audi about this collaboration, the piece and its creative process more broadly, her journey in dance up to this point, and more.
How did you come to dance and choreography? Why have you stayed?
“I’ve loved dance since I was really little. Whether it was creating dance routines with my cousins, or interrupting family dinners to show my newest ‘moves’, I knew dance was something that I would never tire of. I grew up taking dance classes and was the president of my high school’s modern dance company. It was then, around the age of 16, that I was given the opportunity to create work and fell madly in love with choreography!
I’ve choreographed dozens of pieces in the past 10 years, including a few theater shows, and have found a true joy and connection to each of them. I’ve always wondered how on Earth an author could write a book out of just an idea, or how an artist could paint with a blank canvas – and yet isn’t that what choreography is? It always happens when I least expect it; I hear something that makes my brain go absolutely wild, and the wheels don’t stop turning until I transfer my vision on to dancers and share the story. I’m not sure anything else could give me the same buzz as hearing something new and going, ‘Oh… yep, this is my next piece. See you on the other side!’”
In your dance film, Milwaukee is a Lonely Place, there’s a minimal but somehow also rich quality to the movement and overall aesthetic. Why did you choose dance on camera for this work? What could it offer over more traditional performance context? What were the challenges?
“This was one of my first experiences choreographing for video versus live performance. It really is quite different! The story behind the piece is so relatable and intimate, that we felt shooting a video would allow viewers to get up-close-and-personal to the narrative and emotions expressed by our amazing dancers Cayla Simpson and Jamari Johnson Williams. With video, your audience is the camera, and the camera is as much a player in the performance as the dancers. I found myself choreographing our lovely videographer [Liz Maney]’s movement to ensure the camera enhanced the telling of the story – I loved that new challenge and am excited to do more video concept pieces in the future.
I’ve noticed a trend in my choreographic style that all variables external to the movement itself are quite minimalistic – black outfits, clean backdrops. To me, the challenge (and fun of it all) is successfully telling a story without the ‘frills’, just a group of bodies moving together.”
You also worked closely with composer Cynthia Meng for the project. How was that creative partnership for you? What might have made it successful, and what might you do differently if you had a chance to do it again?
“Cynthia and I were classmates at Harvard, and I’m so proud of the strides she’s making in the musical theater world. Cynthia reached out to me with a demo of the song, saying, ‘I’ve wanted to make this concept video a reality for awhile. Are you in?’ That’s one of the coolest things about the performing arts – the hunger and motivation to collaborate and create work together never goes away. I hadn’t collaborated with Cynthia before; however, when I heard her story and song for the first time, the dance was in my mind before I even had a chance to respond ‘Yes!’ Being a first-generation American from Lebanese parents myself, I was honored to breathe life into the song.
One thing that I think served the project well was our trust in each other’s areas of strength. Cynthia supplied a wonderful story and music and gave me the freedom and confidence to run with it. Whether it was Cynthia reviewing my rehearsal tapes, or me listening to a new mix of the song, we worked hand in hand while encouraging and embracing each other’s creative input. Having someone trust you as a choreographer makes the process liberating and so much fun.
If we could do it again, I think we would have loved more time! More time to rehearse, work in the actual shoot space. Although, I have to say there was something really special about only having a couple weeks to pull the project together. I’m someone who works best under pressure, so having that time crunch forced me to keep the choreography spontaneous, which I think created a raw and honest final product.”
What other projects or works are you proud of having created and offered?
“I genuinely am proud of all of the work I put out there! One dance in particular that makes my heart happy was a piece I was commissioned to create for the Harvard Modern Dance Company’s 40th Anniversary show. First off, being asked to be a guest artist (my first time being paid to do what I love) was surreal! It was so cool to know that my work resonated at school, and I used the opportunity to try something new and choreograph to a spoken word poem my friend and I wrote for the occasion.
The group of girls I choreographed were incredible, so full of life and willing to ‘go there’ with me on a piece that had essentially no music, not to mention it was set in only two days! It’s titled ‘Excerpts’, which you can check out on my website or online!”
What do you feel you can uniquely contribute to the arts ecosystem?
“I would say one of my unique contributions to the arts world is my ability to tell a concrete and entertaining story with dance. To me, every minute on that stage is a minute the audience came for, so there’s no time to waste! I would say I have that same mentality in the rehearsal room. Every minute I have my dancers in a room is a minute they chose to join me in the process – so safe to say I love to keep the process lots of fun and efficient! In all honesty, seeing my dancers and my audience smile at my work means I did my job right.“
Where to from here? In what ways would you like to grow and expand your work? Do you have any particular concrete goals or project ideas you might want to share?
“The big question! I’m currently completing my Masters in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and will be graduating this summer. I’m excited to continue auditioning post-graduation and hope to make choreography a substantial part of my career. I want to build the scale of my work – reach a bigger audience and work with larger groups. Choreographing a large-scale musical would be an absolute dream! Working professionally in the performing arts is a wild ride – there’s a ton of hard work, celebration, failure, self-motivation, growth and faith that goes into it. We’ll see how it all unfolds, but until then I’m really enjoying the journey!”
For more information on Yasmeen Audi, visit www.yasmeenaudi.com.
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.