The Dancer Creating a Platform for Multicultural + Intergenerational Voices

Photo Source: Per Morten Abrahamsen

As a student of dance, choreography, dance history, and theater—not to mention the fact that she grew up in New York’s historic Westbeth Artists’ Housing—it’s no wonder Nicole Colbert ended up where she did. Today, the Brooklyn-based choreographer works with performers across genres to explore the intersectionality of dance and theater. With a focus on creating an artistic platform for multicultural and intergenerational voices, Colbert’s voice is both utterly unique and universal.

Below, Colbert chats with Backstage about her experience working with performers of different art forms, how this collaboration makes dance/theater both exhilarating and challenging, and what, exactly “dance/theater” is.

Tell us about Nicole Colbert Dance/Theater.
I create work that explores the intersection between dance and theater. I often start with a theme, usually which draws on every day, common experiences and work to find the emotional center. The piece I’m currently working on is about home; a universal idea, yet we all have highly individual thoughts and responses to this idea.

What kind of training does someone need to do dance/theater?
Dance/theater, in the European tradition, is performed by trained dancers. However, an actor who has a movement background and a dancer who wants to explore theater are an essential place to start. During the process of working on a piece, you will most likely have opportunities to strengthen skills outside your scope of training.

What do you look for when selecting performers?
In an audition, I will look for a variety of things. Naturally, I look at how much dance training a person has because that’s the lens I come from. But primarily, I look for someone who can do a quick study in both the movement and theatrical aspects of the work. I also look for performers who won’t socially censor themselves when exploring ideas that are uncomfortable. Our default for home, for example, is to say how wonderful it is. Our culture is obsessed with presenting home as an idyllic place but in reality, everyone’s association with home is deeply complicated and complex.

What advice would you give an actor who wants to become a stronger dancer? A dancer who wants to become a stronger actor?
Train in as many diverse ways as you can and reach across your genre. Be curious about how the other disciplines work, what their philosophical approaches are, and what their applicable techniques are. Dancers, for example, benefit from an acting class, and actors greatly benefit from a dance genre that develops the body in a particular way and imparts dance vocabulary. One of my favorite photos is of James Dean in a Katherine Dunham class. Black tights and all. I’m trained as a dancer, but I studied in an acting program which focused not only on acting and scene study but also directing and I even had a class in stage makeup. It helped me develop my creative vision. Also, observe and interact with the people you work with on a project; they can be an invaluable resource.

As a choreographer, what are the challenges of working with singers, actors, and dancers all together? What do you wish they knew about what you do?
There are always many challenges in general, but I would say the habits and approaches of performers from different disciplines can be disparate. Dancers tend to be more internal about their process because they have such an intense relationship with the body so they’re always attending to it. On the other hand, actors tend to be more extroverted because they’re used to working in an emotionally interactive way. At the beginning of any rehearsal process, I ask people to pose their questions to the group rather than have side conversations so the process can be a public and shared experience.

What's one thing any performer should know about participating in a collaborative piece?
Be flexible! Make an effort to build a relationship with others. And, leave your censored self at the door. The work suffers if some are exploring the work honestly and fully while others are holding back, or hiding out. Collaborative work benefits from a high level of straightforward openness. And, trust your director! They have a lot to offer and can help you get where you need to go as a performer.

If you’re interested in seeing Nicole’s work, she will be sharing an evening-length concert with Ballet Mink on March 9-10, 2018 at BAX in Brooklyn, NY where she will premiere “the home (project).”

Check out Backstage’s dance audition listings!