Colleen Thomas is the artistic director of Colleen Thomas Dance and co-director for Bill Young/Colleen Thomas. Thomas has performed both nationally and internationally with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Bebe Miller Company, Nina Wiener Dance Company, and Donald Byrd/The Group. Thomas’ choreographic works have been performed in Brazil, Estonia, Hong Kong, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Taiwan, and Venezuela, among many domestic venues.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in dance? I feel lucky to be a woman and it is sometimes even empowering. But, women are easily objectified and women dancers even more so. Our culture -specifically American culture – knows so little about dance. Early on in my career I would get questions about whether I danced in a bar or on Broadway or whatever people associated with women and dance. There is such a limited knowledge and support for the art form in America that I have found I have to make a strong effort to educate and inspire a possible dance lover. Another challenge is this: It is documented widely that male dancers and choreographers in my field far more easily rise through the ranks, while woman who are often as talented get left behind. As there are more women in the field, the statistics are much better for a man working in dance. But, I think male and female choreographers differ in the obvious ways — men are taught to go out into the world and conquer; women are taught to listen, be sensitive, nurture. This translates to the business side of dance: I think woman have a harder time selling themselves and asking for work, grants, and gigs, etc. Women come up against and have to navigate through ageism, politics, and gender stereotypical prejudices that I don’t think men ever encounter. I don’t think woman have been as successful in the business of dance, though I think that is changing fortunately. I have had to work to keep my voice strong as a choreographer. I think having children was a real wake up call for me; in particular having a girl. I want to model the feminine potential for her. That said, I still think women have to work twice as hard to accomplish what they want.
Your recent work at Barnard’s New York Live Arts concert subtly yet powerfully tackled the issue of sexual assault. How do we approach this topic and other controversial topics through art in a sensitive way? My recent work has taken a more political stance. It has become important for me to try to make a change in my small world through dance, rather than communicating something or showing an abstract world on stage. I think it is my age and my children that make this so important to me at this point in my life. Also, as I usually create work in a very collaborative way with my dancers, there was no way to get around what was happening in our world at this time. We spoke about equality, societal pressures, fears, and other issues that relate to the female human condition. We put our voice, our experiences, and our politics on the stage in hopes of continuing the dialogue with audiences and finding some kind of justice and peace in our own world. That said, I don’t think it’s important for art to tackle difficult subjects sensitively. The world is not pretty and we need to do what we can now to make some change in that.
What can dance add to dialogue about topical issues like sexual assault that other mediums cannot? Watching a dancer express with their body can make an audience member deeply live through a similar experience. The gift of watching someone pick up another, or hold another, or even slowly place their hand on a shoulder speaks so much more loudly than saying the words, ”I will pick you up, hold you, comfort you…” Dance is action, more than just the words. Three-dimensional and visceral, it is immediate and in the moment. There is nothing but the experience then and there. Dance can be invaluable for any issue.
How would you describe your leadership style in the rehearsal room? I work very collaboratively. I want the dancers to feel valued and empowered, and as invested in the work as I am. I try to remember that its not about me, but that this process is about sharing, listening and giving so that we can create something from nothing. I hope that I model the respect I would like to receive in return.
What has been your biggest mistake? Believing I didn’t have worth. I think many artists (and maybe it’s woman artists mostly) operate with too much fear. You get rejected often in this field. It’s sometimes difficult to look at your accomplishments more than your failures. I think I have wasted and still waste a lot of time being afraid and not believing in myself.