BAE – Interview with Margo Sappington
May 17, 2017
BAE is honored to welcome guest choreographer, Margo Sappington. Her piece, “DUKE-IFY” will premiere at the BAE Studio Showing, February 21-23 at the Ailey Citgroup Theater.
BAE student Ana Eustace had the pleasure of interviewing Margo about her career. Here is the interview.
Where did you receive your primary dance training?
I grew up in a small town called Baytown Texas. My ballet teacher didn’t live in my town, so she would come, first once a week, then twice a week, and we would dance at the roller skating rink, holding on to a chair. For a number of years she didn’t have her own studio, so we were in meeting halls, and roller skating rinks, and places like that. Houston was about 45 minutes to an hour away, and there were some other dance teachers there. Whenever ABT, Ballet Russe, or the Royal Ballet would come through town to dance at the music hall in Houston, the ballet masters would give master classes at someone’s studio. Those of us who were advanced or the ballet master felt were good enough, would get invited to come take company class on stage. You got to rub shoulders with company members, which was very exciting.
Mr. Joffrey invited me to New York at 17. I graduated high school on the 2nd of June, did a dance performance with my teacher on the 3rd, on the 4th I packed, on the 5th I left, and on the morning of the 6th I was in company class at the Joffrey Studios in New York City. I was in the company for almost two years, and I had an achilles tendon injury that really debilitated me, and at the time, there was no floor barre, or physical therapy, it was all about “sitting still.” I didn’t sit still and it didn’t get better. I ended up having to stop dancing, so I moved on to Broadway.
How did you discover your passion for choreographing?
When I was a senior in high school, we had a creative writing class, and I actually choreographed to the words that my friends and I wrote. So, I actually choreographed to words before I choreographed to music. It was my calling. You have choreographed for a number of companies around the world. What are some unique experiences you’ve encountered? In Venezuela, the studio was in an apartment building, and it had a walkway from one building to the other where people would walk through, sometimes with guns, and there were these people watching us the whole time. It was very odd and bizarre and interesting.
In Kazakhstan, the dancers were strictly Russian trained. Some were afraid of new movement, afraid to experiment. Some of them really embraced it. They were like sponges; they wanted to learn. The ballet masters would stand in the wings and scream the steps at them. I was there for two months and realized that they weren’t retaining the movement because they were expecting that someone was going to stand in the wings screaming the steps at them. So, I would play games with them. I would make them turn around, so they couldn’t follow each. They did all eventually come out of their comfort zones.
When choreographing a piece, how do you approach the creation process?
It depends upon the piece. Most of my pieces have an undertone of a story that is not necessarily important for everyone to know, but for me, I make a story or a theme that gives the piece cohesiveness. The biggest joy is to have a commissioned score. That way I can make a scenario and it can change when I need it to change. I really enjoy working directly with the composer. It’s very satisfying. In the “Caravan” section of “DUKE-IFY”, I knew that I wanted a smoky, mysterious mood, with people coming, going, coming, going, with little variations going on, and not everyone doing the same thing together.
What are the main challenges of being a choreographer?
It’s that funny moment when the dancers are staring at you, and you are staring back at them: “Well, what do you want us to do?” “Well, I don’t really know exactly. But, I have to get to know you, and then we will figure it out.”
What are some achievements you take pride in from your career so far?
I’m very fond of my first big ballet; it’s called Rodin Mis en Vie, created for the Harkness Company in 1974. It’s based on Rodin’s sculptures. I had a commissioned score. It was this wonderful, creative period where the company was going on tour so I would work for two weeks, and they would go away for two weeks. Then they would come back for three weeks, then they would be away for a month. It was over a six-month period when I choreographed this ballet, and when they would go away, I had a chance to think about what I had done so far and what I wanted to do. It was just an amazingly creative and wonderful period. The composer was wonderful to collaborate with, and he became a very famous film composer, Michael Kamen.
You are known for creating ballets to popular music. How does music choice affect your thought process as a choreographer?
A good example would be “Billboards”, my Prince ballet. When I have music with lyrics, I like to figure out what the essence of the song is, not necessarily illustrate the lyrics. I work with the rhythms of the voice and the music like again, going back to choreographing to poetry and words. The voice becomes a rhythm and an instrument as opposed to words. So, the dance becomes a part of the fabric of the music, a part of the expression of the piece.
What qualities of a dancer drive you to cast them in one of your pieces?
It depends on the piece. Personalities are what I like investigating. Who’s sassy and who’s not? Who’s sweet, and who’s not? There are so many personalities in the studio, and those are things I like to work with. Often, it is physical if I am resetting something or if I have something specifically in mind. Oh this has to be a tall girl, or a girl who moves fast, because of what I have in mind. It depends on the piece and what I am looking for.
What elements give you inspiration when creating a piece?
Life stories or human emotion strike me the most. Dance is an art form that is an expression – the same as speaking or singing. It’s not about just the physicality. One dancer can simply turn his or her head, and it’s just a normal movement. But another dancer can turn his or her head and it’s like, AHH! Of course, dancers have to develop themselves physically, but, they must learn to go beyond the physicality of dance. And to me, that’s the art form.