Dancers Mitsuko Verdery and Anya Clarke on doing away with the classics and doing your own thing
Mitsuko Verdery and Anya Clarke met at a summer dance workshop led by choreographer Ronald K. Brown. Both young but experienced dancers in their own right, having studied at Carnegie Mellon and Long Island University and worked with the likes Earl Mosley, Sidra Bell, Francesca Harper, the two set decided found their own dance group they called Michiyaya. Enlisting friends and contemporaries for specific projects like their upcoming performance Project V (5), the two artistic directors of the group draw from improvised motions of the body, and modern and experimental dance gestures.
Describing Michiyaya as “the start of something magical”, the masterminds behind the burgeoning New York based dance group share their influences, struggles, and give us a sneak peek at their upcoming projects.
How did Michiyaya Dance come into fruition?
We first met briefly two years ago at Ronald K. Brown’s summer dance workshop in Brooklyn. Then this summer, we were both performing in a tribute performance for the Late Dudley Williams put together by choreographer Earl Mosley. We grew up in the same city, were a part of many of the same circles, but didn’t know why we hadn’t connected before. We started to hang out and realized we both had a lot of ideas we wanted to manifest. We started first just renting space, playing with movement and improvising. Anya had a concept about touch she wanted to work with, and Mitsuko had a lot of performance art ideas she wanted to see next to dance. We then thought – why don’t we get more dancers for these ideas. That turned into holding an audition. We created a posting for Dance NYC, a common site for dance auditions. We proposed our first project, which is Project V (5) and chose 10 dancers. After the audition, we realized we both needed and wanted to establish ourselves as a real company. So we called ourselves Michiyaya and went for it. Our styles work well together because Anya sees movement so easily and naturally; while Mitsuko sees scenes and random actions.
How would you categorize your own work in terms of style and school of dance?
We want Michiyaya Dance to be seen as a full involvement of the body and mind with keeping the individuality of the dancer. Because our movement is improv-based, there’s a lot of freedom in what the person can take and give to the work. We add an element of structure in the way we get the dancers to use the space. We describe ourselves as a dance theater company that combines visual art and dance. This fusion is created by adding elements beyond dance, such as adding performance art or theatrical elements to our performances.
What do you think is missing from culture from contemporary dance today?
Mitsuko Verdery: I think what is missing is the right exposure and an element of exploration. The media today defines contemporary dance as this very cheesy, dramatic genre of dance, with lyrical pop songs. It’s very ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ if you have seen that show. It limits contemporary dance to the rest of the world. I think if there was more exposure on variations of contemporary dance – like companies that fuse hip hop, improv, theater, different folk dances, there would be greater variety in what artists are creating. There are so many well-known companies in the dance world that aren’t seen by the rest of world.
I also think there is a lack of exploration. Everything is fed to us nowadays; there is no more looking up in dictionaries, or figuring things out on our own. Probably because we are so absorbed in technology to do these things for us. But this is also very apparent in dance. Dance is definitely missing this element of exploration, especially in New York. I went to California this summer and they were all about improv, and exploring how the individual dances. New York should have more improvisational and composition classes available. Obviously technique in a dancer is important, but people need to discover who they are first. If more dance schools did this, I think we would be churning out incredible dance artists.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
Anya Clarke: Some of my main influences are Sidra Bell, Ohad Naharin, and Crystal Pite. These three choreographers think about the stage and audience a lot. They take into consideration, the audience’s reactions and different emotions when coming up with their work. They use the individual talent of each dancer to express what they’re trying to say; if they’re trying to say anything. I also like that Sidra and Ohad, don’t use a story line but the concepts are more abstract, and they leave the outcome up to the dancers. I think that young people need to follow these three artists because many young dancers today, don’t know who they are as an artist and dancer. They don’t know what their own style is, or how they move. These three choreographers play with the dancers own style to convey what they want.
Mitsuko Verdery: I am also super into Sidra Bell and Ohad Naharin. I think because they are so abstract in their format, they make me think about what the piece may mean. I really like when choreographers make me think. I also like when I watch dance and I get ideas. I also want to mention Kyle Abraham, and think that other young people might be into his work. His style of moving is very much his own, his own language which is very intriguing. I also love that he creates work about his personal history, his communities’ experience in history, culture and surrounding environments. I think we need more choreographers like Kyle Abraham making work about current events and history from a different point of view than the white supremacist. The dance world as many other worlds get stuck in “the classics”. So people only go to see these “classics”, which is usually some white supremacist choreographer that are long gone. They are dated, and narrow minded in a time when we need to take change and take a step forward.
What are some issues you’ve faced as far as collaboration and group work?
Because we have split up Michiyaya Dance with Anya as the choreographer and Mitsuko as the Visual Art director, we haven’t run into many issues yet. We obviously encourage and influence one another on these roles. But we both work well in deciding when to step in and when to let the other person do their thing.
I think the main issue we have faced when working with a group of 10 dancers is how to get them all at the rehearsal at the same time. The dance world is desperate need of money. Even very established companies struggle for funding. As a company just starting out like ourselves, we can’t offer the dancers the proper payment that they deserve. We held our audition for this reason; hoping that we would find dancers that were truly interested in us and just be hungry to dance. We have found those dedicated 10 dancers, but of course everyone still needs to make money elsewhere to pay rent, they also have other dance projects they’re a part of. This past Saturday was one of the first times in a couple of months we had all 10 dancers together.
Who is your favorite dancer in popular culture right now? What is it about them that resonates with you?
Mitsuko Verdery: We both don’t really follow popular culture like that. I think I would say FKA twigs because she is always creating weird visual imagery and including dance. She is also always trying something new.
What are some upcoming performances you want people to know about?
Our first performance coming up is January 29th and 30th at Spoke the Hub’s Winter Follies Showcase. It is a showcase of a bunch of upcoming choreographers and we will be showing a short excerpt from our latest project, Project V.
Friday January 29th, Saturday January 30th at 7:30 pm
Old First Reformed Church Upstairs Hall/729
Carroll Street at 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Then most importantly is the full production of Project V. It is happening on
Saturday March 5th and Sunday March 6th 7pm pre-show, 8pm show
Center for Performance Research (CPR)
361 Manhattan Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11211
Tickets aren’t on sale yet for our March shows but they are for January. They can visit Michiyayadance.org for tickets to our January show.
All photos by Julia Discenza