I met Sarah through a mutual friend. You can feel her energy and passion for dance right away. Sarah and Mackenzie immediatly clicked and Kenzie was chosen to perform with Neo (Neoteric Dance Collaborative) company. The performance was based around survivorship thru abuse. Dave and I sat in awe of this performance and what Sarah was accomplishing. I have so much repsect for this amazing woman and what she does everyday. SO please welcome Sarah to our Fabulously Fighting Family!
Sarah Duclos is a freelance choreographer and dance educator, based in New England, who holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Theatre and Dance from the University of New Hampshire. As a young dancer, Duclos worked directly with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange during their two-year residency leading up to The Shipyard Project – sparking a lifelong interest in site-specific, community-based dance work.
While studying at UNH, Duclos founded Neoteric Dance Collaborative (NEO) a multi-disciplinary dance company with a mission to build community through the art of dance. NEO has particularly focused this community building mission in rural and suburban areas of New Hampshire and southern Maine, developing audiences for dance where there were previously none. NEO has performed Duclos’ choreography on stages in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and at City Center in New York City. Duclos has worked as a freelance performer and choreographer, for both theatre and concert dance, and as a dance educator, notably working as a master teaching artist for Boston Ballet’s Education and Community Initiatives, a faculty member at Phillips Exeter Academy’s Department of Theater and Dance – where she served as Interim Director of Dance during the 2015-2016 academic year and internationally as a dance facilitator at the Abhainn Ri Festival of Participation and Inclusion in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland.
She specializes in teaching classical ballet (Vaganova method), choreography and composition, dance history, inclusive dance for movers with disabilities and is currently one of nine people in the world fully certified to teach Giordano jazz technique. Duclos was appointed to the juried New Hampshire Arts in Education Roster in 2016 and continues to produce, direct and teach with Neoteric Dance Collaborative. http://www.vimeo.com/
Thank you Sarah for sharing your story with us. I have added a speech written by Sarah, and it really touched my heart the way she writes and all she has to say. I wanted to add this in for all of you to enjoy as well. As you read I am sure you will understand why I wanted to add this in.
When I was three years old, like many other little girls, my idea of success was growing up to be a ballerina. When I was little, my older sister was studying gymnastics and she had to take ballet classes to supplement her training. Thinking that I would follow in my sister’s charging footsteps towards the vault, my mother enrolled me in the very same classes. But it was dance, not gymnastics that I was destined to fall in love with. One of my earliest memories is being in that dance class watching an old video of the legendary British ballerina Margot Fonteyn. I was mesmerized by the delicacy and expressive nature of her movements. It was in that moment that my life started to move in an entirely different direction than my mother could’ve possibly anticipated. Dance has consumed my heart and mind ever since.
Being an aspiring dancer, it was very fortunate for me that I grew up in a place and time where the art of dance was well funded, it was produced and presented often by a local network of theatres and companies and it enjoyed popularity amongst audiences. I grew up here, in New Hampshire’s seacoast region and it is fair to say that in the 1990s, this little slice of suburbia was a hub for dance.
Before I go further with with my story, I need to fill you in on some critical dance industry lingo. In my world, people who are singularly focused on classical ballet are called bun-heads…and bun-heads are the dance equivalent of what we think of as the stereotypical nerd. Essentially if you took all the characters from television show Big Bang Theory and replaced their love of physics with an affinity for tutus, tiaras and epic fairy-tale based narratives – you would have bunheads. So, when I tell you that at twelve years old I was a bunhead – we’ve got some sort shared understanding going on.
It was around the age of twelve, that I started studying at a dance school called Ballet New England. After a few months at the school, I was informed that I had been chosen to dance in something called the Shipyard Project. Ever the dutiful student, I showed up to my first rehearsal with my hair pulled back in a bun, wearing a black leotard and pink tights (classic bunhead attire) and carrying two pairs of pointe shoes. A man – whose name I would soon learn was Jeffrey – took one look at my pink satin shoes and said, “Oh honey, you’re not going to need THOSE.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that the Shipyard Project was headed up by legendary modern dancer Liz Lerman. In case you’re not familiar with her work, Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator and speaker. She specializes in creating large scale public dance performances that are specific to the site where they are created and usually those performances include members of that community as the performers. To give you an idea of what that means, she has choreographed dances for construction vehicles, for nursing home patients and recently she even put dancers in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Her work has been commissioned by Harvard Law School, the Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, the Kennedy Center and in 2002 she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. You know, casual stuff. As a kid, I know no idea that I was about to brush up against greatness.
That first rehearsal with Liz and her company The Dance Exchange would be my first very first experience with modern dance. Liz spent the next two years in residence in the Seacoast working on a public performance that honored and explored the socio-economic and cultural importance of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The culminating performance itself was a series of events that took a couple of weeks to reach completion. I danced on the lawn the Shipyard’s main mall portraying the 1963 sinking of the USS Thresher, which resulted in the loss of 129 submariners and shipyard personnel. I took my place on a dock performing a ballet barre that was choreographed to look like pieces of moving naval machinery. I stood on an island and danced like a crane moving shipping containers from dock to vessel. I performed in piece called the Shipyard ABCs in which my classmates and I did double dutch jump roping while yelling out work place terminology. It’s been twenty years and I *STILL* remember this dance. Actuator, Buoyancy, Catalyst, Distillation, Evaporation, Frequency, G-F-C, H-A-R-D, Isojack, Liznet, Objective Quali-TY!
Suddenly, through the Shipyard Project, history and science, culture and community engagement had come alive for me. The communicative and connective power of movement had never been so apparent to me before. Over the next few years, because of the rich, local dance landscape, I would continue to meet and work with people like Liz – adding new genres of dance like jazz, Eastern European and Russian folk dance, Flamenco, West African and Polynesian dance to my toolkit. My ideas about dance and subsequently the world that I lived in were expanding.
Although, I appreciated these new experiences, I did not yet have the wisdom to understand how valuable they would become in my future. My goals remained steadfast. When I was seventeen years old, my idea of success was to dance for a professional ballet company like Boston Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. But it was around this time that I came face to face with the reality of pursuing a career in ballet. You see, wanting to be a professional ballerina is a little like aspiring to be an Olympian. You can train hard, you be really talented and despite putting forth your best efforts you can still not make the cut. Like many young dancers, I had a choice to make. Quit dance entirely and pursue a different career path – or keep dance in my life and figure out how my childhood dreams could shift into a career that was attainable. I decided to let go of the major company contract dream. I also decided that I had to keep dance in my life, but I wasn’t sure how and the process of figuring that out wasn’t very pretty.
When I was eighteen years old my father’s idea of success was for me to pursue a career in education. “You could be a music teacher…or a Spanish teacher!” he would say. Well, I hated my Spanish teacher and the thought of becoming Senorita Duclos was horrifying, so when I declared my major I chose music education. If I couldn’t pursue a career in dance, I figured that I might as well be a dutiful daughter and make my parents happy. Each of my first three semesters of college proceeded to be worse than the one before. I was bored by my gen ed courses and my music course requirements sucked all of the love out of singing for me. I took two dance classes a week, thinking that that would satisfy my need to move and all that did was frustrate me because I could not do more. The first semester of my sophomore year, I stepped on a scale and noticed that I was losing weight. Before, I knew it, I had lost thirty pounds in the span of about two and a half weeks. I went to the health center where I was tested for mono and what felt like every disease under the sun – but all of the tests came back negative. I slept all the time. I had no energy and eventually I started flunking my classes.
Throughout all of this, the important question that no one thought to ask me was “How are you?” When I went home for winter break that year, my blunt, straight talking sister took one look at me and said, “You look like hell. How are you?” I told her that I was fine. She laughed and said, “Well I can count all of the bones in your rib cage through your t-shirt, so I think something’s up. You, little sister, are depressed!”
Even though I had tried, my father’s version of success was not mine. Trying to live someone else’s vision for my life had proved to be the path to self destruction. It wasn’t long after that conversation with my sister that I moved back from Virginia and transferred to the University of New Hampshire. I did not have a single inkling of direction as to what I was going to do with my life. At that moment, applying to a dance conservatory would’ve meant starting my college career over as a freshman. I had already wasted my lower-middle class family’s money and I couldn’t bear being the source of further financial hardship. I had disappointed everyone in my life by failing out of school and I was deeply sad and stuck.
I took dance classes at UNH. They were okay…not great. For a second time I found myself in an environment where I was not being challenged, but this time, something happened. I looked around the dance studio and I noticed something. I noticed other students who were as equally as bored as me. They were talented dancers and choreographers who were not getting what they wanted out of the program. That’s when I decided that I was going to found a dance company.
I founded Neoteric Dance Collaborative or NEO when I was twenty-two by gathering up fourteen of the best and brightest students in the UNH dance program and self-producing our own show off campus. We rehearsed on Sundays, when no one was using the studio, we secured our own venue, created advertising materials and made our own costumes. We sold out every performance. We were renegades and the faculty hated us. It was awesome.
After I graduated I became pregnant. I decided that my dreams of New York City would have to be put on hold. Being a dancer, I have always had a complicated relationship with my body image, but as my pregnancy weight piled on I comforted myself with the fact that it was in the service of being a good Mom and that I would lose all the pregnancy weight anyways when breastfeeding and dancing came back into my life. My 23 year old self was optimistic and naive.
At 36 weeks, after the most uneventfully normal pregnancy, I went in for a regularly scheduled prenatal check up and the nurse could not find the heartbeat. My former husband and I were told to race to the emergency room where an ultrasound confirmed the worst. My son was dead and Liam was delivered still the next day. My whole world imploded with grief.
It would be months before I returned to a dance studio and when I did, the person that I saw in the mirror wearing sixty extra pounds and no baby in her arms to show for it did not look like me. The weight aggravated hidden stress injuries from a lifetime of strenuous dance training and physical pain became my new normal. My professional dreams were truly a thing of the past.
After that, I committed myself to dance education and choreography. I taught at a few local dance schools until I got a big break. I had seen an advertisement for a teaching job at Boston Ballet and I had sent in my resume thinking that they would never call. They did call and at twenty seven years old my idea of success was to be a lifer at Boston Ballet. I had long given up the idea of dancing for a major ballet company, but found myself hired at my dream company for a different purpose – to teach. I had achieved my childhood dream, just in a different way that I had expected to and I was so happy.
I started working for Boston Ballet in January of 2009, just months after the start of the Great Recession of 2008. Contradictory to what was going on in the rest of the world, I had achieved unicorn status by snagging one of the most unattainable things in the arts industry – a full time job at one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world, complete with health care and vacation time. As the stock market fell, my career as a dance educator flourished and I continued to create work with NEO as a side hustle. Meanwhile – back in the Seacoast – a perfect storm had started to brew.
When our national economy crashed the funding cuts that followed decimated many of the small-town dance dance companies and studios that I grew up in. Think about what a choreographer might need in order to be produce a show – real estate, because it requires significant square footage to rehearse and perform and the use of people as a medium. Real estate is expensive and so are people so in uncertain times major producing theatres and venues turned to safer, cheaper programming like big solo music acts to sell tickets. Many dancers moved on or away due to lack of employment – and the finally, there was a generation gap in local leadership. No one who had benefited from that incredible arts community was old enough or had enough professional experience to fight against any of this from quietly happening. Within a matter of a few years, the Seacoast dance scene as I had known it had almost entirely slipped away.
I watched all of this happening from afar while working in Boston’s metropolitan environment. I was struck by the stark contrast of the average student’s experience with the arts, compared to that of my hometown counterparts in suburban New Hampshire. Even the most disadvantaged school districts in Boston had access to the finest cultural institutions, while the programs that had once served me so well in New Hampshire, no longer existed. This began to eat at me, so I did some digging, and found the following statistics from the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy.
.“Only 10 percent of grant dollars made to support the arts (such as visual arts, performing arts and museums) explicitly benefit the poor, ethnic and racial minorities, the elderly and other marginalized populations. Less than 4 percent of grants dollars support advancing social justice goals through the arts.
Further, 55 percent of arts grants go to organizations with budgets greater than $5 million, which represent less than 2 percent of the more than 100,000 arts and culture nonprofits. Recent research demonstrates that the primary audience of these large institutions is predominantly white and upper-income.”
In plain language – arts funding is going to big institutions in major cities, because that’s where granting bodies believe that their dollars are going to have the most impact. This IGNORES the majority of the arts organizations and people in the United States which exist outside of that very narrow definition of what an arts organization can and should be.
My personal definition of an artist is – a person who commits radical actions or affects radical change. Throughout history artists have flocked to major urban centers such as Paris, London and New York – because that is where an individual could have the biggest impact. Urban centers, at one time the crossroads of the globe, were the places where one could stand on the biggest soap box and yell into the biggest microphone. How we fund our art institutions today still reflects this history, but times have drastically changed.
Dance permeated my childhood and I credit dance with imprinting critical life skills on me. I can make and maintain eye contact with another person – which is no small feat in this technological age. I can empathize and appreciate another’s culture and viewpoint. I have the ability to work within a group and ability to adapt and problem solve, often on the fly. Dance gave me an appreciation for history and collaboration between artists of many walks – musicians, painters, designers, and of course, choreographers. Despite all of these gifts that dance has to offer society, it is the most underfunded performing art in the United States. Without radical action, I believe it is at risk of disappearing from our cultural landscape.
While I was feeling all of these shifts about who I wanted to be as an artist and where art was needed most, my first marriage fell apart. It was blindsiding and devastating and I found myself driving back up to New Hampshire every weekend to be surrounded by the support of my family and friends. In every way the universe was screaming at me, “GO HOME.”
That’s why, in 2012, I quit Boston Ballet. I walked away from what I once thought was my dream job. I was thirty and my idea of success had shifted again. I wanted to use NEO as a platform to build community through the art of dance with the end goal of stopping the disappearance of dance from rural and suburban New Hampshire. I wanted repair the creative community that had raised me and I wanted to make sure that there would be a better and stronger version of that community to support future generations of dancers for years to come. Success meant creating an audience for dance where there was none – and this is how I went about it.
By collaborating and converting. That first year, I orchestrated collaborations between NEO and artists working across a multitude of disciplines. That included jazz musicians, photographers, a Shakespeare company, an improvisational painter. These artists all had pre-existing followers. We needed people to see our work…so we looked for opportunities to give our collaborators’ audiences a dance experience mixed in with a genre of art that they already appreciated. This gave us a jump off point to convert those people into new dance fans.
We took cues from other industries. A few years ago, I attended a free professional development session aimed at tech start-ups and entrepreneurs. Everyone in the room was starting an app, but I was starting a dance company. The session was about creating your “minimal viable product” or a product that you could invest the least amount of money in and charge your customers to make a profit. Attending that session gave me the idea for a low cost, in-studio lecture demonstration series called Caffeine+Choreography. Programmed in collaboration with Teatotaller Teahouse, our audience members got an interactive look at how dance is made while sipping on a tea or a coffee which was included in the ticket price.
This is going to sound totally cliche, but NEO’s best programming came about when I decided to be myself! What I mean by that is that I had to let go of any preconceived notions of what a dance company could be or how it should be run and I started creating things that I liked that happened to put dance into new and fun contexts for people. Caffeine+Choreography came about because my love for both dance and coffee runs deep and mashing those two things together seemed like a great idea. I also love retro music and I love going out to dance in a club environment, so I created Let’s Dance! Soul Edition. Let’s Dance! is a hybrid dance party and performance series, built around a specific genre of music – Soul, 80s, 90s etc. You pay a cover, just like you were going to a club, the only difference is every half an hour or so NEO’s professional dancers will take over the floor and perform a choreographed piece. We created that event because no one in my friend group had an apartment big enough to throw a Mad Men themed dance party. Thus, Let’s Dance! was born and it was hugely successful!
We’ve built community by rallying around a cause. Last year, NEO produced One Billion Rising to benefit HAVEN, a local organization with a mission to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking and to help victims heal from abuse and rebuild their lives. This was a valiant pursuit by itself – but remember when I said that theatres weren’t producing dance because it was too costly and too risky? Well, when the show is a benefit, it kind of takes financial risk out of the equation, because it’s much easier to get audiences to turn out for a social cause. The added bonus of producing that show is that we were able to give fifty plus dancers the opportunity to take that stage together – which is the largest local dance production to grace that stage in over fifteen years. I am super proud to say that Exeter’s Dance Company accepted my invitation to be a part of this year’s One Billion Rising and that 70 plus dancers will be taking social action through dance on February 12th.
I want to acknowledge that I was a little nervous preparing to speak to all of you today. My accomplishments are humble compared to some of the other people who have graced this stage. I thought, “What do I have to offer to a group of people who are arguably some of the best and brightest students and educators on the planet?” Here are some points that I hope that you’ll takeaway. Your idea of success is exactly that – YOURS. Not society’s, not your parents, but yours and yours alone. Your dreams and ideas of success might change over time – and that’s okay. I want you know that the path to reaching your goals will not always be straight line. You may not get into your first choice school, you might even flunk out of school…but I promise you the world will not end as long as you get up, dust yourself off and try try again. I didn’t come here today to convince you that dance is valuable to society or that it’s a career option for you – that’s MY story – but I want to take a moment and acknowledge that you have a gift. Some of you might know exactly what it is, some of you might not have discovered it yet. When you figure out what that gift is, I want to urge you to be brave and share it where it is most needed, where it will help the most people.
My idea of success today is waking up every morning and living up my own personal definition of an artist. In my field it is radical to NOT pursue a career in New York City, it is difficult to make a life as a dancer in New Hampshire, but I am affecting change here. My gifts are needed here. Right now I am exactly where I am supposed to be.