This Is (Not) A Goodbye: An Interview with Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith in Brenda Way’s “News of the World” . Photo by Margo Moritz

Season after season, he could seamlessly portray a vulnerable soul caught in the turmoil of climate change (Dead Reckoning), a lively, mischievous and endearing boy (The Velveteen Rabbit), or a solid partner fighting for his survival (Two If By Sea). Within these roles and many others, Jeremy Smith conjured a musicality, passion and ethics that shaped many of the characters he brought to the stage. ODC School Director and Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada notes “his quickness and willingness to go out on a limb in the process. Additionally, he is a great improviser, full of wit and character, and has a really musical ear.” In anticipation of Summer Sampler, Smith’s last performance with ODC in San Francisco after an 11 year- career with the company, we sat down to talk about his career and future plans. Below is an edited version of the interview.

Marie Tollon: Did you start dancing professionally in New York?

Jeremy Smith: Yes –apart from one quick gig I did with Ballet West in Salt Lake City when I was in college- I danced with Parsons Dance for three and a half years right after graduating from college. I auditioned for Parsons at the beginning of my senior year. [David Parsons] wanted to hire me then but he told me to finish school first since I was so close to being done. So, I finished my senior year, graduated in April, and then I was working with them by May.

MT: Why did you move to San Francisco?

JS: I moved here because I got this job with ODC. My friend Quilet, who danced with me in Parsons for a period of time, was hired by ODC and moved to San Francisco. She always said that I would enjoy how it worked here. When ODC was on tour in New York, it just so happened that KT went to a ballet class that I was taking and saw me dance. At the end of the class, she came up to me and handed me her business card. She said that if I ever wanted to move to San Francisco, I should call her because I had a job there. That was two years before I actually auditioned and moved here. I was done with Parsons and Quilet shared with me that one of the men of ODC was leaving so they were going to be looking for someone. I think it was also the last year ODC did an audition in New York –lucky me! I went to the audition and afterwards Brenda said they were excited to work with me and wanted to offer me a contract. So that is what prompted me to move to SF.

MT: Was your experience of being a dancer in San Francisco different from being a dancer in New York?

JS: Here there’s more a feeling of home. That might be because I’m enveloped in this ODC world that is more holistic and has embraced me for 11 years. I take class here, and we have a space that is not rented. In New York, some companies do have established homes, but for the most part, for rehearsals and classes you’re going all over the city. Honestly, other than that, dance has a very similar feel regardless of where you are. It becomes a community of people that all end up knowing each other through dancing even if we have never spoken to each other.

MT: Was it the fact that ODC was a holistic home that kept you here for 11 years?

JS: Initially, I think what kept me here was that I just didn’t want to move again. Early on, I had aspirations of going back to New York but within two years I realized that I wanted to be in San Francisco because I liked being here. And then, eventually, I met my now-husband so my life is here. I do think the holistic approach to the way we work — from the beginning of the creative process all the way to the performance — [suits me better]. Parsons is a different entity and the purpose is to tour and perform as much as possible, and that was great when I was in my early 20s. We did not make nearly as many dances as we make here. We did create some, and we did have some input, but it wasn’t about driving a creative process or investigating something. ODC is more about investigation.

MT: What would you say is particular to ODC in terms of creative process and culture?

JS: What I love about ODC is that it changes and evolves, and at the same time there are parts of it that very much stay true to what it always has been. What’s great about ODC as a dance company is that the particular group of dancers at any given time defines what it is. So, when somebody leaves -and I’ve seen many people depart- two important things happen: the people that remain all grow in really substantial, new ways — both artistically and personally. And, the second thing that happens is that a new dancer gets introduced into the group, and this facilitates new movement development -which is critical- new ideas, new culture, new relationships, and re-fertilizes what the group is going to be at that time. Having seen many of those transitions, I think that’s one of the best parts of [dancing for ODC]. You miss the dancers who leave but you realize how your experience at ODC becomes layered with the influence of all the people you’ve danced with, past and present. This is what I have learned to appreciate and love the most, and I’ve ended up having really great friendships with a lot of the people that I’ve danced with who no longer work here.

MT: Is there a role that you particularly cherish and/or identify with?

JS: There are several! There was a piece by Brenda called In the Memory of the Forest that we created in my first year and premiered in my second year. In the work, Yayoi [Kambara]’s character was Brenda’s mother-in-law and I was her father-in-law. At the time, Yayoi and I were starting to develop a kinship and an important partnership, and there was just something poignant about the final section where we danced as Brenda’s mother-in-law spoke about her experience of escaping Poland.

That same year, KT did a piece called Grasslands. We were on tour in France the summer before, listening to a music concert on the stage we were going to perform on the following evening. KT and I were watching the conductor of this orchestra and we started talking about how he was moving, so I later developed this whole conducting section of the work. That was the first time I felt like I really had a big contribution to something that was being made, and I played a significant role in how the work developed.

Of course, Two if by Sea with Kimi is another memorable one, for obvious reasons: it’s exhilarating and fun, it’s a playful duet, it’s a serious duet, and it’s draining -a ‘dance-till-you-die’ kind of thing! I cherish that feeling.

I think one of the pieces that I will always hold special is Cut Out Guy, just because of the four other men in it, and it was just a special creative time with KT. We all sealed a special bond together.

MT: Can you give us some insight about the work that you are performing during Summer Sampler?

JS: I can only speak about the three works I am in. The beauty of Giant is that it presents fragments of how people might exist in the world. Of course, it has a linear progression because of time passing, but the various sections all just coexist together. The audience just happens to see it in this particular sequential order. And, each section has its own sense of time that the dancers control, regardless of the music. The beauty is in the subtle ways that courage can be shown in many different ways. There’s courage in committing to dancing with each other no matter if there’s an error or something goes wrong. Giant ends with me standing on everyone’s shoulders (I’ve conquered the mountain!) and choosing to fall into the abyss below -that’s another kind of courage and not one I take lightly.

I wasn’t there to make all of Triangulating Euclid because I was making Two If By Sea at the same time, so I missed some of it and learned several parts second hand. We’ve taken it apart and put it back together with new dancers so many times since its premiere that I’ve come to appreciate all the dimensions and multifaceted features it has. You may not see such detail upon first glance or even when you first dance it. I think that is what’s beautiful about it this piece -the craft is simple in form but very nuanced.

And then Dead Reckoning is just a beast! It’s a physical challenge for us because it is KT’s nature to change her dances on a regular basis and in significant ways — this one in particular because of its content. KT keeps responding in new ways to what she sees because it’s a nebulous, gray area: Have we damaged the world so much that it’s beyond repair? The composition is very complicated and very dense in keeping with such a complicated question. A lot happens at any given moment, and then you add the green confetti. There are many visual things to keep track of and that’s intentional.

MT: What would you say are the more most important things that you have learned at ODC during these 11 years?

JS: I’ve learned that dance as a career can be many things. It doesn’t have to be one thing, even if you opt to stay in one company for 11 years. The way that you think about how you dance, who you are, what you want to do next, all is in a constant state of growth, flux and change. There are years where I was a lot more reflective about what I was doing; there are years where I just went and did it. Now, I think I do both. That’s invaluable and irreplaceable. I also think that what I’ve learned from ODC is to think about what I really want and understand when and how to ask for it. And, I think I’ve grown to be a leader that supports my peers in a way I didn’t know that I could.

MT: What are you planning to do next?

JS: Lots of things! Anything and everything. I’m not retiring from dance. I love and appreciate everything that I’ve done at ODC and it will always be a special place for me. This is not a goodbye, I’ll still be around! I want to dance in different ways, I want to challenge myself and learn how to learn differently, how to perform differently and create in other ways. I’ve also been studying accounting at UC Berkeley — Extension for a while. I don’t know if accounting is in my future but there is something there. I’ve been going back to school for the last few years just for fun because I just really love learning and I also wanted to do something mentally stimulating in a new way. Accounting has provided a really different worldview than dance, a different way of thinking that I’ve grown to appreciate. Michael (my husband) and I just got married so that part of my life has just started.

I also occasionally do artistic advising work with Post:Ballet and Yayoi’s company, Kambara + Dancers. I really enjoy doing that. I think it’s a part of the creative process in dance that sometimes [is missing]. It’s similar to mentorship but I see this in a different way — having a trusted colleague really see what you’re making and give you objective feedback, not in the way of ‘this is good, this is bad’ but as a way to help them think about their work in other ways.