This interview has been a long time coming for a few reasons,t he first of which being that Mr. Tommy Lewey is probably of the finest choreographers I have had the pleasure of working with in my young life and it is always a pleasure to pick the brains of the prolific/genuis. The second reason has absolutely nothing to do with the artist in question, but me and the reason for the delay is that I am unorganized, stressed, and above all, stumped with how to best present a slew of poorly constructed questions that Tommy graciously answered for me.
More than my shoes, my clothes, I miss not having my books in New York. One that I really miss is Rose Eichenbaum’s ‘Masters of Choreography’, where she interviews and photographs famous dancemakers. My favorite is the Mark Morris interview, where he rudely reschedules, then is brief, conceited, and uninterested. What I also love is that Rose purposely photographs him in an unflattering light as punishment. It’s an amazing power to be able to manipulate a person’s public image even if it isn’t the reason why I ever wanted to interview people like Tommy.
I admit I’m that person that will always watch a DVD with the director commentary- honestly if I could ONLY watch a movie with the commentary or without I might pick with because sometimes I care more about hearing the artists process or intentions rather than how it is carried out. Hearing a creative person talk about their ideas is one of my favorite things in life. So you would think I would be a natural at interviews but apparently, I’m not and this questionaire has been sitting in my hands for over a week now because I don’t feel like my questions were anything special- which is exactly what Tommy is.
Remember, this is one of the most unique choreographic voices to come out of my college, Butler University. Tommy’s work is more than steps to counts but also manages to present a movement aesthetic that is pleasing, intriguing, and manages to capture diverse aspects of the human experience- and what of all things, did I chose to ask him?
So why do you want to be a choreographer?
I also asked the extremely boring and commonplace- what inspires you/ how do you begin your process? In all seriousness, I ask these questions and love my Choreographers book (that also asks these mundane questions) because I hope that someone who I deem smart and successful will give a step-by-step plan on making great works. A how-to of choreography, if you will. Step one- become a genius. Then what?
What stood out to me the most in my interview with Tommy was exactly what was missing in the questions that I posed to him- and that was an environment in which he was stimulated to explore his own creativity. My stupid cut-and-paste questions don’t offer much of a challenge for any artist to have to really think about what makes them unique, what they really want to express. Just asking ‘what do you want to express’ is too vague, and if there’s anything that I think is true about human beings, it’s that information is best gained through an indirect process, which is perhaps why I adore expression through dance. It requires more thought to put together something cohesive with body language. Otherwise people tend to say what they think sounds good, or what they should say. Picking through the interview, I was struck with the honesty that I found in Tommy’s answers from my own experience of working with him.
In my senior year, I was in his piece ‘ the courtship of the women who wear black’ for the student choreography showcase at Butler.
I left each rehearsal and show feeling as though I specifically had contributed to the emotion of the piece, that it would have been a different show without me in it. Maybe this is just me being a snob, but I don’t experience that feeling in the majority of dancing out there. This is because I usually feel as though I’m just the body executing the steps someone else sees in their head, which of course I am, but that the experiences, emotion, and interpretation that I bring is not only unimportant but unwanted. Tommy makes you feel as though you were hand-picked for exactly those qualities which makes it even more encouraging to be vocal, present, and expressive from the birth of a piece to the final show. When asked WHY he wants to choreograph, he says
“Many choreographers setting work force their own movement quality and favored dance vocabulary onto others. While a successful method to complete step to counts, I find it a shallow endeavor. This being said, I know I did this too. However, I eventually became frustrated with the work of my colleagues and I began to analyze my own body of work, and I wanted to start filling the void that is a lack of focus on the human element in art. I feel that the purpose and function of art has changed in this generation; it has become so much about the artists’ process and what the indulgence in his/her artistic whims and fancy. Instead, I feel the function of art is to comment on humanity and I want to bring that focus, the focus the human element, back into the public view. ”
Based on my experience, with him, he is true to his word.
So did he give me my choreograph by numbers that I was hoping for? No, but he did say this:
Once I have an idea strong enough is when I move unto setting movement and get into the studio where I am constantly inspired by dancers. I never come into a studio with specific movement prepared, but I will give directions and construct an atmosphere in which the dancers can express themselves within my parameters. This allows me to achieve things that I never thought in my own imagination because dance should be a collaborative effort (democracy, not a dictatorship).
Tommy is just one of those people who knows how to bring out the best and most creative in everyone around him- he manages to inspire his dancers and in this case, his interviewer in his ability to draw out the material needed by setting a frame where expression can form. He says,
It’s my job as a choreographer to control what the viewer sees and ultimately show them one type of human interaction
It’s my job as the interviewer to control what the reader sees and like Tommy, to draw out the best and truest of the artist in question. I may have the power to show a choreographer in an unflattering light (like Mark Morris in Eichenbaum’s book) when they are rude, but it is also my responsibility to pose questions worthy of the talent and time of a friend and inspiration like Tommy, to show the humanity he brings to his work and everyone lucky enough to be a part of it, and not to present, as I sadly have here, a verbal snooze-fest. You are all welcome for the online sleep aid.
Tommy is currently in Chicago and has started a performance company- Paper Strangers- with partner, Michael Burke, also from Butler University. Burke is currently in Indianapolis, where under the company’s name, he has presented his acclaimed work, ‘Media’. Tommy, meanwhile, is working on an adaptation of the tragic and beautiful ballet, ‘Giselle’. For more information on the company and upcoming shows, go to