Navigating the Artist Path: An Interview with dancer Alison Clancy

There is a special celebration at my alma matter, Butler University, where successful alumni are brought back to give a lecture to current students about their path and perspective. I forget the name, it’s something like Conjunction or Coronavirus.

Convocation? That sounds right.

If you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this, it’s not because I’ve been asked to speak about how to get ahead as an artist. Shocking, I know. No one is asking for my opinion. I’m just good at asking smarter people.

I was able to interview dancer and musician, Alison Clancy, about her upcoming performance at The Metropolitan Opera in Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). It was very interesting to learn about the strange coincidences that led her to this role in particular, and how she came to have this opportunity.

Alison Clancy

Artist Alison Clancy in beautiful photography by Andrew T. Foster

A little information about the show and the artist:

Alison Clancy, a dancer and multidisciplinary downtown artist, makes her debut as a Principal Dance Soloist at the Met for the prologue of Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer.  In this New York premiere production, directed by François Girard and choreographed by Carolyn Choa, Clancy takes center stage at the venerable NYC institution in a brand new dance prologue, in which she is a psycho-spiritual embodiment of Senta, the opera’s leading lady. Set against sweeping video projections by Peter Flaherty, her featured dance to the Overture for Wagner’s monumental opera combines Alison’s trademark post-punk mysticism with the defined poetics of Carolyn Choa’s choreography. The never-before-seen-11-minute solo, developed during one-on-one studio sessions with Chao, is a portrayal of the love-lorn heroine of Der Fliegende Holländer.

Alison and I met up at the popular coffeehouse, The Bean, near Astor Place in the East Village. We sat at a table tucked away in the back, and stayed there until staff kicked us out at the closing. I found her immediately easy to talk with, thoughtful with her answers, intelligent and reflective.

Alison has had, in some ways, a surprisingly clear path to success as a dancer and musician. After graduating from NYU Tisch, she began dancing with Zvi Dance and The Met, where she’s been for ten years. She even said that she has never had any of those odd jobs, hospitality or retail, that many have to support an arts career. She mentioned the priorities of how she spends her time and authenticity of experience. Below are a few questions and answers, ranging from the very mundane to the complex from our conversation.

Alison Clancy

Your background is very diverse. How did you become involved in this production?

It’s crazy actually, they just had an audition. I’ve been dancing at the Met for ten years and I had performed in Carolyn’s Parsifal but I’d never worked with her because I didn’t perform in it until the revival was brought back three years later. So I’d never met her, but when people ask me, hands down, I’ve always said it was my favorite thing I’ve danced at The Met. It was my favorite production and her approach to movement was everything that I love.

Is it everything you feel that your training prepared you for or did you enjoy it because it was very different?

Both. Carolyn has exquisite taste, she has a very subtle, refined, sensibility that I admire and find powerful. She’s able to work with giant sweeping Wagner, these epic swells and she plays against that. It feels similar to how I work, and make work. So I had never met her but was already of fan of her and then there was an audition at the end of January, it was all very last minute. There was a union call and an open call, so I went on a Tuesday, got a call back on Wednesday, and started work on Thursday. My life changed over three days, it was crazy.

It’s felt like a lot of full-circle things happening right now-I moved to New York for Tisch when I was eighteen, and now exactly eighteen years later, I’m teaching eighteen year olds.

That seems like a kismet sort of situation, do you believe in that?

One hundred percent, especially with it being my tenth year of dancing at the Met. It feels like a marker. There are also just a lot of things I was doing that I didn’t realize were preparing me for this. I spent all of last year working on a solo of me moving slowly with black and white projections. And now, in this solo for the opera, it’s disorienting black and white projections and moving with a lot of slow motion.

Alison Clancy

Did you collaborate much with Carolyn? Did she do any background research on you as a dancer?

She had to make decisions so quickly, an see so many people

Where did you even hear abut the audition?

The Met Opera website.

Oh. (Yeah, I felt very dumb here)

So, one of the first things they announced at the audition was that if anyone has epilepsy or vertigo, they can’t do this because of the projections. And that’s exactly what I was doing for the past year. And the piece I was working on for the past year with Zvi was improvising on the quality of water. And the main character in the opera is kind of a sea creature, and there’s a giant ship that comes. So, in a weird way, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done that would have been better research.

The reason it’s all so last minute is because they staged an original production of Hollander in Quebec last year but it didn’t have the dance solo. It’s a new concept for the show.

Do you know why they wanted to add a solo?

Carolyn said that having me there represents this sort of psycho-spiritual embodiment of Senta’s mind. BY having me there in the prologue, the audience already cares about her when she enters, which is later in the show. I had my first stage rehearsal yesterday. I’m dancing on a cliff. It’s a steeply raked stage and it’s covered in fabric.

Is it slippery?

Fortunately the fabric is covered in canvas so it has some grip to it but on top of that, it’s all covered with fog. So I’m dancing on a very uneven surface, and can’t see, and there’s projections.

I bet your core is on fire the whole time.

I’m just trying to be relaxed.

Is it very choreographed where your feet go on the different ledges of the rock?

I’m hoping to get to that because the choreography of the movement is very specific. But yesterday was my first time onstage, and I definitely had to adjust the spacing. I had a few moments where the rock was not where I thought it was.

What is the mood of the character supposed to be during the solo?

She comes from a place where rules of society- beauty, work, marriage- are very set but she wants something filled with more adventure, love, dreams. She’s been looking at a portrait of Hollander who has been cursed, and can only come on land every seven years to try to find love that would end the curse. And as she’s grown up, she’s been staring at this portrait and just knowing ‘I’m the one. I’m his one true love, I’m the faithful one to end this curse’. So she’s really a dreamer.

It seems like an interesting dichotomy between that dreamer who believes in these unfathomable possibilities but is also determined and dead-set about it.

Yeah, and it’s cool the way they have it setup, the outer curtain is a giant painting of his eye, and when the curtain first comes up, it’s also on the back scrim and I’m dancing in front of that, with these very holographic light beams making it look like a storm that I’m almost directing, calling him to me. There’s a song I wrote, it’s actually the first song that I Spotified and released as a solo artist, that’s called ‘Lost at Sea’. And the lyrics are ‘there’s one man lost at sea, I’ll steer the ship to bring him back to me’. So it’s weird, the first song I wrote as a solo artist is so aligned with me playing this character.

So much of this story is about belief in fate and it seems like there are so many domino effects in your life that are leading you towards this project. Do you feel that way at all?

I have this feeling in my mind that seems like so much has led me t this opera, but I didn’t know that this was somehow it. Almost as if there was something in my subconscious that always knew this was going to happen.

Many thanks to Alison for sharing her story on this site and gifts on stage.

It seems like it’s impossible to know to which choices or opportunities you should attribute your success, as if this path could be replicated or walked down by another. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s hard to tell exactly how we got to where we are.

Alison is also teaching at NYU this year, my OTHER alma matter. So this interview was like my own personal colloquialism. No, counterintuitivism. Cancelculturation? Seems like for many in life- and in blogging- you don’t choose the words or the path.

Alison’s solo in the production of Der Fliegende Hollander  opens March 2nd and runs through the 27th at the Metropolitan Opera.


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3 thoughts on “Navigating the Artist Path: An Interview with dancer Alison Clancy

  1. Pingback: Hello Stranger; A Video Interview with Momix dancer, Steven Ezra | BODIES NEVER LIE

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