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Sunday, December 31, 1989

Shannon Ricks

This interview was done Dec 2005, not Jan 1990 as the timestamp suggests.

I had the pleasure of working with Shannon Ricks this winter while I was in Peoria. I was struck pretty much instantly by her ability to negotiate the mood of our partnership and keep things in perspective. As dancers we all approach our work differently, and while in the end it’s for the same love, the means of our arrival there is hardly ever as similar. In growing up with dance we all develop our own unique process. And while our own styles of work are so unconsciously familiar there is nothing like partnering with another person to bring one’s own idiosyncrasies to light.

There is an elusive balance between work and fun that we all continuously look to find. And while it may never be obtainable, I was surprised when I met Shannon because it seemed, at least to me, that she had honed in on this duality of dance. Not only as a vehicle of her commitment to professionalism, but to the continued joy she so obviously draws from dancing. Her perspective seemed unique and I thought she’d have interesting thoughts to share; ruminations on the process that dance has been for her.

Shannon Ricks began her studies at the Ballet West Conservatory in Salt Lake City and, while simultaneously completing a BFA from the University of Utah, went on to dance with Ballet West in their productions of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After dancing for the Utah Ballet and Aspen/SantaFe ballet, Ms. Ricks joined the Roxey Ballet in New Jersey. Now performing with RASA Dance Theatre (a contemporary company in Chicago) she has recently joined the faculty of the Salt Creek Ballet School. In addition to her ballet career, Ms. Ricks has competed in International Latin and Championship Couples Ballroom competitions.

Edward McPherson: You began your professional experience with Ballet West, while still a student at the University of Utah. You also performed with the Apsen/SantaFe ballet for their annul production of the Nutcracker. Professional experience is invaluable in itself, but in particular how did the two experiences differ from each other?

Shannon Ricks: I would have to say that, rehearsing with a professional company is a learning experience. You have to learn how to learn; how to rehearse so it’s the most productive so that you don’t step on anyone’s toes and are not compromising the choreography, or any dancers ego. If you don’t make an effort to get along with everyone it can be such a tense situation. It’s something that you realize when you start working professionally, that you really need a year to get into working professionally because its no longer about you. As a student, performing is set up to give you the experience you need, the focus is about you and people care about what you think. In a professional setting people don’t care about what you think, not in that way.
What I mean to say is that people don’t care, about giving opportunities to you for your sake, or for your growth. It’s about what’s best for the company. And, at the same time what’s best for the company is what’s best for everyone in the company, because it keeps the company afloat. And there is a lot to be considered; what the artistic director, choreographer, and ballet mistress want.
I was really glad that I got kind of an extended exposure, while I wasn’t a member of the company [Ballet West] I did 3 shows with them. For me that really felt like an apprenticeship experience. I learned how to think professionally. It was really good to go to Aspen/Santa Fe to have a comparison of what its like with a large company, and with a very small company. The very different things the artistic directors have to think about, with their audience and what they are doing. And the different demand that is put on each dancer. There is a lot more pressure being a dancer in a small company. In a larger one you can sort of get lost in the corps a bit.

EM: More and more dancers these days are going to college, while some in the older generation still feel strongly that dancers should assimilate into the company setting after high school. As a member of the younger generation you have successfully gone from college into the workforce. How did college affect you and your job search personally and in general do you recommend college for young dancers?

SR: Personally I felt like I needed college, I wasn’t ready to go pro right out of high school. A lot of the girls in my school did and they are doing really well, but for me my college experience was invaluable. I was given so many opportunities for learning, for performing, and for producing stuff. It’s a great way to build up a good résumé, as long as you get yourself involved in projects. I went to a good program too, that’s part of it. I kind of get angry when people say you can’t make it out of college, more and more companies these days are looking for dancers out of college. All the jobs I have had I have gotten because I do have a degree. Sometimes in an audition that makes the difference between two similarly talented dancers. You know you can come down to the
end of an audition, and the artistic director is looking at two girls. If
they are both strong, a degree can definitely tip the scales. It lends a sort of prestige or validity for a company to have educated dancers, especially if they are connected with a school.

EM: What kind of projects did you involve yourself in at Utah?

SR: Choreography was a big one, we were given ample opportunity to choreograph as students. I was able to work with students from different departments in artistic collaborations; which is very rare for someone as young as I am. And I was able to teach beginning college students. They brought in teachers for master classes and guest artists. There is no way I would have been able to work with people like Kennet Oberly [Director of BalletMet Columbus Dance Academy], Alonzo King [Director of Lines Ballet], or John Mead [member of NYU's dance education program] if I hadn’t gone to college. They were there to teach us, not just to set a work. I really liked college, it was really good for me.

EM: While you had prior professional experience, the 04-05 season you spent with the Roxey Ballet was your first as full company member. How was your lifestyle affected? What kind of challenges did you expect to face and what challenges came unexpected?

SR: Your body has to learn how to do this fulltime, how to keep pushing without breaks. You often do get weeks off but that can be a challenge too. This is what your life is about now. You have to pay attention to how much sleep you are getting and what you are eating, you have before but if you slack at all now you wont be able to do your job. And it’s different when it’s your job.

EM: How did you create a social circle for yourself in a new city?

SR: The company really is your social circle, but I’ve always needed to balance my life with friends and people who come from different perspectives. I had a lot of friends from work and church as well.

EM: Could you support yourself through your dancing alone while with Roxey ballet?

SR: No, there are very few companies where you can; especially as a corps member. Some companies understand this and are flexible with what you need as far as an outside job work schedule.

EM: You’ve said that you grew up a ballerina, attending the University of Utah and working with the Roxey Ballet. However, now working with RASA Dance Theatre a contemporary company you don’t consider yourself a ballerina. For you, what was the catalyst of this change? For young dancers out there, what were the challenges of this transition and how did you grow from them? Specifically, what kind of advice can you give?

SR: First of all that’s like five questions, so I'll try to tackle that in order. The catalyst, growing up I was never good enough at ballet to be considered for the roles that I wanted to do. Not so much I wanted the attention that I wanted the opportunity for personal expression. I always felt that I could hold an audience on my own, that I understood what you needed to convey emotions and ideas and a character or a story to an audience; without needing other people to help carry that along. I find I have much more opportunity to do that as a contemporary dancer where the boundaries between soloist and corps members are not so solid. I also just kind of got sick of the pain from pointe shoes. I feel like it compromises my dancing when I have a teeny little blister that my whole body can sometimes unconsciously react to. You know, you hold tensions in your body when you have pain in your feet. Things like bruises and marley burns don’t affect me in the same way. The challenge of the transition is really just assimilating a different
style into your body. But that’s what every dancer is expected to do, ballerina or not. I actually found the transition to be much easier than I thought it would be; probably because most contemporary companies look for dancers with strong ballet backgrounds and training. As for advice, Don’t stop taking ballet, don’t stop doing pointe, but definitely take modern classes with a specific technique taught. And take jazz classes. And if you ever are so lucky as to work with a contemporary choreographer, practice mimicking them and their style, learning how to assimilate it.

EM: You are currently working with RASA Dance Theatre, a new company based in Chicago. I’ve heard it’s style compared to that of Hubbard Street, but from your perspective what kind of work do you do with RASA, what kind of dancers are
you performing with, and what kind of audiences do you perform to?

SR: What kind of work do I do? I love being a contemporary dancer because there is so much passion in the movement that we do. There is so much growth that happens between the first brain storming session and the actual performances because even though the choreographer has a specific idea, well, at least my artistic directors are not so much concerned with us getting their steps perfectly as us conveying the emotion that they want. So they work with us to make their movement fit with us and be natural. I perform with older dancers who are passionate about dance, but for some reason or another have chosen not to be a part of conventional companies with conventional politics. And students who are wonderful and willing to share themselves with us and are looking to build their own professionalism. I love the Chicago audiences, they are so well informed, and they love dancers. They are very receptive to just the whole thing. New ideas and old ideas, just appreciating dance.

EM: What lead you to leave the Roxey Ballet?

SR: It was a decision that I agonized over, because I loved where I was living. I love the people in New Jersey. I loved the students at the school. And I was being given opportunities to choreograph. But the respectful relationship that is needed to exist between dancers and the administration was not there for me.

EM: There is something to be said for following ones dream or calling. You left what seems like the mild comfort of a paid position at the Roxey Ballet for the perhaps more thrilling experience of working with a new and developing company albeit one that hasn’t yet become established enough to pay its dancers. Undoubtedly this must have been a hard decision to make, what thoughts did you weigh when making this decision?

SR: Well, yeah. For me it’s more important to be happy as a dancer than to be safe financially or to have, I guess, a prestigious job with a big company. I was not happy where I was [Roxey Ballet], and I didn’t know if I would be happy here now [RASA Dance Theatre]. But I don’t believe in sticking with a place if its not what’s right for me. I’ve found a company that I really love, that I want to build up to help turn it into something that is great someday. And the fact that I am happy with them is more important to me.

EM: You’ve recently been added the faculty of the Salt Creek Ballet School in the Chicago suburbs. Is teaching something you do to support yourself, or is it a passion?

SR: I was surprised by how much I love teaching, after I actually started
doing it. And since I’ve just started doing it, it’s a little less lucrative than my other jobs. I don’t have a full teaching schedule. But I love remaining involved in the dance program, and the dance world even thought it’s not dancing. And I love sharing my love of dance, and the beauty of it all.

EM: I think for a lot of young adults teaching is seen as something they won’t do for a long time. As a young adult that is teaching where did you gain your first experience? How did you make this type of career opportunity happen?

SR: I actually first started teaching my friends, beginning ballroom class. Anyone who was interested, we just kind of met on Saturday mornings. I would say to people, to not be afraid of teaching. It’s something that you learn how to do and learn how to do better for the rest of your life. And your going to make mistakes. Luckily, there are a lot of people out there who are willing to give you the opportunity to make those mistakes. As long as you are dedicated to constantly trying to become a better teacher you will be a good teacher.

EM: RASA sounds like an interesting company headed in a good direction; for all of our Chicagoland readers out there, when and where will RASA be
performing next?

SR: We’ll be at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago, Feb 25 at 8:00pm and Feb 26 at 12:00am. We’re going to do choreography that we already have in our rep, as well as a lot of new pieces. Choreographed by the directors, dancers, and a few choreographers we will be selecting in the next few weeks that have offered to set works on the company.


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