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ShadowBreaker: an Interview with Alexandra Damiani

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After serendipitously finding the short film “Rite of Passage” on the web, which details several milestones in Alexandra Damiani’s personal and professional life, Dane Zahorsky of the Confluence Editorial staff sat down to discuss her work in the world.

*All images courtesy of Taylor Rosenberg

DZ: When did you know that movement was your calling, and how has your calling evolved over time? Where does the piece ‘Rite of Passage’ fit into that evolution?

AD: As far back as I can remember, I just felt like I wanted to dance. I remember being in front of the mirror in my parents’ bedroom and feeling the air on my skin and moving at four or five years old. I remember really liking it. Then I went and I took ballet classes in a very local school. I was good at it. Eventually, my girlfriends stopped, but I kept on going. I liked the discipline of it. I liked the challenge. Early on, I felt I was accessing the divine. That’s a big word, but I knew, even at seven years old, that I was connecting in my own way, to my own god. I can say that now. I’m 40, but looking back, I know I was tapping into something very sacred for me. I went to Geneva, which was a bigger city, and later, I left home and my parents and moved to Paris, where I had a mentor from the Paris Opera and a financial sponsor — in French, we say mécène, which sounds so much more beautiful. When I was 18, I moved to New York to dance.

I should say, in the dance world, I didn’t fit the criteria: I am short and I am very muscular for a dancer, and so I never fit in. Except for maybe two people in my life, no one pushed me. There was no encouragement. It was more about fear: ‘You’re a good student, so you must do good.’ My parents didn’t push me, but they also didn’t hold me back. They were just there to witness. So I really had to will my way into the dance world. I knew that I had something to say with my dance, and I felt like I was dancing against a current. In a way, I’m very grateful to those people who didn’t accept me. Their rejection helped me clarify my voice and my desires.

I remember that I understood dance as this dangerous career path. In France, it is very romanticized; we love artists. But it’s true – the struggling, starving artist who’s only famous by the time he or she is dead. That life was really appealing to me, but I knew it was a hard choice. My parents weren’t upper class and we didn’t have much money. I knew what it was to be lacking, yet I was ambitious. So there was this struggle, but my calling felt really strong.

I was so young when I came to New York in ’95, but I had already developed a life force and a will – a hunger. The obstacles, the challenges didn’t break me down because my desire to dance was coming from an inner place. And because I was so young, I was also resilient and able to transform. The auditions, the loneliness, the lack of money, the constant focus on the work, practice, class, failures – despite all of that, I was able to remain hopeful. When my career finally took off, I had plenty to say and performed all over the world. More recently, I’ve started to develop my artistic voice by stepping onto the other side of the process. I was the director of a top-notch contemporary ballet company called Cedar Contemporary Ballet, under which the piece ‘Rite of Passage’ was created. When that company folded, it was the end of a 10-year journey. As I moved forward after that, I started to have the courage to develop my own voice as an artist and a woman.

‘Rite of Passage’ was created just after I had become a mother. I had my daughter in July of 2014, and the piece was first performed the following February. There were so many rites of passage happening at that time. One was a rite of separation: the death that is necessary for rebirth. Another was the death of my maidenhood: I became a young mother. Becoming a mother has been the biggest rite of passage in my life so far. It led to this very personal transformation as the company itself was dying while I was in charge. I felt it was important for me to channel my sadness over that ending into something ritualistic. So the dance was not only a performance – it was very real. The dancers performing were going through saying goodbye to the company and to their work. We had been at the top; we had just returned from touring in Australia and New Zealand and we were touted as the best American contemporary dance company. So many things were happening at once. I needed to remind myself in a tangible way that death and life and birth are connected, are two sides of the same coin. The dance became about embracing what we were all going through, and maybe transcending it in our humble way, as dancers.

At that point, I had been living in New York for 20 years, and the theater where ‘Rite of Passage’ was performed was in the heart of Manhattan, in Chelsea. I had grown up in the Alps, in the mountains. My parents were farmers, and they were uneducated, yet I had a very beautiful, feet-in-the-dirt sort of upbringing. Now here I was in New York with all the bustle and the speed and lack of connection. I had just gone through a natural birth with a doula and no medication. I found myself wishing I had had my grandmother and my sisters and my aunts around me. I found other people to support me, and I paid them, but I realized in the process what we’ve lost: the tribe, the village, and an ancestral way of passing on wisdom. While I was giving birth, my midwife became this sort of witch for me. I mean that in the most positive sense of the word. I connected to my great-grandmother through her; they shared the same name — Marthe — and I just felt this bond. I realized, after my daughter was born, my lack of connection to other women in the city, and my feelings of isolation from my own family. I also realized that a dance show is a kind of ritual. It is a way for us to share. We dress up, we go to the theater, and for two hours we share an experience that goes beyond words and that will transform us. There is, of course, this magic that we cannot plan for in the meeting of the audience and the performers. It creates something that is beyond all of us: a sense of community. So there I was, going through this amazing rite of passage as a mother while the company was going through its own death. I began to see both as parts of life, and I wanted to offer a gift to the dancers and to myself.

In the city, we are hungry for human connection, and yet there is a fear of community. I wanted to find a way to bring people together and take them by surprise. I wanted to offer a sense of deep sharing. So in the piece I chose to have live music, because it goes directly to the heart. It makes you unplug the brain and just experience. And I wanted to have dancers right there in the audience’s face, sweating, breaking barriers so there would be a sense of participation that didn’t feel forced. In the beginning of the piece, the dancers are really stylish, all dressed in black; they could be models in a Gap commercial. But then, as it goes on, they take off layers of clothing until they’re naked. It’s all about the flesh, and the sweat, and then there is a moment of violence, and at the end, a moment of intimate duet. All of it is meant to be stripping away the layers, taking off the armor to access what I see as our inherent need to connect on a very deep and vulnerable level. In the end, there’s a death –  a dancer falls from the wall and there is a black out. It’s about the death of that moment.

I think, at first, I was really drawn to the physicality of dance, not seeking so much but following what was presented to me. In dance, there is so much work, especially in ballet, but as I’ve gotten older and begun practicing Qigong and meditation with my sifu, I’ve become more interested in using daily ritual practices to peel back the layers. Within the ritual of taking off your clothes, coming into dance, coming to the bar, and doing the exercise is the opportunity to die to yourself every day. It’s so humbling. It’s what I say to my students: If you want to live fully, you’ve got to die every day to do it. You have to look for the sacred in the mundane, in the simplicity of the exercise. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is actually where the treasure is. Over time, the daily work of being a dancer has taken on a different meaning for me. I took away the glossy, exciting career, and now I see the ‘work’ of the dance artist as something much deeper.

I’m now coming to a point, on a personal level, where dance is a medium, a tool to get a taste of something else. I stopped being on stage as a dancer at 28. I was in Ballet Jazz of Montreal in Canada and I had toured all over the world. I was in top shape and thought I was doing really well, and yet, I knew that it was time for me to move on. I feared losing my identity. I thought, ‘If I don’t dance, then who am I?’ But then, very quickly, there was this sigh of relief where I thought, ‘I will be okay. I dance all the time.’ Dance is not the studio. Dance is life. When I hold my daughter, I’m dancing; When I talk to you, I’m dancing. I’ve learned to blur the line between the divine and the secular; the sacred and the mundane; between dance and everyday life. I’ve come to a place where, if I can’t dance for year or two, I feel totally at peace with it. It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s an untouchable part of who I am.

In New York, we love putting on very expensive clothes and heels and going to see this or that dance, and I think there is this hope that the experience will include a communion – a transformation of sorts. But it’s very safe.  People need, through dance and music and the arts, to go through a transformation, and yet, I believe there is this fear of that. We do all of this work to create the experience, and yet, it doesn’t really go there, because it’s still very ‘New York City Ballet.’ It’s still very on-the-surface. I’m interested now, in New York in 2017, in being aware of our context – being aware of where people are, and giving them a taste of what they really want but are afraid to have: the communion. I’ve been really drawn to playing with the work of ballet, which represents, for me, the epitome of politeness, propriety, and tradition. Underlying all of that structure is our animal aspect. So I’ve been really drawn to breaking down the movements to show the contrast between the two – to show that although we are ‘civilized,’ we are still lions and wolves.

DZ: Why do you think we fear community and communion? How might that relate to your own experiences of coming of age in a foreign country?

AD: I, myself, am afraid of groups. I come from a foreign country, of course, so I don’t have my family here, and sometimes I feel deeply alien. Big groups can turn me off unless the context, the place, is very intentional. Here in New York, if I go to a show or to a class, and things get very deep, it can feel like too much for me. It feels like a lot of crap. It feels almost too vulnerable, like I’m over-sharing. I always come back to these questions: Where are my people? Where is my tribe? Where are my wise women who can tell me the stories so I don’t fuck up? Personally, I am very suspicious of organized groups, and that comes from being raised Catholic. I wasn’t forced, but I went through Catechism all the same, and my grandmother was very devout. When my mom got pregnant when she was 17 and unmarried, my grandmother told her she should get an abortion or she would bring shame on our family. Even when I was very young, I thought that was so hypocritical. I thought, ‘That’s my brother. You wanted my mom to kill my brother.’ That was a big moment for me, and ever since then, I’ve suspected organized groups of being manipulative or inauthentic. I immediately ask, ‘What is this? Who is leading it? Who is in charge?’

Yet at the same time, I crave connection. I make sure, in our home, that we have a big table and we hold dinners. My husband and I have started to produce this early morning dance ritual we call Shadow Breaker. At sunrise on Friday mornings every two or three months from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., we start with Tai Chi and greetings, and then we move into dance and an exploration of real connection. We end with a performance of sorts, and a closing, and then everyone goes on about their day. I see it as an experiment for us, and it’s been really amazing. A lot of young folks and my students at the university are really into it. But we have to make it feel ‘safe.’ So instead of saying ‘ritual’ or talking about the larger implications of Tai Chi or Qigong, we just say it’s a ‘group dance.’ But it’s the real deal. We release toxins, we go through a journey together, and everyone gets a taste of the circle. I’m trying to find ways to create a community, a tribe, despite my group phobia.

I should say, my husband and I do have moments when we dive in. He is fasting with the School of Lost Borders, and we’ve both been to Burning Man many times. In the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, I went to this women’s gathering, and we did an offering ceremony that was for all sexually abused women. Unfortunately or fortunately, I’m a part of that group. It was an amazing ceremony of women letting go, and I went into a deep meditation in which I became an eagle – this big, black, winged creature – and in my wings I had all the women of the world, all my sisters. That was about six years ago, and it was a big moment for me. Through my dance, I’m trying to channel that eagle. I don’t want to go up on top of my mountain. (I’ve wanted to do that for many years.) Instead, I see the power in the integration of the ‘in’ and the ‘out.’ At the same time that I am a part of New York, I am going through my own self-cultivation. The power is in the integration of the two.

DZ: You seem to want to connect to your lineage and develop roots while remaining, as you said, ‘in the game.’ How does your urge to be in the present interact with your desire to honor your roots?

AD: That’s a daily practice, and it really scares me sometimes. I see it come up frequently when I work with young people. They want to be perfect all the time, but what they need is for vulnerability, toughness, and power to coexist. Every day, I try to teach dancers to be okay with being open, yet really kickass when they need to be – not one or the other, but both. Because when it gets complicated, when it gets black and white, strong and vulnerable at the same time, that’s where the treasure is. My sifu once told me that it’s the meeting of light and darkness that creates the dance. It’s the contrast, the opposition, that inevitably precedes creation, because that’s where the magic is, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s where the dance is. In the past, I just wanted to be the artist and not have to deal with society, but I realize now that I can’t do that. I have a daughter, and I have to engage. I’m excited about the challenge of coexistence with these two forces because I do think that this is where the beauty is for me now: in the balance between my life and dance, between the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ I spoke of before. And it’s really hard. It’s about getting more in touch with your instincts and with the moment. It means learning who to be vulnerable with and who not to be, because spending time with the wrong people can be detrimental. If you tell a story to the wrong person, the power of the story goes away. Misperception can destroy it if you’re not careful. My story is beautiful, yet I rarely share it, because I’ve gotten to know with whom I should share and with whom I should not. It’s really about listening and paying attention to your intuition; making sure you’re centered so you can really assess what’s right for you and your story. I think it’s a life-long adventure. In that way, dance is really helping me a lot. I find that what’s happening in the studio is really a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger world; it’s all connected. Through dance, I get to experience, on a concrete, muscular, mental level what’s happening on the bigger stage of life, and that’s a gift that helps me to cope.

DZ: Your most recent piece, Super Zero, ends with the dancer lifting her skirt to show her womb. Where did that gesture come from for you, and what does it mean to you as it relates to much of what we’ve been discussing?

‘Super Zero’ is a very dear piece to me. I put it on stage at the Joyce Theater, and the audience was dead silent despite the humor. I think they could feel that I was really putting what I thought on the stage, as opposed to simply creating a choreographed work. The woman, who is really the protagonist of the story, represents the archetypal woman, but also a larger feminine energy: the earth or even the cosmos. And the piece shows that the way we’re operating right now is really just a game – it’s a farce. At one point in the piece, you see a girl being pulled by the hair like a ‘bitch’ and she’s fine with it. That came out of how often I hear women who are degraded say, ‘Yeah, he talks like that, but it’s fine. It’s normal. I’m fine with it.’ And the whole point of the piece is this hero – Super Zero – who is young and white and gorgeous and wants to save the world. But there are no mentors, and he ends up feeling lost and stuck in a system that’s totally corrupt. Even the hero who is supposed to save us is on the payroll, so to speak. To add a layer, I repeat the hero’s dance with a black dancer in a hoodie doing the same movement, bringing in this conversation of who’s ‘right’ and who’s ‘wrong.’ I also used this cheesy old western music to convey that he’s in a movie fantasy, trying to save the world in his own way, but he doesn’t know what’s real. Without any mentors, he is lost.

I think of the recent case at Stanford in which an unconscious woman was raped by a young white swimmer, and the father of the young man wrote a letter to the judge saying, basically, ‘C’mon, you’re not really going to ruin my son’s future for 20 minutes of action, are you?’ For that father, this act of violence was a rite of passage for his son – just part of being in the game. So we end up with all these young men who don’t know how to handle their sexual energy, and it becomes a weapon in a way – a knife. What do you do with it? In order to know, you have to talk about it. These young men need a lot of help – real mentorship. Here they are at this time when their bodies are screaming at them, but without anyone to guide them. Sexuality is creation; it’s creativity. But it can also be deadly. It can hurt other people and yourself.

And so, when the female comes in wearing red, she is the feminine. She is Kali and Lakshmi and Shakti: creation and also destruction. She walks over to the young man like a spider, and she swallows him. To me, that’s a rite of passage – to claim one’s power. To the same music as the hero did, she dances across the stage. This is where the dance piece actually starts. It starts at the end, when this beautiful, almost goddess-like woman begins dancing as though from the vagina, with a lot of movement going through her whole body. In the end, she stands facing the audience and lifts her skirt to show her pelvis and womb. To me, this is really a redemption. Yes, she swallows the boy, but she also blesses him, and in that moment he looks at her and says, ‘Wow, thank you.’ But he doesn’t really know how to step into that maturity, that femininity. When she blows on him, he crumbles; he doesn’t know how to be with that, because he hasn’t been properly initiated. Everything he knows, he’s learned from those who abuse their knowledge. But as women, we have a physical reminder – we have our menses. We bleed every month to remind us that we’re not little girls anymore, and if we so choose to acknowledge the invitation, we can create and nurture life. With that comes pain and introspection and cleansing. We may not have access to the ‘wise woman’ or a big coming-of-age ceremony, but at least, on a very physical and concrete level, we experience this reminder every month that men do not. And it’s so obvious. You see these men in their 30s with money and power who are really children. Without that initiation, they become dangerous to women, to society, and to the earth. And then that dangerousness begets itself. They have sons, and it gets passed down.

The whole point of the piece, to me, is to ask this question: If what we’re seeing is farce, and we know that there is another level, are we ready to go there? In trying to answer that question, I’ve found my obsession as an artist, and I believe that when you find your obsession, you should go with it. This meeting of man and woman, not as genders, but as energies – that’s what I want to explore. I also feel like it’s very much what is being called for at this time. The way I explore is through art, which is why my life has been immersed in the performing arts. To me, the arts are rituals, more or less covered by the fabric of entertainment. Still, they are ceremonies where everyone present in the theater has the chance to witness, or, if they choose, to participate in a transformational experience. Art allows us to see what we may not be able to see in our everyday lives. And if the art effectively inspires us to start a dialogue about subjects we’ve never been able or willing to approach, then that’s an initiation we all need more of.

About the Author: Alexandra Damiani & Confluence Editorial Staff

Alexandra is a French-born choreographer, artistic director and movement specialist based in New York City. Her movement vocabulary combines the sophistication of her early classical ballet training at Paris Opera with the edginess and experimentation of contemporary dance that she developed during her 15 years as a professional dancer.

Alexandra was recently the artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which was described in The New York Times as “possibly the country’s most innovative contemporary ballet troupe. ” During her decade-long tenure with the company (2005-2015), Damiani worked alongside and curated works by the most sought after contemporary dance choreographers in the world.

Damiani brought her expertise to numerous commercials and film projects including Colgate (2016), Warby Parker (2016), Darren Aronofsky's award -winning Black Swan (2010), as well as George Nolfi's Adjustment Bureau (2010).

Since the birth of her daughter in 2014, Emma Oceane, Alexandra is focusing on her choreographic work, which has been presented in New York, NY Richmond, VA, and Pittsburgh, PA to critical acclaims. She also has been performing again solo works where she invites everyone to directly experience the deep connection between Performing arts and Rituals where performer and witnesses go through a transformational journey together.

Alexandra is frequently invited to conduct master classes in the U.S. and around the world with such dance institutions as The Juilliard School, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and Ballet Junior of Geneva, Switzerland. She is also an adjunct professor at Pace University, New York.

For the past ten years, Alexandra has been studying and teaching the ancient sacred movements of qigong and Taiji (Classical Yang long form) under the guidance of Sat Chuen Hon. Alexandra is also the co-founder of Shadow Breaker, an early morning dance ritual that uses Tai Chi, music and storytelling to create an inspirational healing experience. www.shadowbreaker.nyc

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