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Interview with Jason Hartley

Dancer and Choreographer, Washington Ballet

by Carol Herron

January 15, 2004 -- Washington Ballet Rehearsal Studios

Jason Hartley is Flying High.

The Washington Ballet has, under the artistic and executive direction of Septime Webre, undergone a transformation. In addition to bringing imagination to the dance programs Mr. Webre is doing a wonderful job of developing his dancers' talents. Jason Hartley is one of the dancers who has greatly benefited from Mr. Webre's direction. By giving Jason leading dancing roles and allowing him the opportunity to choreograph on himself and the company, Jason has become a star in the ensemble-style company. In both roles, as a dancer and choreographer, Jason has recently received excellent reviews from the Washington Post critics. For his dancing in Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments": "Hartley gave the Melancholic variation a dangerous edge." And for his choreography and dancing of "Nocturne Monologue":  "The movement invention and Hartley's own impossibly seamless execution were most impressive here." I had the pleasure of talking with Jason about his dancing and his emerging role as a choreographer.

Jason Hartley's first interest was gymnastics. He tells a story about how a TV show actually piqued his interest in dance and acrobatics. "When I watched the TV show Fame, my favorite character was Leroy.  During the opening credits he did a backflip.  I was 6 years old, and had no fear, so I went ahead and did a flip. I said, 'Mom come and check this out,' and I did it again for her. She wasn't sure whether to encourage me to do it again or what. So that was when I was put into gymnastics." But shortly afterwards the school closed down, so he went with his sister to her ballet classes. Watching the girls from the doorway, he quickly picked up steps and the next thing he knew his mother had enrolled him in the class. We discussed the need for a young person to find dance fun.   The Jody Curry Dance Studio introduced Jason to the fun of dance and tap and jazz. He then went on to attend Ballet Iowa, when they needed little boys for Nutcracker. Later he trained with Dr. Duncan Noble, Melissa Hagen and others when he went to the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Jason's training has always incorporated a wide variety of movement skills, not just classical ballet technique.  "My training has always been eclectic, with the gymnastics and the jazz and the tap, which I was always able to incorporate with my ballet. I've been studying yoga pretty seriously for three years and just recently started Kung Fu. As soon as I get a basic understanding of these things, my ballet can rise to a new level. It seems like all the things that I learn in my life, movement oriented, all start coming together and improve upon each other."   There was a period of time when he did not really see ballet technique fitting into his lifestyle.  It didn't really "feed" him. He wondered if he should go the modern dance route, but now he finds that he is capable of many more things because of the strict discipline of the training. "The ballet is a way of sharpening instrument. It's also good for relating to the audience, knowing which lines can send out to the audience."

When asked about favorite roles Jason said that he prefers to dance new contemporary work. He finds it more daring, more exciting when dancing a world premiere. "I was just watching the Balanchine show on PBS, when I tuned in I saw Arthur Mitchell doing 'Agon,' there was something very exciting as if they were doing new movement. I'd never seen 'Agon' look that impressive, because it was relatively new at the time of the recording, whereas now it seems that Balanchine, all of his ballets, are so commonplace that it doesn't have same fresh excitement. Because it's kind of more elementary now, more of a foundation."

His favorite piece, when Jason first realized that he loved contemporary, modern dance, is Christopher Bruce's "Ghost Dances." "It's an amazing piece; I've only seen it on video, although I know Houston Ballet performed it when Christopher Bruce was the resident choreographer there. It's basically three men as ghosts.  They are painted and look very stark and scary. They do some very powerful movements and then the scene shifts after the three ghosts leave and it becomes a village.   One-by-one each of the villagers are taken, and the three ghosts come and capture a person. The next dance is a kind of a grave dance, and then trying to move on knowing that someone has just been stripped from the earth. That was the first time that I realized that dance can speak to me. So when I saw that piece, I realized it could be more. It brought dance into the 21st century for me.  I realized that it has present tense."

Septime Webre's mother is Cuban, and it was the accomplishment of a life-long goal for Mr. Webre to take The Washington Ballet to Cuba in the Fall of 2000. Of the trip Jason says, "The whole Cuba trip was quite enlightening. It was the audience, entirely the audience. They are a culture that appreciates dance, not unlike the way that America appreciates basketball," he laughed. "They truly hung on every single step that we did. We got to perform on two different stages there. On the final night I got to perform on their huge stage, the national stage. The audience was just jam-packed, and the children were sitting on their parents laps and the aisles were filled. If it had been in America there would have been serious fire hazard issues. And they just went crazy. The stage was the size of the Metropolitan.  It was huge.  I've never danced on anything that large. If you give me a little bit more space, then I'm going to go that much further," he laughed again.

When we started to discuss choreography, Jason's eyes lit up.  He obviously finds creating dance to be thrilling challenge. "I really like dancing my own choreography; it's more meaningful to myself somehow, because it's built on me. I have full control of it, something different; it's more pleasing in a way, and it's more crucial that I do everything perfectly."  He became interested in choreography after he left school at 18. "I was interested and was always trying to find courage to actually go through with it and create a piece. The first of choreography I did was at a summer camp in Michigan when I put on a small number for the students. I must have been nineteen then. Then another piece the following year, a solo for myself when I was twenty. It was horrible, it was so horrible," he laughed. "Oftentimes I look back on all my early choreography and I grimace and hide my face in embarrassment. Because you have to put out so much work; you have to put out an hour's worth of material that you are uncomfortable with in order to get a minute that you're happy with."

Almost all the choreographers with whom Jason has worked have had some influence on him, but at school he had the opportunity to work with Alonzo King. "I remember that as being a highly intensive period in my life. He spent a lot of time pushing us to do improvisation to his choreography and to find our own way to his movement. I've been longing to work with him ever since."

Music always starts the choreographic process for Jason. "I tend to be moved by music, more based on blues and jazz.  I never enjoy dancing without music. I never enjoy dancing to music that I dislike. Live music, definitely, I thrive off of in performance."  He talked about how one of his teachers referred to choreography as a fish tank.  Dancers are the fish and can move through the space in any way they want but all the while the music is the water that they breathe, it encourages them to live. Jason's constant search for music includes the internet and the local library; much of the music does not work for his purpose. But every once in a while he will find a gem. ""I'm constantly on a music quest, and I'm trying to match music with certain ideas that I have. But generally I find that when choreographers choreograph without using the music as the motivation it doesn't quite work as well. So I always present the music first and foremost.  There is always a give and take."  I asked him if he had considered commissioning music. He laughed and said "Yeah, when I'm a little richer. I have expensive taste in music. I want the best. The musicians I did my last piece to, Medeski, Martin and Wood ("Nocturne Monologue"), I own all their CDs and I love all their music and I think a great deal of it would work excellently with an overall idea that I have. I'd like to commission them."

The upcoming Spring season includes "Coppelia," and an interesting concept called "7x7: love," in which Jason will get yet another chance to choreograph. Seven choreographers including Jason, Trey McIntyre, Donald Byrd, Stephen Mills, Lila York, Albert Evans and Vladimir Angelov, will each produce dances 7 minutes long with an overall theme of love. "I get to work with a lot of those choreographers. I've worked with Trey McIntyre several times before and I get to work with him again; that's always fun. He gives a certain kind of freedom to his direction. And I got to work with Donald Byrd already. He was nice; he and I spoke a long time ago, when the Washington Ballet went to Cuba. He said, 'Everyone always has you jumping. When I come and choreograph on you, you are not going to have to jump once.' So I was looking forward to working with him, but of course when he got here, he made me jump." Jason laughed. "Vladimir Angelov is a local guy.  I've seen a bunch of his pieces and I'm looking forward to working with him."

I wondered what Jason would produce for the "7 x 7 piece."  "Septime wanted the whole evening to have the overlying theme of love. So, keeping that in mind I decided to go from the point that the love that my wife and I share makes me larger, makes me bigger, and makes me capable of so much more than were I just alone without her love. So for the piece, I'm using music by John Lennon. It's just a simple little song that he sings just with his guitar and the lyrics are quite simple so that it doesn't conflict. And from that I go to another song by Bob Dylan.  He's not singing any lyrics just humming a tune with a guitar, some bass, drums and some horns. The John Lennon song seems quite an internal piece of music, so I keep everything small and within myself, just little glimpses for the audience to see what I'm doing within myself. The with the Bob Dylan song it becomes much more external.  That's when I push out the energy more. The John Lennon portion will just be me as myself; then as my love grows larger and stronger I'll add more guys; as if they are reflections of me, of the sides of me, and you can see more of me through them."

As far as future choreographic works he says, "I've had an idea for a little while. There are few guys with the company who are similar build and similar training as myself, such as Jonathan Jordan. I initially pictured it as a boxing match, a dance-related boxing match, kind of like a challenge where each person would get a chance to showcase what they are best at, like a dueling kind of affair. I sometimes, late at night, think it would be an interesting idea. Perhaps some day in the future."

We also talked briefly about his future career plans.  He's still a fairly young dancer at 26, but he does think about the possibility of a career-ending injury. "Well I plan on dancing as long as I can. And I'm slowly branching off into choreography, but I'm trying to keep it a little slower. I'm trying to learn patience; patience is my main mission. I've been teaching a little and choreographing a little. I'm just looking to branch out more and more."  He does not see himself becoming an artistic director of a ballet company. He is looking for a certain amount of freedom. In the ideal world he would perhaps like to be a choreographer who would go from company to company or to start his own small company.

Jason Hartley is a delightful person to talk to, intense, yet friendly and open. He is one of the rising talents in the Washington Ballet and I am looking forward to seeing him in the upcoming "Coppelia" and "7 x7: love" performances in April and May.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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