In The Studio With Dasha Schwartz
Ballet has taken Toronto-born dancer Dasha Schwartz through incredible routes along her journey. Now settled in New York City, she is dedicated to bringing performance to spaces where they can become more immersive and interactive.
In a naturally-lit dance studio on top of the American Ballet Theater, Milk got a glimpse into Schwartz’s favorite spot to train while talking to the dancer about what moves her, physically and sentimentally, Cardboard Stage, the platform she founded to encourage collaboration, and the every-day challenges of being a ballerina.
Whatever project she is working on, it always starts in the studio.
Tell us a little bit about your path so far? Who are you and how did you get into ballet?
I’m a dancer based in Brooklyn and the Director of Cardboard Stage. I’ve danced my whole life. I started in Toronto, Ontario, where I’m from, taking ballet classes since I was five. When I was ten, I got into the professional ballet program at Canada’s National Ballet School, and then re-auditioned every year from grades six to 12 and made it through graduation.
When I was 17, I moved to Amsterdam to join the Dutch National Ballet. I lived there for a few years, and then moved back to Canada to dance at Alberta Ballet, and then ended up in New York. I always wanted to live in New York and just found a way to get here. I joined the master’s program at NYU, which was a conjoint program with American Ballet Theatre. It was like a dream because I was dancing and maintaining my training while also going to school and getting an education; it’s hard for a ballet dancer to do both. Obviously, training is so time-consuming that after high school you generally have to choose one or the other. This program allowed me to do both. Luckily, after that, I got my artist visa and I never left.
Was there a specific moment you realized you wanted to dedicate your life to dance?
I think it’s always been something so innate in me since I was young. I best express myself through movement and my impulse was always to move and dance. There wasn’t a specific moment where I was like, “Well, I’m a dancer.” But as I trained, there was definitely a point where I was 14/15, and if I wanted to make a career out of it, I would have to have a conscious decision that this would be my life and I would dedicate all my time to it.
And that did come when I was in grade nine, and it was getting very competitive. With ballet specifically, the amount of hour you put into the studio doesn’t necessarily equate to your success. The lifestyle choices that you make determine your success because you really have to dedicate everything to that: what you eat, what you wear, how you spend your free time. Those little choices that you make really affect your success as a ballet dancer. Because it isn’t just a hobby; it’s a career, it’s a sport, as well as an art form. It is fully consuming.
When I was in Canada’s National Ballet School, for the first bit of it, I just really loved dancing. I was good at it, and it was fun. But when it got super competitive, and there were so many girls fighting for the same spot, I was like “Oh, I want to really try and make this a career.”
And here you are, doing it! Are there any dancers you look up to?
Yeah, there are definitely dancers I admire because they’ve clearly worked so hard and achieved incredible technique and skills. But those aren’t the ones that inspire me or I look up to.
I really feel inspired by the ones that move me: they use their body as an instrument and they can command the entire room and the attention, and make you feel certain emotions without saying a word; really move with intention and feeling. Those are the dancers that make me want to keep dancing because they’re true artists from within. There are a dancer and choreographer, Juliano Nunes, his movement is so organic and yet so intricate and thoughtful and the way he merges bodies in his choreography is just so beautiful and inspiring to me. It’s so impressive.
So I read your interview in The Style Line, and I think you’ve mentioned before that you had to find yourself outside of dance too. How’s your sense of self different without dance?
Since we dedicate so much time, but also sacrifice so much to become a ballerina, everything you do is with this idea that it’s better aiding your career and your success. When dance is taken away, it’s really hard to understand your identity because for so long it’s been like, “I’m a dancer.” And it’s not like I have any other hobbies because I have no time to. What I do is dance. It’s how I spend all my time: studying dance and watching videos, going home and practicing exercises to get myself better in the studio; full-on commitment.
After Amsterdam, I took a year off and went to school, and I wasn’t dancing. It was so difficult for me. Because for so long I felt like I’m something unique and it’s exciting. People don’t hear that all the time. When I didn’t have that, I was like, “Well, what am I like, Who am I?” It was a really exciting challenge for me. It was very liberating to be judged purely based on like my personality or my character instead of being judged on my body, my technique, how many turns I can do, or how flexible I am. It definitely allowed me to explore other avenues and facets. It definitely made me a better or more well-rounded person. Yes, I am a dancer, but I am me, and I express myself through dance instead of letting it define me.
What’s your daily routine like? What are you currently working on?
Everything is different because I’m freelancing, but it always starts in the studio. I do ballet classes, a nice routine wake up and I’ll be at the barre or be in a space and just feel centered. If I’m choreographing, I’ll come to the studio and just explore movement, listen to different kinds of music. If I’m setting a piece, I have rehearsals with all my dancers, which is also so nice because I get to set my work on them, but also collaborate with them and get inspired by them. We just create together. Every day is different, which makes it exciting. I’m constantly working on different projects, meeting new people, collaborating, and creating.
Do dancers have to maintain a crazy routine to keep up?
So right now, I’m not with the company but when I was… it’s like an eight hour day. You wake up, go to the studio, have your ballet class. Depending on what you’re rehearsing or what’s being set at the time, you just rehearse all day different pieces.
At night, you start performing whatever work it is. You’re constantly in the studio striving for this perfection or rehearsing a piece. If I can speak for myself and corps de ballet, which is when there are lots of girls on stage, that’s such a challenging thing to rehearse because it involves so many people. It’s mostly about patterns and being in line and being perfectly the same as the person next to you. Where the head is, where the arms are: every little position is fine-tuned constantly. It makes it so beautiful on stage, but in the studio, it takes hours and hours. You spend your whole day at the studio, you have breaks in between where you can snack or put your legs over, take your pointe shoes off. Otherwise, you’re always working and then performing at night. When I was training it was like six days a week and we’d had like some days off.
I just got back from the national tour of this Broadway show An American in Paris and we’re doing two shows a day. If we’re not performing during the day, we’re traveling on a bus for six hours, sometimes 11 hours, and doing a show at night. It’s not like technically as glamorous as it seems. We have a two-seat, so everyone gets creative. Some people lay out a bed on the floor in between seats and literally exercise or stretch it just goes to sleep. We are traveling on this bus, you have little breaks to grab food, but then you go straight to the theater to perform, go back on the bus, sleep somewhere, and do all again constantly. It’s very taxing on your body, but also such an amazing experience because you get to see a new city and perform for new audiences. That energy drives you to keep going.
So, switching gears a bit – tell us about Cardboard Stage and how did you conceptualize it? What’s your role in it?
I’m the founder and director of Cardboard Stage. It’s a collaborative site for the arts community. We are a platform for artists of any genre to connect, collaborate, and create work. We do projects all around Brooklyn and New York, in different spaces with different artists. Then, also we work with brands to style the works or just be involved in different ways.
It started off as a tool for artists to network. You travel so much that it’s hard to start fresh without having any network or any community of artists to tap into right away. I know there are artists everywhere, but there’s no allocated space for them to find each other and to collaborate, create, just to discuss, or network. It started as a platform to address that and to build a community where no matter where you are in the world, you can connect with artists. Then, throughout my career when I’ve been creating and choreographing, it just became a tool for me to find dancers to work with or musicians to work with.
Now it’s a space where any artists can come, and say you have a project that you envision and you just want to find the right people. You can find them on our site. We perform in unconventional spaces in efforts to make art more accessible.
As a ballet dancer, I know ballet is not accessible to everybody. It’s in a theater that is automatically limited just based on ticket prices. Some communities don’t have as much performance in certain areas, so we bring them to people that wouldn’t normally get to see them. We put these performances in spaces where they’re more immersive and more interactive. You’re able to feel like you’re really present and part of this performance, it’s very intimate. And then, hopefully, we spark a love in dance that maybe you didn’t know you had before.
How’s this switch from being a performer, a ballerina, to a business owner?
I’ve always assumed a leadership position quite easily. I like choreographing, I like being in front of the studio and working with others. In that aspect, that was quite natural for me to just get a group of dancers together and say, “I have this idea for a project, let’s make it happen.”
But there are obviously challenges that come with starting a company and it’s been a huge learning experience; I’m still learning. We’re constantly growing and evolving, and as we do more projects, I’m introduced to more people. There are brands reaching out to us to do new products and events. It’s been very exciting.
What are some things you’ve seen happen because of Cardboard Stage – things that were enabled by collaboration?
Well, people who would have never met have met through our site, which is beautiful because they created so much nice content together. The arts in my experience are quite siloed. If you’re a dancer, you only know dancers, if you’re a musician, you only know musicians. Because that’s what you’ve trained in, that’s your community. Having this bridge between all these genres allows for such innovative creations and work. I mean, we’ve done some really cool projects that I never envisioned that we would do.
We did Fashion Week with The Break, which is a store in Brooklyn. It was a really fun and unique collaboration. You know, models generally are wearing the clothes but dancers know their bodies so well and move in such a way that I think is so well suited to clothing and styling. Projects like that have blossomed through the snowball that is Cardboard Stage.
I initially approached Hannah [Richtman], the owner, just to style one of our videos. For one of our early projects, we did this film with all the three dancers dancing around with The Break suits styled with Luiny jewelry. It was this beautiful space about just bodies connecting. From there, we ended up having an event premiering the film at The Break. It was really amazing because it’s a really intimate space but it has such a beautiful community. Everyone came and watched this film while we performed it live in space. It was a great experience because it juxtaposed the close-up shots and the bodies being there. Not many people get to see dancers live right next to you.
From that, Hannah asked me to choreograph for The Break Fashion Week. I choreographed and I also danced in that. It was me and three of my other dancers and we came up with this concept. It was all about New York, the rhythm of the city, the pulse. How when you’re walking down the streets you don’t know who’s next to you. Everyone in New York is doing something amazing and super exciting, but you wouldn’t know. The idea was that the dancers were mixed amongst the models, and then we all stopped and broke out into dance because they’re all fierce dancers. We did this dance down the runway, which is a struggle because there are like people’s legs and arms everywhere. It was this really cool experience and it made the fashion show more interesting. I think if dance can be involved in those kinds of ways in different spaces it would just like add another layer.
Do you want to move on to more choreography?
I love choreography. Generally, I’m in my own choreography, so I get to dance and do it, which I love. You’re exploring your body and movement in ways that are so unique to yourself and feels organic. When you do your own choreography, it feels so liberating and like such a beautiful expression of yourself. But when you set it on other people, people’s bodies don’t always work in the same way. I love the whole experience from beginning to end: having a concept, an idea in your head, and then trying to execute it through your body and putting it on other bodies. Then, figuring out the space and the clothing; envisioning it and then trying to make it happen is such a far-fetched idea. As you go along, you’re chipping your way in and making it a reality.
It doesn’t always look or feel how you envisioned, but it comes out more beautiful because you’re working with other artists to give their own take. But also, I can’t dance forever, so if I get an opportunity to dance I’m always down!
What are the next steps for you and Cardboard Stage?
Now we’re just onboarding artists, trying to get as many people signed up to the site as possible and building the community. We don’t want just dancers, we want musicians, and painters, and cinematographers; as many different types of artists as possible. Once I expand and grow this community, I just hope that the platform comes for itself and allows for more collaborations, more projects, and that I just continue performing, creating, and setting work.
What are the kinds of changes you want to see in the ballet world and in the art performance industry?
I think it’s so beautiful when everyone comes together and adds their own artistry. Inclusivity and accessibility are huge. And I think that ballet is so rooted in tradition, which is beautiful. But sometimes, as we evolve, we need to evoke change to fully grow. So I think if there’s a platform that allows for that…
Everyone is the architect of their own success. You’re not waiting on someone else to tell you what you can and can’t do. You want to do this project, make it happen. Find the dancers and find a space and do it. I found it to be a struggle when I was in the company and my success was determined by a director or someone else. The authority telling you that I can do this or can’t do this or I’m not good enough. Now I want to do what I want to do, with my body, in my talents or my career. I’m just giving the power back to the artists and letting them do what they want with their careers.
Anything else you think the world should know about you?
I’m still learning and just trying to have as many new experiences and meet as many people. I want to grow and expand my horizons and just evolve. I’ll let that influence and inspire my work. Hopefully, the world will too know when I know.
DIRECTOR/CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jordan Shelwood
PHOTOGRAPHER: Samantha Keller
EDITOR: Livia Di Lucia
SOUND SCORE: “The Gate” & “Water” by Cal Maro
Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.