In Step in New York
Jennie Begley on living off of Ramen noodles, dancing to honor David Bowie, and her stint on “So You Think You Can Dance”
At just 2 years old, Jennie Begley began her life as a dancer, and at 10, knew she wanted to pursue that talent professionally. As she trained as a ballerina in her hometown of Aurora, Colorado, she was also sure she wanted to eventually settle in New York City. “As a typical artist’s dream, I wanted to go there and do something. So I bought a one-way ticket, packed up two suitcases and moved out there. I didn’t have a job; I didn’t have a home,” she said.
Although she got her start in classical ballet, it was after she was introduced to the work of a contemporary choreographer that she realized she wanted to explore that style. “I was kind of over the fluffy tutus and the pretty tiaras and the pink tights and pink shoes. ... And then all the sudden doing this piece with the choreographer, we were barelegged, wearing flesh-toned shoes, a leotard and doing all this crazy stuff on pointe.”
The 28-year-old joined Complexions, a contemporary dance company based in Midtown West, as a soloist in 2014, and calls it one of the hardest, but also most rewarding things she’s ever done. Founded in 1994, the company is celebrating its 23rd season at The Joyce Center from Jan. 24 to Feb. 5.Did you always know you wanted to dance professionally?
I think when I knew for sure that I wanted to dance professionally, I was about 10 years old. My mom was actually a professional dancer in England and trained me my whole life as a ballet dancer. She introduced me to Gelsey Kirkland and I watched a “Nutcracker” that she and Mikhail Baryshnikov did. And she immediately became my idol and I was like, “I want to do that.” So I was very young, and that’s when it started. The obsession began.What was it like for you when you first got here?
It was absolutely terrifying. I honestly thought that I was going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere after six months. I grew up in the suburbs in Aurora, Colorado, and then to move to New York City by myself, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, what is happening?” Because everything moves so fast. All the sudden you have all these responsibilities. So my big girl pants were pulled up to my eyeballs real quick. [Laughs]. That first year, it was really hard. I found an apartment and a retail job and it was really frustrating because you don’t have any money. I was living in an apartment that had no heat or hot water. I was living off of coffee and bread and peanut butter my first year. And my mom would send me care packages with Ramen noodles. I didn’t have enough money to take class, so I was giving myself class in the park every day and then going to work. And it just got really frustrating because I’m like, “I moved to New York to work retail and pay rent. What am I doing?” Finally, you start to get into a little bit more of a groove and I was able to work two jobs and take class every day and then when audition season started rolling around, I had to sink my teeth in.So what was the audition like for Complexions?
I remember this so well. It was on a Sunday, I believe, and the audition process was 8 hours. They were like, “Come warm. Ladies have your pointe shoes on.” The first thing we did was adagio in the center on pointe. And you have all these huge people looking at you. [Company founder] Desmond Richardson walks in and [founder] Dwight Rhoden is sitting in the front. And then you have all these Complexions alumni and current company members at the front of the room. I just remember my heart just sank into my stomach. They just made cuts after cuts after cuts. ... All the sudden, come like 6 o’clock, the last 10 girls and 10 boys were in a room and we learned more repertoire. And we did it in groups. It was just learning a lot because I think they wanted to see how well you can pick up and how well you can execute right after. ... So at the end of the audition they said, “If it’s a ‘yes,’ you’ll get a call from us. If it’s a ‘no,’ you’ll get an email.” And I just remember Desmond running up to me after and saying like, “Who are you; where are you from?” And I was like, “Um, um, um, hi.” [Laughs]. So I told him where I’m from and that I’ve never done any of Complexions’ Intensives or workshops or anything. So I was just this little girl hot off the streets from Aurora, Colorado. And then I remember getting that call. And I held it together on the phone. ... And afterwards, I just dropped to the floor and just cried. I was like, “This is my dream right now. This company is my dream.” It was something out of a movie ...What’s a typical day like for you?
So, for me, I get up at around 7:30 and make some coffee, eat a little breakfast. And I like to get to the studio an hour before class starts. I have all these rituals that I do- stretching exercises, crunches and stuff. And I just like to be there to gather myself before the day. And we have an hour-and-15-minute class and then we have about six or seven hours of rehearsal after that. So yeah, it’s a pretty intense day. We get a five-minute break every hour and then, depending on the day, we either get 45 minutes or an hour for lunch.You were also on “So You Think You Can Dance.” How did that come about?
I was teaching in Colorado and all my students were like, “Miss Jennie, you need to audition for “So You Think You Can Dance.” For three years they were saying this and I was like, “Guys, no, that’s crazy. There’s no way.” So finally, one year, my family and I made it work. My brother and I flew out to Boston and stood in line in the freezing cold for five hours until we were finally seen. And it was a two-day production of just standing around to dance for five seconds, and then you were done. I ended up doing much better than I anticipated. [Laughs]. I made it to the finals in Las Vegas and then had a little bit of airtime on television. So that was a really cool experience and I made lifelong friends from that. ... I just saw a couple of them. A lot of people come through New York, so I’m able to catch up with a lot of them.Tell us about this season at the Joyce Center and what makes it different. I see you’re doing a tribute to Davie Bowie.
I think this Joyce season is going to be really interesting. The new piece that Dwight is working on, called “Gutter Glitter,” I think is going to be a really different route from what he’s originally done before. ... It’s kind of like finding the beauty in a really dark place. Even the title says it in itself. This piece is really intense. It’s got different types of music. Drums, craziness, ugly sounds and then you have a beautiful piano pas de deux ... kind of the grungy meets the elegant. And the David Bowie piece is, by far, my favorite. It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster. The costumers are brilliant and the lighting is just absolutely spectacular. And the journey that the audience is going to be taken on is just really amazing. We did the world premiere in Detroit and it was really well received. The audience was just going crazy over it. So I’m hoping that New York has the same type of reaction to the David Bowie piece. I mean who doesn’t love him and his music? But putting a visual aspect to his music and the way Dwight does it is so brilliant.
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