Today we’d like to introduce you to Harrison Coll.
Harrison, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started dancing when I was four years old. My mom Susan Hartley, was a former dancer and actress on Broadway and took it upon herself to be my first dance teacher. The first dance class environment I found myself in was a class that she had created for me and my friends. She called it “Shake, Rhythm, and Roll”. We would basically play in the studio with props and toys. Sometimes the “mystery prop suitcase” contained silly string, sometimes it would be masks, and other times scarves or jump ropes, or instruments. It was an absolute blast. The added secret to her teaching method was the fact that she would always take us out for ice cream after her class. At that time in my life, dancing was just about fun, togetherness, and joy. Eventually, I grew out of dance classes with Mom. She decided that the best place for me to continue dancing was at New York City Ballet’s official school- the School of American Ballet. I had no idea what ballet technique was and I was livid that I had to wear tights but despite my frustrations, I made it through the audition. I started my training at S.A.B. in 2003 and graduated in 2012.
After graduating, I was invited to join New York City Ballet as an apprentice. One year later, I received a corps contract. In 2018 I was promoted to Soloist. With NYCB, I’ve been fortunate to dance ballets choreographed by: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Justin Peck, Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Troy Schumacher among others. Since the company’s temporary closure, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, I pass the time with an array of activities. I’m enrolled as a student at Fordham University, I take virtual dance classes, and sometimes I do virtual teaching. I’ve perfected a method for growing my own starter dough starter and I’ve been part of a steering committee for a new fundraiser called dancersofnycb.com. This fund was created to help provide financial support for the dancers of New York City Ballet. This is a very challenging time for arts industries but particularly for the performing arts and the students who find themselves alone in the middle of their training. Ballet technique is best taught in person but Covid-19 has made that impossible. I feel strongly that we have to help the next generation of dancers during this time.
In my classes, I reinforce the importance of a strong technique while also encouraging my students to discover their own individual artistic voices. Experimentation and play are at the center of my pedagogic ethos. I think this is a direct influence from my Mother’s classes. Playing around in her dance studio, having fun, and sharing the art of movement with my friends was probably the most important part of my training. I feel that these ideas get lost as schools focus and sharpen their student’s technical skills. When young artists discover their inner strengths, it radiates through their physical movement. Praising individuality and discouraging the pursuit of perfection helps young dancers break away from this false notion that they have to be flawless. When I’m looking at Instagram or Facebook, I don’t look at videos of people doing 12 or 13 pirouettes. I look at videos where you can see people bearing their soul and showcasing their own human experience through movement. That’s relatable. We have to be more comfortable and conscience as dancers with our emotions. Especially during this time. Why else do we dance find comfort in movement than to express what we cannot say?
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Adjusting to life without a dance studio, a theatre to perform in, or an audience to perform for has been devastating. Dancing in a ballet company is all about communion for me. Dancers share everything with each other. We share space, music, our bodies, our hearts, and our emotions. We challenge each other, lift each other up, and discover new facets of our artistic and individual selves through daily interactions. Covid-19 has deprived me of that nourishing daily communion. I found it so hard in March to self-motivate since there were so many questions as to when we would be able to perform again.
I had been recovering from an injury for almost a year when Covid-19 started. Spring season of 2020 was supposed to be my return to stage. I was feeling very nervous and anxious about whether or not my body would be ready for that season. The Pandemic has actually given me more time to rehabilitate that injury, and methodically and cautiously retrain the smaller intrinsic muscles that I had lost. In addition to finding myself freshly unemployed, I’ve been forced to move out of my apartment in NYC and put all of my things in a storage unit. I’m a born and raised New Yorker and have never actually lived anywhere else. Relocated to Los Angeles to live with my girlfriend Indiana Woodward and her wonderful family has been a huge change for me. I’m relieved to be out of New York City but I miss it so much. I’m incredibly grateful to have a home and an escape from the circumstances I found myself in back east. The west coast feels like the new beginning and the fresh start that I’ve needed for a long time. This is a chance to really nurture my individual interests and my own creative voice. I miss dancing with my co-workers everyday but I think that this is an important time and really an opportunity for artists to take a deep dive into self-care and self-reflection.
I’ve taken up zen meditation for example, which I practice twice a week with my grandmother “Nini” over Facetime. The struggles that we are experiencing now are immense. Breathwork helps me accept these struggles that we are all experiencing. It doesn’t make them disappear or anything but it helps them pass through me instead of taking hold inside of me and festering. As I adjust to a more solitary lifestyle, I try to take everything day by day. I try not to make to many plans or look too far into the future. We can all only do our best. Don’t try to skip any steps in the staircase of life. Everyone is facing an uphill battle right now, and sometimes I feel like maybe it would be nice to just skip the rest of 2020 or fast forward four years from now. But thats so shortsighted. This time is going to be the most important creative incubator for our futures. Our struggles are integral to our development as human beings and embracing them and using them will help us all reach our fuller potential.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I recently had the opportunity to play the role of a “Jet” in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. This opportunity was absolutely life-changing. It exposed me to the beauty, excitement, and hard work of film making. Acting had always been part of my dancing but being a part of the cast for this film helped me realize that acting well is not only about the individual, it’s about using everyone and everything around you for your performance. The energy I felt being on set was so intense visceral experience that sometimes doing something as simple as just standing in place on your mark and reacting to something would be a profoundly emotional and physically exhausting experience. We were so committed to our characters and to the story that I felt like I was living someone else’s life for several months. This experience has had a huge impact on how I now approach dancing and teaching because it taught me to approach my art form with more mindfulness and a defined meaning and purpose.
My approach to dancing has always embraced creative expression, personality, and soul. Technique is the root of ballet and without a strong technique, it can be difficult to feel natural or coordinated during more obscure choreographic sequences. I believe that dance is magical when someone is able communicate their heart and spirit with only the use of their movement. I encourage my students to find a new voice through the language of movement and I encourage them to speak that new language! I ask students questions aimed at helping them to realize their reason for dancing in the first place. For a long time, I was never really sure why I danced or why I wanted to pursue being a professional dancer. Eventually, with the help of many mentors, friends, family members and performance experiences, I realized it was because I love to share myself with many people. My performances and my movement suddenly took on new depth. The experience of dancing felt more therapeutic then strenuous, and I was able to find my joy again. I hope to inspire a new generation of dancers who are focused on the internal and mindful aspects of what it means to be a dancer as well as the physical components.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Every teacher of mine had has a had a huge influence on my path as an artist. Some of the most influential have been: Andrei Kramerevsky, Sean Lavery, Peter Frame, Peter Boal, Olga Kostritzky, Peter Martins, Jock Soto, and Eugene Louis Faccuito aka “Luigi”. Other dancers in my company are all constant sources of inspiration for me. We live a unique and very disciplined lifestyle. I feel comforted by the fact that I know every artist I work side by side with knows just how much hard work it takes to stay motivated and stay mentally and physically in-shape for this profession. We all do it for our love for this art form.
One of my greatest influencers has no doubt been Justin Peck. I’ve been fortunate enough to dance many of Justin’s works. His movement speaks to me on a very personal level. I love how human his work is and how his movement quality demands such a variety of skills. The ability to ground oneself, to trust your instinct, to be creative and unapologetic in collaboration, and to bring your truest self to the intention of every step. His movement is visually and emotionally stimulating. Its the perfect combination of originality, physicality, collaboration, and expression. Dancing his ballet’s and being a part of his creative process has taught me to be a better artist as well as a better person.
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- 2 hr private class $135.00
- 1.5 hr group class $15.00
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Paul Kolnik, Kathryn Wirsing