Victoria – or Tori – McConnell. A Modern Dancer.

Truth is I don’t know Victoria, or Tori, that well. I only met her a couple of times when we were still living in Seattle. She was a friend of a friend, and so we befriended each other on Facebook. But ever since, I love following her on Facebook. It is one of those people who I have come to know and admire through facebook, you know? I consider her posts and pictures on Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram little, refreshing pieces of art that make my day prettier, just like the orchid on my desk right now. We also share a cultural experience: Germany. Around the same time our family moved to Mainz, she moved to Berlin, pursuing her life of dance.

MY THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE TORI:

FRIENDLY

With her strawberry curly hair, her blue eyes and porcelain skin, and with her delicate features and grace, no wonder she also models on the side. But her beauty was not the first thing I noticed about her when we first met. It was her smile and friendliness that struck me. Some people just have this aura around them that makes you feel welcome and appreciated before you have even introduced yourself. Tori is one of those people.

LIGHTNESS

I have a fascination for all dancers. I think it is simply wonderful and deeply philosophical how dancers can move their bodies to express so many emotions und such beauty. How wonderful it must be to be able to use your body like a pen writing calligraphy in the air, while the rest of us just scribble todo lists with our movements. Through her videos fragments and photos, I have come to associate Tori with lightness, this effortless airiness in every movement, like a feather floating in the wind. She seems to be able to levitate. Like a fairy. Maybe she is one.

AUTHENTIC

To me, all Tori’s pictures and writings seem so pure and authentic, it is refreshing. It misses the staged fakeness of so many social media pictures. Maybe, it has to do with being a dancer. When your body is so much part of your art, there seems to be little room for lying. The possibility of art probably follows you wherever you go. Or is it the other way around? Does being a professional dancer change the world around you into one big stage, where you are performing non-stop?

Copyright Edu Pineda

MY QUESTIONS TO TORI:

What did you think of the three words I picked for you? Do they correspond with your self-image or not? Which ones would you have picked?

It’s always revealing and sometimes surprising to see how other people perceive oneself. And the timing of your sending the words is so uncanny! I’ve been personally struggling with how I perceive myself and who I want to be, versus how others perceive me and what my actual strengths may be. I think I am still in the midst of absorbing these opposite perspectives and trying not to lose sight of what I hope or aim to be, as a dance artist and as a human.

So first, thank you for your kind words.

Now to get back on track and try to answer your questions.

I resonate strongly with friendly and authentic and I would say they comfortably fit into my self-image. The friendliness comes (I would like to think) from an inborn curiosity about people and the desire to connect. As for authentic, it’s a relief to hear an outside confirmation of how I wish and how I am working to be. Lightness, now that is an interesting one. Both in my dancing and in my personality I think often I present externally as light, even though I don’t always feel that way. I am light of heart. But not all the time and, to go back to authentic, I am working on how to honestly share my dark spots or heaviness without self-indulging or compliment-fishing. Especially since half of my community is spread around the world and social media and email is often the way we stay connected. It’s an ongoing quest to stay authentic through mediums that inherently are not (even typing answers to a great interview like this has got me thinking about how I ‘curate’ my image). And I am definitely not coordinated or graceful most of the time! As my dance friends and colleagues can attest. I almost always have a bruise or scrape where I accidentally knocked a knee or ankle into something.

Picking up on my own descriptions, have you ever lied while dancing? Is it even possible? And is the world your stage or am I taking it too far?

This is a great question. From one perspective all dance is false and on the other side, I think it is also impossible to 100% successfully lie as long as the body is involved. There are a several dance philosophy rabbit-trails we can go down here. Let’s save the details for another time and keep this short and sweet. Let’s set aside the fact that dance can be considered inauthentic because it is contrived (meaning: movements are proscribed, subjective qualifiers like ‘good’ are treated as objective, performances usually happen as result of schedule not spontaneous inspiration). I believe it is possible to lie while dancing, at least to oneself. But there will always be a crack in it; some intuitive sense the viewer will have that something isn’t right with the dance/dancer in front of them. Because we are not just a body in space, but a mind (and soul, I would add) with complex emotions connected to a body which carries all it’s history with it in muscle memory, scars, body posture etc. All these elements are in play when dancing. It’s actually rather difficult to put into words. Perhaps like when someone is lying; there are facial expressions or tone of voice which don’t quite match the words being said. Like a ‘tell’ in poker, I think very few can really control every inch of the body and it’s expressive capacity when it is there is some internal-external inconsistency.

How and when did you get into dance?

My Mom had me try dance at a tender young age of 4 or 5 and I was not interested. Well, I remember being more interested in (and jealous of!) the leotards and fancy skirts that my classmates wore. I also remember being bored and asking the teacher when we were going to do something else. So that was that. I went back to playing dress up and running around outside for a few more years. Apparently I kept dancing around the house however, and at ten years old Mom put me back into a ballet class. This time it stuck. I think the combination of challenge and satisfaction and, as always, the chance to wear wild or beautiful costumes hooked me. I think it was really my imagination combined with my emotions that found their outlet through dance. It was also my imagining that dance could communicate something deeper than tutus and jazz smiles that kept me going and sent me seeking modern and contemporary dance in university.

What is the best thing about being a dancer? And what is most challenging about it?

For me, the root of all this is moving in the space between, or the connection between ideas, images, feelings, people. This is at the core of why I perform, create or choreograph, and teach. The moments I love best are when I feel embodied and centered while also connected: when I am totally in my body and aware of what is happening and yet also outside myself and sensing a bigger picture. Or when I can see someone else positively experience my class or performance in their own bodies and minds.

Ah, if only I was just a dancer. Having these three outlets within dance and other side interests is also probably the most challenging: to know where and how to put my focus between dancing, teaching, creating, or my desire to write or learn better video editing. Besides the energetic challenges, there is the ongoing battle to build and maintain some kind of stability both financially and emotionally.

For dancers and choreographers in general, the physical and psychological working conditions are the biggest challenge. The field is underfunded and therefore underpaid (and if we are talking about the USA then it is basically non-funded and therefore unpaid, unless out-of-pocket by the choreographer). This means there are always more dancers than jobs. The instability of the freelance dance scene and randomness of actually getting selected for jobs are extremely difficult to deal with: there is no guarantee of getting a job, or even an audition, no matter how ‘good’ you are and the jobs you get may be short-term (one week or several months) and  in different cities or countries other than where you technically live.

Have you ever considered giving up a career in dancing? And why? What other careers do you dream about?

I have considered it. But not for too long. The reality is that performing until one is 70+ years old is not generally a viable option. However, I firmly believe that there is always more than one solution to a problem and so between creating or teaching or my other side interests I will always be working in creative or dance-related fields. I do reserve the right to change my mind, haha.

Yes I dream about other careers. I would love to have been an opera singer or a costume designer or perhaps even a farmer. When I see the flexible lifestyle of graphic designers I often get jealous: to be paid while working in coffee shops from any city in the world! When these daydream careers come to mind, inspired from reading The Artist’s Way years ago, I try to enjoy little tastes of them in this current career/life. For example, I just started my first balcony garden here in Berlin and this weekend I will take a workshop on Stage lighting & Movement.

How does your average workday look like?

The workdays vary quite a bit depending on if I am working on my own work, an opera, or a project for another choreographer. Most days, no matter what the work, my morning rituals are important: making the bed, making the coffee and eating breakfast while reading and writing, and some meditating if I manage to organize my time. With freelancing dance life, the days can be unpredictable and these morning moments are grounding. Right now I am developing material and preparing for upcoming teaching & choreographing projects, so the ‘workday’ begins with yoga or dance class to prepare me physically. Then I cycle to the rehearsal space and have a couple hours of class preparation and generating movement material for the project. Afterwards I look at video I took of myself and assess what needs to be done next. Also there is usually some kind of social media/self-promotion post that needs to be prepared or created. Then there are always the admin work: emails to answer, an application for a residency or audition to write, or (my favorite) some new piece of Germany bureaucracy to translate and deal with. Some days are fairly relaxed and straightforward like this and other days are 10+ hours long with rehearsals, babysitting, a casting or other appointments.

You also take beautiful pictures and write poetry. How do they relate to your dancing?

Thank you… More and more I am viewing all my creative attempts as connected. It’s all part of me, an expression of who I am in the world at this moment.  Writing (it is definitely not all poetry! There are stacks of boring, emotional journals by my bed) has been a part of my life from a tender age. I still have the first journal from age 10 where I spelled diary as “Dear Dairy” for the better part of a year. Writing is part of how I process my inner life and therefore also part of my creative process. Photos are a similar expression of capturing a moment or a momentary feeling. I find it fun and satisfying to experiment with connecting writing or poetry with photography. Someday I’d love to combine movement with images and words. I guess I should add ‘installation artist’ to my list of alternate careers.  

What book(s) are you reading right now?

Right now in my morning reads I bounce around between Love Poetry: Five Centuries of Love Poems by Women compiled by Jill Hollis and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. I am also enjoying Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man and I am excited to have recently found a copy of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. Normally I am an avid and quick reader but books in English are not so easy or cheap to find so I am pacing myself.

You have lived in several different countries for a while. Tell us about that! How did it influence your life, or personality to have lived in a lot of different places. When do you consider it home? What makes you homesick?

To live (for short or long term) in other countries has always been something I’ve wanted to do. My mother lived in Spain off and on in her twenties and those stories, histories, and the friendships she made during that time were a big part of the family anthology, at least for my young mind. So traveling or experiencing new places and cultures is near and dear to my heart. Really truly living in another place, not just visiting, takes it to another level and my experience of living in Germany for close to three years has taught me a lot. I’ve learned a lot about being flexible and open to unexpected experiences and still learning the importance of finding ways to be at home with myself. It’s humbling to not be able to express yourself fully in another language. Consequently I’ve become pretty good at reading expressions and body language or making educated guesses. And I am determined to properly learn and speak German. When it comes to navigating public transit in new cities, I am pretty much a pro. I feel a sense of home when I know where everything is in the grocery store (and can read the labels!) or when I can have a chat with the neighbor in German. This is really just the surface of what home feels like but it is a good start.

I should also add that while I’ve spent close to a month each in Spain and Austria off and on, thus far Germany is the first place that I have committed to building a sense of home in besides cities in the United States. And what a journey to understand what ‘home’ feels like. Besides conquering the grocery stores, I realized after about a year and a half in Berlin that I may always have my heart and roots in two places. Generally I am not a person who gets homesick. Home for me, at the core, is in the relationships: the mutual grounding and supporting that I have with particular people. My challenge has been to create a portable stability that travels with me. This deeper sense of home is really about building and maintaining connection with family and friends no matter where the place. So rather than homesickness I would say a certain kind of loneliness (not all loneliness is bad) is what I experience since I’ve lived abroad. This can feel like a solitary path sometimes and I am so grateful for my home people, in Berlin, in California, in Seattle, or wherever they are. They keep me sane.

Check out Tori’s website hereWant to see Tori dance? Click here for a short clip or here for a longer one!

 

 

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