A conversation between Jermaine Spivey x GroovyDancy

Andrea from the online platform and instagram account GroovyDancy interviewed Jermaine Spivey in honor of the online registration of Illuminate by NDT 2, which included Jermaine’s newest piece Codes of Conduct . Their conversation tackles questions about Jermaine’s career as a dancer, what drives his choreographic vision, how he finds motivation, and what he advises other dancers and choreographers who are starting out.

You have worked with such different choreographers throughout your career. What do you still carry with you from all those different experiences?

I love dance so much and am happy to know that people take something inspirational with them from experiencing my work. I think I have to start from my education to properly answer your question. Baltimore School For The Arts laid a solid foundation of technique meets passion meets artistry, respect, diligence, work ethic, etiquette and importantly, the idea that you won’t get anywhere if you don’t put in the work. My teacher and mentor Stephanie Powell told me straight up to my face prior to my audition for The Juilliard School that I was talented but that my talent would not be enough to go further. She said something like, “There are other talented people out there, more talented than you. And you will see them at the audition. What are you gonna do about it?” Of course that shocked me, but it’s exactly what I needed to hear and I will never forget her words or that moment. Essentially, no one owes you anything and if you think your talent entitles you to access, think again. I took that lesson with me to Juilliard and my teachers and mentors there all pushed me and helped me continue to build on that foundation of groundedness, accountability, persistent and intentional training fed by my passion. With every choreographer I have worked with, even the ones I didn’t necessarily like, I have tried to be a vessel for their vision. And in doing so, I developed a sense of individuality by showing up to the job of what being a dancer is, which most of the time is about being of service. I tried my best to adapt my skills to fit the needs of the choreographer. And they often rewarded my approach with trust, which then encouraged me to bring more of myself to their work. IT. AIN’T. IN. NO. WAY. SHAPE. OR. FORM. EASY. But because of my foundation, I understood that all the essential stuff is on the other side of these moments of discomfort.

You are an absolutely stunning choreographer, with a specific vision. How did you develop your artistry as a dancer first and then as a choreographer?

As a dancer I have been practicing and learning the value of accumulating tools, building a frame, taking that frame apart, and putting it back together. I have done this to varying degrees my whole performative career, and so now my choreographic work is a continuation of that process. To me, this is what human being is, and I feel compelled to make work that demonstrates the varying dynamic nature of being.

Jermaine in the Studio at NDT - Photographer| Sacha Grootjans

You created a new piece for NDT's 'Codes of Conduct' as part of the evening 'Illuminate'. How did you feel working in NDT? Could you tell me a little bit about the piece and the creation process?

Codes Of Conduct is a new and expanded version of the original work I created, Code Of Conduct, for NDT 2’s Up And Coming Choreographers 2022 program. I took some improvisational task work, conceptual themes and choreographic material from the original work for 5 dancers and expanded and adapted them to fit this cast of 10 dancers that I thoroughly enjoyed working with. But honestly, Codes Of Conduct is a completely new work that doesn’t resemble the original piece very much at all. I also have been composing music for some of my choreographic works, the original Code Of Conduct being one of them. And for Codes Of Conduct, I also made all new music as the task was to make the piece longer, with more people, for a bigger stage production. I prepared some very rough music/sound ideas prior to starting this creation but truly created the music and the choreographic structure of this work at the same time. Our studio rehearsal/creation time was quick, about 2 1/2 weeks, and then another week of tech time. We were all in the zone. The dancers, my incredible assistant Ander Zabala, my lighting designer Yuka Hisamatsu, my costume designer Yolanda Klompstra and everyone in the costume atelier and the technical crew, really dove into the process with me and I appreciate their efforts and their trust so much. We really had an exchange and I think you can see that in the result of the work.

Jermaine in the Studio at NDT - Photographer| Sacha Grootjans

As a choreographer, what interests you? And what fascinates you in creating?

I’m interested in risk. And my fav definition of risk I’ve found is: the intentional interaction with the unknown. I’m intrigued by what shows up when you place yourself in a context that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Or as one of our codes of conduct reads, Formal and Shifting. I’m interested in perception and how perception feeds the body and how the body shapes perception.

What do you hope audiences take away from your performances and choreography?

Codes of Conduct | Rahi Rezvani

I hope I can help people get a little more comfortable with not relying on understanding as the only way to feel enjoyment or connection. This work is about an experience. Your experience. Much like a lot of artwork that makes its way to museums and galleries, it’s intentionally suggestive and its worth is not defined by your ability to ‘understand’ everything I was thinking when making it. Of course I’m happy if you like the work, but it’s also not conditional on you ‘liking’ it. Your experience of the work is also where the art lies.


What qualities do you look for in dancers you work with?

I love working with dancers who don’t require me to motivate them or remind them of their passion in order to show up for themselves and the job they’ve chosen. Someone who is connected and actively demonstrating the ‘why’ they do what they do. I look for confidence and humility. I look for playfulness and or a willingness to improvise. Particular to typical rep company creation timelines, I expect that you can reproduce the choreography quickly and accurately.

How do you cope with uninspiring days in the studio? How do you motivate yourself?

Sometimes I stop and end the rehearsal early instead of fighting myself. Sometimes I press through the drought by plowing forward with my plan or by staying there but doing something else all together. Sometimes I let the dancers drive the rehearsal by paying closer attention to where they are and what they want to be doing, that way, I can keep my own inner struggle to myself without passing that energy on to them. Sometimes even though I know I need to make 10 more minutes of choreography, we speak instead. Sometimes I get really into the body and make some phrases that have no specific purpose or that I know I will not use. I rely on my training and tools I’ve picked up along the way. Generally speaking, I’m learning not to rely on inspiration as my only motivation.
A barber in Antwerp recently said this to me in conversation about his work and how he stays motivated:
“Motivation is great when you have it, but that’s why you need discipline. Because when the motivation is not there AND you don’t have discipline, what do you have? You can’t really do anything without discipline.”

What role do you believe dance plays in society, and why do you think it is important to continue promoting and supporting the arts?

If we want to figure anything out in this world about interpersonal connections and relationships then we need to keep funding and supporting the arts and artists. An artist’s existence is a masterclass in questioning perspective and coming up with strategies for being. It’s a life long research devoted to the diversity of the human experience. We are often willing to sacrifice our own comfort for the pursuit of an experience that could never be understood exactly the same way by any two people. Artists accept misunderstanding as a way of life. Society needs to be reminded of dreaming, imagination, and compromise. Dance in particular is important because it taps into primal knowledge. Before we learn to speak, we are in our bodies, and from moment one, we are responding to our inner and outer surroundings through that body. Our bodies hold us accountable. It will give you what you give it.

What advice would you give to young dancers or aspiring choreographers who are just starting out?

Be curious. Be observant. Train. Train some more. Consume art. Talk to people who don’t think like you. Learn how to fail. Develop your instincts and then trust them. Be adaptable. Don’t become a professional dancer or a choreographer to validate your self worth. Do it because you must, and because that compulsion is beyond explanation. Do it because even though it wears you out and sometimes brings you to a place of feeling like you have nothing left to give, you do keep giving…because your passion says so, and because that passion brings you a sense of completion.

Codes of Conduct | Rahi Rezvani