In This Together: Shane Urton

Shane is a dancer, choreographer, and explorer; a lover of languages, music, and good conversation. We danced together at Joffrey before he left for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. He recently moved again, this time for a position with the Norwegian National Ballet. Shane's relentless curiosity is taking him all over the world. One of the things I miss about him is how intently he listens- to a piece of music, to a friend, to his inner self. Anyway he's crushing it! 

Mahallia: What were your first impressions of Norway?

Shane: At first, I viewed Norwegians as reaction-less and uniform. Innocent yet proud. Very polite and focused on holiday time.

M: Are there aspects of your dancing or your personality that have been able to grow differently in different companies?

S: Yes. And I see the two, my dancing and my personality, as one. They are the same experience/perception, growing and changing equally. For example, when I started working for the Royal New Zealand Ballet I stopped apologizing for who I am. I stopped putting on airs as I often did in Chicago. When I stopped apologizing for my existence, I learned to open my back. My back grow broad and such width permitted my chest to rise, much like the sun in the morning (something I hadn't felt before). Especially in dance, but equally for anyone, posture is something we appreciate even if only subconsciously. We attach confidence to a lifted chest, and a relaxed ribcage only accentuates the posture. As my confidence grew I attracted more attention. The attention brought opportunities to enjoy as well as challenges to tango with. Quickly, so much unraveled in a beautiful way. Bravery in character grew proportionally with stronger technique. I began to practice dance as if I had created it in the first place, re-organizing the principles and aesthetics to fit me instead of struggling with the parameters of some external goal. I trusted myself to provide the body mechanics of dance with purpose, which encouraged greater enthusiasm and stamina. 

My first few weeks in Norway were different. I felt frequent quakes of insecurity. Somehow I was disconnected from all the work I did in N.Z. I let myself get distracted from what I knew to be true. I was dancing to please my new director- hoping to be in a good place to have my contract extended passed December (even though I had JUST arrived). I had to remember to let that go and to return to dancing for myself. So much changed after I made that shift again. I ended up dancing with a beautiful and powerful woman, Camilla Spidsoee, in Jirí Kylián's Petit Mort. Petit Mort is a piece that truly changed my world when I saw it for the first time. We have to impress ourselves, work for ourselves; not others. Working on Petit Mort was a stand out moment that helped me really understand that lesson that we all hear so often. 

I began to practice dance as if I had created it in the first place, re-organizing the principles and aesthetics to fit me instead of struggling with the parameters of some external goal.

M: How about culture? How has adapting to lifestyles in other countries affected you?

S: Adapting to different cultures through traveling and by living abroad has demonstrated to me how alike we all are. There are as many awful people as there are wonderful people everywhere. I try to be as patient as I can, especially if some habits of a particular culture are frustrating to me. Over time, I've seen that most people want the same things and by "grooving" with their customs you can obtain such things. 

The New Zealanders, as well as the Norwegians, understand how to relax more and take time to simply enjoy life. I didn't practice this in the U.S. and I'd often feel anxious if I didn't think I was being productive. I am happy to 'window shop' through various cultures, choosing which traits to adopt and which I am happy to do without. In time I end up building my own culture. 

M: What is the biggest challenge that you've faced in picking up and moving across the world? 

S: Family is important to me. Being separated from their lives can be challenging. Also, dealing with the various systems and bureaucracies of other countries is frustrating at times. It can feel like faceless people (who also view you as a faceless person) are providing many unnecessary obstacles for you to play with. 

M: How do you do that? Pick up and move across the world? What is your process for getting rid of stuff and packing up and saying goodbye?

S: Much like ripping off a band-aid, once done you realize how much of a non-issue it is. Many of us weave a net of difficult excuses around our things but letting go of stuff is actually incredibly simple. Material things like money can be earned back. Time cannot. I hold that statement close to me. 

If you haven't worn something in two years (excluding any formal wear that you like/still fits) it goes. Anything that has a waver of doubt goes. I try to permit room for only the things that are of obvious importance. I take care to not tie sentimental meaning to too many articles because that becomes psychological weight as well as extra weight in my bag that I don't want. No one likes carrying heavy things. 

Material things like money can be earned back. Time cannot.

M: I know you've choreographed quite a bit since you left Joffrey. What part of the choreographic process do you most enjoy? What part do you least enjoy?

S: I love the in-the-moment creating. Before, I didn't trust myself or the dancers so this used to terrify me. Now, simply generating material as it comes seems to be more enjoyable and equally productive. Lar Lubovitch once expressed that you should "just not know". I took that to heart. Rather than fixating on the predesigned choreography, this more gentle approach permits room for all the wonderful surprises that can come out of the work. I've often found my work to pleasantly deviate from what I had originally envisioned, which makes me feel that the work has begun to take on a life of its own.

I dislike having to ask dancers to work in their free time. I suppose I fear the rejection of being left without dancers to help create the work. However, I am deeply touched that many dancers agree anyway, it makes me feel that they believe in the work or process. 

M: What is the most fulfilling role you have danced? 

S: I've had three most fulfilling roles so far. Johan Inger's place in Jirí Kylián's Petit Mort, Oberon in Liam Scarlett's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the protagonist in Larry Keigwin's Mattress Suite. 

M: Do you have a dream role/ballet/choreographer to work with?

S: Romeo from Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet. I would love to work with Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Crystal Pite, and of course Jirí Kylián. I would love to work with these choreographers personally to create new work as well as learn their existing repertoire.  

M: How do you prepare for a performance?

S: Of course, each show demands different preparation. I often rehearse the things that make me anxious- challenging steps, tricky partnering, and any turn (turns make me the most anxious). I review the material based on where I put my focus and where I choose to breathe. It's crucial to maintain focus and breath, even if the rest of the choreography is shaky. 

M: What is your favorite moment in the day?

S: My favorite time of day isn't necessarily the same moment However, if I have time to make a slow start, I enjoy a long breakfast.

M: Do you speak more languages since I last saw you?

S: Currently, I am making rapid improvements on my Norwegian. I expect to be fluent by the end of the year. I am so happy to be in a country whose native language isn't English (although most Norwegians speak perfect English). In New Zealand, I learned some Mandarin from a colleague who kindly entertained my enthusiasm. Norwegian doesn't have the same focus on tones like Mandarin does, but they are both very sing-songy tongues. 

M: What country do you hope to visit next?

S: I want to travel to many places...but from Norway I suppose I would like to see Sweden next. 

M: You seem to have a clear guiding light. How do you know when it's time to make a change? How do you find the courage and conviction to make the change a reality?

S: I don't know how much of a "clear guiding light" I recognize. I feel as though I've seldom understood or listened to my intuition as it were. I've sort of felt severed from my earlier self, my childish enthusiasm. Only now that I am valuing myself again (as one often does innately as a child) do I hear my intuition more. Most of the time, I feel that the course of my life is like a current that I haven't tried resisting. 

I can't seem to clearly differentiate between what is a result of my ambitious effort and what has simply come to be because I didn't resist the current. It reminds me of that scene from Finding Nemo in the ocean current that the sea turtles ride. Only it's more like a tunnel of air, wind rushing. At some point a window opens up and I'm sucked out to another path. 

I try to remember that I am the protagonist in the story, it can't exist without me. It takes courage and conviction to ask myself, "What is it that I want?" Truly want. I take the time to identify those things and prioritize what I think will help me achieve those desires. After this work, I don't necessarily consider courage or conviction. I simply take the next step. 

Photos 1 and 4: Royal New Zealand Ballet, Photo 2: Paul Matthews, Photos 3 and 5: Shane Urton.