Kristi Tornga is a friend and colleague of mine from CalArts. She is an exceptionally talented artist, and it has been incredible to watch her professional progression. She left LA for the Big Apple in 2010, and realized her dreams by dancing with the Paul Taylor Dance Company this season, including performances at the infamous Lincoln Center. Kristi shares her experience as a modern dancer in NYC with NoHoArtsDistrict.com, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the contemporary dance side of the coin and what’s helped her along the way.
Kristi Tornga grew up in the woods of Northern Michigan. She received her early training at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan before earning her BFA in dance and choreography at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Since moving to New York in 2010, she has performed for Jessica Gaynor Dance, Mazzini Dance Collective, TAKE Dance Company and the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Jessica Gaynor Dance at Triskelion Arts
Are you staying within contemporary and modern dance companies for work, or branching into other styles of dance? How necessary is it to also be able to act and sing?
I have made the decision to stay within contemporary and modern dance companies for work. I think that ultimately this is a very personal decision that only you can make for yourself. I don’t think it’s wrong to branch into other styles of dance, but it’s all about what makes you happy. I would not be happy working on a cruise ship or dancing and singing on Broadway… these are wonderful, admirable careers, but it’s just not what I want. I do not need to be able to sing in order to dance with the companies that I find thrilling in the concert modern dance world. This is a relief because I’m a horrible singer! I am finding however that acting can be very important. The subtleties of developing a character through movement or finding just the right comedic timing for a gesture are aspects of acting that I am working on at the moment. It’s necessary to know what type of career that you want within the vast world of dance; there are so many facets and different ways to exist as a dancer that ultimately you need to define what your experience will be. I have had to learn to say no to certain opportunities while still being open and receptive to whatever may come next for me.
Jessica Gaynor Dance at Jacob’s Pillow
Are you seeking representation to assist you with finding auditions? What agency/agencies would be best for your style of dance?
I am not currently working with any agents to help me find dance auditions or land a gig. I have had a very interesting professional experience so far in that I have never been hired from an audition. I’ve received all of my dance jobs through workshops, classes, word of mouth recommendations, and lots of hard work and luck. I don’t know that any of my peers and colleagues in the concert modern dance world are using, or have used, agents to obtain work. I’ve learned that being plucked from amidst hundreds of dancers at a cattle call audition is a bit of a fantasy. It seems that most often, a company or choreographer will hire someone who they have experience with. If you want to dance for a certain choreographer then take their classes, find out if they’re are offering a workshop, offer to help out during their performances, and let them know how much your love their work. You can often be the best representation for yourself by proving that your work ethic, personality, and dancing are worth investing in.
Jessica Gaynor Dance
Where are you continuing your training? Are you only dancing or are you cross-training? Why is that important?
The most important part of being a dancer is taking dance class! I make sure to take class at least 4 or 5 times per week. For me this can be a ballet, modern, or a contemporary class. I mostly train at the Taylor School, but Gibney Dance and Steps on Broadway both have a great line-up of ballet classes and contemporary artists. I often look for workshops or master classes that are being taught by choreographers whose work I admire. I love trying out different styles and ways of moving. I like to keep it fresh, and the same goes for my cross-training schedule. Since dance classes and rehearsals tend to be anaerobic activities I make sure to do cardiovascular workouts to maintain my stamina for performances. I love going for a run, or taking a spin class at SoulCycle or Flywheel. I used to hate this type of endurance workout, but I’ve grown to cherish the “runner’s high” and rush of endorphins that accompany the challenge. I also take Pilates in a semi-private group setting; this time to focus on core strength and muscular imbalances has become a very beneficial form of injury prevention for me. Basically, when it comes to working out I will try anything at least once! Yoga, barre classes, Pilates, running, spinning, cross-fit… I listen to what my body needs and I almost always enlist a friend to work out with me… sweating alone is no fun!
Jessica Gaynor Dance at Jacob’s Pillow
Describe a little bit about your recent role with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. What was your daily life while under contract?
Recently I had the opportunity to dance with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I initially fell in love with the Taylor style when I was a young high school student at Interlochen Arts Academy. The legendary Taylor Dancer, Ruth Andrien, came and taught as a guest artist for 6 weeks during my sophomore year and I knew almost immediately that I wanted to dance for this company. So when I was asked this past autumn to fill in for a 6-month period while a dancer was out with an injury, it was literally a dream come true.
My life as a company member began with daily technique class at the Paul Taylor dance studios every morning. After a quick lunch break I would dive into rehearsals for the rest of the afternoon. If I wasn’t in the main studio running one of the many dances, then I was in the second studio looking at performance footage on DVD players; watching certain sections in slow motion to study the intricate footwork, or comparing different uses of musicality throughout the many generations of Taylor dancers. I rehearsed not only the roles I was cast in, but also the many understudy roles that I was responsible for.
Paul Taylor Dance Company rehearsal. Kristi is in the blue dress
What did you learn?
The greatest thing I learned while dancing with the PTDC was confidence. The dancers in the company are such fabulous artists that it was initially hard not to be intimidated by their skill and experience. They really took me under their wing and showed me by example how important it is to take risks in rehearsal and on stage. I learned to dance bigger than myself and to allow myself to become the movement without being shy or embarrassed about how it might look. In order for me to grow as a dancer, I had to transform the nervous and scared energy into excitement and certainty.
What had you expected about the experience and what was a real surprise? Could you have prepared for that, or wished you had known anything before?
Most everything about dancing for the Paul Taylor Dance Company was what I dreamt it would be like. I loved dancing in the studios all day long, and obviously touring and performing in different cities was so much fun. The biggest surprise to me was how quickly everyone works. I was shocked at how much detail the dancers could pick up by simply watching a video of the movement. The very first rehearsal of a piece would look like everyone had done a performance because of how much “homework” had been done beforehand.
I don’t think that I could have prepared any differently to dance with the company. In a way, my greatest preparation was the three years prior that I had spent as a student of the Taylor School. By attending the daily professional level class I was learning not only the steps and exercises, but the style was becoming ingrained in my body in a way that allowed me to quickly absorb the movement and learn the dances. Without having studied at the Taylor School, I would not have been able to successfully dance with the company.
Paul Taylor Dance Company at Lincoln Center. Kristi is second from the right
What was it like for you to perform at Lincoln Center?
Performing at Lincoln Center was unreal! The very first day that we got into the theater I walked onto the stage and felt every nerve in my body come to life. After seeing so many wonderful performances as an audience member of the Koch Theater it was great to be on the other side of the curtain. I loved every minute of the three week New York Season; the rehearsals, the performances, the Gala, the parties…it was truly a fairytale.
What are your goals? Are you going to stay in NYC for a while or are you taking auditions nationally?
I plan on staying in NYC for quite some time. It is my hope that I will get the opportunity to dance with the Paul Taylor Dance Company again someday, but in the meantime I am dancing for other wonderful choreographers who reside in NYC. It seems that most people who live in New York City, myself included, have a love/hate relationship with their surroundings. Some days I just wish I could take up more space or drive to the grocery store in a car, but then I realize that I really don’t want to live anywhere else. The choreographers and dancers who compel me to become a better dance artist are all around me, so I’m staying.
Jessica Gaynor Dance
What advice do you have for concert dancers wanting to go to NYC? (or even just considering leaving LA?)
If you want to move to NYC, or anywhere, my advice is to take the leap of faith and do it. We can plan, and save money, and still nothing will prepare us for the wild pursuit of chasing a dream. I spent four years in the Los Angeles area while I was earning my BFA in dance at CalArts, but I never really entertained the idea of staying on the west coast. My friends who remain in LA have found wonderful ways to combine a concert and commercial career to create a lifestyle for themselves. I knew that the company I want to dance for is based out of New York, so I bought a one-way plane ticket and figured the rest out along the way. Follow the direction of the work that you want to be doing. No decision is irreversible, if you move somewhere and you don’t like it, you can always move back.
Thank you Kristi!