Bradley Shelver has danced professionally with a long list of companies and choreographers, including Elisa Monte Dance, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Ballet Hispanico of New York, Limon Dance Company, William Forsythe, and Lar Lubovitch. He’s currently performing with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet (which opens its season this month). He’s also the Artistic Director of his own company, Bradley Shelver Contemporary Dance Theater (which will be performing in New York this fall), a prolific choreographer, and a much sought-after teacher. In a recent interview, he shared his insights on how to approach training for multiple styles, recovering from injury, what he looks for in a dancer, and more.
What’s your approach to choreography?
Throughout my career, I’ve always thought of myself as being a very versatile dancer and I want my choreographic style to reflect that. I’m building a signature, but my priorities are affected by my mood and how I want to move at that moment. I try not to recreate something. Rather, I like to speak from instinct and emotion.
How would you describe your stylistic signature?
Quirky! I like to engage through humor. I love little gestures, little moments that can be perceived humorously but also in a dramatic way. How the head moves subtly—or the hands, eyes, or tongue—can bring a sort of lightness and surprise.
I’ve always had a sarcastic side. We get so caught up in our heads, concerned with what we look like, and creating perfection that we stop living in the moment. You have to bring life into your dance. When we take it too seriously, we loose what it’s really about, which is bringing what’s on the inside out, as opposed to recreating ideas you’re trying to impose from the outside. That’s too much like just cutting and pasting and doesn’t look or feel like art. When you’re not trying so hard to make something happen and you let it happen, it all becomes lighter. As a teacher, I find humor helps to achieve that by disarming the kind of seriousness that keeps us too much in our heads. It helps people move. As a choreographer, humor it keeps the audience intellectually engaged and helps them to identify with the dancing, because we all can appreciate humor.
What do you look for in your dancers?
Courage! I love technique, but technique is nothing if you don’t have the courage to go beyond it, or the humility to be ugly within it. Technique can sometimes restrain the experience we have of movement. It’s getting over what you think it should look like and going with how it feels that makes it come alive. You have to be free and let go a little bit.
Your performing career has been incredibly diverse. How do you prepare yourself for such a range of dance idioms, and what do you get out of it?
By staying open! When I go to a ballet class, I don’t approach it just as a ballet dancer. I try to come at it as a mover, because you can carry the elements from ballet into other genres. I’ve always been passionate about technique and trained constantly as a ballet dancer. But I also realized that I didn’t want to be only a prince. I wanted to be able to develop my own voice. I love that challenge, so I want to gather as much information about movement as I possibly can. Each experience helps lead to and informs the next if you remain open to new concepts.
What’s it like dancing with an opera company?
It’s great. Rehearsals remind me of being in Europe, where the dance classes will be taking place next to music rehearsals and set design is going on next to that. Being amidst the different media of creation is inspiring and helps to spark new ideas. It also feeds my musicality. I consider myself a very musical dancer and choreographer, and being immersed in music all the time nourishes that. The choreography is really varied, which I love. Often the choreography is a reinterpretation of much older, original choreography for an opera, which is a fascinating way to experience some of dance history. The productions are also very dramatic and very playful.
You’ve undergone some serious knee surgery. What was the recovery process like and how did you cope?
I tore my ACL. It humbled me. Not that I ever took my body for granted—I always took class every day, gave myself a full class before every rehearsal—but there was that one second when I wasn’t completely in my body and it happened. When you’re a dancer, sometimes it’s the only thing you identify with. I was off my legs for 9 months and it forced me to reevaluate what it means to be a dancer and who I am. I was so depressed! I started dancing when I was 4, and since then the longest I’d ever gone without dancing in my life was 3 days before the injury. I didn’t know what I was, how to ground myself every day, or how to express myself every day. It took a lot to trust my body again, and to trust myself. I’d never had to struggle for that before, and I learned a lot. So in some ways it was a good thing.
How did your concept of what it means to be a dancer change with the experience?
I learned that dance is a part of my life; it should not be my life. When I was younger, dance was my whole life and I was completely immersed in that. To some extent you have to be. But as you get older, you realize there are other aspects of life that are also important, and that you need them to feed you and your dancing. With more life experience, your dance becomes more real. It comes from something, as opposed to just portraying something. That’s the main thing I learned. Allowing myself to feel passion in my life outside dance—I could translate that into my dancing, as opposed to trying to create the passion only through my dancing.
What advice would you offer aspiring dancers?
Understand that you have to pay your dues, and to be really hungry, and to strive and aim for goals and be open. Because everything is so instant now—communication and everything in life—it can be easy to expect that same instantaneousness professionally. But there’s a fight that needs to happen with every dancer. A lot of dancers that come into the professional world now were the stars at their schools. They come into the professional world and expect the same recognition right away at auditions. It’s one thing to have confidence, but there’s a level of arrogance that holds dancers back. Some might have a perception of where they should be in their career and what they should get as soon as they start, and it’s not the reality of where a newly-professional dancer probably is. That just gets in the way. When you graduate, or go out into the real world, your training’s just begun. My advice is to stay open, stay humble, and keep fighting.