Checking in with Dinah Gray


What were you doing when we called?
I had just finished teaching a Pilates class. I started practicing Pilates when I had a dance teacher in high school who used it as part of our technique class, so when I moved to Charlottesville I went ahead and got trained to teach it. It’s a little easier to find places to teach Pilates than it is to teach dance.

Dancer and choreographer Dinah Gray is choreographing a story ballet and a modern piece for the Albemarle Ballet Theatre’s Spring Gala on May 21.

What are you working on right now?
I’m choreographing two pieces for the Albemarle Ballet Theatre, which is where I teach. One is called “The Dancing Princesses,” about five girls whose father discovers that they’re wearing holes through all of their shoes, and declares that any man who can solve the mystery of what’s happening to his daughter’s shoes can marry one of them. And of course the daughters don’t want to get married, so they drug whoever comes to solve the mystery with sleeping potion. A lot of the dancing happens in a gypsy camp, and Edwin Roa has choreographed that section because of his background in ballroom and salsa. I’m doing all the more balletic and classical sections of the piece.

What is your earliest artistic memory?
My parents met in community theater, and my earliest memory of any kind of performance was seeing the play Private Lives. My parents weren’t in it, but the theater had borrowed some furniture of ours for props, and I remember noticing that our bed and our phone were on stage. There’s an apocryphal family story—I guess it must be true, I’ve heard it so many times—claiming that when I was 3 or so I was getting frustrated with my mom spending so much time shopping for costumes, and I said, “Mom, when are you going to be done with all this showbiz stuff?”

Tell us about a work of art that you wish were in your private collection.
I write poems, so a lot of the artwork that’s been most important to me has been poetry. There was a time when I knew a lot of poems by heart, and I guess I’d like to go back and relearn a few of those. One was Randall Jarrell’s “Woman,” this really beautiful long poem. Learning poems by heart makes me a better, happier writer because I feel like I always have access to that language.

How do you prepare to work on something?
In the last few years I’ve been trying not to prepare as explicitly before a rehearsal. Maybe I’ll come with a sense of a few motifs that I’m interested in, but I really try to create in the room with the dancers. I think when I was starting out I just felt too insecure to do that. It’s pretty intimidating to be in a room with 12 other dancers waiting for you to tell them what to do. I’d like to think that this wasn’t just a development that came out of being a busy parent.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’ve been a really big fan of Leonard Cohen for 20-some years, a bit before his most recent renaissance, and I would love to meet him. I don’t know if he would necessarily be the best dinner companion, but he’s known to be quite charming.

Of which of your works are you most proud?
I guess maybe this will always be the answer, but my last piece. It was a solo I had choreographed by myself, and I was able to pull some things off that would have been a lot harder if I was setting it for someone else. I’ve always characterized myself as a dancer who choreographs rather than a choreographer who dances.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?
I’m really interested in performing and choreographing to live music, particularly to voice. I was really lucky in my last piece to be able to work with Miles Pearce on guitar. My husband sings, and he doesn’t know how far the plan has come in my mind yet, but I want to work with him on some of the Irish songs that I heard a lot growing up. I’d also love to collaborate with Zap McConnell on either set or costume design. She works really well in a visual sense, and I tend to work a little more rhythmically and kinesthetically, so it would be great to collaborate.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Well I guess my philosophical answer would be that I think that success is a little scarier than failure, but I guess a more pedestrian answer might be playing Maria in West Side Story. I’m not a singer but if I could be somehow granted that ability for six weeks I think that would be really fun.