September Interview: Elisa Monte

Elisa Monte Dance kicks off the 2014-2015 year with a monthly in-depth look at the artists involved in this world-renowned company. September starts with none other than the Founder and Artistic Director herself, Elisa Monte.

The interview was conducted between Elisa Monte and the company's Creative & Communications Associate, Jordan Gehley, at the beautiful home and studio of Elisa Monte Dance.

JG: What do you look for in the dancers that you hire for the company and has this changed or evolved in the past 34 years?

EM: I look for, obviously, a certain level of technique because the work is difficult and you just need to be able to come up with what I am asking in terms of the steps.  If you have 100 in an audition you’ll come down to 20 that are really strong technicians and can do everything you are asking them to do and do it very proficiently. Then it really comes down to who that person is.  I really look for a person that is curious, ambitious, wants to learn, is not afraid to take chances, and not afraid to explore.  At one point I thought, maybe I should put together a questionnaire. Like “what book are you reading now?” and “what’s your favorite movie?” and “where have you traveled?” You know, things that you can see someone’s life and how daring it is or how exploratory they are.  What their interests are.  So, that’s what I look for.  I look for an individual that really wants to take control of their life and direct it in a way that is unique.  It is hard to see in an audition all at once, but I am getting better at identifying it.  At first, 34 years ago, I would be impressed with someone that would, on a superficial level, seem unique, but I think I am getting a little bit better at the more subtle prospects of that.  


JG: Were you ever drawn to any other career paths, especially growing up in the city with so many diverse opportunities and choices? 

EM: I was really lucky to be in the city and also to be interested in art because the information here is so expert and informed.  You will find the best training ever here. I got obsessed with dance almost immediately.  From the first class I took I knew “this is it.”  I needed to conquer this demon. So, I was hooked immediately. I started when I was 10 years old and I had great, great teachers.  My first class was a ballet class with a Russian from Ballet Russes, Vladimir Dokoudovsky, an incredible dancer. I remember in those days I used to watch the advanced class that he taught and they were beautiful dancers, I mean Leslie Caron used to take class; these incredible dancers were there.  He would demonstrate and get applause at the end of his demonstrations; he was such a beautiful dancer.  I really give him the credit of being the dancer that I am in that it was Ballet, but it was old-fashioned ballet. It was when ballet dancers were grounded and really danced and he passed on all of that to me.  We had Russian Folk Dancing and Adagio work immediately, when I was a little kid! So it was great training and it really opened me up to contemporary dance because of its grounded ness, because of the information, and the broadness of ballet being influenced by Russian Folk Dance.  So it just broadened my whole aspect of it.  I was never attracted to another profession.  I tried! When I graduated High School I had been dancing since I was 10 yrs old and I thought: “is this just a habit or do you really want to do this?” I realized how difficult it would be, a career as a dancer.  I thought, wow you really have to be sure because you can’t doubt yourself, you know, you have to just go full throttle ahead if this is going to work because it’s so hard.  So, I stopped dancing for two years and went to college for two years.  I gave myself a limit I said, “I am going to take off for two years and try other things, explore other things, and see what happens”.  The two years was up and I went right back to dancing.  I did not like the real world; it’s not for me!


JG: I know that you were interested in psychology. Is that what you studied?

EM: I did, I studied Psychology in school.  I always loved Psychology, I still read it and did read it then. But as a real science I didn’t gain much respect for it.  I realized it was a lot of opinions and theories that were very young and still being formed.  I came out not trusting the scientific world in terms of their method.  I remember, and I’ll just digress a little bit, a term paper in college in a Psychology class.  The paper I did was to develop two tests and I predicted the outcome of both tests. I predicted for Test A the majority would prefer red and Test B the majority would prefer blue.  The way I ordered the questions and the way I phrased the questions I was trying to influence the outcome.  I wanted the outcome as I predicted.  And in fact, the tests came out as I predicted. I was able to steer people to the direction I wanted.  I feel that happens a lot in the scientific approaches.  It’s human nature, you have something you want to prove and you’re really excited.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but it happens.

Anyway so, no nothing ever appealed to me.  Getting back to whether it was difficult transferring into the professional world, I was really, really lucky.  I was in a children’s class studying with Dokoudovsky, and Agnes De Mille came to watch a class because she needed a little girl for a television show.  It was called “Omnibus” it was really an amazing show.  I should try and look it up and see it if it’s archived somewhere.  It was a story of dance and I was supposed to be Diana Adams as a little girl. Diana Adams at the time was a principle with Balanchine.  So it was really lucky. She hired me and used me for several of her projects when I was 11 yrs old.  That was really lucky, that was my first break.  It was amazing.  I did a revival of Carousel that she was choreographing.  So my first performance on stage was at City Center. 


 JG: That’s amazing.  You’re on the Broadway Database with the Carousel credit. “Girl with Teddy Bear.” 

EM: Yes, exactly! I was little.  It’s really a funny story, a very cute story.  She [Agnes De Mille] didn’t want me to be in the Chorus room with the girls because she was afraid of their talk and that it would get risqué.  So she signed me as a soloist so I would have my own semi-private dressing room with a girl that she chose that she thought was really nice and would take care of me.  She was really amazing.  I remember she introduced me to her son; she had a son that was a little bit older than I was.  I think she was trying to set us up!


JG: Would you say she was a mentor for you?

EM: Oh at that moment, yes absolutely! I was really lucky.


JG: Dancers hear this question a lot.  What’s a dancer’s diet like? While you were dancing was there a specific regiment you stuck to?  With such long rehearsal days and show nights, what’s the best way to keep your energy up?

EM: I think the best way to keep your energy up is staying interested in what you’re doing, it’s almost a mental point of view or awareness about things.  Unless you’re starving to death I think if you’re young your energy level will maintain itself.  I think it’s more of a mind focus thing that controls your energy.  Assuming, you’re eating healthily and you’re not starving yourself.  I never was big on being really strict on diets.  My mantra, everything in moderation, is what I’ve always done.  So, if I felt like I was beginning to gain weight or feeling heavy or sluggish, and usually I feel sluggish and my energy is worse when my diet is not balanced or good.  I would just cut back.  I would eat the same thing, I’d have a nice meal, but I would just eat a little bit less.  I have this training that I do where I always leave a little on the plate.  I don’t finish it.  There’s just a little self-restraint, so it’s a choice.  I always made the choice of not eating the last bite.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it worked for me in terms of discipline.  Controlling my hunger and my diet and not shoveling food in my mouth.  Eating slowly was really important.  Really savoring a meal, sitting down and having a good meal.  Not snacking.  You sit down and have a good meal.  You don’t just walk and graze and put stuff in your mouth because then it’s hard to monitor.  If you sit down and have a nice meal then you’re much more aware of what you’re doing and it’s more satisfying like that. 


JG: Are you more of a 3 meals a day kind of person? Or 6 small meals?

 EM: No, usually 2.  I am not usually hungry when I first wake up. Although, this Summer I have been doing a goat yogurt with fruit, granola, and honey.  That seems to really last me.  The honey gives me good energy. 


JG: Goat yogurt?

 EM: Well, I got obsessed with goat yogurt when I went to Crete.  Everything is goat there.  They don’t have cows.  It’s mainly all goat products, cheese, and yogurts.

In the Winter I will have oatmeal with fruit and nuts and dried berries.  Sometimes I will have a tea in the morning, go to yoga or class, then come back and have whatever I am having.  I never could really exercise on a full stomach.  When I was really working I didn’t eat a lot during the day.  I would eat something, but it would always be a light something like a yogurt or something easily digestible.  Then I would have a huge meal at night.  Which is probably not the best way to do it, but that’s what I did.    


JG: My fiancé has that mindset.  He doesn’t really eat much during the day; he has an espresso in the morning and not much more during the day, but has a huge meal at night.  There’s this whole study that he follows that’s like a 16 and 8, where you kind of break up the cycle of eating or digesting by not eating for about 16 hours.  That’s what he does. 

EM: Oh, so I was sort of doing the right thing! I mean it worked for me my weight was always fine, I never had to struggle with it.  Then I could really enjoy it because at night I wouldn’t skimp.  I would have a nice satisfying meal.  I really never have a lot of desserts.  Stay back on the desserts. 


JG: That was going to be my next question.  Just don’t have a sweet tooth?

EM: I do! I am not a great chocolate person; I am more into ice cream or fruit tarts or custardy things.  I am not a big chocolate person.  I don’t have dessert every night; I just don’t bring it in the house to give myself temptation.  I don’t deny myself if there is dessert, but I’ll just have a bite rather than a whole portion. 


JG: Are there any foods that you don’t particularly like at all?

EM: Liver.  I don’t like organs.


JG: I don’t blame you. I don’t either. 

EM: Never did.


JG: Do you have a favorite food?

EM: I love everything.


JG: Are you more partial to any Italian foods [given your Italian background]?

EM: I was always a big carbohydrates person.  I am trying to cut back because of all this anti-inflammatory stuff, I’m not sure how accurate it is, but I’m trying it out.  Most of my life as a young dancer, I loved carbohydrates.  They’re easily digestible, didn’t upset my stomach, and loved the taste of it.  I don’t know if it was the best thing in terms of health, but it worked in terms of my energy and satisfied my tummy. 

JG: You found what works for you.


JG: We’ve heard from your dancers like you like to read and you’ve recently been into Tolstoy and other historical novels. What types of books do you enjoy?

EM: I like fiction. Short stories, novels, and historical novels.  I don’t have much tolerance or patience for a strict historical book.  I need to put it in context of how they actually lived at the time.  Like Michener was wonderful at that, putting together historical novels where you really get a sense of a time or a line of information and he’d do it through the people and so forth. I like that.  I have to swallow it that way, not just sheer facts.  I love all of the South American writers. Allende and Marquez.


JG: Oh right Magical Realism. 

EM: Yes, Magical Realism.  But then I’ll read Singer.  It’s just good.  If it’s a good writer, I’ll read it.  Doris Lessing. I just want to find good authors and read their words. 


JG: Are you more into Tolstoy right now would you say?

EM: Well, I am still in the Russian phase.  I am reading Dostoevsky at the moment, I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, and so I’ve moved to the next generation.


JG: Do you like it? 

EM: Yes.  I do.  I want to read another translation.  I am reading the Garnett translation and my daughter is reading another translation.  I want to compare.  I am just curious to know the difference with the translator.  Yes I am still on that kick.  It’s just been really fun.  Reading War and Peace and then reading their references.  Like in the salons he would talk about what they were reading at the time and the music they were listening to.  So at one point I was stepping back and taking a break from War and Peace to read the novel that they were reading.  So it was really fun to understand their point of view.  You just understand the words better when you understand the emotional life they were living.  They were very French Romantic novels; they were really fun. 


JG: That sounds fascinating.

EM: Well, see you can do this sort of thing when you’re older because you have more time.  I’m trying to take more time for that.  As you get older you don’t have the energy you had when you were 20, so you have to monitor things.  I can’t do a 12 hour day and still be sane and think clearly!


JG: Speaking of historical figures, if you could attend or host a dinner party and invite 2 people back from the past to join you, whom would you choose?

EM: I would choose Cleopatra, the last Cleopatra. And Catherine the Great.


JG: Can you expand upon that?

EM: I just really admire them.  They’re incredible women.  They’ve led nations.  They expanded their countries in every aspect.  Not only in territory, but also economically and politically.  They were both very vibrant women with very vibrant personal lives as well.  I just think it would be really fun to have dinner with both of them together.  And I think they would enjoy meeting each other! So, I’d sort of sit back and let them talk.  I think they were a lot smarter than I am.  I’d just observe and listen. 


JG: Do you identify with either of them? Or which historical figure do you identify with the most?

EM:  I don’t know. I love the exoticism of Cleopatra, the whole Egyptian fantasy, the religion and the pyramids.  I remember one of the most impressive moments I’ve had is seeing the Sphinx in Egypt. 


JG: When did you go there? 

EM: ’84, something like that. Things were calmer then.  It was a state department tour and we were supposedly doing the first flight between Jordan and Israel.  That was pretty scary.  They cancelled the flight, it didn’t happen.  Things were pretty hairy at the moment.  At that time, things were not good between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

We hope you've enjoyed this bit on insight into the mind and legacy of Elisa Monte. Stay tuned for more exciting pieces on Elisa this month, and be sure to check out the blog the first Friday of every month for a new interview with the person of the month!