By Erin McKay
The company is joined by New York City Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia for five shows this week at The Music Center in Los Angeles. To celebrate our return to live performance, I sat down to talk with Roman about working with Alonzo King, Tiler, and jazz pianist Jason Moran to create Swift Arrow: an original pas de deux that premiered in June 2021 during An Evening of Jazz and Dance at The Kennedy Center. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
When did you first meet Alonzo?
Two years ago, we were making his ballet The Personal Element for the Vail Dance Festival. There were four dancers from LINES Ballet and four from New York City Ballet. We had two weeks to work together. They were long rehearsal days. I remember seeing LINES perform at Vail the year before so I was super excited to work with them and to expand my repertoire.
How did your partnership with Tiler Peck start?
I first partnered with Tiler in Vail in 2018. I got to do the Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux with her. We just went for it. Ever since then I’ve been partnering with her. That first pas went all right. The partnering was fine, everything else I could have worked on a bit. But I was happy that my partnering went well.
What did Tiler and you do with Alonzo on the first day of rehearsal for Swift Arrow?
Day one, Alonzo had a lot of ideas. Tiler and I didn’t really partner that first day though; we learned a phrase. One of his dancers, Maddie DeVries, was there to help us. After that, Alonzo made the phrase individual for Tiler and myself; we each had our own version.
I remember it being really hard for me that first day because I hadn’t picked up choreography with someone in the front of the room in such a long time. I wasn’t stressed, but I felt like I needed to show that I was learning everything super fast. My brain ended up feeling kind of like this (Roman said, as he waved his hand in circles around his head). We just started with an idea and expanded from there.
Did being in the San Francisco studio at 7th and Market St. affect the way that you danced?
Maybe it did. It must have a little bit. I was in a basement for a year. So it did affect the way I moved because all of the sudden I had so much space. It was one of the bigger spaces I’ve been in for a while. And to not be by myself, that made a difference.
Did you add any movement to your solo or the pas de deux?
There were a couple of times when I did a pirouette and Alonzo asked me if I could add an extra turn to it and brush my leg front and back. Certain little runs and timing things too. The pas de deux mostly stayed the same in terms of material. Whenever we did it though, it was never the same in style or approach. Like the show at The Kennedy Center, the music was slightly fast then. So it was almost as if Tiler and I were trying to catch up to it the whole time. But it ended up working out.
Were you able to stay present in the moment during the show when the music sped up, or was all of your attention on the music?
My first thought was ok, we are at least an 8 count behind. But Tiler is so musical. And we were really in sync somehow. I knew we were behind and usually I would have been a little anxious about that, but it ended up working out.
How did The Kennedy Center performance, with a small live audience, compare to shows prior to the pandemic?
It felt like I was finally coming back from an injury. I was a little nervous because I knew that people were right there instead of watching through a camera or a lens but it was super exciting… super exciting.
Did Alonzo ask any questions throughout the project that stuck with you?
There were definitely moments where my mind was blown (said Roman, exploding his fingers next to his face with the sound of a shooting cannon).
Any funny or awkward moments in rehearsal?
Oh yeah, there is this moment in the pas de deux where Alonzo asked me to roll over Tiler. She takes me down to the floor, I go on my back, and she rolls over me. Then I’m supposed to roll over her. Well, I didn’t want to put all my weight on her. I didn’t want to hurt her; I was heavy (laughs). So I was always trying to find a way to get over her without crushing her. But eventually, this one day, I rolled wrong on accident and I heard her go “Ouuff!” I felt bad. Now I’ve got it down, but I was definitely a little nervous for that part at first.
Did Alonzo share a theme for the piece with Tiler and you or did he leave it open-ended?
Up until the very end it was left open. I think Tiler and I had our own ideas about what this pas was. But in the end, Alonzo discussed the title with us, which is Swift Arrow, and he described the piece as a bow and arrow. And there are definitely several moments in the pas de deux where I realized, “Oh yes! This is just like a bow and arrow,” when Tiler pulls back from me and we are counterbalanced.
You said that you had a motivation for the piece in mind before Alonzo shared his thoughts. What was that motivation?
I knew I was there to support Tiler, and at times Tiler was there to support me. I had a couple of ideas, one being that neither of us could do anything without each other.
That is beautiful. Especially because we all had to do things without one another for so long.
Yes, it was.
What about technical corrections? Did Alonzo offer you advice that was helpful, maybe something that applies to dance beyond this piece?
He did say something to me that stood out. He told me that I don’t have to look at Tiler constantly. I don’t always have to have my eyes on her. Usually I do look at my partner in classical ballet. But in this case, I didn’t have to all the time. That changed the way I felt.
I noticed in the beginning of the pas that you each have solo work. While one of you dances, the other stands and watches. Alonzo does this often. How was it to be on stage watching Tiler vs being in the wings?
I would rather be on stage watching. Tiler starts off the piece, so she sets the mood. And the whole time I’m watching, I’m not thinking much about what I’m about to do. I mean maybe right before I start dancing I think, “ok here we go”. But at that moment, I’m soaking it all in. I’m feeding off her energy. It’s great! It pumps me up.
You were reunited with Jason Moran in D.C. for the first time since the Vail Dance Festival a few years ago. How was it to dance to live music again?
AMAZING. It is so different to dance to live music instead of a recording. You never know what’s going to happen, and it’s more exciting that way. With a recording, it always sounds the same. But with a musician, they are feeling something different in the moment each time just like you are.
I think each choreographer’s leadership style affects how you take in information and how you dance. Were there certain approaches in Alonzo’s process that you would like to incorporate into future rehearsals?
Hmm… Alonzo teaches super fast. He shows his steps maybe once or twice, and you don’t always get it right. Sometimes I didn’t know the steps, but I would go for it anyway and just show him. And very often Alonzo would say, “ok I’ll take it.” His process taught me not to be afraid. To be bold enough to just try.
It’s like a trust in your body that something will come out?
Yes, that’s the word I was looking for, trust in myself.
You have performances all week at The Music Center in LA. What are you looking forward to the most?
I’m excited to grow and expand this pas de deux. I feel a little more in shape than I did the last time, so I’m excited to go forward with it. I know it is really hard to make the performance exactly the same as it was in D.C. But honestly, I do hope it is different in a way. I’m just excited to do it again!
Did this process highlight anything about yourself that you weren’t aware of before?
I guess it would be to just trust myself more. I grew up mainly doing classical ballet. I didn’t have any experience with contemporary ballet until I got into New York City Ballet and I started to work with all these choreographers. I realized then that I had to start learning how to move differently. Alonzo though, he really taught me to trust myself.
And when you say trust yourself, what does that mean practically as you go back to the studio to rehearse for your regular season?
I’m definitely going to feel the difference inside. I’m not going to be so stuck in my head constantly thinking about how I look. I am going to trust myself that I can move a certain way instead of approaching some things in a timid fashion.
Whether you know what you’re doing or not. Just going for it?
Roman Mejia, Tiler Peck, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet perform at The Music Center in LA, July 16-18. Tickets to see them live are still available.
Prefer to watch the show at home? Sunday’s performance at The Music Center will be livestreamed for free.
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The Kennedy Center’s An Evening of Jazz and Dance with Alonzo King, Roman Mejia, Jason Moran, Tiler Peck, and Gregory Porter is also available to livestream through August 1st.