Awakening: Lindsay Nelko's First Full-Length Work

Choreographer Lindsay Nelko is an artist you want to follow. The young Canadian’s work has been featured on So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor. Awarded “Choreographer’s Pick” by The PULSE four times, Nelko is also the 2nd runner up of the 2013 Capezio A.C.E. Awards presented by Break the Floor Productions which provided funds to produce her latest piece Awakening, that will premiere August 6 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in NYC. It is Nelko’s first full-length work and stars 25 dancers from Complexions, Cedar Lake, Broadway, and more. Click here for rehearsal footage and to purchase tickets. Nelko describes her style as uniquely theatrical and thanks mentors Brian Friedman and Desmond Richardson (swoon!) for helping her to cultivate her innately expressive choreographic instinct. Lindsay recently spoke with The World Dances as her dancers were warming up for a rehearsal about her sources of inspiration, experience choreographing for high-profile television, goals for the future, and tips for young artists. 

What inspired Awakening and its themes?

Awakening is loosely based on my life. It’s my life’s journey — my path. I have this whole fascination with the dream state and the blurred state between wakefulness and sleep. I was diagnosed with hypnagogia (a sleep disorder that causes waking dreams) as a child and would experience visions between wakefulness and sleep. I basically was awake in my dreams and I vividly remember that, so I created Awakening around those dreams and visions — and also my reality. The show follows journeys that have shaped my life — through love, sadness, fear, joy, friendship, loneliness, hurt, baggage. And, hopefully, at the end I am healed and there’s some resolution. 

What sparked your interest in choreography? 

My mother was a ballerina with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and I grew up dancing at her school. I went to NYU and wanted to be on Broadway. But I don’t really have the body for ballet. After my dance career ended, I started creating dance. Even when I was a dancer, I’d always been fascinated by the opposite side of dance. I wanted to know how the creative process worked, to share my visions and have dancers interpret my intentions instead of having to interpret someone else’s. I was discovered by Brian Friedman at The PULSE dance convention. I entered one of my pieces there to receive feedback and he’s been my mentor for 8 years now. And now I’m here and have my own show! 

What is your creative process like?

It’s always based on an intention or feeling. I never create steps just for the sake of steps. There’s always a purpose behind the movement. I do things that are creative. My work is diverse and theatrical. I love props, lighting, scenery — anything that helps shape the story more into life. 

How would you describe the dance style you create?

I’m modern, ballet, and jazz techniques combined. I wouldn’t classify myself in one style because I was trained in so many, but I definitely have a technical foundation. I love lines and all that great technique but I try to use it to tell a story with emotional impact.

What have you learned working so closely with Brian Friedman?

Brian really taught me that it isn’t about steps. You should make someone feel something. He would always push to ask the reason, the purpose, the intention informing every movement. You don’t just do fouetté turns. That’s something for class; it’s not for the stage. Also musicality — he’s a musical genius and I didn’t understand music as well before I started working with him. The way he hears music, visualizes it, and brings it to life is super interesting.

What was it like to work on SYTYCD?

I am so grateful for that opportunity! I was the only new contemporary choreographer on the show last season. It’s an amazing platform that does so much to promote dance and I respect it very much. I love Paul and Mackenzie. They really brought my work to life. I got great feedback from the judges too.

How did you get the SYTYCD opportunity?

Desmond Richardson, my other mentor, recommended me for the show. He’s a legend and I’m so grateful. Desmond also discovered me through THE PULSE. He gave my piece a standing ovation at a convention a few years ago and I went up to introduce myself afterward. He’s one of the most caring men I’ve ever met. He’s also blessed me with the opportunity to work with his dancers, which is so exceptional I can’t even describe it.

What wisdom and lessons has Desmond Richardson shared with you?

To stay true to who I am and really trust my vision. His belief in what I do makes me believe more in myself and what I’m doing. We all have insecurities. My stuff is unusual. For him to appreciate the level of theatricality, understand how it makes sense, and believe my work is beautiful drives me to keep going.

Is it different choreographing for television versus the stage?

Yes! You have to be super aware of the camera. You can’t just create anything freely — you have to know what the camera can follow, where the angles are. By comparison, stage is like an open playground where you can do whatever you want. Things you think might read well on TV sometimes just really don’t, and you have to work with the limitations. For example, too much movement on television gets lost. If there’s a lot going on, there also need to be moments of stillness and understanding. I learned that from SYTYCD and its producers and from Brian and The X Factor. You have to take time to take care of what’s happening — really look at the frames to make sure they’re comprehensible, look good, and that nothing’s getting lost. 

What do you hope to do next? 

Truly, being in the concert world and in the theater is my dream. Having this show, a full-length show on stage is exactly what I want to be doing. I want to set my repertoire on companies all over the world and continue working with live stage performances and hopefully have my work on Broadway some day.

What advice do you have for young dancers who would like to get into choreography and follow in your footsteps?

Just start creating! Take a feeling or emotion and interpret it through movement. Don’t just think, “Step on 1. Step on 2. Step on 3.” Think about, for instance, if you were hurt. What would happen? How would you feel? Just start playing with those emotions and create movement out of that. From a business perspective, you definitely need an agent to get your work out there. Create a reel of your body of work and send it out to people to be seen.