|Davalois Fearon, left, with Gino Grenek and Nicholas Sciscione,|
members of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company
(photo: Sarah Silver)
The 30th anniversary of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company happens to coincide with another notable anniversary for this renowned and stylish troupe. Dancer and Education Coordinator Davalois Fearon is marking ten years working with Petronio. She's excited to be part of the launch of the company's five-year Bloodlines project which will pair classics of postmodern dance with Petronio's repertory. This season, the troupe will present Merce Cunningham's RainForest (1968) alongside the world premiere of Petronio’s Locomotor/Non Locomotor at The Joyce Theater (April 7-12).
A native of Jamaica, Fearon was raised in the South Bronx from the age of four with her siblings. She remembers her immediate surroundings as "not the safest neighborhood."
"But my parents did a good job of sheltering us," she says. "I had no idea that I was in Crack Central. We would go to school and then come straight back. When I was at home, it was like going back to Jamaica. I had a very Jamaican upbringing."
She's been dancing, she says, "since I was out of the womb" and would force her older sister--"quiet and more like a bookworm but always supporting me"--to put on shows for the family gatherings.
"Jamaicans love to dance, and it would be rooted in reggae with a gymnastic influence. As I got older, I got exposed to pop, hip hop and salsa. I would always be performing for anyone who would look!"
In eighth grade, she took part in an eight-week Alvin Ailey outreach program where she had her first exposure to ballet, studying with Ron Alexander. Her parents, like many Caribbean immigrants, foresaw a secure career path--perhaps medicine or law--and did not support the idea that their daughter might choose dance instead.
"In their minds, they had the big American dream, and they wanted that for us."
Money was tight, too.
"I auditioned in socks, because I didn't have ballet shoes and didn't know where to get them," she recalls, marveling that she made it into the school anyway. In fact, Fearon had to sit out her first class at Ailey, lacking the proper attire for class--a school requirement. "My first pair of ballet shoes, tights and leotard were from the lost-and-found." But dance was, for her, "like a calling, something I had to do."
Today, in her role as a dance teacher, she looks for similar desire and focus in her young students.
"You have to want it so bad that you're looking for every little detail that the teacher is giving you. I have this one student, about five years old. In her first class, she didn't know anything--didn't know a plié, didn't know first position. Now she knows the whole class by heart--there, right in the front, in first position, ready to go before anyone else. 'I know what's coming!' It's beautiful, really beautiful."
With role models like Ailey, Denise Jefferson and Judith Jamison--"the pride they brought to the work"--Fearon made steady and accelerated progress up the levels of Ailey training.
"They saw something in me that I didn't know that I had, and that helped build my confidence."
She won a scholarship to Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, where she earned her BFA in 2005. In a way, even her parents' resistance helped strengthen her resolve even as she was forced to take numerous jobs to support her pursuit.
"Junior year, I thought about auditioning. I had to show my parents that I can do this. You don't have to worry about me."
She auditioned for Petronio and spent her senior year as an apprentice to the troupe.
Today, her parents could not be more proud, her mother remembering being able to buy Fearon at least one crucial item--a pair of pointe shoes.
in Petronio's Beauty and the Brut
(photo: Sarah Silver)
So, what's most interesting, challenging and eye-opening about dancing for a maverick like Stephen Petronio?
"Stephen is an incredible mover," she says. "He started late as a dancer, and that speaks to me. I started with reggae and hip hop and salsa and then started training.
"We were in rehearsal, and Stephen was working with Joshua Tuason on a solo, and he did a syncopated move that reminded me of something African that I knew from my Ailey training. And here is Stephen, you know, tall, white, bald man doing that and doing figure eights a lot like salsa dancing. The freedom and choices that he comes up with I love because I have that wide background, too. I can do that, too. I can move into a moonwalk one minute and a so de chat the next. His range of movement is all over the place--a lot of fun!"
But, at first, the work was just different enough from what she'd seen of conventional ballet and modern dance training to be a challenge. Remembering, her initial efforts to enter Petronio's philosophy and approach to movement, Fearon took a proposal to him. She wanted to write a syllabus as a guide for other company members and future recruits.
"I would see new dancers come into the company and go through the same struggles. 'You know what? I don't get it.' It was a need I saw not only for our dancers but for our outside teaching work, decoding what he would do in a way that, say, a first-year Juilliard student could understand."
Interviewing students gave her insight into what they needed from the company, and she was able to convince Petronio to create an education department.
Besides performing and teaching, Fearon has been developing her own voice as a choreographer. One upcoming project--Consider Water, her first full-length piece--was inspired by a talk with a UN ambassador working on issues of water-related disasters and scarcity of safe drinking water in many regions of the world. He happened to read about Fearon in a New York Times article and reached out to her. She told him of water shortages in Jamaica and how her family paid to get water shipped to her grandmother's house. The ambassador simply challenged her, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"I was thinking, Wow, I don't have much money. I can't save the world. But I have dance."
Excerpts from Consider Water,
a work in progress choreographed by Davalois Fearon
with music by Mike McGinnis
Fearon began work on Consider Water as a way to raise awareness of water-related concerns. The project has taken off, connecting her to supporters and collaborators such as the Bronx Council on the Arts (BCA) and the Bronx River Alliance, a respected local environmental organization. Through the BCA, which awarded her a 2014 BRIO fellowship, she will present excerpts of Consider Water at the Andrew Freedman Home, an arts-related community center, on May 1, and at the Bronx River Alliance Fish Festival on June 6. She plans to preview the finished piece in September at BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance).
Davalois Fearon is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer born in Jamaica and raised in The Bronx, New York. In 2005, Fearon received a BFA from the Purchase College Conservatory of Dance program and has since performed and taught around the world with Stephen Petronio Company, staged its repertory, assisted as rehearsal director, and is currently its Education Coordinator. As a choreographer, she is a recipient of the 2014 Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO fellowship and a member of The Joyce Theater’s Prestigious Young Leaders Circle Artists’ Committee. Her choreography has been presented throughout New York City, including at Bronx Academy of Art and Dance, Bronx Art Space, Roulette, The Vasquez, the Inception to Exhibition Dance Festival, The Warwick Summer Arts Festival, as well as at the Light Box, Portland OR and Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Fearon has created work in collaboration with internationally renowned poet Patricia Smith, multi-reedist Mike McGinnis, and fashion photographer Nigel HoSang. In addition, she has performed with Daniel Ezralow, Forces of Nature, Ballet Noir, Darrell Robinson, and Ballet International Africans. She is proud to be celebrating her tenth year with the company.