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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Charly Wenzel: Seeding a career in American dance

Germany-born dance artist Carly Wenzel 
(photo above by Humberto Carreno;
below: a Wenzel selfie)

Guest contributor Charly Wenzel tells the story of her journey from Munich to her new home--New York City--and from classical ballet to the intimacy and power of immersive theater.


by Charly Wenzel

I clearly remember a moment, when I was 11 or 12. I sat in my high school class in Munich, Germany and somehow came across a picture of New York City. Looking at the picture, I was struck by a feeling of homesickness. I distinctly remember that it wasn’t a feeling of curiosity or the hope of  traveling there someday, but I was feeling HOMEsick. How could I be homesick for a place I had never visited? A seed had been planted that would bring me here where I am today.

At age 6, I started taking ballet classes--another, more important, seed. I begged my parents to put me in ballet class for one reason only--all my friends were already enrolled. Experiencing my first years of ballet--and especially performing onstage in our yearly productions--ignited a fire in me that, to this day, still burns strongly. The diary I kept at the time consisted of loose pieces of paper that I didn’t even keep in a particular place, but they all pretty much said, “I can’t wait for my next ballet class!!!”

Right around the same time that I saw that picture of my future home, I transferred to a much more serious and rigorous “ballet school.” The school consisted of a trailer made into a ballet studio, where my dad’s high school teacher colleague--Miss Wood, from England--was allowed to offer ballet classes. There weren’t many students; my class eventually consisted of only myself and one other student. There was no place to hide, and Miss Wood was no joke. Licensed through the Royal Academy of Dance, she prepared us for our RAD exams. Miss Wood taught us hard work and discipline, and there were definitely times when I wanted to give up. Thank God I never did!

Meanwhile my high school put on yearly talent shows where I showed my first choreographies--either solos or duets that I made my poor friend, who had no dance experience or interest, perform with me. I was also enrolled in our theater program, and the rare time my teachers ever heard me speak was when I performed in some of the leading roles of Shakespeare, Ionesco and others. I was extremely shy and introverted, but I became alive onstage, finding freedom in playing a character as well as in expressing myself through movement.

Miss Wood never gave me the impression that I could dance professionally some day, and I knew I wasn’t going to be a ballerina. I didn’t know that there were other forms of dance until I was about 15 years old. I started taking jazz and modern dance at the Iwanson School in my hometown Munich. They offered a three-year professional dance program. So I told my parents that I would become a dancer. A lot of people looked at me like I was crazy but, as far as I was concerned, it was not up for discussion.

While most of my peers enrolled in college programs for jobs in demand at the time, I started my full-time training at the private Iwanson School. Unlike universities in the US, most German universities don’t have dance programs. Getting a college degree in contemporary dance in Germany is pretty much impossible. This made my decision even more incomprehensible to a lot of people. However, dancing every day all day for three years, I was completely in my element. I performed in a duet that I choreographed with a classmate and was awarded a scholarship for a summer at Ballet Academy Stockholm. My teachers wondered why I never performed like that in class. Again, it's the stage where I come alive.

Carly Wenzel
(photo: J. Ryan Roberts)

After finishing the program, one of my classmates and I applied to the Alvin Ailey school to improve our technique. To my surprise, we got accepted; the whirlwind began! The plan was to stay in New York for a year and then return to Germany. Fifteen years later, we’re both still here.

After graduating from Ailey, I worked as a dancer in any imaginable capacity--dancing for a range of contemporary companies; being a show girl in a Russian dinner club; traveling all over the country and abroad as a backup dancer for a Japanese Pop singer; dancing in music videos and dance films; dancing with big puppets in a children’s show, and so forth. Meanwhile, I always worked on my own choreographies and presented my work all over New York City.

I was inspired to make my first dance film when my singer/composer friend Kristin Hoffmann gave me a piece of music. The story I heard and was inspired to tell required a different medium, especially because of the images that came to mind. I made my first film Global Tides, which won several awards and was accepted by many film festivals. Excited about the endless possibilities for film to bring a vision to life, I later made Licht and most recently Schein.

Schein speaks about how gender-role expectations confront women, how they are supposed to present themselves. Women are much more harshly scrutinized for their appearance than men are. We are expected to underline our so-called femininity. However, the resulting objectification of women makes us vulnerable to discrimination and aggression in male-dominated society.

A couple of years ago, as I reflected on my performance career, knowing that I was far from done, I browsed through audition notices by mostly brand-new companies whose directors were at least ten years younger than me and who couldn’t offer any compensation. I knew If I was going to perform for someone else again, it would have to be someone with more experience than me. It would have to involve a process I could learn from, one that would help me continue to grow as a performer. Thinking back to my acting days, I craved more character- and story-based work. I auditioned for Third Rail Project’s Then She Fell, honestly not knowing what I was auditioning for. A fellow dancer, who was in the TSF cast, had posted “you want this job” on Facebook. I guess I just believed her.

I was asked to read lines in the audition, which came as a complete--but very pleasant--surprise!

I think the universe was looking out for me yet again. I was hired, and the show turned out to be everything that I was looking for and more. I was still in the rehearsal process when I got to see the show for the first time, and I was a sobbing mess at the end.

The show, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, takes place in a mental ward. An audience (fifteen people, maximum) is split into separate groups and led through different rooms in the building. Along the way, they encounter various characters and have many one-on-one interactions with them. It’s a magical, surreal environment in which the audience becomes a part of the story.

To be a part of something so truly special is nothing less than a blessing, and I couldn’t be happier or more thankful. In the last two years with the company, I have been performing six shows a week with a total of around 450 shows. While it is hard work, and I’m definitely feeling my 36-year-old body, it has been an extremely rewarding experience. Seeing the audience transformed and genuinely touched by their experience makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger.
We live in a time when most people spend the majority of their day in front of a computer or smartphone screen and most of our interactions are through social media and e-mail. I truly feel that, as performers, we can provide healing for people through much needed human interactions and an escape from daily worries. Immersive theater allows people to reconnect with their imagination, to fully be in the moment and to have all their senses activated instead of just passively consuming information and entertainment.

I somehow knew this even before my first visit, but New York has become my home and has felt like home from the moment I arrived. And even though I miss my family and friends in Germany, the dance community here has become my family. The support from fellow artists--as well as their enthusiasm to create and collaborate--constantly inspires me.

(photo: Yi-Chun Wu)

Charly Wenzel is an award winning choreographer whose work has been presented in her native Germany, as well as at Dixon Place, Judson Church, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, The Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater, Steps on Broadway, The Secret Theater, Connecticut College and many other venues in and around New York. She worked as the choreographer for several recording artists for their live performances and music videos and she choreographed for a number of dance films.
Charly won several awards for her dance films Global Tides, Licht and Schein, which have been shown at film festivals around the world.

Charly danced at the Bavarian State Opera in Germany and performed with Naganuma Dance, Keila Cordova Dances, Regina Nejman & Company, Earl Mosley/Diversity of Dance, Erick Montes, Bodystories: Teresa Fellion Dance, LolaLola Dance Theater, Eddie Stockton, Morningside Opera, DexDance, Hydroflo Movement Company, Soul Movement and other companies and independent choreographers in and around New York City. She is currently a company member of Third Rail Projects, performing in their Bessie award winning production Then She Fell.

Charly was the Rehearsal Director and Associate Artistic Director of Naganuma Dance and she worked as the Rehearsal Director for Shadow Box Theater.

She is currently the Rehearsal Director of Bodystories: Teresa Fellion Dance.
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