In this interview, Luis R. Torres discusses the importance of mentorship for the development of an artist.
All the interviews open and close the same way, which is establishing from the artist's perspective where they see themselves in their career and then where they see themselves going. The first question I want to open up with is that stock question: what point in your career would you say that you’re in?
If you think of a career as a journey and you keep the same career as I have for the past twenty years, I think I am reaching the place where I’m understanding more of my career—not only from a dance perspective, also from an administrative. I think I’m getting more [of an] understanding of the whole picture of my career, rather than just one part.
As in any organization, there are various components to it. I was a dancer my whole life and that was all that I used to worry about: just me and my dancing, my body as an instrument. And now that I’ve [crossed over] to be a ballet master, I not only have to take care of me, but I have to take care of the dancers, and with that comes taking care of administrative things. So I would say [that I have] a larger understanding of the career itself and I’m hoping that it is giving me more experience so I can continue to explore different realms of the organization itself in the art of dance.
So, sort of touching on that—and I do want to talk about you training to be a ballet master, but before moving to that—you danced in companies as a soloist, in the corp de ballet, and as a principle. Can you describe some of the distinct features of each of those positions, and not just in the respect [of] the roles [being] different?
So, let’s see. I’ve danced in a few companies. I danced The Ballet Theater of Maryland; there I was a soloist, which is mostly just doing solos and duets. In that company I was never a corps member because a corps member will usually do big, large groups, pieces. You know, corps de ballet is like the village people in a piece in a first act, like in a Coppelia or Gisele. Those are corps people, and then soloists will be people that are featured in a role, and the principles, of course, [are] the people that dance the main roles. So, for that first company I did soloist and I was just coming out of school, so that was a really great opportunity. And as a soloist I got a lot of coaching and opportunities because I was very young and I understood what the responsibility was to be a soloist, because not only [do] you have to be ready to do your role, but also be ready to do any of the roles in the company. Because if somebody gets injured, either a corps de ballet or a principle, in small companies you usually have to step in. So responsibility is very important in those different positions.
When I joined the Washington Ballet I was just a company member. The company is not ranked. We don’t have ranking; it’s just like an assemble company. Any company member has to be ready to do any of the roles, whether it’s a corps or soloist or a principle. So the first couple of years I was in the company I did a lot of the assemble pieces, which we did a lot because we were all doing assemble pieces like In The Middle [Somewhat Elevated], or the pieces that the director will choreograph and so on, so there [were] a lot of assemble pieces. But in a few years we started doing mostly the choreographer's [story ballets], and those ones were more specific to character because he did a lot of millennial—for lack of [a] better word—new story ballets based on books. And then I started being more of a principle dancer because I was getting the featured roles, and [in] a lot of the other pieces that we did—we did so many of them—I was more featured as a principle because I was doing the main duets, I was doing the solos, or anything like that. So I’ve been in all; I’ve been through the ranking of that.
I've been able to get the experience of how each of [the] different positions work, and getting the coaching from the different directors and the different ballet masters gave me the experience and the wanting to be a ballet master myself. But during my time as a dancer I also went to school, so I got my bachelor's degree in dance and psychology. I wanted to get an education besides dance because I know dance is a short career and the body only lasts as long as it's going to last, so I wanted to be ready for transition. And when I came to Washington Ballet I also started doing my master’s at George Mason University to continue, to further my education so I was able to have more opportunities in the teaching realm. Also, in that period of time I became the répétiteur for [the former director], so I was restaging ballets for him in different companies around [the] United States.
Did I ever answer your question?
You did. You actually answered another question, so that was great. I got my degree in photography, which [like] any art degree has its own concerns, but with dance because you're using your body like an athlete it's so finite, and I wonder if people consider, What do I do after this? Because if I was going to be a photographer I could realistically do that until I die. That's actually very insightful at that age to know that this has a shelf life. That was great, thank you.
Yeah, it's inevitable [that] the body wears [and] tears. You always have to have another interest and another passion to transfer that love for dance into another area of your interest.
I do want to ask the same question, but now from the perspective of being a ballet master. Again, with every medium having their distinct culture, [in other mediums] what's hard is communicating the work, but first and foremost you're putting the investment up front. It can be a very solo task; you don't need anyone else in the studio to paint. There are people who collaborate, but you don't need to inherently. But as a dancer you're working with a company, with a choreographer, you're working under a ballet master, so the direction is not always your own, so I wonder, in the perspective of being a dancer and now crossing that line over in being someone who is directing others, what perspective that has given you?
I gathered all my experience as a dancer and I watched what other people, other ballet masters did and the tools that they used to effectively transmit the information or effectively get the work done and how fast and how efficient. So I did put those experiences that I thought were great into my own style of communication. Doing my Master’s in Fine Arts really, definitely helped in [creating] various languages to express the same thing. So [a] combination of different styles of ballet masters that I've seen in the past and my own helped me get the career that I got [to] apply those [skills].
From my point of view, as a ballet master there's a lot of service. It's a position that requires a lot of preparation, a lot of work, a lot of research. It's a lot of note taking, it’s knowing in the room who learns how and [making] sure one can express the same thing in different ways to achieve the final goal of the whole picture, not just an individual. Also, in the dance world it's a very single-minded career because people are focusing on just what they need to do for themselves.
Often we don't have a sense of community when we're moving because we're so concentrated on doing so many things at the same time we kind of lose sight of [whether we’re] doing the same thing as the other person. It's more like: am I doing it right for myself? So as a ballet master, we keep an eye to make sure that it is a group section, everybody's doing the same thing, everybody's doing the same art, and sometimes you have to explain it differently so their bodies feel like they're doing something that is going to help them individually, but it's going to help the greater good of the whole picture.
So that is something that I've definitely noticed being on this side—how sometimes unaware of the whole picture a dancer can be because they're just so focused on doing it correctly and doing it better and doing it so it helps them that we lose a little bit of sight of the whole picture, that I've learned. Also how much work there is in terms of—it's not just dance, but also emotional stability [and] mental stability. Dancers are going to go through ups and downs, and [I have to figure out] how we can maximize the time we have with a dancer when the dancer is not in his best mental or physical or emotional state. When to push—you know, it's very important to know when to push a dancer, when not to push a dancer, when to change the focus on what to work. Those are things that as a ballet master we must be sensitive [to].
And also, ballet masters are in the middle of the artistic director’s vision and request and dancers’ [wants] and desires and process. So it's a balancing act; it's a very [highly] demanding service position to not only please the vision of the greater good of a company, but also to celebrate the things that one has accomplished, and [that] usually either goes to people that envision it, people that direct, the people that dance, or the people that did it. So it's also very important as a ballet master to keep that balance for oneself because it's a lot of giving-giving-
giving-giving. It's a lot of preparation, it's a lot of work, and often it's not something that people would notice in general. It's something that people only on the inside know, not in general, if that makes sense.
No, it does. I [want to] sort of piggyback off that. It's almost hard to say who's the artist, because is it the dancer or is it the artistic director? And as a dancer your goal can be to be in a company, to be on the stage, but you're not necessarily doing things that you want to do. It might not be a performance that you're necessarily concerned with, or you may not feel a hundred percent with your body but you still push through; you may not like the director that you have. So, I wonder how that is to navigate those difficulties as the dancer, but also now that you're on the other side where you now have to motivate the company.
Exactly. It is an emotionally and mentally [difficult] place to navigate because there are pieces that people don't feel so much affinity to but they do it, or if they're lucky they're not picked to do them. So it all depends on the personality of the person. It's like an orchestra: dancers are instruments and the director of the company is the conductor. The orchestra will make the sound, play the tune that fits that orchestra. How we are going to show the orchestra is best [done] by the person who's looking at the overall picture, and if you want to develop that orchestra sometimes you have to give them things that they don't want to play, but [you] know that it's going to help for the next step because it's a step-by-step situation to get to the next level. The orchestra is going to be just as good as the instruments in the orchestra, the players in the orchestra [depend on] how many challenges those instruments get. So that's how the company works as well. The company itself will be just as good as the challenges it extends itself and sometimes that's just doing things that perhaps you might not like doing, but it's necessary for you to do to be on the next level.
Right, and that's the agreement of being in that culture.
Exactly, [that’s] the agreement of having the job, of having the position. Unless you are a freelance dancer and you have a superstar name and people just hire you for the things that you want to dance, which nowadays is rare—you have to be able to do anything because of the economy, because of the audiences, because of the culture of dance, because of the evolution of dance.
Do you feel like the option of being in a company is the only trajectory in dance, or particularly the style of ballet?
Well, if you want to do concerts—concert dance, which means you're able to do full-length, you're able to do mix spreads, you're able to do new work—I think you need opportunities to meet choreographers to come and use you as an instrument. Yes, ballet companies is the route [to take].
But if you want to do commercial, if you want to do entertainment, then I would say [the route is] being on a Broadway show, being on TV, being on So You Think You Can Dance, being a backup dancer to major singers, or doing TV shows like the Grammys, the Oscars, the Emmys.
You don't have to be on a company per se, but you will be part of a [community] if you get chosen to be part of that committee or that show or that production. You can go that route as well, but if you're a seriously trained ballet dancer, you went through the schooling, you want to do concert work then, yeah, a ballet company is definitely the place to go because you will get all the exposure you will get [at] a theater: you will get coaching, you will get your ballet class, you will get the opportunities to explore different pieces—full-length of the classics, full-length of ballets that were created a lot later that are now staples of our community. So to be able [to] experience those, you definitely need to be part of a ballet company that has the history, the support, the caliber.
You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you’ve danced for a few different companies and I want to know, from your perspective, how [imperative the direction of a company is] to the development of a dancer, particularly in your experience of having worked under several different directions and [now as] you've been [at] The Washington Ballet for fourteen seasons. Do you think you'd be the dancer that you are today if you hadn't [been at] those particular companies?
No, I would not have been the type of dancer [that I am now] because I think every company and every experience that I have [had] prepared me to tackle all my experiences that I had here at The Washington Ballet, and also prepared me to tackle my next natural step, which was ballet master and répétiteur. So I danced for the Ballet Theatre of Maryland—that was my first company. Then I went to Ballet Arizona, and while I was in Ballet Arizona I was with Complexions. Then I danced in a bigger show for a few months at the Riviera Hotel, [which] doesn't [exist anymore]; I was in a show called Splash. Then I danced a little bit with Complexions in New York [and] did a little tour with them. Then I've been at The Washington Ballet ever since.
Complexions is very contemporary, but what I liked about it is that I was involved in the creative process, so I was part of the creation. I understood what the process of creating a new piece was like and what my voice was and how my instrument fit the vision of the voice. That was very important because that gave me a lot of information on how to approach that kind of work that's already being done. Working with them gave me a lot of information on how pieces have evolved, and why is this and why is that, and the aesthetics of it, and what the audience is looking for and what the choreographer is looking for.
[At] Ballet Arizona I got a lot of education on the Bournonville and Balanchine repertoire because our director was from the New York City Ballet and the prior director—the one that hired me—was from South America, so I got a lot of contemporary and post-modern classics, like The Green Table, and I got exposure to the Balanchine and I got exposure to a director telling me, This I what I envision your career to be, and this is what you’re strong at, and this is what you need to work at. So he was a great director for that and he really guided me and saw what I needed to be doing to continue in the path that I was.
And then I came to The Washington Ballet. And I came to The Washington Ballet because of the mix of repertoire of the company. We would do a full-length of the classical ballet, like a Romeo and Juliet or a Gisele or a Coppelia, but we will also do the William Forsythe. So I wanted to have a diverse repertoire; I wanted to be able to experience the most classical to the most outrageous, out there, millennial creation. I wanted to do it all because I think that diversity has given me the information and the experience that I’m able to transfer forward. Now, as a ballet master I know what all these pieces are; I know what the piece is meant to be. I was there dancing them; I know what I got from them. I know what I was supposed to do and what I did and what I did not. So it’s been a great experience, and the changing of companies definitely gave me all the visuals and the information and the knowledge to pass it forward and help the people that are [in] those same situations. Now when I’m in front of the room and they’re doing something and they don’t understand it, I have an experience and maybe I can find a language to explore it [with] them.
You said [that as] a ballet master there are things that you’ve taken from seeing others that worked for you in helping you transition into this role, so I want to delve in more to that. What things were helpful to you as a dancer and what things were not successful?
Things that helped me [were] when the ballet master did their homework and were prepared and also [were] in the creative process to explore with the dancer, Ok, maybe try this, maybe try that—finding different options to accomplish the same goal. And then things that didn’t help were the opposite of that. When a ballet master just said, This is what it is, and then just leaves and lets you hang there alone and lets you figure it out, which sometimes is good, but not all the time, especially if you want to get the whole room of people doing the same thing—sometimes you gotta spend a little more time with [some] people than others.
Also, ballet masters that encouraged your growth and thinking for yourself [were helpful]. That’s also very important—somebody to help you to the point of, Ok, this is all the information that I’ve got, now what are you going to do with it? [They] give you a little bit of power and ownership of what you’re doing. Those ballet masters are very helpful as well because they are helping you create your own outcome, they’re helping you create your own interpretation, your own voice. That’s very important.
Sometimes it’s very important having structures, so when you have a structure and a guideline to do things, then you get things done a little bit faster, so it allows you more time to, for a lack of better word, just play. Play with the material or discover new things or help you develop or help you find new focus or spatial awareness or how to increase your technique or how to be stronger [with] what you have. [A] ballet master [can] help you: Ok, so you don’t have this, but you have that, [so] how can we help [use] what you have [to] help the things you don’t have?
Finding those balances with each person [is important] because every dancer is different, every body is different. Every instrument is going to sound different to everybody, [so they have to] be attuned in a different way to accomplish the same goal. So ballet masters like that really help, people that invest [in] that kind of stuff; it’s very important. And those are tools that I continue to explore and tools that I continue to develop for myself, hopefully to get more and more wisdom and knowledge, to keep pushing the people that come in front of whatever it is that I’m doing, to get them to that level of freedom so when they get on stage they really have all the tools they need to become a better artist. That’s why I said it’s like a service position.
One of the things I like to ask people who have enough of a career that they can look back [on] and reflect is whether there are things you would want to tell your younger self. Do you have an “I wish I knew then what I know now?”
Yes. I would say to myself more patience. I think when I was a dancer I was so...I just wanted to get it done. I was so impatient. Because I observed so much as a dancer and I heard everybody’s correction, I was just so aware of the conversation in the room and what was supposed to be accomplished. I was a little bit more fast and I wanted to get everything done faster and more efficient, so sometimes I wasn’t aware that some things take longer than others and my younger self sometimes was like, Ok, can we just move on?
So I would tell my younger self [to have] more patience. Just enjoy where you are at right now, and if it’s taking longer [than expected], then you look for something else to not be discouraged or frustrated that it’s not going as fast as I would like, and maybe that’s why it wasn’t going fast—because there was something else to learn that maybe I lost because I was not being patient in that moment.
And now, as a ballet master, I see it when somebody in the room’s like that. Somebody gets anxious or impatient about moving on, [so] I just say, Well, maybe it’s time for you to explore something else.
So that [is] definitely something I would say to my younger self: it’s all right; just be patient. Because I definitely have to be patient now.
Beginning his dance practice in his native home of Puerto Rico, Luis R. Torres has positioned himself as an prominent name in contemporary ballet. He was awarded the Roberto Clemente scholarship which allowed him to study at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, training under the guidance of Roberto Muno. Torres joined his first company, The Ballet Theater of Maryland, as a soloist at shortly after finishing his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies, concentrating in dance and psychology from Arizona State University. Later Torres joined the Ballet Arizona, where he was frequently featured as a principal. And while being a member of The Washington Ballet Theater company, he completed his Master in Fine Arts from George Mason University. Torres is currently training to be a ballet master at The Washington Ballet, where he has been a dancer for the past fourteen seasons.