Alumna Profile: Ani Taj Niemann ’05

Photo credit: Stephen Elledge

Interview conducted by: Eileen Diskin

Tell me a little about yourself.
I came to the Steiner School in 3rd grade after 2 years of public school. At one point, I thought about transferring to arts school, but the community of people I had at Steiner was a little too strong to give up. I wanted to make sure I stayed sharp academically so I stayed through senior year.

My father is a musician and my mother ran a theater company. The arts were in my periphery all the time. Steiner gave me a little more access to different windows into the arts. It wasn’t just drama club, now I had to weave a basket and do book binding and learn more about Eurhythmy. Steiner gave me multiple access points and that turned out to be very useful as I moved into the world. A lot of us walked with a good ability to put different languages together, to transfer art form-to-art form and even academic to art form.

The world I find myself in now is heavily rooted in dance. I started tap dancing and doing ballet at age 5. Throughout my formative education, I was hell-bent on doing musical theater. Having participated in a number of summer musical theater intensives in grade school and through college, though, I was eventually disillusioned with the genre.

I left musical theater when I left college, turning instead to choreography. I really enjoyed being generative rather than strictly a performing artist. This was important and very much came from Steiner and being around people who could make things. My classmate, Lale Westvind is one of the people who stirred that idea. She encouraged me to see that instead of simply consuming or repeating a form, we could make actually something and be the providing source.

Tell me about your experience at Tish, NYU. How did you fair going from the tight-knit Steiner community into a larger university?
There was a microcosm there. I was deeply a fish out of water because I was still studying musical theater and hadn’t figured out that it was quite wrong for me. There is an adjustment period in the first year. You are in a big sea of people and haven’t quite figured out what’s of interest to you.

For me, it was all about the people. I’m a bit of a slower burn. It takes me longer to relate. Not to underrate the institution and all it had to offer, but finding the people I could really relate to, those who I wanted to spend more time collaborating with, was important.

Coming into a bigger community takes a bit of time to trust that community and unfold in it. It’s partly related to the Steiner School and the intimate social climate that rests there. You become a very good judge of character, but it means your standards for the type of connection you want to build becomes very high.

Photo credit: Andrea Mohin, New York Times

I’ve built another community through The Dance Cartel – the dance company I founded. Together, we’ve traveled, learned, and been creative. You don’t necessarily get that depth of interaction in every institution, or even as an adult.

In what way did your Steiner education prepare you for college and professional life?

I felt really well equipped on the academic side. Of course, I went into a specific field but at NYU, but I had to maintain academics as well as my conservatory focus. There is something about how you think coming out of Steiner versus what you learn. It allowed me to be more open-minded about how to form connections between different fields. Steiner gave me a general curiosity about different aspects of life and seeing how they mutually reinforce one another rather than exist disparately. Steiner gives you a good sense of that fluidity and more holistic look at learning.

This way of thinking and learning carries into my professional life as well. It allows me to get curious about things that maybe seemed tangential to what I was doing. Maybe I can look at my choreography differently if I learned a little bit about how the lighting designer sees the work or how the music supports the piece. Having the ability to view the synchronicity in subjects is a great asset. There’s a sense of trying to broaden even as you are specializing. To be able to cross-pollinate is a very useful skill in a world that is constantly demanding a multidisciplinary approach.

Tell me about starting your dance company – The Dance Cartel.
I formed the Dance Cartel around for 4 years ago. We started doing little projects in 2011 but it took the form it now has in 2012. We have eight dancers in our core company and do all kinds of different performances scaled to setting. If we’re on the road touring in a smaller setting, we have four to five dancers.

Speaking to format – I suppose it was born out of an art party I was asked to do at the end of 2011. A friend of mine asked us to do a performance in this party setting where the audience would be standing around us. It was an empty warehouse space that was converted into a music venue. We figured out a way to do the performance roving through the crowd, moving them when we needed the space. Someone saw that show and asked us to create a show for the Ace Hotel, so we took that format and recreated it for their space.

I love the format that performance took. It loosens the boundaries between the performers between and audience members spatially and energetically. You’re watching a performance of these contemporary performers doing this weird and crazy stuff, and in physically moving the audience out of the performers path, they are inevitably moved to dance themselves. And that is exactly what we want. People often come to our show thinking, “I don’t dance and I don’t want to dance.” The show at the Ace explores how you unlock the desire in people to dance and give them the opportunity to free themselves of that notion.

Ani Taj and The Dance Cartel

I know you are doing other work now, but what lies ahead for The Dance Cartel?

The residency in the Ace Hotel Great Hall really helped build a following for our group. Two years ago, it opened the door for the troupe to start touring. In the near future, we are bringing a new version of “on the floor” (the production designed for the Ace) to the club space at ART in Cambridge, MA. We’ll premier new material and sharpen old favorites while there so that we have a new show to bring back to New York.

In addition, we’re working on a brand new show. My latest obsession is trying to figure out how to make a drive-in dance show – an outdoor space that supports the presence of a couple of cars. The performance concept takes inspiration from heroines portrayed in 1980s and ’90s films.

Looking at all these examples of women in film – at what a leading-lady looks like and what gives her agency and power – I want to transform that into a dance show. Some of the women you can really see as bad-ass heroines, while others are questionable because they are very sexualized and not that powerful. But taking the physical vocabulary from these characters, and transferring them onto dancers with the original video content projected behind helps to decontextualize the movie tropes of how women are represented in film.

We looked at a lot of movies and felt what women have to look up to in Hollywood cinema (even in modern film) is extremely lacking – the kind of models that are given to us in cinema is lacking. If you’re a young women – especially women of color growing up in this country – and looking to movies for your mythology, what are you looking up to and what do you think you can be? Rather, if the content provides something for people to look up to – that’s major.

I mentioned earlier that you are engaged in other ways right now. Tell me about your experience dancing in the hit Broadway show, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. How did you come by the role and what fulfillment does it add to your work as a dancer?
This opportunity really came out of left field. I’d seen Comet a few times down at the tent Kazino in the meatpacking district and then saw it at ART last fall. That show at ART was the closest version to what it is now. I was impressed with the strides the show made from the first iteration at The Tent to ART. I was very moved by the scope and sparkle that had come into it.

Sam Pinkleton, a dear friend with whom I’ve worked together in many different ways over the years, is the choreographer for Comet. Sam mentioned they were expanding the show to include a couple of dance tracks for the Broadway run and asked if I would join the dance call. I thought I was there for moral support to see how he runs an audition. I had no idea I was up for the job.

Sam’s version of the dance call was a lot freer and higher energy than what typical dance calls can be, and included a heavy improvisational component. I was with a bunch of dancers that usually do musical theater or jazz dance combo and everyone was on this high from getting to improv. with each other – it was like jamming with jazz musicians except with dance. It was the most fun I’ve had in an audition. When Sam asked if I would join the show I thought, “If the spirit of the audition room was that good – and I respect the creators of this show so much – then this is going to be an interesting show.”

Ani Taj and Reed Luplau in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”
(Photo by Chad Batka)

Six-months in and I can say being in a Broadway show is certainly very grueling. The structure of the commercial theater enterprise requires and lot of you. Before, I made my own schedule, deciding when to schedule rehearsals, who I wanted to work with, when I could have a day off. The process for Comet is more regimented – you rehearse, you sit, and you have the same four-minute breaks every day. You do the same things when off-stage, your quick change happens at the same time every night. It’s a totally different lifestyle. I had to model my days and sculpt them to make myself show ready everyday rather than following my own fancy. It’s a lot of discipline and, even though it was an uncomfortable change at first, it has proven an invaluable learning experience.

In terms of what value it has added to my life as a dancer –

I got injured early on in the show and have been in Physical Therapy since then. Before this show, I was working intuitively. Now I know more about my anatomy and how my body moves – learning nuances of my own physical functioning that are pretty incredible. My body is stronger than it’s ever been.

There is also a meditative challenge to repeating a show so many times. To move through the same set of gestures, music, and text – you inevitably focus on subtleties to search for something new inside of it. You seek ways of spinning what you’re feeling that day into a slightly revitalized approach in the moment. I find that to be like a meditation. It’s a really good challenge to keep working at being in that moment and to resist getting jaded about the repetition. There is always something new.

My attention to detail is a lot higher than it was in my previous work. Having to hit the exact same mark every show helped instill that trait. I imagine and hope this new level of detail will enhance my work with the Dance Cartel to get us sharp. On a personal level, as a performer working on Comet has been a tremendous growing experience.

What advice would you give today’s students?

Get off your phones as much as you can. I know they give us tremendous access to the world and that is a beautiful thing, but I want for myself, and the next generation, to have a direct experience of our lives. Being present with whatever you are doing, and that alone, can bring more depth of experience and range to the individual.

I wish I had known, or listened to, the advice to “trust your gut.” Trust your interests and follow them, rather than trying to match the standards set up for you by some external idea. Genuinely listen to what makes you tick. This might be part of just growing up, but listening to those things that light you on fire is very important; it makes life flow more easily and makes it more joyful.

On the flip side, sometimes doing what you don’t want is very instructive. It’s a good lesson.

What advice would you give to parents seeking a Waldorf education?

We all want our kids to be in the best possible standing and have opportunities. My advice: focus on your child’s development – how they think and move in the world – not what point system they’re excelling at or the name of the school they are attending. For what it’s worth I was able to perform very well in a liberal arts setting while being enrolled in a conservatory program. I didn’t feel I had a particular struggle or feel I was at a different starting point than my peers.

The world is getting a little scary and we all have to participate in some way. If you are raising a child that has a sense of themselves – a strong sense – one who thinks about the world in open terms with empathy, I think that is so much more valuable than having a resume that says the right things. I feel very fortunate that I was given the space to be a human being at Steiner.

Finally, having support at home. I was very lucky to have had supportive and present parents. The more parents can facilitate open conversation around what is going on at school and in the world, the better.