Dancing the Yellow Brick Road

Anna Riley-Shepard ‘17 asks dancers to tap their own happy thoughts for the choreography behind Harvard Ballet Company’s Oz.

By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19

Anna Riley-Shepard can’t stand still. Riley-Shepard ’17 has danced in Harvard productions since her freshman year. Her credits include the Harvard Ballet Company’s Gatsby, Vignettes, Alice and Jungle Book. She has danced with the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company and with Expressions Dance Company. She also received a 2016 Artist Development Fellowship, which she used to apprentice with Compagnia Zappalà Danza in Catania, Sicily. “It’s just what I do,” she says with a laugh.

Riley-Shepard is also one of seven choreographers working on the Harvard Ballet Company production of Oz, which runs Oct. 21-23 at Farkas Hall.           

Dancer Talia Rothstein '17 in "Oz" Photo: Anna Riley Shepherd ‘17
Riley-Shepard communicates with her hands, punctuating sentences with gestures and movement. At one point, she nearly re-routes our interview by flinging my voice-recorder into the air. Riley-Shepard speaks and moves with urgency: She knows that time is limited. This is her last year at Harvard.

It is also the first year she won’t appear onstage. Instead, Riley-Shepard is devoting time to choreography such as the Oz segment she has choreographed for this weekend’s ballet. After spending a year abroad, the dancer talks about her most recent project and what she hopes to bring to the Harvard community

In the edited conversation that follows, Riley-Shepard delves into her process and perspective on dancing through life.

Choreographer and dancer Anna Riley-Shepard ‘17
How did time abroad change your perspective?
My time in Europe influenced the way I dance in a lot of ways. I was trained in America, in New York, in all styles of dance. Jazz, hiphop, ballet, everything. And the thing is, the focus here is on how you look as you dance. And that’s great. It’s super precise. You have good muscles, good musicality, everything. It’s all about the shape. About how your body looks on the outside. Whereas the European training I had last year, it’s much more focused on the energy that you use to make the shape. Instead of focusing what you look like or what the steps are, you focus on how you make the shape. How you dance. And at first I got there and I felt, what is all this talk about energy; this is stupid. Then I started to realize that I was able to be so much more sure of myself while I danced, because I knew not only what I was doing but how I was doing it.

Tell me about the crossover from performance to choreography.
I came back from this summer expecting I would perform. Then I realized the only reason I expected to perform is that other people expect me to perform. And I’m thinking, you know, I just spent a year dancing. Professionally dancing, and I can do that. And what I wanted to focus on, coming back to Harvard, is not trying to do everything, but do those things that I want to do well. And choreography was one thing I wanted to do, to bring back what I learned abroad, to contribute to the dance community here. And that’s what I felt I could contribute to the dance community here, rather than being onstage.

How did you go about crafting the piece?
When I was choreographing this piece, I found the most effective thing was to give a prompt to my dancers and come up with four to five movements. I asked them to think about their own lives and think about one thing they were missing, one thing that, if they had it, they’d feel happy, and to come up with four to five movements to express that feeling. I worked with each of them individually to recombine those movements, put it through my own body and use my toolkit to create longer phrases. Then, I taught it back to my dancers using my own tool kit.

What do those include?
A tool that I learned to use this past year was this kind of opposition play between heaviness and lightness in your weight. When you move, your body can make you look really heavy and look close to your floor, or look as if you are floating. And by playing between the extremes, you get really dynamic movement. And the other thing was spiral movement. So it turns out that so many things in the world naturally occur in spirals. It’s the same in dance. It’s very natural for us to move in spirals. And when you’re able to work with that, you can move really fast and not fall over or lose your balance. You can make it look like you’re falling, but because it’s a spiral and you’re moving, high to low, you can catch yourself. You’re not actually falling.

What message are you trying to convey with your section of Oz?
The piece that I’m choreographing for Oz is, fittingly, for the self-discovery scene of the show. The scene is the one where Dorothy and her friends arrive to the Wizard and realize that he can’t actually give them anything. You know, they’re all missing things in their lives. The Tin Man is missing his heart, the Lion his courage, the Scarecrow his brain, and they all think if they have them, if they have it, it’ll make them better, their lives better. It’ll make them happier. And of course they realize that they’ve had those things with them all along, but they only discover it after seeing that they’ve got to make connections, friendships with other people. That’s the theme I’m working with.

Dancer Lilly Riverón '17 in "Oz" Photo: Anna Riley Shepherd ‘17