At 16, on her quest to become a professional ballet dancer, Los Angeles choreographer Josie Walsh crank-called the American Ballet Theatre every day for a year. After she heard the words "American Ballet Theatre" on the other end of the line, she would quickly hang up. "It inspired me," she says.
It's likely this verve and dogged determination that ultimately led her to a successful career as a ballerina, and then propelled her to become one of the region's most celebrated--and busy--choreographers.
This year, Walsh says, has been a time of big life shifts and accomplishments. Having recently completed the critically acclaimed full-length contemporary ballet "The Secret Garden" commissioned by State Street Ballet and performed at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, she is already hard at work on "Sirens," a new commissioned work for Los Angeles Ballet's upcoming Next Wave LA production in May. Then follows a raw choreographic workshop project in June "Intersection2," as well as a piece for Festival Ballet Theatre in October at the Irvine Barclay Theatre under the direction of Salwa Rizkalla. Also this year, she was signed by top talent agency Abrams Artists, who also represents Stacey Tookey of 'So You Think You Can Dance' fame.
Walsh, an L.A. native, caught the ballet bug at the young age of five, and knew with every ounce of her being that she would be a professional dancer. A self-proclaimed "bunhead" until she was 26, Walsh devoted her life to learning her craft, beginning at Westside Ballet Academy in Los Angeles. In the late 1980s, she received a series of full scholarships to study at top companies including The Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and then spent a year at School of American Ballet in New York City. For the next decade she went on to dance professionally with the Joffrey Ballet Company, the Oregan Ballet Theatre and the Zurich Ballet Company in Switzerland.
As a ballet dancer, it hasn't been an easy road breaking through the noisy commercial landscape of Los Angeles and defining a signature movement vocabulary. She says that during the first 10 years after her return, she spent trying to unshackle herself from the "hand cuffs" of her classical ballet training.
In building her career, Walsh has instead embraced the many facets of the Los Angeles dance world -- a place commonly referred to as quicksand for its ability to suck unaccomplished dancers quickly into career oblivion. To be certain, Walsh has experimented with a gallery of dance forms seemingly necessary for survival as a choreographer in Southern California, including everything from contemporary ballet commissions to feature film "Underground Comedy", a national commercial for Yahoo, Walt Disney's "Tinkerbell" and a Paul Mitchell Industrial commercial--just to name a few. She also teaches a contemporary ballet class at The Edge in Hollywood.
Perhaps at her most defiant, Walsh founded Myokyo, which produces full-length edgy rock opera ballets featuring an eclectic ensemble of dancers, aerialists, actors, opera singers, and a rock band. Walsh and her husband, composer Paul Rivera Jr. (who sings and plays the guitar on stilts with Myokyo), have mounted sold-out productions including "Garden of Reason," "Gone with the Whim," "Avalon" and "Carnivinyl" at theaters across Los Angeles since 2000. But the productions began to take a financial toll on the couple, especially after the birth of daughter Avalon in 2008, and they stopped.
Named Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2006, Walsh has, she says, found her footing as a choreographer. Ironically, she's come full circle back to classical ballet, the very foundation she tried so hard to destabilize. Her work with ballet companies showcases their technique with choreography that challenges and inspires them to feel their movement more viscerally. This hybridized approach she says allows her to connect her audience in interesting emotional ways with movement, while remaining as she calls herself a "shameless entertainer."
Tell us a bit about training as a ballet dancer in L.A. but needing to move to NY for a career.
I didn't feel like I could be a professional artist here. I had to go away. I left Los Angeles at 17. I came back a decade later. Everything was about New York. Everything was about leaving Los Angeles to have a career as an artist.
I attended School of American Ballet (SAB), but I've been a Joffrey lover my whole life. [At 16, Walsh earned a scholarship from Friends of the Joffrey Ballet that paid her last year at Westside Ballet Academy.] I actually came home for Christmas that year and [former Joffrey principal dancer] Valerie Madonia who I had met in New York invited me to take company class at the Music Center, and then [Joffrey co-founder and choreographer] Gerald Arpeno and [Joffrey ballet master] Scott Barnard offered me a contract at 18, and I basically started my career.
What brought you back to L.A.?
I'm a hopeless romantic and I wanted to fall in love. I knew I wasn't going to meet my husband abroad. I just felt it. I met Paul eight months after I moved back to L.A. and we've been together for 14 years. My husband composes all my music so it's been really good. We just grew; and we put ourselves out there and grew sort of publicly.
Also I came home because I had a pretty severe eating disorder. I was anorexic for years, pretty intensely. It was just part of my job description. I was popping pills and destroying my body. I knew that I wanted to have children one day.
I saw all these ballerinas I looked up to having hip replacements and no children and they weren't evolving as women. They get stuck trying to stay the little ballerina. It's a really rough mentality. I thought to myself: I love this art but I'm not going to let it chew me up and spit me out. I didn't know how to get well in that world. So I left.
When did you begin choreographing?
After dancing for two years with Zurich Ballet, I did a lot of project work in modern contemporary dance for a year in Europe. I met all these outspoken creative people. That last year in Europe, I started choreographing and assisting which translates into more choreographing. I still didn't know that's what I wanted to do.
At 26, I left the company life to deal with my eating disorder and after a year-long break, I started dancing again, mainly in my own productions for another seven years while choreographing.
How hard was it to teach classically trained ballet dancers contemporary choreography?
I created a different way of teaching because there's an issue for ballerinas.
It's very challenging. There's a lot of in-between that they can't grasp. There's all this intricate movement and ballet dancers want to hit a line. I tell them, this is like a watercolor. There's form, but you have to bleed past the form.
Classical ballet dancers do exactly what you tell them. Nothing more. Nothing less. And contemporary movers are different. I tell ballet dancers I want to see the way you fall. I want to find where you fall. They don't understand that.
How has your choreography evolved?
For 10 years I did rock ballet [with Myokyo] with aerialists and commercial dancers. I'd done classical ballet my whole life. I didn't want to work with ballet dancers so I'd be forced to learn a whole new movement vocabulary. At the same time looking at the commercial landscape, I thought, "Embrace your community." This was not New York. So I did a whole different model.
Then working with [co-artistic directors of Los Angeles Ballet] Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen was kind of full circle back to my roots. I made this statement to the universe after "Transmutation" [a piece commissioned by the company in 2010 as part of New Wave LA]. I literally said, "I want to work with ballet companies." I'd shied away from that because it brought up a lot of issues. But I've found that I really love the mentality of a company -- of working toward something.
You have amassed an impressive body of work. What inspired these pieces?
Transmutation: I'm interested in alchemy and synergy. I was reading a book on transmutation about taking metal and turning it into gold.
I had an idea of just energy. I started out with three women so I was doing feminine energy: three women archetypes. Then the men come out and do this: [she makes a strong gesture checking watch] I was creating a subtext, "Look at my guns! Check out my watch, little lady." And the music changes. Then they come out and they don't touch but they're in the same vicinity. And when they touch, the music has to shift because it's alchemy, so they start blending. The whole piece was about that and finding balance.
The Secret Garden: I had this idea about the ecosystem of a garden and cycles of life in gardens. I was going to do a piece about gardens because flowers are very sensual and I was very Georgia O'Keeffe inspired. My sister said her 10 year old loves (the movie) The Secret Garden (based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel). So I'd already known I wanted to do a garden, and I literally just blurted out with so much confidence, "The Secret Garden!" Afterwards I realized how difficult that story is to do!
That was challenging because I had never done a full-length commission for someone. I wrote "The Secret Garden" out like a script with 23 scenes. I wrote for hours. I rewrote it four times. The fifth version went on stage but didn't make it on paper. That process was my structure. And I had to tell story and story became paramount in the movement vocabulary I came up with.
I told the dancers, "You have to find it like an actor. You have to connect to the character. You can't just dance this ballet. You have to connect to this ballet. If you call it in and indicate it, then we can sit back and say, 'That's pretty,' but you're not going to pull me out viscerally." People were emotionally moved. The closing duet in the first act between Lilius and Archibald was so emotional that the two of them were crying backstage.
Full Choreographic Credits
Her choreographic credits include "Underground Comedy" feature film, "Yahoo" national commercial, "Torchwood" TV Show, UTV logo identity, A&E drama "The Cleaner", Walt Disney's feature of "Tinker Bell", MGM movie premiere Bullet Proof Monk, CBS sitcom "That's Life", Red Bull Formula One Industrial, "Pilgrim" Rock Opera, Asia Entertainment, LA Music Awards, Paul Mitchell Industrial, Queen Mary Live, Focus Fish Flying Circus, Project Angel Food, Zurich Opera. Contemporary Ballet commissions: Los Angeles Ballet "Sirens" and "Transmutation", State Street Ballet "Secret Garden" "Bach to Rock" and "Evenings", Luminario Ballet "Luminate", Harvard Ballet "Deconstructed", Aeolian Ballet Theatre "Taming of the Shrew" Santa Monica College "Golden Doorway", Celebrate Dance "Internal Affairs" and "Found" MYOKYO full length Renegade Rock Ballet Productions: "Intersection," "Garden of Reason," "Gone with the Whim," "Avalon" and "Carnivinyl."
Top Image: The Secret Garden. Photo by David Bazemore.