Susan Priver Finds Herself in Her Telling Memoir Dancer Interrupted

Actress Susan Priver is a Los Angeles native and former ballerina. The story of how she started in ballet and finally crossed over to acting is the subject of her new memoir entitled "Dancer Interrupted." In our conversation she gives us great detail about the devastating ups and downs of her life. Her passion will make you want to rush out and buy the book, which is a great read.

The style of your book is so affecting. It was like reading your personal diary. Your thoughts and emotions jumped out and hit me. I understood.

SP: OMG, that's what I wanted to do. Let me tell you, it took 8 years. You are a writer by profession, whereas I am an actor.

I am an actor too.

SP: You are an actor too, but you have been writing longer than I. Not all actors can write, but I think actors learn the most important thing is the dialogue, what the person is feeling. I did have diaries from this growing up stage and I remember a lot, not everything, but everything that's in there I remember very distinctly because of my emotional place. I had a tough, tough time with people that I loved.

I felt so sorry for you spending time on the couch and you didn't want to leave it. Your father was hard on you, but he was so funny in his approach.

SP: Let me tell you, I hear kids now. How do you raise a kid? My dad was... "You get your ass off that couch". He was raised a certain way and he was what he was, but...he didn't understand exactly what I was going through. He didn't have the empathy, but maybe the empathy would have been bad for me.

He did understand what your mother was doing to you and how that relationship was hurtful to you.

SP: She had empathy. My mom enjoyed being a nurse.

She wanted to keep you dependent on her.

SP: That's exactly right. She got some kind of enjoyment out of enabling me to sit there and just fall apart. I've never been a parent, and will never be a parent obviously, but it must be such a hard thing...to be a parent.

Henry (Olak) ...is he your husband?

SP: No, we've been together for 17 years ...do you know Henry?

No, just from reading about him in the book. I thought he was the best of your boyfriends, so kind and understanding. Gregory, the Russian, I wanted to take him and twist his neck.

SP: I think what I wanted to do with Gregory was contextualize in the way that I was still a bunhead. Dancers...I don't know if you know that world at all...I think the acting world is a little broader, because you are fencing, you're dancing, you're learning great playwrights, you're learning how to present yourself in a way that isn't just the veil of ballet, which is extremely difficult. The amount of commitment is more than what actors put in, and it keeps you from many other things. Learning that people take advantage of people. Perhaps my family didn't prepare me for that. My dad would have known, he was a lawyer. He was used to bad things happening in the world. But, maybe I didn't listen. I just was hopeful, hopeful that everything would be ok in those early years. Then when I was out in the world, when it was time to meet someone, maybe I wasn't ready for...I enjoyed being put down. I was a masochist.

Oh yeah, I felt bad for you as I read. I kept thinking, "She's got to break out of this."

SP: And I did...eventually. I did work in a workshop for a while about the craft of writing. I got better as I went along. In terms of the book, people want to feel like they are not going to die. It's not like a Hollywood movie, but I did survive certain things, and a lot of people don't survive.

One thing I did not quite understand. Why were you fired from the Cleveland Ballet? They said "We have to let you go." What was the reason?

SP: I don't know.

Was it a weight thing?

SP: No. I was the skinniest I had ever been. I don't know exactly what it was, whether it had to do with funding...and they didn't need my services anymore. I didn't stay in line with people very well. I was in the corps de ballet. It might have been that. I was not a soloist. Maybe they didn't need any corps dancers...maybe they needed a soloist but they needed someone better than me. I don't know, but ballet never had a lot of money in these regional companies. They get grants and they bring people up through the schools. City ballet and American Ballet Theatre in New York have money.
Because it was never explained to me, that made it hard. It makes you question yourself. You just go get another job.

I loved your audition for Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse in New York, where they told you to find a better song. You did "Happy Birthday!" (we both laugh)

SP: I saw people bringing out the sheet music. I didn't sing and I went to the audition kind of on a dare. Fosse liked tall ballet dancers, but ballet dancers who could sort of sing.

Fosse had an addiction problem. I try to bring that out in the book. I think creatives tend to have that element in them, if they're any good. We're addicts. It's sad but true. A behavioral psychologist who is a professor at USC read my book and said he wants to give it to his addict students. There is a thing... How do you find a self without your addiction? For me it was finding a voice without dance.

I wrote down that the message of your book is learning to love yourself and taking your place in the world via the arts, first as a dancer and lastly, as an actor. In the Forward, you tie them in so well, when you say that ballet is poetry in motion. "I couldn't live without it." Later you add, "how will I ever get poetry back in my life?"

SP: I had that in my journal. Ballet is a hard icky sticky world but it does have poetry. Then when I took a job as a secretary, I couldn't do anything. My dad thought I was kind of an idiot. My dad was really more of an atheist than Jewish, but in Jewish families, education is everything. Being a baller dancer is really not what they do. But I was weird and we had a little bit of a weird family.

Why did you write the book? For many an autobiography is a catharsis, but I think it's more than that for you. Sum up the various lessons you have learned that have brought you to this current state of bliss.

SP: For me it was to find my particular sensitivity to what had happened to me, in another craft. I always use that sensitivity in the characters that I like to play, particularly in Tennessee Williams...and Pinter. It was a way of creating one full thing that was my own. It was mine. It came directly from my experience. I like to filter that sensitivity into roles that I am capable of playing. I did do Lorraine Sheldon in The Man Who Came to Dinner, which is completely broad and bombastic, but I learned how to use my strength and my kind of witchiness and brought that to it.

So having the experience of doing Blanche in Streetcar and writing this book that has pure emotions in it, pure thoughts in it...I had to shape everything and make it into a craft. I did have an editor, and it's crafted.

I'm also a yoga teacher, and I love teaching.You're giving back. As actors we take people into another world. All people are attracted to storytelling. I'm attracted to storytelling through playwrights. Everybody has a story. It's putting it together and contextualizing why does this relate to this and that. I had to work out my life, that I really didn't have to be a doormat and be used by men like Gregory, a dark passionate Russian who was also an alcoholic. I also had to work out that not everybody hated me and wanted to hurt me as he did. And...to gain confidence, because when I stopped dancing, I had zero confidence, and that's why I attracted certain kinds of men in my life.

Dancers do exactly what they're told to do. It's manipulation and unless somebody gives them a backbone...and my parents were not really bad people. I just didn't listen to that. And as far as drug addiction is concerned, I had to say loud. "You did this to yourself. You are going to have to dig yourself out of it." You cannot isolate yourself. I isolated myself because I was afraid. You learn from your failures. I became a strong human being. I am a survivor, and I hope that the book will help people to realize that you don't have to join a cult or take antidepressants. You have to dig down and embrace your darkness, embrace the things that make us human that will allow you to rise above that. The dance world taught perfection, Hollywood taught having your face lifted to be beautiful...
no, it's what comes out of you: that's what you look like.

There will be signings of Dance Interrupted

on April 13th at Book Soup, Hollywood with John Fleck---Q and A

and on April 27th at Vroman's, Pasadena with Lian Dolan---Q and A

These events are subject to change depending on the state of the Corona Virus.

Go to:  www.susanpriver.com

Updates will be posted.


Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell

Heather Lipson Bell is a genuine Los Angeles hyphenate; dancer, choreographer, actress, educator and entrepreneur.  She has carved out a successful career by following her heart and soul, connecting experiences and collaborators and weaving them together to create a tapestry of creativity, artistry, education, altruism and family.

Bell is a force in the world of dance and opera, especially as it intersects with young people and both children and adults with different needs. A quick rundown of her current job titles illustrates her lifelong love of music, dance and activism.  She is the founder and creative director for Performing Arts For All, providing arts opportunities for and specializing in working with those who have special needs and limitations. She is a lead educator and the managing director for KIDS/IQUE, a division of www.muse-ique.com, an organization which provides artistic opportunities for those in foster care facilities, at-risk youth and those with additional special needs. PAFA partners with LA Opera, LA Ballet, MUSE/IQUE, Center Stage Opera and is Fiscally Sponsored by the 501c3 Dance Resource Center. Her programs are unique in that they do not separate nor isolate participants by challenge. Rather, all dancers work together and use their different strengths and weaknesses to create a stronger whole.

Bell has worked with the LA Opera since 2008 as a teaching artist, choreographer and assistant director for their in-school and community programs.  She is a dancer and choreographer who works consistently.  She has performed in over ten concerts with the New York Philharmonic, two of which she both choreographed and danced and which will be kept as part of a new online platform, nyphil.org/ypcplay. She performs regularly and has film and theater pieces in all states of production. Recent work includes dancing at the Ford Theater, at the Pageant of the Masters, choreographing and co-producing the short film Halfway, which she and her partner Christine Deitner (They also created the award winning "Freeze! Try Again) are now developing for presentation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Finally, with co-artistic director Tom Dulack (www.teatrofilarmonico.org) she is planning on touring their concerts and also in development on 2 other theater projects: Extravaganza (based on the life and work of Vivaldi) and Aphra (a play he's written about the fabulous Aphra Behn that Bell would choreograph).

Lastly, Bell is a mom who home schools her two young children and also serves as their audition chauffeur. Final note: Heather Lipson Bell is busy.

We met for hot drinks on a rainy Thursday morning for a freewheeling conversation that circled around the ideas of art as a source of inspiration, community and service, making it as a freelance artist in Los Angeles and the immense value of the support of friends and family.

The phenomenon of dance as a tool for work with differently abled people is relatively new to the general public but has been part of Bell's career path from early on. Her first major foray was her senior showcase at Boston Conservatory, with a project that involved blind and deaf dancers. Although the artistic director was “completely not on board, she thought it a terrible idea…,” Bell and her creative partner stayed committed to their idea and eventually found an enthusiastic mentor in their Laban professor. They focused on research, teaching classes and small workshops at both the Perkins School for the Blind  and Caroll Center for The Blind.

“For me it was specifically a movement inspired thing. How do different people move? How do they understand movement?" She continues, "it became really interesting because we met people who were born with different levels of disability. Then also those who had lost their vision - one man who had so much anger but agreed to do our little movement class, and he was able to find movement, spacial awareness and comfort in this new sightless world.” Eventually they combined sighted dancers into the project and her path, curvy and indirect though it would be, was set. “It was this huge vast world that I had never been exposed to…..that kind of sparked my interest in movement study.”

Bell and PAFA at The Hard Rock Cafe in 2016

Bell moved to LA in 1999 “not to dance, but following a boyfriend.  I thought I'd hang out for a year and go back to New York.” But she she stayed, “I was lucky when I came to LA - to meet a really good group of people right away who were not competitive in the typical sense of what I grew up with, but really supportive and were like, well if I don't get the job, it's good because you got the job and we all kind of came up together." She adds, "To this day - I find this a really unique group of women and that has been a great support under everything I do.” Her circle of friends and collaborators continues inspire and support her. When casting dancers for a short film she recently choreographed and co-produced, she invited people to simply take part, without telling them exactly what they would be doing. “I expected five or six people to show up and over 25 beautiful dancers came to give of themselves.”

Bell and Gary Franco dancing with City Ballet of Los Angeles at the Ford Theater in a piece that she choreographed.

Bell talks a lot about community and friendship; of the give and take of this industry. She credits much of her success to friends looking out for one another and mentions job after job that she earned after a recommendation from one friend or another. The path to creating Performing Arts for All started with a job vacated by a friend who went to go dance on a cruise. Bell was hired as a dancer by Zina Bethune and Bethune Theatre Dance, a company that created work with both traditional and differently abled dancers. When Bethune later saw Bell's resume, she hired her as an educator which led to 10 years of teaching dance to people with all kinds of challenges. After Bethune was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, some parents approached Bell because they missed her classes. This inspired the creation of PAFA.

What stands out when listening to Bell speak is the fluidity with which she adjusts the focus of her work. There is equal value given to performance, teaching, choreography and activism - all fueled by a constant search for new and inventive ways to create movement stories. Each feeds the other. For example, when choreographing a film scene with Marines who were uncomfortable with the entire premise of dancing, she drew upon what she had learned teaching those who were blind, having them do movement they were already familiar with, then guiding that movement into patterns to create dance. In this way, she essentially allows her dancers to make their own dances. She sums up her philosophy by saying, “there was never a break, I started teaching at 15, following the concept, from an Ailey dancer, of; I am not your teacher, we teach each other.”  She is also vocal in visualizing, setting goals and manifesting what she wants. For example, when auditioning for a beer commercial she asked in the moment if they had a choreographer. They said no. She got the job.

Bell is pragmatic about the ups and downs of the industry. She revealed her disappointment in coming to the realization that she had limits as a choreographer; that creating new movement vocabulary was not among her skills. Initially she mourned what she considered a failing but then turned that liability into an asset. Becoming an expert at research, she studied organic movement and approached her work that way instead. Her work for the NY Phil was based in flamenco, a dance form that she was unfamiliar with at the beginning of the process yet by the time she came to the performance, the world renowned musician with whom she was partnered thought her an expert.

How does she get through the downs? "In regards to fighting depression, a simple thing to do is find one thing, one small thing a day to be joyous about," says Bell. "We all experience depression and feel stuck or powerless. For me, it seems my nature is to be happy - I am drawn to laughter and beauty and stories of strength and resilience like many, and shy away from darkness and evil and blood and guts." For example, "I choose not to go out for roles playing parts of victims, etc." Adding, "I am drawn to other projects and have been lucky to have opportunities that support this. For me I try to always:  Explore. Learn. Play. Move. Connect. I'll continue to set goals, and take on too much, and procrastinate and enjoy my craft and community and family more than I could ever express."

Bell is quick to credit her family for their ongoing support. Her parents, her husband, even her young children all support and participate in her process. “I was a performer when I met my husband. He knows that it is not about the money.” She recounted her dad's reaction when she turned down an opportunity to create a health oriented business when a much less lucrative but much more artistic performance opportunity arrived. “He was like, of course you'll go dance!”

"We seem to all strive for this ‘balance' or even for ‘perfection' - and it is a fleeting thing. If it wasn't I'm sure I'd be bored by the stillness. I have always been grateful for the language of dance, for experiencing and appreciating on a very deep level the impermanence of what we do. And for the voice and opportunities it has given me. Balancing creative work, work, a marriage and motherhood is a dance. I am constantly reminded what a gift it all is and that I'm not perfect - and that is perfect."

"What I'm doing now, who I am -  was present in me as a very young child. I really have always been an artist and activist and as I've been thinking the examples go so far back. I've always loved human movement and storytelling and history and music and art and elephants and trees and collaboration and community and the connections of it all and just the complexity of this world."

Performing Arts For All has a full schedule for 2017.
Two 6 week workshops culminating with a showcase.
Session 1: 1/7/17 - 2/11/17, Session 2: 2/25/17 - 4/1/17
Additional inclusion workshops at Olive Middle and High Schools (Baldwin Park)
KIDS/IQUE outreach visits us: 2/11/17 & 4/1/17
MUSE/IQUE Concert Field Trips: 2/12/17, 4/2/17
LA BALLET Field Trip: TBA
Performing with LA Opera - Community Opera Noah's Flood - shows 5/6/17

To keep up to date on Bell's work, visit her Website

 

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