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Sup Dhanasunthorn – Featured Choreographer February

2 Feb 2016

Interview by Tomorr Kokona

Sup Dhanasunthorn is from San Francisco and trained at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. He moved to London after appearing in Miss Saigon, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Saturday Night Live. After touring Canada, the US and China with The Spirit of Christmas, Sup returned to London to launch his contemporary dance company, Embody. Other credits include Universal’s 47 Ronin, Olly Murs, Aida at the Royal Albert Hall, Strictly Come Dancing and the UK and European tour of Disney’s The Lion King. Currently a member of the new Equity Dance Committee, and a recent recipient of the Dance London’s Change Maker Award, Sup continues to provide workshops and seminars, enriching the future talents of dance.

Sup Dhanasunthorn. Photo by Nana Klimek

Sup Dhanasunthorn. Photo by Nana Klimek

Sup, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m driven by my passion. When I was performing, it was always, “What’s the next gig?” When I retired from performance, I used that drive towards all the projects I was passionate about. I created The Hustle Academy five years ago to build a community of artists who support each other. With a network of over 30,000, and with the incredible support of five volunteer admins, we have an opportunity and responsibility to positively influence our industry. In the pursuit to enrich this community, I am creating the new Hustle Community website, an interactive, all-purpose resource for all performers and creatives to navigate a professional career. In addition to all the tools, I want to celebrate these industry leaders and organisations that support and nurture artists all in one place. I believe that education, mentorship and tackling issues from within can bring about positive change.

Alongside this I lead movement and career development workshops in schools and institutions across the UK. And

I was recently elected as one of the dance representatives to Equity’s Stage Committee and Screen and New Media Committee.

Lately, I completed a residency with Beautiful Confusion Collective to create my new work, Untold History, with Embody, the contemporary dance company I created with Marina Guarnieri. We strive to create work that provides a voice for all minority communities in true celebration of our own uniqueness.

Currently, I am creating an Industry Standards Rates for Professional Dancers, Teachers and Choreographers. I’ve gathered points of view from the dance community, agents, casting directors and producers to give a snapshot of where the industry is today.

Could you tell us how you first got into choreography?

Wow, let me see if I can remember that far back. Growing up, my earliest memories in dance were my brother and I in the garage coming up with routines to music we recorded off the radio. Yup, I said it, cassettes tapes! I began my studies in music, from piano, to violin, cello and finally bass, and I was fascinated how music connects us, not only to each other but to our emotions. When I hear sounds I see movement, shapes, patterns and colours. It was later that I finally discovered that inspiration can also exist in the void of silence.

sup1My first opportunity to choreograph was during my high school production of Singin in the Rain. I began my dance training in tap, so it was a perfect fit. Christina Stroeh, the director of the production, is one of the main reasons why I pursued a career in dance. I owe working on cruise ships to landing my first professional choreography project. Like touring, while working on cruise ships you have an opportunity to explore movement and expression in an environment full of talented dancers who are open to experimenting with you. Having my work commissioned and performed on a professional stage was incredible.

Part of your working day requires you to be in the office; how do you keep your passion alive and what inspires you?

As dancers, from performers to teachers, choreographers and everything in-between, we never lose our passion. When I first retired from performing, like most people I was lost and scared that I wouldn’t find anything else I was passionate about. Dancers Career Development (DCD) literally changed my life. At first, I met with Jennifer Curry, and as a dancer, I was ready to work. I researched and came in with all these options and avenues to explore, and she said, “Take time to breathe.” “What . . . really? Huh?” I responded. That day I took the long way home . . . to breathe. The days following, I stole moments “to breathe”. Ideas began swarming in and other passions flooded my mind. I never realised I was unsuccessfully trying to put myself into the “career” box. I then understood that I had to build my own future, and if the opportunities are scarce then you create them. Like I said, that conversation literally changed my life. At the DCD Evolve event at the ROH I rediscovered my passion for creating. A couple of weeks later I had a residency to explore and develop a new work.

Before coming to London, you trained in the US. Can you tell us about your adaptation or integration process, and what challenges do you think choreographers face today?

I’ve always had a love for travel and began my formal training in New York a long, long time ago, when dancers were still considered “gypsies”. It was an incredibly intensive course, but we left prepared to go where the work is.

The first 10 years of my performing career, I lived out of my suitcase, travelling the world. I was incredibly lucky. My decision to move to London was when I fell in love with contemporary dance, wanting to learn these new techniques, before it was too late. It is always a struggle to make new connections in a foreign land, so I contacted every contemporary company and that inspired me to attend company class and any upcoming performance dates. I was travelling to Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, just to explore with these incredible companies, even if only for a day. And the experience was invaluable.

You are a real advocate for dancers’ employment rights and general well-being. What do you think could be improved in this context? 

First and foremost I believe that to truly make a positive change always involves collaboration. It is only as a sup2collective that we can make an impact. I will reiterate that education and mentorship for the future talents in dance is extremely important. I believe it takes transparency, and the relentless pursuit to bring some black and white into a lot of “grey”. As I’ve developed the Industry Standards Rates for Professional Dancers, Teachers and Choreographers, I’ve discovered that there are two different rates for each project. In the US we call it union and non-union, depending on the project, medium or producing body. For example, a self-funded project or a funded project, a private event or a corporate event – although they might require the same from the performer or choreographer, the rates are completely different. What if this was clearly published and spread throughout our community? This is my goal, to empower our community and promote good business practice. We must also focus on creating relationships with producers, helping them get on the right path.

How do you select your collaborators (dancers, musicians, costume-makers, etc.), and what is your role in devising the work?

Ha-ha. I have a little black book of people who have inspired me throughout my journey. And if they are unavailable I use their recommendations. It is so important to have a team that you can trust and who challenge you when creating work. It is important to understand not only how you work but also those around you. Collaborations should always be a dialogue, where everyone can contribute. Personally, I always allow room for movement in concept and direction. I trust that the path will always present itself, even if the final product is hazy. This has worked for me.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

sup3I launched Embody in 2011, when Holly Noble from A.D. Dance Company and Jane Coulston from Beyond Repair Dance gave me an opportunity to perform our first work, I Am, at Ingenium, a platform for contemporary dance in London. It was the first time I showcased my work, and to be surrounded by so many incredible companies and to be reviewed by Graham Watts at the beginning of my contemporary journey was an honour. The true highlight of this experience was the support and guidance from the other choreographers, which I still receive to this day.

One Dance UK has an incredible mentorship programme where established choreographers can share their experiences with the future leaders and creatives in dance.

Another highlight came in the form of choreographing for a charity event. I was given a narrative, and an extremely tight budget, to create a work incorporating live percussion and contemporary movement. The setting was a dance floor in a banquet hall in a hotel, to be performed in between courses – definitely not very extravagant. But it was the work we created and the dancers involved that I will always treasure. To this day, it is the proudest work I’ve created. A challenge I faced during this project – which many choreographers face – was budget. Choreographers have rates and dancers have rates. This is only my opinion, part of my own “rules and regulations” I’ve created for myself: I believe that choreographers have a responsibility to ensure their dancers are paid appropriately. Through negotiations, I cut my rates in order to achieve this. We must all create our own “rules and regulations”, and Equity has produced some choreographer guidelines that can help you create your own.

Winning the Change Maker Award at the Dance London Inspires Awards was the highlight of my life.

Finally, touring with The Lion King was not only a highlight of my performing career but also gave me the opportunity to discover my own movement. For two years I was surrounded by the most talented dancers from around the world, and I will always be indebted to them for allowing me to experiment and share my vision with them.

Do you have any words of advice for young choreographers?

Never stop creating. Every moment there is an opportunity for inspiration. Break all the rules, and allow yourself to make mistakes.

Perform. Learn from other choreographers, how they create, rehearse, produce.

Find your own voice in movement.

Logistically, create an online presence – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo. It is so easy to create websites now. Begin archiving your explorations and performances. Allow others to see your journey.

Finally, support one another. This is such a small community. A dancer that you employ one day could be commissioning you to produce a work another day. You never know where the next opportunity will come from.