The Never Ending Story was a major part of my childhood so it means a lot that Tami Stronach took the time out during her busy schedule to answer some questions.
PINNLAND EMPIRE: You’re essentially a renaissance woman (film, dance, theater, music) - what was it growing up that attracted you to so many different arts? Did your parents encourage it? Or do you think it was just embedded in you from birth?
TAMI STRONACH: I definitely came out of the womb singing and dancing but it was also the encouragement I received from my parents. I do think it is really interesting to consider how one's internal sphere mixes with external stimuli and what results from that exchange. My parents were archaeologists but in their early lives they were involved in the arts. I learned recently that my father very much enjoyed acting in Shakespeare plays in high school. This was a kind of a "Ah Ha" moment for me. His eyes sparkled as he described performing in hollowed-out castles in Scotland while attending Gordonstoun. That kind of site-specific theatrical event is magical to me. My mother was a serious gymnast as a teen-ager—so my DNA definitely craves movement. I think it all began at 4 when my parents took me to see Swan Lake which made a big impression on me. I ended up performing my own version of the dying swan ad nauseam and my parents were always a willing audience. To me acting, dancing and singing are all part of the same gesture. They are different modalities of story telling. They have their own properties and differing techniques. I am interested in what is special about each art form. How do ideas get expressed across these differing platforms? I often try to plant my flag at the intersection of dance and theater.
PE: What was it about dance & choreography that made you participate in that more than anything else over the years (acting, music, etc)?
TS: Dance is a young person’s game. You need to be fit and uninjured and have the energy to move 8 hours a day. I understood that and prioritized dancing while I could. But also, after the film we as a family agreed that my parents might not be able to steer me through the Hollywood machine as a child actor without me being seriously chewed up. There were no classes on how to gracefully handle all that. I also wasn’t happy with the scripts I got. Some had way more violence than seemed appropriate for a kid to be around. There was a European script offer with nudity for an 11 year old in it, and frankly all the scripts I was offered were really more about being exploited as wallpaper--or worse. If I had access to a savvy manager I would have loved to stay in the big budget Hollywood movie game, but coming from an academic family we just didn’t have the experience needed to change the rules of the game to favor us. As a result I chose to focus on dance and fell in love with it in a serious way. The funny thing is that I have been quietly acting in plays in NYC for the last 20 years, most notably as a member of the physical theater company; The Flying Machine. I worked with them for 7 years and was a part of developing 4 original plays that received support from a Soho Rep in NYC. It was a thrilling experimental troupe that integrated elements of masque and stylized movement to create highly imaginative visually distinct works. So I never left acting entirely. I just preferred to work on smaller scale live projects where I could have creative input and be part of a collaborative team.
Now that I’m 43 and a mom and have been nursing herniated disks and other injuries that are just par for the course in the life of a dancer, I am excited about making even more space for acting and music again. And I’ll keep choreographing because... I can't stop. I am starting a new dance work that has been commissioned by the Czech Center as part of their Prague-NY effects series. I am being paired with Czech artist Tomáš Dvořák (aka Floex) who is a multi-media artist/musician. I’m looking forward to it! We will perform both in NYC and Prague in September 2016.
TS: That record was made in the blink of an eye. I was promoting the Never Ending Story on a daytime TV show. On the program I sang a bar off 99 red balloons which was popular then and we got a call from Jupitor Records that night to see if I wanted to record a song for them. My mom agreed to let me do it as long as we got on our departing plane scheduled to leave in 3 days. So we recorded Fairy Queen and Riding on a Rainbow, made a music video and promoted the new song on a daytime show all in 3 days. It was crazy and fast and I had nothing to do with any of the production elements. But I loved it. My daughter likes to sing it now which makes me smile.
PE: Do you keep up with music-making today?
TS: And it’s funny you should ask that - I wasn’t ready to really talk about this yet but—I love singing. I did a bunch of musical theater as a kid and always found myself being asked to sing in dance and theater over the years. As a young person I seemed to always attract rock stars into my life quite literally. For example, my best friend in the world (Karina Denike) and I used to busk on the streets of Berkeley for pizza money in high school. She is an incredible singer. She caught a break early and became a big deal in the 90’s with the ska band Dance Hall Crashers, and has gone on to make awesome solo music, and is now on tour playing keyboards for NOFX. Anyway, I dated one of the other members of Dance Hall Crashers (Mikey Weiss) for a long time. He and I are still really close friends. So my scene in NYC is populated with singer/songwriters and indie folkies and rockers of one kind or another, and while I’ve never really taken myself all that seriously as a ‘singer’ I always had great music makers around me. So, maybe it won’t be all that surprising to hear that I have actually been in the recording studio this year working on a ‘family music’ project with the help of some great musician friends. I guess we’re calling it a folk rock opera ‘concept’ album? It tells the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, but we wanted it to be music that grownups would really want to listen to. So our record starts out folk, even old-timey. Jack is imagined as a kind of young country boy from the wrong side of the tracks. A silly Woody Guthrie maybe. Then when Jack goes up the beanstalk to the mansion in the sky, the music changes its vibe. In our version behind the door is not the traditional giant’s wife, but rather his daughter. She’s a rebel. She’s rock & roll. And she and Jack fall for each other and run off together to have a band. I liked the idea of him stealing her heart as the twist. I sing her bits and it’s a really fun crazy tour through rock styles. And yes, we do have a couple of awesomely ‘derivative’ 80’s sounding tracks on there. It is incredibly fun, slightly mad, totally terrifying, and we just gave our first concert of it for live humans this June in NYC. It was really fun! It’s called Beanstalk Jack and will be available really soon via the Paper Canoe Company website: www.papercanoecompany.com
|Around The Bend|
TS: It is a dance theater piece about being in the middle of things. In a culture that really loves youth and beginnings, I found myself ‘in the middle’ of my life. I think people generally like endings, but things that have to do with the middle skew negative—mid-life crisis, stuck in the middle, etc. I made the piece to reflect on what being in the middle of things means to me, to my dancers and to audiences. The work is a kind of a challenge to myself to keep inviting risk into my life at a time where the temptation to gravitate to routines and safety is increasing. Watching my parents age but still make the most of their time even as their bodies are breaking down was also part of the need to make this work. While I was making the dance I visited my folks and as part of that trip I attended a dance class for patients with Parkinson's disease that my dad was taking. The people in this class all had a lot of trouble with their motor skills but they held hands and did simple folk steps together and for me this was very moving to be a part of. I incorporated some simple folk steps done holding hands into the piece because dance really can sooth us when we are faced with things we cant control. The work is structured as a party to which the audience is invited and mid-work we actually hand out wine to everyone and make a toast asking them to imagine that they are at the exact midpoint of their lives. It’s kind of a bitter sweet moment. People often chuckle nervously. The work addresses serious themes that affects everyone with humor. In terms of style, I know that sometimes modern dance can feel like a foreign language to people who don’t see a lot of it, and in a way it is true that you have to spend time practicing how to digest abstract movement to enjoy that experience. So in this piece I wanted to balance that rich but more elusive aesthetic with really accessible theatrical material so everyone felt included.
PE: I had the pleasure of watching all the video clips on your website. What inspires the experimental/abstract quality of all your work?
TS: I am really interested in the way the subconscious and the conscious interact. I’ve witnessed the way my gut will react to something, and then I spend days or months trying to rationalize why I feel the way I feel. For me, dance is this curious form that gives expression to subconscious drives. You get in the studio and ask yourself questions - Do I want to charge or retreat open, or close myself off? And then there are million ways to uncover how to express those impulses aesthetically. In dance every abstract movement has to be performed by a breathing living body. The act of moving itself affects us physically and emotionally. If you smile for a minute you feel happy—it actually changes he chemicals in your brain. That means that the shapes we put ourselves in influence how we feel. That is so cool and mysterious and special to dance. Performing abstracted complex moves gives one access to a deep range of feeling and sensation that we normally don’t have access to. A lot of things in life conspire to shut us down—like doing taxes. Dance wakes me up to the intelligence of the body and a rich reservoir of experience that exists beyond language. To me being alive is about being in motion--transformation requires motion. I can’t fully articulate it but here is an attempt - I find lost pieces of myself choreographing. I tap into and access corners of myself that needed attending to. So when I make it work, I feel whole again. I am also just a nerd about form. There is that thrill to building a dance—the compositional satisfaction of creating something structurally sound.
PE: As an adult you seem to still love & embrace your performance in The Never Ending Story. A lot of adult actors/entertainers tend to shy away/distance themselves from childhood performances for various reasons. Is it because you found success in other arts over the years (Dance, theater, choreography, music) that it makes it easier for you to still stay (emotionally) connected to your performance as the Empress?
TS: Yes I think having created art that was really fulfilling for last 20 years and now being a professor and a mom I just feel grateful to have had this extraordinary experience as a child. It feels good to thank people for the good wishes they send me. It’s a special way to connect with folks.
PE: Was there ever a point in your life where you did want to distance yourself from The Never Ending Story?
TS: Yes, as a teenager I didn’t tell people I was in the film. Even though most people who did find out were just supportive and curious. But I did have several serious stalkers. That was difficult to navigate. Ultimately, as a teen I wanted to fit in. Not to stick out. Then later as a young artist in NYC I wanted to make my mark without talking about it. It didn’t lend me gravitas in the modern dance scene to have been in a movie as a kid. But now as a mom, and a generative story teller I think a lot about what kinds of stories I want to share with my daughter, and its has made me embrace the experience. It’s obviously very beautiful that the film has deep meaning for people and still moves them. I feel very lucky to be part of a story like that. I’m finally happy to meet the world a bit more head on about it. It's about time!
PE: Were you aware of Wolfgang Peterson’s filmography prior to working with him? Or where you too young?
TS: I was not aware of his past films. But I definitely followed his films after.
PE: With that being said – are you a film buff/cinephile? If so, what are some of your favorite films and/filmmakers (past & present)?
TS: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Blade Runner, Princess Bride, The Matrix, and Labyrinth (because of Bowie). Wow, I guess I’m pretty nostalgic about old films.
PE: Can you tell the readers about “Posledni Z Aporveru? (you can give just a basic synopsis. Or feel free to expand & write as much as you want).
TS: I did it on a whim—I choreographed the fight choreography for it and got to visit Prague that summer.
TS: No, not yet. I just did a twitter poll and people seem to agree that 7 or eight is the right age. We will have to talk about the horse scene.
PE: What does your daughter think of her mom playing such an iconic character? Is she old enough to understand?
TS: Not really, but she knows we make art as a family. She comes to our shows. She wants to be in the shows. I’ve actually danced with her at the Whitney Museum and at the Movement Research’s Improvisation Festival. This summer we made a sock puppet show for kids her age in the neighborhood. She’s angling to get a part in that—I think we should give her a small role next spring. She regularly watches me choreograph and is surrounded by art all the time. Music is her thing so she loves the Beanstalk Jack project.
PE: Thank you so much for taking the time out for this interview. Any closing words?
TS: People can always visit our website and check out what we are doing and make a donation there. “Light” is an original play that my husband wrote about a world where the sun has been stolen. We wanted to make a story with a young girl as the hero for our daughter and kids everywhere. I’m a sci-fi junky, so I’m really excited about bringing that kind of dystopian universe to the theater. We have performed two incarnations of the piece and will keep refining it over the course of next year. As with every artistic endeavor it takes a village so our work is supported in part by individual donations. It has been really lovely to have gotten support from people around the world. The project has also been really fun for me because I get to do some nice juicy acting again.
As a child I wanted to be in the Never Ending Story because I was a theater kid who loved acting. It was never about celebrity. If after the release of NES I had gotten offered a role in a film that I had wanted to be a part of I certainly would have taken it. That’s true today too. But I never have stopped doing the part of art making that I really like. For me being in the studio—inventing—collaborating--that is the most exciting place to be. As a teacher I am a mentor to many young choreographers now and I of course love entertaining family audiences. I am passionate about empowering the next generation of young people to believe in the power of their imagination to manifest…whatever they dream of. It’s also important to allow dreams to change—for one’s perspective to mature. How to chart a course that fits ones soul is the big question. It goes back to your original question of what is embedded in us (internal) to us and what do we receive externally. How to steer a path that is both authentic to oneself and responsive to the world. I’m putting together a talk about doing that. Maybe I will call it “Do What You Dream.”
Please check out Tami Stronach Dance and Paper Canoe Company to find out about upcoming events. Wishing for everyone to have courage and imagination!