Alexander Dones

2018 Ambassador Alexander Dones

Anne Mueller: (00:03)

Hi, this is Anne Mueller. I am a Dance Wire member and friend and general fan, and was an ambassador in 2017. I’m here in Portland, Oregon with 2018 ambassador Alexander Dones. It is June 11th, and we are going to talk about Alexander’s life and career in dance as part of the Dance Wire Ambassador Stories Series. Welcome.

Alexander Dones: (00:29)

Hi, thank you for having me.

Anne Mueller: (00:31)

I’m delighted to have you. To get started, if you could give me an overview of all of your current titles, jobs and areas of focus.

Alexander Dones: (00:41)

Primarily, dance would be the big umbrella that everything falls under. Currently I’m an independent performance artist, so I’ll work freelance, performing with companies and choreographers. I also teach and choreograph myself independently. Then aside from all my independent work, I also am a performance group director at a local dance school, which I actually grew up at when I was a kid here, and then went through their whole program. Years later I kind of tumbled back, and it’s super cool to help out with the thing that had a hand in making me who I am. So, I do all that. Outside of dance, I’m also interested in other things but I wouldn’t necessarily say I have job titles with those, but you know, just a tried everything kind of person, I guess.

Anne Mueller: (01:44)

Yeah, I like that. Can you tell me, what disciplines do you teach? What dance styles?

Alexander Dones: (01:52)

At the studio I teach all different styles with all levels and ages. Ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, whatever you call contemporary these days. That’s really, really great because it sounds super, super cheesy, but you learn a lot, especially working with kids that maybe have a different perspective of what dance is than what I have. Because of growing up in a different time I guess. But yeah, it would be those styles, and wiggling and grooving I guess.

Anne Mueller: (02:35)

Great. Do you find since you’re also a performer and a choreographer, that your experience in teaching young dancers informs your process as a dancer yourself?

Alexander Dones: (02:49)

It has. I guess one thing would be working with all these different types of kids or individuals really. It’s given me a better sense of how to adapt from an original idea, and so for me personally, it’s like if I’m setting choreography on myself, or if I’m just performing someone else’s choreography or something, just constantly finding new ways to do something, different ways to do something.That was ingrained from other directors and choreographers I worked with. But, when you see it on the other end, like not being the performer, but being the teacher or the choreographer in the room, it’s like, oh, maybe that is better what you’re doing versus what we were doing five minutes ago.

Anne Mueller: (03:40)

Very cool. You talked a little bit about this, but let’s dig into your personal dance history a little bit, if you could tell us, like when you started dancing, and just give us a brief overview.

Alexander Dones: (03:56)

I first started formal dance, like entering my first dance class, like that kind of training. I mean, I don’t know if you can count the age of four and a half or five because you’re just kind of, you know.

Anne Mueller: (04:11)

Wiggling and grooving.

Alexander Dones: (04:13)

Yeah, exactly. So it would be around that age when I first started, but even before I got into my first class, I was inspired by my older sister. She’s always been a dancer. Her and I would make up dances or perform things in the living room. I’m pretty sure my mom has clear memories of me putting on a Michael Jackson cassette tape. 

Anne Mueller: (04:38)

Which one?

Alexander Dones: (04:40)

All of them, but always, always for some reason, The Free Willy Soundtrack and then just dancing around in the living room. Not doing any moves, just kind of wiggling around. It’s like dance has always been in my life in some form. But formal training, I guess you could say started at five. I started out as a, I guess what you would call a studio dancer or a competition dancer. When I got into high school, I started dancing with the Jefferson Dancers, which is one of the local treasures of dance companies in town, under the direction of Steve Gonzalez, who to this day is still a huge inspiration and a huge mentor for me. Definitely had a hand in not just guiding me as a dancer, but as an individual and someone who wants to dive into this as a career and in a lifestyle essentially.

I had a mixture of that competitive training and then, the Jefferson Dancers is where it really opened me up to more, I guess what you would call concert work.

Anne Mueller: (05:58)

Stage work.

Alexander Dones: (05:59)

I had known of a few companies up until that time. But that was when I really started to realize like, oh gosh, the dance spectrum is so vast. There’s so much in it. From there I did that thing that everyone kind of says not to do. So when I turned 18 and graduated, I moved to New York, no job, no plan. No place to live. I had a friend, I knew I could stay with her for like a week or two. I had not even the promise of an audition, but just say, okay, so when you graduate and you come out here, let us know and we can bring you up for class. Right. One of those. So that’s what I had to go off of. And then from there I just had to wing it. I mean, I’m essentially still a student per se, because you know, I like to go take class. I think as we get older in this, we realize that as much as we’ve learned and acquired, there’s always going to be more and more that’s super cool.

Anne Mueller: (07:06)

That’s the beauty of it.

Alexander Dones: (07:07)

We don’t know. Yeah. And, and that’s, that’s, I just think that’s super cool. That’s essentially the training. I mean, I’ve had intensives and things, like I remember when Portland Ballet was Pacific Artist Dance Center. I did their intensive ones. I would take drop-in classes. Nancy’s great.

Anne Mueller: (07:27)

I’m interested because I also trained in a program where my dance training was integrated with my academics in a high school, junior high and high school program. How do you feel like having that as a possibility for you affected your trajectory in the dancer world like if there weren’t the Jefferson Dancers, how would that have worked?

Alexander Dones: (07:52)

That’s a really interesting question. Because I attribute my jumping into stage performance and then concert dance to Jefferson Dancers. Even before, even say back in like grade four, I knew very clearly I wanted to go to New York and be a dancer. At the time it was, I was more into, and I still am into Broadway. I idolized Jean Kelly and just that whole showy performance aspect of everything. Like, I loved that. And then, it was weird. I’ve never had any family in New York, never visited, but for some reason just like, New York was always the goal. So yeah, even before being introduced to company work, I knew that I wanted to go do that. It’s possible that I could have pursued the Broadway thing full throttle and then fallen into the wonderful, crazy world of contemporary out. So, I don’t really know, but I’m glad that I have had that as an option.

Anne Mueller: (09:10)

Wonderful. Can you elaborate on what dance has meant to you in your life and what it means to you now in your life? Kind of a deep question.

Alexander Dones: (09:20)

It’s quite a question to unpack. Dance, and I say this with no exaggeration, was absolutely something that saved my life and my sister’s, growing up, going to the dance studio was the safe place to be. To not have to be in the house, or about, and just even if we didn’t have class that day because my mom in order to afford all of it, to having two kids in this dance program she had to get a job there to essentially help. And then from there, she started working full time there, not as a teacher or anything. She was, she does all the behind the scenes work in the office. Dance was really something that we had to keep us sane. Honestly. I don’t really know why it ended up being that way because it could have been anything else, like sports or doing plays, whatever, but we both really fell into dancing. It’s definitely been a lifesaver. And then, from an early age, I knew that was the thing that was the thing I was going to do. That’s what I wanted to be. 

Anne Mueller: (10:43)

It was your calling.

Alexander Dones: (10:44)

Very, very much so. 

Anne Mueller: (10:48)

And it sounds like, with you talking about your living room concerts, that it was just in you, in your DNA to do it.

Alexander Dones: (10:57)

Yeah. Well, I mean, honestly I think it’s in everyone’s. Because for me, dance is like, it’s really the most primal form of being. I have a friend, and she said, before you’re even born, you’re moving in the womb. So, it’s like before you speak, before you know language, before shapes or colors, you move, and every animal has body language and it’s something that I think is within everybody and it connects everybody and you don’t need to speak the same language verbally to speak the same language metaphysically.

Anne Mueller: (11:42)

Beautiful. I like it. So, what challenges have you faced in your pursuit of dance?

Alexander Dones: (11:50)

There’s definitely been a lot of external challenges, from growing up during a time when being a dancer wasn’t the coolest, let alone being a boy dancer. But to be honest, I didn’t really like, I was bullied. But I never really let that affect me just because I was so passionate about what I was doing. I kind of just ignored all of it.

Anne Mueller: (12:24)

And it sounds like you had a nice community in the studio where you stayed and you found your people there.

Alexander Dones: (12:30)

Yeah. I’ve been very fortunate to have a mother that’s super crazy supportive, even if logic and what you think should be the right decision is not what I’m doing. She’s like, you do what you need to do. Definitely external challenges, but also more so recently, a lot of internal challenges that I bring on by myself. I think every artist, no matter what profession or how seasoned you are, there’s always that constant, well, am I really doing the right thing? Which kind of goes against what I just said about being so passionate about it, but then, I think that just comes with the territory of it. Like we’re supposed to be constantly questioning, maybe not second guessing, but just…

Anne Mueller: (13:21)

Analyzing, asking questions. 

Alexander Dones: (13:23)

Analyzing and, also, as I get older, I think we grow up and we’re conditioned to think that the lifespan of a dancer is X amount of time. If you’re not hitting these certain milestones or these markers along the way, then you’re behind schedule. Or, or it’s like, if you’re not, I don’t know, like a principal by 23, 24, then you’re out like, or whatever. So just dealing with all that. Also again, not that I’m super crazy old or anything, although I feel it half the time, seeing what I grew up with and what I was a part of not being phased out, but definitely not being like the fresh thing on the block. If that makes any sense. 

Anne Mueller: (14:14)

It does.

Alexander Dones: (14:14)

Then it also becomes a question of like, okay, I’m doing the right thing, but am I still valid? Am I still current? How can I continue to refresh what I’m doing and stay relevant and stay part of what’s going on in the scene, without becoming a dinosaur in the dance world? And just sticking to, you know, counts of eight.

Anne Mueller: (14:37)

And this is what I know, and this is my shtick. Yeah, exactly. No, I think I certainly experienced that in my career as well. I felt like the more that I matured and the more that I learned, the more that I realized, I didn’t know, and that continued right up until I retired, so I totally hear what you’re saying with that. And I think it’s also too, like the dancer mentality of analysis, of self-analysis and of having that amount of self-motivation and discipline to really drag yourself forward. It’s part of the thing that makes you good at what you do, but it’s also something that, at least in my experience, you have to kind of battle against. Because there’s the negative side a little bit to it too, where you’re maybe too hard on yourself sometimes.

Alexander Dones: (15:29)

Oh, for sure. I’ve always been super, super hard on myself. Mostly just because I never want to let anyone down around me, which I know is a crazy thing. You can’t please everybody. But, I still try.

Anne Mueller: (15:44)

Well, especially when you feel like people have really invested in you in your artistic journey.

Alexander Dones: (15:48)

Or even the other way around, just being really invested in all the people that you’re with. And it’s like whether it’s family or my fellow dancers or my choreographer, I don’t want to let anyone down. I don’t want to be the reason that this goes south, you know.

Anne Mueller: (16:05)

So, connected to that, can you talk about the people or resources or opportunities that you feel have helped you the most in your journey?

Alexander Dones: (16:18)

I mean gosh, there’s so many, I like to think that every person and every event, you know, shapes who we become and where we go, totally a fortune cookie kind of answer. But I mean, that’s the truth if I’m being specific. Obviously this is my family. 

Anne Mueller: (16:40)

And your sister, you, you mentioned was a big influence. 

Alexander Dones: (16:42)

Yeah, my sister and we’re definitely best friends for sure. Because we’re only separated by a couple years, there’s enough of a difference to be different people and do our own things. But then, we’re also very close. Family’s been a big inspiration. All the teachers and choreographers I worked with, even the crazy ones, because I feel like you can learn something from everything, even if that’s not what I want to do. Or that’s not my style. It’s not what I want to be. That’s not how I want to teach. That’s not right. My thing. But definitely more of the positives in my life than the, oh, that’s not what I want to do experiences. Like I said, Steve, at Jefferson, huge impact.

Then let’s see, I would say another huge influence actually is one of the choreographers I’m currently with still, his name is Doug Elkins. He’s out in New York City. He started out as a break dancer back in the nineties. Eighties, nineties. Then transitioned into stage dance and contemporary dance. Instead of going the other way, like taking a formally, technically trained dancer in throwing him on the street, it’s like this guy who’s like, I just like to move. 

Anne Mueller: (18:12)

Do you still see that influence in his style?

Alexander Dones: (18:14)

Absolutely. Both in movement and choreographically, because working with Doug, we have a lot of similar tastes in ways of thinking. It’s like taking all these different random, maybe at first glance non cohesive ideas, and throwing them into a blender and then uncovering how they actually are all related and part of the same vibe. Then always a dash of humor.

I just really admire him as an individual and his style and what he’s done in the dance scene. The thing that he’s influenced me with the most is remembering to always have that sense of play. Because that’s what makes it meaningful and not just a nine to five job. I’ve definitely as a freelancer, you definitely need to have to take jobs that maybe you’re not super passionate about, but it’s related to the field that you’re in. He’s definitely reminded me to always find that sense of play in everything that you do. 

Anne Mueller: (19:30)

A great perspective. It can be so weighty, if you feel like you’re trying to say something really important all the time. 

Alexander Dones: (19:36)

Humor in dance is one of the hardest things to pull off, honestly. I mean comedy in general, like  it’s all about timing, it’s reading the room, it’s, you don’t want to overdo it. You can’t, you don’t necessarily want to understate some things. Then also his process, he’s very, very collaborative, which I love being the same way. I’m not choreographing every single step or movement or count. I very much rely on the people in the room with me when I get to work with other dancers and not just do another solo myself. I very much rely on other people to give their input, come up with movement, talk about ideas. Also just his way of getting together these groups of people, it’s so special, the chemistry and the magic that happens in the room and that itself is like an art form.

Because you could take fabulous dancers, but if they don’t have that, that thing that they connect to each other. It just looks like a piece with a bunch of stunning, technically trained dancers. But in order to transcend that and make something more, you have to be able to find the right combination of personalities and energies. That’s something he does really well. That’s inspired me as a choreographer to add that into what I think about when I’m doing projects and not just what is the project and what it’s about, but who do I think would be right for it.

Anne Mueller: (21:17)

I think that’s beautiful. And that makes me think about as artists and creators, making sure that we’re enjoying our process of creation, not just making it all about the outcome and the performance, but making sure that we’re creating situations that feed us artistically and otherwise every step of the way.

Alexander Dones: (21:39)

I mean, you have to be able to enjoy it because if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then that’s definitely a sign you have to step back. And be like, well, okay, what is it about this that I’m not enjoying? Is there something I can do actively to change that? Then if not, then it’s like, well maybe I should consider…

Anne Mueller: (22:02)

A new direction.

Alexander Dones: (22:03)

Yeah, exactly. 

Anne Mueller: (22:04)

I’m curious to hear how you would describe the current dance scene in Portland. And then maybe since you have sort of a Tri-City existence, you could talk a little bit about that as well. 

Alexander Dones: (22:19)

I definitely think the dance scene in Portland is increasing a lot in a great way. I think there’s more now than there has been and that’s all thanks to the do it yourself mentality. Another reason I think that’s the case too, is we’re seeing a generation of dancers that aren’t waiting for permission from somebody else to do something or aren’t waiting for someone else to say, yeah, let’s do this. It’s it’s all about, if you have an idea and you want to pursue it and spearhead it, then you do it. Hopefully you find the people that are willing to jump in the wagon with you and take that ride. 

I very much enjoy the dance scene here in Portland. I think it’s very mixed. You have a little bit of everything, from your classically trained ballet companies, to your quirky modern companies to a mixture of both, to the whole performance art crawling out of a cardboard box with like foil and just clapping your hands and saying, what is, what is all of this kind of dance, which I love that too. There’s so much here in Portland.

I think that there’s a change coming in where people are hopefully starting to be a little bit more receptive to open collaboration and sharing. Not just of dancers, but also of audiences. I think because Portland traditionally has been a smaller market, I’m no expert, this is just my perception of it. I feel like because Portland is a smaller or has been a smaller art market specifically with dance, it, in a way it’s been like, well, we don’t want to lose our audience members because they’re not necessarily going to go see 80 dance shows here. They’re going to see a couple. And so we want to make sure they come to ours. I feel that changing and I think too, it goes back to a new generation is kind of not, I don’t want to say moving up because I’m not implying anyone’s being replaced, but it’s just, I think it’s a mentality thing. 

Anne Mueller: (24:52)

We also have this population increase that’s happening. You know, I don’t know the exact statistic, but it’s somewhere between like 110 and 140 people moving to the city each day. So we do have the benefit of being in an environment where more people are coming so the audience you know.

Alexander Dones: (25:11)

And Portland has definitely become a bigger place on the map. Not just with dance, it’s always been a culinary destination and a music destination. With the show Portlandia it definitely opened up everyone’s eyes to like the city. And Literary Arts too, so I think all of that is finally coming together and really making Portland a cool place to be that isn’t super overloaded just yet.

Anne Mueller: (25:47)

And then, just quickly tell us a little bit about your experience in Detroit and New York and like maybe a little compare and contrast.

Alexander Dones: (25:55)

I was in New York before I went to Detroit. It’s definitely an experience that I think everyone who wants to do this should have at least once, you know, go to New York and see what’s happening. See if you fall into anything. It’s such a huge city and at the same time, it can feel very, very small when you’re fully engrossed into what you’re doing and the circle of people that you’re working with or hanging out with. There’s still numerous pockets of Manhattan that I have not even set foot in because, just it’s, it’s so big. 

In Detroit, it’s definitely still a city, but it’s a lot smaller as far as people. Detroit, isn’t traditionally known to be it, it’s known more for music, for sure. Like the whole Motown scene. Definitely for sports and visual art dance has never, I shouldn’t say that, I shouldn’t say never, dance isn’t necessarily one of the first things you think of when you think of Detroit. That said, there’s tons of dance out there. When I was living up there a couple years ago, it was really cool because they were starting to connect and create an actual network similar to Dance Wire. Very similar to Dance Wire where it’s like flipping that zero sum game theory around, and into a positive sum game. Where it’s like, if we ensure that we help each other, we all win. I think that’s the mentality that, whether it’s Detroit or Portland or whatever, I think that’s becoming more and more acknowledged, which is cool. Definitely differences between Detroit and New York, as far as just like the vibe of the city. I mean, New York is New York. You can say those words and like a thousand ideas and feelings come up. 

Whereas with Detroit, I think at least recently it’s mostly associated with financial trouble, people fleeing the city. Abandoning it. When I was there, it was this weird, beautifully haunting, crazy kind of mixture of seeing gorgeous architecture and infrastructure next to something that’s burned down, shattered. Next to a brand new art gallery. It’s really kind of a bizarre scene, but not in a bad sense at all. Just very, yeah, very, very mixed, very much it’s becoming its own thing, which I think is super cool.

Anne Mueller: (28:52)

Well, that must be really satisfying and interesting for you to sort of participate in all three of these communities and experience the riches that each has to offer you in your career.

Alexander Dones: (29:05)

It definitely is. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to wander around and travel and go to these different places and have these people, you know, to support me and to have me be part of these things. I’m very thankful that when I go to these different places, I get to contribute and give back and help out with whatever I can.

Anne Mueller: (29:30)

Well, it has been a great pleasure to talk with you today and to get to know more about you and your journeys in dance. I’m excited that you’re a 2018 ambassador, and I hope that the rest of your ambassador year brings you great things.

Alexander Dones: (29:47)

Thank you. I’ve been sitting here and it’s funny, I’m kind of  fanboying. I’m like, I’m sitting with Anne, and I should be asking super you the questions. Because you’re just like an icon, oh my it’s like, I’m super like clammy hands and nervous. 

Anne Mueller: (30:03)

My God. That’s really sweet. You made my night. Thank you. And on that awesome note, let’s say goodbye and thank you everybody for listening. 

Alexander Dones: (30:14)

Thanks, y’all. Check out Dance Wire. It’s definitely the place to be for connecting to dance. Check it out.