Heidi Latsky is a modern dance choreographer in New York City. She first received recognition as a principal dancer in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, toured in the duo company Goldhuber & Latsky and in 2001 founded her own dance company, Heidi Latsky Dance. Latsky has received numerous awards and commissions for her choreography, such as the Creative Capital Award and the Canada Council B Grant. In the past decade, Heidi Latsky Dance has included dancers with disabilities and created new works such as GIMP and ON DISPLAY. Latsky is an advocate for disability rights and serves on the Disability Task Force for Dance/NYC.

Q: How did you start dancing?

A: I was at college studying psychology, one of my friends was a really good disco dancer — disco was becoming the rage — and we started going to these clubs together. We started competing, and then I saw “Turning Point”— it was about two ballerinas who were about to find out who would be elevated to becoming a principal dancer and one of them decided to quit before she found out. Her deep regret over never finding out if she had had the chance to be promoted really resonated with me. I remember thinking that I never wanted to be in a position of looking back and wondering if I could have done something I had wanted to do. So, although at the time I wasn’t even considering the possibility of becoming a professional dancer, when I graduated from college, I took a year off to dance, ski and horseback ride — to experience the opposite of the academic focus of the previous three years. And quite unexpectedly dancing began to take over my life. I truly became addicted to the challenges and the intense physicality of it.

Q: What was the step from dancing for fun and dancing professionally?

A: Well, it was a difficult route. Most people told me I was too old — I was 20 — it’s too old to start, especially as a woman. Women have been training [for ballet] since they were 3. And people in the field throughout my initial training would say things to me like: I was too short to be a Broadway dancer and too old to be a ballet dancer. So I became a modern dancer, but even then a revered modern dance teacher told me I should find another profession. It was discouraging to say the least.

When I finally made my way to New York, because that’s where I felt I needed to be to get the kind of training I needed and dancing I wanted, I got injured, and that took many years to resolve. I don’t know, you have your eyes on the prize — I didn’t know what the prize was, I thought it was Broadway — I tried Broadway, almost got it, I did commercial work and then I took this circuitous route back to modern dance, when I ended up in Donald Byrd’s company, who had danced with Twyla [Tharp], who was one of my idols. It was fabulous, it was physical, it was exciting — qualities I had not associated with modern dance. Donald’s work showed me that the field of modern dance was expansive and that I could find physically satisfying work within it. About a year later, I auditioned and got into the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. I stayed seven years [in Bill T Jones’ company], and it was a huge turning point for me. They became my mentors, they opened my eyes to dance as multifaceted and impactful.

Q: What inspired you to start your own company? What were the challenges you faced in doing so?

A: Because I started dancing late, I was always choreographing because no one would hire me, and I was very impatient. So I was making my own work and although I enjoyed it, I really didn’t know myself as an artist or what my aesthetic was. I got a Canada Council grant to go to New York, study, and make my own work, and at the end of the year when I had to write my final report, [I told them] the grant was really helpful but mostly reinforced my need to be a dancer for a while because I was not ready to choreograph. I didn’t know my voice, what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. And I needed to work as a dancer with choreographers to gain experience. However, there was always that NEED to create. So when I left Bill and Arnie’s company, I made an evening length solo show. I wanted to do everything that I didn’t do when I was with Bill and Arnie, specifically exploring who I was as a woman and how I wanted to move. At the same time, I was working with a Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company member, Larry Goldhuber, who was physically the opposite of me, and we had a very funny duet company. Working with him was brilliant on so many levels: we shared all the administrative responsibilities as well as the artistic ones and created a body of work I was proud of. But as Larry was more of a conceptual theatrical artist, I began to yearn for a more physically challenging aesthetic, so in 2001 I started my own company, Heidi Latsky Dance.

I remember going to Bill T. Jones when he was serving as a mentor to me through a Joyce Theatre residency to tell him I was considering leaving my partnership with Larry. He discouraged me because he said that with Larry I had a nice niche, and that if I went on my own I would be “just another modern dance choreographer.” I so completely understood that, but didn’t care because it was really what I wanted to do, and one thing about me is that I have always listened to my feelings even when they made no logical sense. I have learned to trust my intuition, and I get into trouble when I do not. In addition to my company, I was the head of the movement department at the School for Film and Television, and to subsidize the company I taught at various universities. But everything shifted in 2006, when visual artist Lisa Bufano commissioned a solo from me. What was especially unique about her was that she was a bilateral amputee (she had no fingers or lower legs) and it was an epiphany to work with her incredibly sensual and powerful body. She was a gorgeous mover and I worked with her for six months. It was not easy — most of it was easy, but I had a lot to learn. I didn’t know anything about disability culture and she [Bufano] didn’t know much about dance, so we were trying to understand each other better, and for both of us the learning curve was quite steep. She was fiercely intelligent and so open and vulnerable when she danced. And working with her really solidified for me the qualities I absolutely required for my work. Namely: allowing yourself to be vulnerable and raw, and [having] a fierce determination to “go for it 100 percent.”

Lisa introduced me to many people from the NYC disability community. I learned that disability is a social construct, it’s complex, and I had to respect that, which I wanted to anyway, and make work that honored all the dancers in a way I had not done before. Choreographing at that time became much more collaborative. And the dynamic introduced into the company with the integration of disabled performers — most of whom had never danced before — was fascinating and complex.

For example, one rehearsal sticks out for me. I was in rehearsal with two dancers, one who’s a fabulous technician and former ballet dancer, whose solo was in pointed shoes, it was fast and furious, not soft; and with another, who is an extremely emotional and powerful performer [who is disabled] who was doing a solo with her eyes opened and closed. After rehearsal, they both called me crying saying they couldn’t dance like the other. Their insecurities pointed out the power of both of them and gave each of them incentives to work towards the qualities they each possessed but to different degrees. They’re both really powerful but in really different ways.

For the first eight years the physically integrated field of dance was not quite happening in NYC. What is encouraging is that it is growing quite rapidly now and being more recognized within the field of dance. Since 2006, I have been an ally of the disability community and I will continue to be so, but I also see how the community is pushing for leadership and my company now is working towards integration at every level of our organization.

Q: What are your plans for the company and for your work in the future?

A: ON DISPLAY is a portfolio of works in the form of human sculpture courts. One version is ON DISPLAY GLOBAL, our global initiative to honor International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd. The first time we did [ON DISPLAY GLOBAL] was in 2015 for the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: We did it at the UN, and then we did a simulcast with a group in Australia, and I thought, wow, now I need the world to do this. This year we got 25 sites, and got each site to do it twice, and film the first installation and send it to us, so we actually have a film of most of the installations around the world. Next year we want 50!

The other thing is that I want to bring ON DISPLAY into the theater. ON DISPLAY has been in places like Lincoln Center Out of Doors, in Times Square, on the Highline, in a courtyard, and in a museum. I didn’t design it to work on a stage — it is designed as an art exhibit the audience walks through — but now I’m excited to revamp it for the stage.

Q: Can you explain a little more about what ON DISPLAY is?

A: ON DISPLAY is guerilla art: The viewer becomes the viewed and vice versa. Let’s say I’m a sculpture and I open my eye and you’re right there. I’m looking at you as much as you’re looking at me. It plays with who’s being watched, who’s watching, and it’s very much about being on display, because so many people go through life on display, either being avoided or being stared at, and this is really an opportunity to take full ownership of our bodies and being seen, as well as a safe place for others to really see the performers and hopefully shift their perceptions of beauty and virtuosity.

Q: Any final words about dance?

A: When I discovered dance, it was like discovering a new way of being — a new creative and holistic way of life. A path that keeps me curious about my body — I am currently developing a technique called MARS (Mindful Activation Release Study) — and the art of dance. It was like my first year of college — an awakening. And choreographing is an ongoing problem to solve — which I love as well.

But I think that the last 10 years of work in the disability dance field has been the most fulfilling and has taken the work to another level for me. In college, I considered myself an individualist. Bill T. wanted me to be a feminist, and I definitely became more outspoken and political, but I do firmly believe in a more humanistic outlook, and from GIMP to ON DISPLAY this part of me has been realized in a deeper and more visible way. It has also kept me on “my toes.”

[When talking about dance], it is so easy to fall into the trap of how difficult and challenging this field is. And it is, but the rewards are amazing, and I feel lucky to have found my passion and been able to continue to evolve as an artist for as long as I have.

Contact Carrie Mannino at carrie.mannino@yale.edu .