but just a few months after graduating, she embarked on an extraordinary dance adventure (In the photo: “This is a photo taken in my last weeks in Japan as the Sakura or Cherry Blossom season was just beginning.” Photo by Matthew Ibbotson)
Crystal Gurrola is a Company Member with Hedwig Dances, the Chicago-based Company that Artistic Director Jan Bartoszek founded thirty-three years ago. Her early professional training came in Nick Pupillo’s outstanding Visceral Studio Company and at The University of Iowa, but just a few months after graduating, she embarked on an extraordinary dance adventure. She accepted a job dancing in a major Japanese theme park, where she stayed for thirteen months. We reached out to Crystal to find out just absolutely as much as we could about this challenging but, as you’ll see, rewarding exploration of an unusual path in dance. Here’s what she told us:
I love traveling and exploring the world. Japan was always a destination on my list because I have and still do find it culturally fascinating. (Photo: Crystal in front a Japanese Maple Tree while on a nature hike just outside of Osaka)
Johnny Nevin: Can you tell us a little more about dancing in Osaka, Japan in the cast of a major theme park’s performances? What was this job? For example, what were the performances like — were you on stage, or was this out in the open in the park?
Crystal Gurrola: I was cast in a very popular dance performance in a popular theme park in Japan. Our outdoor stage, which stood about three feet above the audience, was always surrounded by swarms of fans waiting to see the show. The whole show was only fifteen minutes long, but we performed it four to five times per day and five days per week. There were eight people in my cast, four female dancers, three male dancers, and a female emcee. For each show, we would all ceremoniously enter the stage together in a single file line, to the sound of jubilant music. We had a stage assistant to help us push our way through the crowd. The emcee greeted the guests with all her enthusiasm to get them hyped for the dancing that was soon to come, and for the competitive spirit of the show. Her dialogue was half in British English and half in Japanese. First the boys took the stage, with their very strong and acrobatically impressive performance. They performed stunts with heavy staffs and broke out into some militant mannered stage combat. Then the emcee introduced the four ladies to take the stage. Our performance was elegant and delightful, simple but precise. It was a balletic piece with long ribbons in each of our hands that added some loft and a magical quality to the choreography. The real magic though was in the seamless unison of it all. It was not at all artistically challenging but it was a crowd pleaser. I most enjoyed being able to see the look of wonder on the kids’ faces so up close.
I still managed to travel to Seoul, Hong Kong, Bali, the top of Mt. Fuji, and various cities within Japan. (In the photo: “Hitting a tilt at the top of Mt. Fuji”)
Johnny: What was it that made you decide to take on this challenge, to accept this job, move to Japan, and dance for more than a year?
Crystal: I never thought I would be working in a theme park. My training was mostly in contemporary concert dance, but there I was attracted by the chance to spend a year abroad in Japan and getting paid to do it. It was actually thirteen months to be specific, which was shortened down from the original fourteen-month contract that I signed. Those types of amendments are pretty typical of corporate entertainment companies.
I was a bit hesitant at first to accept, and rightfully so because there was a lot to consider which I’ll get more into later. Even so, there were more important reasons for me to say yes which I ultimately did…
For one thing, I was three months out of college when I auditioned, and seven months out when I received my offer from the company. I think all new grads feel so pressured upon graduating to immediately prove their worth. We all hate that question “So what are you gunna do next?” especially when we genuinely have no idea. I was doing some small dance projects here and there but mostly working at a restaurant. Here was an opportunity, even if it wasn’t my dream job, that I could actually feel proud of because I’d be consistently dancing and being paid well for it.
I was living in NYC at the time I was offered the contract. My parents were helping me to pay my rent which I desperately wanted to relieve them of. Taking this contract would allow me to save enough money to be financially stable when I returned. (I ended up returning to my hometown, Chicago, but that’s for another interview.) The theme park company provided housing for all their international performers, bill free, rent free, a solid paycheck, plus a daily per diem, and as residents we benefitted from the Japanese healthcare system.
Finally, I love traveling and exploring the world. Japan was always a destination on my list because I have and still do find it culturally fascinating. Being there put me in close proximity to the rest of Asia, which I could explore on my days off and vacations. I did not get a lot of vacation time because I was in a single-cast show — which meant the company told my whole cast exactly when we could have our “time off” and nothing else outside of that. This came out to three 4-day vacations throughout the contract. I still managed to travel to Seoul, Hong Kong, Bali, the top of Mt. Fuji, and various cities within Japan.
That reflective time not only kept me motivated at work but also helped me visualize my career goals and what I wanted to do when I left Japan. (In the photo: “Sunrise yoga at The Park Hyatt in Tokyo”)
Johnny: Something I’ve often seen in musicians who I’ve worked with in the studio is how much better they can be when they tour intensively. There seems to be something about the relentless repetition of a performance that can sometimes really make an artist stronger. Do you think that was true of this job, and more generally, what do you think this job did for you as a dancer?
Crystal: Over my thirteen months in Japan, I performed this one show more than 1200 times. Relentless repetition is an understatement in this case, and it certainly presented its challenges. I went from taking several well-rounded dance classes a week in NYC to almost exclusively dancing this one routine. As far as dance technique, it was probably more of a setback, honestly. I even developed a case of patella-femoral syndrome from dancing in the high heeled shoes required for my costume, which fortunately I’ve been able to work through since and my knees are much better now. Of course, there were also many ways that I did grow from this experience but more so in the realm of my performative and professional development.
When I said earlier that this show was not artistically challenging, I meant that there weren’t any complex issues or relationships behind the movement. When a choreographer enriches their work with those ideas they’ve already given their dancers a goldmine to draw from artistically. When you haven’t been given any of that and are asked to repeat and repeat and repeat, that means the nuance has to come entirely from yourself. I think that is the greatest artistic challenge of them all. I had to ask myself, even though this dance means nothing, how can I make it mean something? How can I make the stakes feel real? And how can I make it different from the last time? I had to turn this into a bit of a game for myself to keep it fresh.
In the rehearsal process, we would show up prepared to learn and take a lot of detailed, specific corrections until we were show ready, but it doesn’t take long after that for habits to form. It’s easy to think that once you’ve performed something more than 100 or more than 500 times you must be doing it right, but we often still received corrections from the Show Captain or the Artistic Head of the park. The mistakes you’ve drilled into your body are the hardest to change, especially if you’re stubborn like me! So I had to learn to be more malleable, to not become attached to what I was doing, and to not take anything personally because there really was nothing personal about it. I am easier to work with now, a better employee, and a more marketable dancer.
We performed four to five shows per day and usually had a one to two hour break in between shows. The days could be long and monotonous with a lot of downtime. I saw in some other park performers that this led them down a road of negativity. For me, it was essential to build up my mental stamina to maintain my positivity and professionalism. Staying busy and active in the downtime was key. I usually used that break time to meditate, do yoga, or have an improv jam by myself. That reflective time not only kept me motivated at work but also helped me visualize my career goals and what I wanted to do when I left Japan.
I was hesitant to accept at first. I was surprised that so many of my co-workers said they immediately accepted their offers; I had to sit on my decision for a whole week. (In the photo: “Celebration dinner with the full cast of my show after our opening day together”)
Johnny: Who do you think should take a job like this? What are some of the considerations that you think would make it a great opportunity, and what are some of the considerations that might not make it the best choice for some dancers
Crystal: Like I said before, I was hesitant to accept at first. I was surprised that so many of my co-workers said they immediately accepted their offers; I had to sit on my decision for a whole week. There were a lot of thought bubbles popping in and out of my head. I had twin nieces on the way at the time. I knew leaving meant that I would miss their birth and the first few months of their lives. I had just moved to NYC four months prior to my offer. I felt like I was just finding my ground there and did not feel ready to leave. I was already in a long distance relationship. My boyfriend was a two-hour flight away in Iowa where we met, but I was about to make us a twenty-hour flight apart. Fourteen months seemed so long. How many other opportunities would I miss out on being away all that time?
I ran the pros and cons by all my family and friends. No one could give me the answer that the little girl in me wanted to hear. I had to make this decision for myself; it’s subjective to every person. Of course you want to consider your relationships, your family, your financial obligations, and your career goals. I decided that my nieces would be better off knowing that their auntie lived a cool life and followed her dreams to the other side of the world. They will be one year old this month and I see them every week since I’ve been home. I found a sublet for my apartment in NYC and maybe lost out on some of that initial investment, but by the end of my contract I realized that everything I wanted was in or around Chicago. My boyfriend and I decided that we were both at a point where we’d have to prioritize our careers and be supportive of each other. We’re still going strong. As far as missed opportunities, no one could ever really know what might have been there. You just have to make a choice and trust that you’ll end up where you need to be.
… creating movement is something I am so passionate about. I created my own outlets by teaching free classes to the other performers and choreographing a few pieces outside of the park … (In the photo: “A solo I choreographed called “Volver”—-‘To-Return’ — This premiered in Osaka in June 2017” Photo by Pat Kuw)
Johnny: What were some of the reason why you didn’t stay longer? And before we go, what are you doing next?
Despite working for a large, successful corporation, with all of the professional rigor that implies, I had an amazing experience living in Japan. I met some of the best people from all over the world brought together by this company. I’ve done more traveling than most people my age could dream of, and the job allowed me a really comfortable quality of life. Some people I worked with had been there for up to fifteen years because they had great lives there. For me though, this was just the beginning of my career, not the end goal. So I rejected a second contract offer.
Creatively, I was a bit stifled working there. That was hard for me because creating movement is something I am so passionate about. I created my own outlets by teaching free classes to the other performers and choreographing a few pieces outside of the park. I felt strongly though that there’d be something for me in Chicago, work I could feel fulfilled by, and be involved in the whole creative process… I was right!
I had so much to be excited about coming home to. At the top of my list were the two beautiful babies waiting to meet me. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to be away from them and the rest of my family. I was incredibly eager to get back in the studio to really dance and train hard. When I arrived in Chicago I immediately applied for Work Study at Visceral Dance Center. Step one was immersing myself back into the Chicago Dance Community. Visceral was where I trained during my high school years, so it was the safest place to go back to that felt like home.
I finally can be asked what I’m going to do next and feel extremely happy and confident in my response. This August I will be starting as a company member with Hedwig Dances directed by Jan Bartoszek. The company is going into their 33rd season and I am so thrilled I get to be a part of it!
This November, Hedwig Dances will present a new multidisciplinary work by choreographer and artistic director Jan Bartoszek entitled Futura. In Futura, Bartoszek applies principles of the Bauhaus mondernist art movement to dance. Futura will receive its world premiere at the Dance Center of Columbia College (DCCC), November 1-3 @ 7:30 PM, as part of the DCCC 2018/2019 dance series.