Knocked Knees, New York, and Nik

A Memoir by Susan P. Lloyd

Murray, Susan, and Nik “Not bad for a girl with knocked knees.”

This statement by Murray Louis created both excitement and anxiety in a young dancing novice from Sandy, Utah.

After an American Folk Ballet summer workshop in Logan, Utah, I had decided dance was to be my career.  I entered graduate school at the University of Utah to continue my study of dance.

Following my first year of non-matriculated study at the “U,” Joan Woodbury graciously wrote me a letter of recommendation to attend the 1988 Nikolais/Louis summer workshop in New York City.  I was ecstatic because the “New York bug” had already bitten me.  While attending Southern Utah State College, I had gone to New York for spring break with two other dancing friends.  I had gotten a round trip ticket from Salt Lake City to New York for $75!  I remember calling my dad to tell him of the opportunity for a trip to NYC for 75 bucks; he said: “You have to go!”

That first summer in New York, I danced at the 18th street studio, just east of Broadway, in Chelsea.  Technique class was taught from 10 a.m. until noon; improvisation and choreography followed from 12 until 2 p.m.  Memories of class include: the sticky marley floor on my sweaty skin and the suction sound of my spine leaving the floor as we did “roll-over-and-touch,” attempting to touch the floor behind our heads with our toes.  Smelling the diesel fuel from the passing buses down below the studio windows was a part of our warm-up as well.

For choreography class, we were to come with a “study” focusing on “the element of the week.”  I believe the element was time, and I distinctly remember the inspiration for my piece.  I had seen a mime or break dancer of sorts on the street in a silver body suit act out a beautiful slow-motion movement sequence.  I tried to recreate the incredible anticipation I felt as his audience.  I must have tapped into something that struck Murray as well.  “Not bad . . .” he said.  As a result of verbalizing his approval, I realized I had some talent, some skill — enough maybe to become a professional dancer.

I returned the next summer to study with Nik and Murray.

Nik would appear around choreography time.  (It was hard to imagine him riding up on an elevator, like common folk.  He was such an icon.)  The dancers would sit on the floor, and Nik would explain from a chair the concepts of decentralization and graining.  I can still see him drawing the magical 7 in the air with his fingers, when in reality he was outlining a triangle . . . graining.

With two years under my belt at the University of Utah and my second summer at the Dance Lab, I thought maybe it was time for me to make my move to New York.  I mentioned the idea to Murray.  He told me to return to school and receive my MFA.  Still to this day, I am indebted for those words of wisdom.  I have had much more opportunity come my way with the combination of a MFA and my season with Nikolais and Murray Louis Dance.

Upon graduating from the U in 1990, I flew to New York with $1,000.  Luckily, it was just enough to get started.

The studio was moving to SoHo and so did I.  I found an apartment that had a toilet that worked (forget the brownstone charm so many New York transplants seek)!  My address was now 50 Prince Street.  I lived on the corner of Prince and Mulberry. It took me about 10 minutes to walk to the studio — perfect.  Dancing all morning and afternoon, I would return to my apartment to shower before I had to be mid-town at the Marriott Marquis Hotel for work.  I would work five days a week from 4:30 p.m. till 10:00 p.m. and later hours on weekends — again, perfect.  So I thought — until after a year of keeping this schedule.  I was exhausted.  I wanted so badly to just dance for a living.  I kept dancing and praying.  In May of 1991, Nik and Murray were ready to have auditions for the company.  I auditioned.  They didn't take me.  Crushed at the thought of my studying at the Dance Lab in vain, I continued to attend classes there until I formulated plan B.  In the midst of my planning, one of the newly hired dancers could not fulfill her contract.  So . . . once again, Nik and Murray were in the market for a female dancer.  I auditioned, again.  After several days of auditioning, Murray said something in the nature of, “Okay, kiddo.”  I celebrated with my roommate.  We ate a big, fat, juicy hamburger.

My first performance with the company was dream-like.  Our first engagement: Verona, Italy.  Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet took place there; now I was taking my place too.

I only danced with the Company for a year.  But that year took me places, then and now.  I still feel like a novice when it comes to the art and dance world.  But I am satisfied that I had an opportunity to see a glimpse of that world.  Seeing the press release for the upcoming Alwin Nikolais: A Celebration Tour with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, performing Nikolais works, was the impetus for writing this memoir.  My connection to both companies is unique, studying with both choreographers in school and in the professional realm.

My creative process now involves a husband, four children of my own, and a seventeen-year-old Italian foreign exchange student.  “Not bad for a girl with knocked knees.”  I think Murray would agree.