Ryan and I danced together for a few seasons at the Minnesota Ballet. He’s a homegrown Midwestern; incredibly talented as a dancer and musician. Currently, he resides in NYC, teaches music at SUNY Purchase, and is a MM student at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Music and Performing Arts. He was generous to share his story with Dd.
- Tell me a little about your background. Were you always involved in music and dance? Are there other members of your family involved in the arts?
I have been involved in music since I started piano at the age of five. Throughout middle school, I toured the country playing marimba in a Duluth, MN based ensemble, consisting mostly of accordions, called the Accordion Ambassadors. Performance venues included amphitheaters at Mt. Rushmore and Niagara Falls, so family vacations tended to revolve around the ensemble’s next gig. We also recorded a CD at a studio in Minneapolis, back when CDs were relatively new and just gaining popularity.
I was first exposed to dance through the musical theater productions at my high school. Our choreographer was training at the School of the Minnesota Ballet and she prompted my interest in taking class there. Years later, the Artistic Director at the time Allen Fields, recalled the memory of how I came into the studio for the first time with my big lips and parents’ credit card, which was somehow an indication for him that I was destined for the stage! Thank you Mom and Dad for both the lips and the credit card. Like most boys, I was soon placed on scholarship.
- When did you join the Minnesota Ballet? And what were those initials years like?
I was offered an apprenticeship upon graduating from high school. Despite my level of dedication and improvement I had shown over the previous years, the directors were apprehensive about offering me a position because they knew music was sort of my first love, and something I could make a career out of. I think they had my best interests at heart, knowing the life of a dancer is so hard that if you can do something else successfully then you should probably do it.
As far as the job went, I felt very comfortable being in the studio, being on stage, and traveling with the company. I loved being stimulated both physically and creatively. As a young professional, it did take some time for me to navigate the political aspects of the job, like trying to do what you’re told to do without reservation – even if two different directors tell you to do two different things. Solution: don’t think, play dumb.
I also realized how extremely hierarchical the structure of a ballet company is. This results in some wacky logic. Case in point: if two dancers are supposed to be doing the same sequence of movements at the same time but one of them is “off the music,” then the one with less seniority is always the one who is off the music. Man, I was off the music a lot during those first few years! But remember, I was a musician before I was dancer and some of those dancers just couldn’t count!
- Besides dancing with me (wink, wink), what were some of your most memorable Minnesota Ballet moments?
Above all, I loved partnering. There is no relationship on earth that is as physically, mentally, or emotionally interdependent. The bond which results from this relationship is extraordinary. My most memorable moments with any dance company have been those shared on stage with other dancers in this way (including you). Band members talk about this kind of bond when playing music together, but having done both music and dance, I gotta say that dance triumphs.
- While we were both dancing in the company, I remember your music being an integral part of your life and intertwining into your dancer career. Can you go into detail about some of the experiences in which your music and dance career came together?
When I struggled as a dancer I took solace in convincing myself (and perhaps others) that I was really more of a musician. That wasn’t really true. In reality, I was a full-time professional dancer. It’s just that dance has a way of making you feel like unworthy crap most of the time.
I thought that I was writing songs, composing piano sonatas, and orchestrating electronic MIDI symphonies of some kind. But, I really had no idea what I was doing back then. While we were trained as dancers to look in the mirror and be self-critical for 8 hours a day, without any formal training in composition, I was unable to bring this sort of critical eye to what I was doing musically.
However, my raw talent for composition made an impression on several of my fellow dancers and artistic directors, which culminated in writing pieces for ballets. On at least one occasion, I had the opportunity to be a dancer in a piece, which used my own music!
- When was the defining moment you decided to fully transition into music and out of dance? What there a particular moment, or was this something always in the back of your mind? What was your first step in making the transition?
First, I transitioned from ballet to musical theater in the hopes of ending up on Broadway. In fact, I worked with a number of Broadway performers while on the Norwegian Cruise Line in Hawaii. Many of them were ambivalent about returning to New York due to the frantic city life, the cost of living, or the predictability of doing the same show night after night. Frankly, we got paid better and had zero living expenses aboard the ship. Oh yeah, and it’s Hawaii! Overall, the shows were very good too, many of them came from London’s West End.
Ultimately, life aboard the ship became tedious – the jungle-leaf-boy costume from Cirque Aloha may have had something to do with it. The prospect of going to Broadway seemed unimportant. I felt as though my dance career had taken me from place to place at the expense of meaningful personal relationships. I wanted to make a career change to one with greater longevity and less of a gypsy lifestyle. In short, I felt as though I had accomplished everything I had hoped for in dance. And I didn’t want to stay in a career for the sake of identifying myself as a dancer, one whose identity is often based on the next great role.
Music was making its way to the foreground again. I began practicing piano in the entertainment lounges after they had closed for the night and I began using my limited internet availability to research music schools. Previously, I never thought I would go to college because I was already doing what I loved to do. Unlike the short-lived career of a dancer, I knew the life of a composer could be as long as one’s entire life. Although I was at the top of my dancing game, I felt an urgency to make a career transition as soon as possible.
- Tell me a bit about your experiences at SUNY Purchase. What were the classes and other students like? Was there a particular teacher who had a large influence on your music . . . a mentor of sorts?
With an awareness of the competitive nature of the professional arts world, I took the discipline I had as dancer and transferred it to the study of music. I loved the vibe at Purchase. This was not your typical snooty conservatory. There was little judgment between classical and pop music, and students pursued collaboration actively. My time at Purchase furthered my belief in the interconnectedness of the arts. Just as a dancer must be well versed in many styles of dance, I felt that a composer should be well versed in many styles of writing. I took courses in film scoring alongside courses in 20th century orchestration, medieval chant, and audio production! Two of my primary teachers at Purchase quickly became mentors and remain so today. One is Jim McElwaine and the other is Allyson Bellink. For me, they are yin and yang; my education would not have been complete without either one of them. Overall, Jim’s instruction was more craft-based and technical, whereas Allyson’s was more from the ear and from the heart. Certainly, a composer needs to work from both perspectives.
- From SUNY, what led you to New York City? What were some of the early or memorable projects you were involved in during those first years? ? Tell me about your current projects.
My move to New York City was a natural transition. In fact, it made life easier. Throughout college I had been going back and forth between Westchester and the city to play gigs with the band I was in. Soon after college, I was making the trip as the composer for my first off-Broadway play, which was produced by the Emerging Artists Theatre.
Ultimately, my partner and I were fortunate enough to make the move to Manhattan together. He was close to Columbia where he entered a doctoral program and I started grad school at NYU. I had already begun teaching a few courses at Purchase, so living in the city allowed me to be within reasonable distance of both universities. Not only were we close to our respective schools, we were living in the heart of the contemporary arts scene.
Currently, in addition to completing my Masters at NYU, I am working on a commission to compose a choral work for a New York City-based choir, and I’m composing a string quartet for the JACK Quartet that will premiere in May.
- Now, what is a day in the life of Ryan like? Are you still dancing? What other hobbies do you pursue?
Now that I have completed the bulk of my academic coursework, I am delighted to say that I spend much of my day composing. I recognize that this is probably a short-lived phase that I am only able to enjoy so long as my rent continues to be paid with student loans! Did I think that a career in music would be more stable?
Unfortunately, I have only danced on one or two occasions since retiring. That said, I haven’t let myself go entirely! I suspect I will be back in a dance class or performing again sometime in the near future.
My friends tell me I need to get a hobby. I do have some: bike riding, Bikram Yoga, gourmet cooking. Is watching “Glee” a hobby (I think it is : )
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years? Do you have some personal goals set?
It’s unclear. I really hope to be doing more of the same – more teaching, more choral music, more theater music. I love having a foot in the world of academia and the practical art-making world. It is probable that I will continue my studies in a Ph.D program, although full-time teaching positions are as difficult to land as full-time dancing jobs, and no less nomadic. As for long-term goals, I would like to compose the music for an opera or a Broadway show. Apart from career-based goals, I would like to marry my partner in the state of New York and raise two kids.
- What inspires you?
Poetry, nature, folklore, oil paintings, and major sevenths. I’m such a Romantic!
- Do you have any advice to other dancers out there who are considering careers in a different art?
Frankly, few people in the music business have cared about my professional experience as a dancer. They don’t see the relevance that one art form has to another. Of course additional training in your new field is probably necessary, but do not underestimate your own artistic sensibilities. You bring a unique perspective to your new art form.
After years of professional dance experience I had to start my resumé as a composer from scratch, which was extremely disheartening on a personal level. I still feel that my music career has not reached the level that my dance career reached. Rightfully so, I have yet to spend as many years in my new career as I spent as a dancer.
In part, what has guided me through this transition is the love of my new career. But more than that, it is the understanding that who I am as a person is not strictly determined by what I do. I had to let go of my identity as a dancer and accept the not yet fully formed identity as a composer.
I constantly remind myself to let go of career landmarks prescribed by society in terms of increments of age. I recognize I am on my own path with my own timeline. I would not trade my career as a dancer for more rapid success in my new field. Being a dancer remains a part of who I am, and it continues to enrich the way I view the world around me.
Check out what Ryan is currently up to at his website www.ryanhomsey.com