At 20 years old, Garrett Smith is a recent graduate of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and already an accomplished performer and choreographer. As a member of Houston Ballet II, Houston Ballet’s pre-professional company, he has toured internationally to places like Budapest and Japan. In addition, Garrett has set four works on HB II, often doing double duty as dancer and dance-maker.
Even before being awarded a scholarship to the Academy in 2006, Garrett’s ambition and dedication won him numerous honors. Originally from Riverton, Utah, he has performed off-Broadway and in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Summer Olympics. Garrett is a national title winner of the New York City Dance Alliance competition, awarded in the Junior category at age 13 and selected as Teen Male Outstanding Dancer at 16. And, as an NFAA youngARTS winner, he was one of 20 students selected as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2007. And those are just his dance achievements!
Clearly, on the fast-track to a bright future, Garrett took some time to talk with me about his early training as a young man in dance, his passion for choreography, and what lies ahead for him.
Dance Advantage: You began dancing at age 9 but you didn’t start with ballet. What prompted you to try dance in the first place and why did you decide later to give ballet a try?
Garrett Smith: Sports just weren’t doing it for me so I tried tap, jazz, and hip hop. I loved it. I was silly at age 9 wanting to be famous. I thought if you were a jazz dancer, it meant you were dancing on screen with the Utah Jazz [laughs]. I tried ballet because the studio I was attending was dying down and I switched to this great ballet school in Utah called Jacqueline’s School of Ballet. I changed so much there, as did my opinion of ballet. I guess I never knew what ballet really was until I was in a correct ballet academy.
DA: As a young man with an interest and passion for dance, have you ever experienced teasing or taunting by peers or pressure to not be involved?
GS: Ugh, yes! From 3rd grade until 9th, it was pretty bad. I came home crying some days. But, through the years I improved and realized that I was going far at a young age. I knew what I was doing with my life, unlike the boys who called me names. The teasing made me work harder to prove them wrong and to be successful. When I went to Europe at age 13, I realized that they were so wrong because I was having so much fun dancing.
DA: In your opinion or experience, how important is it that boys have male teachers to inspire and encourage them?
GS: It is very important. In my training it made the world of difference. I had to leave my home to train in a place where boys were better than me. It was nice when I was the only boy getting all the attention but, at some point, you need competition to compare yourself to. And you need teachers that understand a male dancer’s body and how a man needs to dance on stage – jumps and partnering in particular.
DA: How did you balance school and other activities as your study of dance intensified?
GS: I was born into a religious family with great values. My mother taught me that I am a young man that dances, not one being raised to be a dancer. As my dance training became more serious throughout high school, I tested out of gym classes, left school early to drive down to rehearsals, and I did my whole senior year independently. I think that a normal upbringing in public schools, developing social skills, and being raised with values and good morals helped me balance my life as a young man and dancer.
DA: Do you feel you missed out on anything by making the choice to finish your high-school education from a distance?
GS: No, I don’t feel I missed out on anything really. I think that I was pretty normal for going to most all of my schooling, church activities, and doing drama and musical theater performances outside of school. My drive comes from my love of art and doing what I do best. Wanting to get better and better and seeing the improvement over the years, the amazing places I go and friendships I make, gives me the motivation to continue on this path to becoming a dancer.
DA: You’ve been an honored recipient of awards in nation-wide competitions and arts programs. As a result you’ve worked and taken instruction from some of the world’s most renowned professionals. Not every dancer reading is interested in pursuing dance at this level but many do participate in conventions and competitions. How might students at any level make the most of master classes or other experiences which take them beyond their home studio?
GS: When you are at any type of dance convention, it’s important to watch others and observe how the teachers move their bodies. Listen to what the teachers’ motives are behind the steps. Also, don’t be afraid to get in front of the group of dancers and show yourself. Be confident but be open to correction and adapt to change. The right way to dance a step might not always be what you learned at your local studio.
DA: What did you take away from your experiences at summer programs like School of American Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet?
GS: I was introduced to great dancers from all over the world. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I was a little behind in my men’s technique and partnering. I was so skinny and weak but, I was more versatile than most any dancer I came across because I had opened myself to a wider vocabulary of movement. Maybe they could to a triple tour, but I could tap, sing, play the piano, choreograph a ballet, I knew hip hop, and was successful with most any contemporary ballet thrown at me.
DA: What advice would you give to a dancer that is seriously considering either a short-term or long-term continuation of their dance study away from family and friends?
GS: I think that when you are young, it’s scary to think of moving away and being alone, but now I wish I could have moved away to train earlier! Away from my family, I depended on myself to cook, do schooling, and it was all up to me in the end. Nobody but me was getting myself out of bed to class. That’s how I knew that I was really serious about ballet!
My advice to other young dancers is to just be honest with yourself. Don’t go for any other reason than for yourself. Friends should not be the reason you are going, you are not there to party, you are there to work. If you know you want this, then when you are mature enough and ready, go to the schools that will benefit you the most, even if it happens to be in another country.
DA: You were awarded a scholarship to attend the Houston Ballet Academy through Youth America Grand Prix and you’ve continued with your study there. What’s made the Academy a good fit for you?
GS: Over the past three years I have become a strong partner. I did the pas de deux in the Spring Showcase this year which means so much to me because I never thought of myself doing this kind of role before. I had other offers before Houston, such as PNB, and the Kirov, but I decided Houston Ballet’s Academy would be the best fit because of the diverse training that is offered. They have great men’s technique here, really good jazz and modern class, character, pilates, and a very well taught pas de deux class.
Most important for me has been the multiple choreographic opportunities that have come along, for which I am so grateful. It all started with the Houston Ballet’s summer program workshop, American Festival for the Arts (AFA). You have two weeks to work with dancers to set your own piece. You even get to costume it and light it on stage. It is really cool. This is what made me realize, “Wow, I love this!”
DA: Your work has become a fixture at the Academy’s Spring Showcase. Tell me a little bit your last piece, “Of Opposing Nature,” your creative process, and inspiration for the work.
GS: Jiri Kylian, David Dawson, and Stanton Welch are all great choreographers in this generation, and they all inspire me. For this piece I experimented a little bit more with lighting ideas. There are 7 movements in the ballet and I have used amazing music by Vivaldi. The work is for 5 men and 3 women. There is a conflict between the men and women, as well as connections, diversity, discovery, and subtle romance. After working long and hard for the piece this year, I was very excited for its premiere.
“..unique with an appealing unpredictability. The dancers slid and skidded along the floor, carving through the space with large, dynamic movements, and then a flick of the wrist, a moment of measured restraint or stillness, swiftly changed the mood. An unusual costume device utilized by the five male dancers featured fabric extended at the neck like a scarf. Whether stretched over the face or ferociously wiggled, its use illustrated Smith’s creativity and willingness to take risks.” — from my review of the 2009 Spring Showcase
DA: Okay, big question, I heard you may audition for So You Think You Can Dance? Is this still a possibility?
GS: I won’t be able to audition because I now have a contract for the 2009-2010 season with Houston Ballet!
DA: Assuming you’re a regular viewer, what do you think is different about watching dance on television as opposed to seeing live dance performance?
GS: I still always watch my friends dance on the show and never really miss an episode. That is the kind of dancing I grew up with. It is just disappointing that it has become so much about hip hop and sex appeal. I think ballet needs to be better respected and given some credit on the show, and done correctly. I guess that is what is different about America watching dance on TV rather than live.
DA: You’ve done so much for someone a mere 20 years old. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
GS: I see myself in my dream company, dancing awesome parts in amazing ballets, working on new masterpieces, hopefully for Houston Ballet and other companies. Maybe getting married [laughs].
If there’s anyone that could do it all…! Thanks, Garrett.
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.