As a young child in beautiful, bucolic Garden Valley, Idaho Nell Josephine took one single dance class from a visiting teacher. In the 4th grade her family moved to Boise and she began taking gymnastics and ballet in 2006/7. It was when, at the age of 10 or 11, she saw a pre-professional dance program that “I knew I had to do that.”
Learning and performing with Balance Dance, a youth contemporary dance company in Boise, she was and continues to be impressed by how her training instilled hard work and determination at a young age and gave her a place to put all her unfocused energy and enthusiasm.
“Now,” she adds, “though it’s still playful and part of my identity, there are burdens of getting older and having more responsibility with what I’m representing through the art I create with my body.” Along with the carefree joy of moving has come “my duty to create art. My mission is to learn how to be an artist that can represent what the world is going through.
Over time what she loved about dance has changed. To start with she just liked moving her body and creating crazy moves. “It was very playful at first,” she says. “I saw it through playful and innocent eyes and it was my identity.” She thought, “dancing is fun. Dancing is good.” And for her especially, it was true. As a child, Nell notes “I was super shy. I was rambunctious within the family but not outside. A part of me still is reserved.” While dancing she “could be loud, confident and expressive with my body,” and so dance “found its place in my life.”
Nell’s family was encouraging, but she definitely didn’t have a stereotypical dance mom. “My mom never wanted to hover as I was figuring out what to do.” Her family weren’t pushy. They came to watch her performances and were “super-supportive,” especially “two of my sisters.” What concerned her family was that “dance isn’t very lucrative. I learned early that it’s not a cash money career.”
Enrolled in the dance program at the University of Utah, where she got her Fine Arts BA in 2018, Nell also did summer programs in Houston, Chicago, Vancouver BC and Montreal. Even before that she had danced with Ballet Idaho, Idaho Dance Theatre (a contemporary group) was one of the earliest members of what would later become known as LED. On December 30, 2015, during her sophomore year, Nell broke her leg skiing and had to have surgery on her tibia and fibula. “What brought me back to dance,” she remembers, “was its therapeutic aspect.” That and the connection with other dancers and choreographers. Since then it has been “my purpose, my world.” After college she danced for 3 more seasons with Ballet Idaho.
Coming to Whim W’Him this fall had “a spur of the moment, magical quality.” Once, while still at the university, Nell tried to audition, but the performance schedule at the University didn’t allow her to leave. Her last season with Ballet Idaho had been difficult, with all the tumult of the pandemic and Nell’s feeling that she was ready for a change. This summer, when Ashley Green left unexpectedly for Alvin Ailey, friends told Nell an opening at Whim W’Him had been posted on Instagram.
“I sent what I had,” says Nell, “and 2 days later, I heard from Olivier, ‘Want to work for us?’” She had less than a month to move to Washington and prepare to join her new company.
“It’s hard to root yourself super-quick,” she confesses, “I’m still in process.” Sometimes she misses ballet and can feel a bit out of her comfort zone in a small company with solo roles. She smiles and says, with a certain nostalgia, “I still have my point shoes.” But Whim W’Him’s style “feels very at home to me. I naturally move this way.” When I spoke to her she had just read an article about a PNB dancer who said that contemporary dance was hard on the body. Says Nell: “I experience the reverse. Ballet can be painful for me. My knees and joints and body feel better now.” Probably, she suggests, that is because “I started in modern, with its natural rise and fall of the body, the natural curve of the spine. It was easy to get burnt out in ballet. What kept me going was being able to do both.”
Over the few months with Whim, Nell has become more and more part of the company. A couple of weeks ago, when I saw a rehearsal of Whim W’Him director Olivier Wevers’s Cannibalistic Sanctuary, from which she was absent because of a stomach bug, I was struck by how the other dancers danced as if she was there. Commenting on this impression, Nell said, “Dancers have a great way of envisioning what things should and could be. We are very physical beings. They’re super-aware. They hold the place.” And the place they were holding for Nell has been beautifully filled.
Whim W’Him photos by Stefano Altamura