My guest for this week’s blog post is Ruby Josephine Smith, a contemporary dance artist and choreographer.
Ruby was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she is currently living. However, most of Ruby’s professional career has been based in Tangier, Morocco, and therefore has been a huge part of her life, feeling like a second home. Ruby discovered contemporary dance as a young girl, with both theatre and dance woven into her life, encouraged by her parents, both of whom are artists. Ruby continued to study dance at university but ended up travelling during a gap year from her studies, which turned into a life of travel! This led to her training being quite unconventional in that it didn’t take place at just one university or on one programme. Travelling allowed Ruby to gain many unique experiences throughout Europe, before eventually landing in Morocco. Although there wasn’t a thriving dance scene in Tangier, this provided informative opportunities to choreograph and create work at an early stage in her career.
Back in Minneapolis today, Ruby can often be found in the studio teaching dance and yoga classes, or writing for her weekly newsletter, and researching and recording for her podcast Process Piece, which explores the creative process more deeply through dialogue with artists from all over the world.
Ruby articulates her creative practice so thoughtfully and precisely that you cannot help but be inspired by her fascinating career. Read on to discover what informs Ruby’s choreography, how she challenges herself as an artist, and what dancing in Morocco is really like!
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
Geographical location has had a strong impact on my work because I was in Morocco for so long. But having just moved back to my home town a few months ago, I think Minneapolis is really informing my current practice because I’m starting again in a whole new country, a whole new system, and I’m figuring out what the art scene is like here. This has been really interesting and really new for me. I’m still in this process of settling, more than actually creating new work. I’m getting my feet grounded here as I figure this out.
Of course as a dancer, I work in studios a lot. This has been interesting during the pandemic when we have had to do so much at home. I’ve found that I really struggle with dancing from home. I often feel that so many dancers are like, “I’m a dancer, so I have to dance, anywhere and everywhere…” Because it’s our passion, it’s this feeling of we should want to do it everywhere. But when I’m at home, I can’t find this motivation to dance; my home is for resting my body, it’s not for pushing my body. There has been this interesting mental shift.
Luckily, I recently started teaching in Minneapolis, and I’m able to use this studio space. Working in a studio is like bringing me back to life – when I’m in a space created for dance, I’m able to explore the full possibilities of dance. It can be tricky if we don’t always have the luxury of studio space, but I have realised that this is something I really need to seek out for myself if I want to go deeper into my own practice.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about my creative process is researching. For my podcast, Process Piece, there is a lot of research involved surrounding the artists I’m working with; and for my own dance work, it’s research on the subject matter, whether that’s reading and writing, or body research. I often work with certain themes within my work, which might start out as quite a big topic, but the research process helps to narrow it down to find what the piece will really be about.
The creative process is always a little different depending on who I’m working with, where I’m working, and each piece always brings something new. I had the luxury of being able to create a range of different pieces with a lot of different dancers in Morocco. For example: several years ago, I worked with a group of twelve women from all over the world who were in Tangier, and the idea was simply about women and how we relate to other women. It was such a huge concept, but by doing this body research, where we would think of one word or prompt that related to the subject, and research how this can come out in the body, or maybe through conversation; it starts to turn into new branches of ideas that come from the main subject. It’s this spiralling process that comes down to one central idea that eventually becomes the piece itself.
Improvisation is also a big part of my practice. Especially in Tangier, when I was very isolated as a contemporary dancer, there were only a couple of other people who I could collaborate with. It was largely just me in the studio, training by myself, when I wasn’t travelling to do trainings elsewhere. The best way I found to train myself as an artist was through improvisation, and giving myself different prompts and exercises. When we are young as dancers, there is a lot of focus on the training and technique, but more recently, as a choreographer and creator, I have been trying to find my own style and voice, and how I can really own this and use it going forward. Improvisation is definitely what I have used to explore this the most. Music is my favourite prompt and I use it as a way of guiding my movement. Sometimes within a piece of music I try to give myself something more challenging for my body, such as using a certain task, or trying to find connections within the body; finding details that you can stay focused on for the whole practice. I have done a lot of Gaga or Gaga-esque workshops so I often draw on influences from this style.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
I’m really fascinated by connections between people, and also connections within us. Again, this is a broad subject! Exploration is at the core of a lot of my work, trying to understand ourselves better through movement and art, and how this understanding can resonate with connections to other people. So it’s not this self-centred thing or narcissistic, but it’s this idea that the knowing of yourself is something you can bring to other people in order to know them better. A lot of my work is centred on these connections.
Still relating to this idea of connection, I don’t ever want to shy away from the hard things in life. I’m not someone who believes that art needs to be about suffering or darkness, but I definitely have this feeling that whenever I make work, I’m trying to bring the light out of the dark. There is always this angle of lightness, empathy with people, and these hopeful ideals. I want to bring more hope and light into the art world without sugar-coating anything.
"Whenever I make work, I’m trying to bring the light out of the dark. There is always this angle of lightness, and empathy with people. I want to bring more hope and light into the art world without sugar-coating anything."
What are you working on at the moment?
My main focus right now is grounding into where I am. I left my home town when I was aged 18 to go to university and so I haven’t lived in Minneapolis as an adult or working professional since then. Now, I’m in this process of coming back and re-grounding. I’m doing this in both a daily life sense, but also in a creative way through figuring out what dance practice I can bring to this place.
Within this, I’m teaching a couple of classes here. This is challenging as I used to teach only in French in Morocco and I keep thinking, “Oh, I’ve forgotten how to speak English!”
I’m also going to be starting to create a piece here as part of a programme at a local studio. Usually, this would involve pre-professional dancers to give them live performance opportunities within a studio setting. As of the pandemic, we will be creating a dance video. I don’t have a lot of experience in this so this will be a whole new process of thinking in terms of film, instead of stage.
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
Sense of place has so much to do with my work and who I am. I think about this concept a lot but I still don’t necessarily have concrete answers.
During my formative years, between the ages of 19 and 23, I was travelling for the most part. I was always questioning what do all these different places that I’m visiting bring to me? I think different places reflect different things within yourself. I often think of sense of place in relation to sense of home. I do feel that finding a sense of home is something that is internal, so even if you are moving around to different places, it’s something you carry with you through your memories, through nostalgia, through your senses. All of these places that you spend more time in keep layering on to this sense of home.
This has impacted on my work in many ways. People are a huge part of place. Most of my memories from travelling are not necessarily of the place itself, but the people I met within that place. Bringing in their stories and perspectives that I encountered into my work has helped me to grow and learn along the way.
There can also be a lack of sense of home too. Sometimes you might visit somewhere and you find that the sense of place you encounter really doesn’t connect you with your sense of home or a sense of resonance.
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
It’s an interesting time for me to be talking about my work as of moving to my home town where everything is very fresh. I have been connecting with the natural world more than I ever did.
Morocco has such a stunning landscape, and especially Tangier which is on the coast. However, I didn’t spend as much time outside within nature as I would have liked to. I was more influenced by city environments and cultural perspectives, learning about different beliefs.
Here in Minnesota, we have so much natural beauty, such as huge lakes and forests, and so I have been reconnecting with this. It’s also a lot calmer that Tangier, being such a quiet state, so being able to listen to the world more, rather than all of the people and city noise, is refreshing. I go outside for a walk every morning to the lake that I live by and connect with the natural light. The natural world is re-entering my life now and I don’t yet know how this is going to inform my creative practice, but I feel that it’s going to. This sense of being connected to people that I mentioned earlier also has an aspect of being connected to the natural world, and so I think it’s going to start informing my practice more than it has in the past.
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
As I mentioned, I go for a walk every morning which has been a lovely way to connect with the natural world more. Especially during this pandemic, being able to go outside at least once a day and get some fresh air has been helpful to feel more energised and alive whilst we are all more secluded in our homes. The natural world is something alive that we can connect with, even if we can’t connect to each other as much. I have always had a strong connection to the natural world around me, but now it’s starting to become a part of my daily practices.
"There is always something bigger than ourselves that we can tap into. This makes things more hopeful, we feel more connected and are able to see each other in different ways. This can be the creative process itself. It’s so important in terms of finding empathy with other people and finding compassion within you."
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
I have been strongly influenced by Pina Bausch for my entire career. Ever since I discovered her whilst at school, I have been obsessed with her work. I love the theatricality of it. As I mentioned, I used to do a lot of dance theatre, so anything that blends the two is inspiring. I love drama in art – I have learnt to embrace this to show the real, raw drama within art. Bausch does a beautiful job of this.
Along the same line, I took a workshop many years ago in France with one of the dancers from Bausch’s company, Pau Aran Gimeno. I loved his workshop so much! I would take workshops with him wherever he went! Because of this, Pau has become a really good friend. He is an amazing dancer and is starting to develop his own solo practice. He was also the first guest on my podcast!
Another friend of mine, Natalia Fernandes, who lives in Spain, is a choreographer from Brazil. We did a piece together in Tangier, being one of the first dancers to visit whilst I was living there. Natalia has impacted my creative process so much as she taught me about the power of research. She does so much reading and writing, and she watches a lot of old cinema films; she is hugely detailed in the way she researches her work. She was also a guest on the podcast!
I would have to mention my parents, of course. My Mom was a fine artist, and she now writes and illustrates children’s books. My Dad also used to be a painter, then he was a composer for a while, including making many compositions for dancers, and now he is writing. Both being artists, they showed me that it’s possible to be an artist as a career and that it's valid. Many people don’t realise that this is possible, so growing up already with the idea that I can do this for a career was hugely valuable.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Learning to take risks is very important. This doesn’t have to be in a big, scary sort of way, but just taking little risks, such as reaching out to someone who you admire and making a connection. Take little, regular risks to put yourself out there. Even if it doesn’t work out, you are always going to learn something from it and move forward.
There can be a certain element of preparation and it’s good to be prepared when you are approaching something new. Do your preparation, do your research. However, I also have the experience of research turning into procrastination: doing all of this background work in order to prolong doing the actual work. At the end of the day, you just have to do it! Understand that you are never going to be not afraid, you can never comfortably get rid of the initial fear that you feel when you try something completely new, but learning to accept this is part of the package.
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
This is still in progress, but it’s this idea that lightness can be brought out of darkness. There is always something bigger than ourselves that we can tap into. This makes things more hopeful, we feel more connected and are able to see each other in different ways. This doesn’t have to be something religious or spiritual – it can be the creative process itself. Tap into this sense of having something larger than yourself. It’s so important in terms of finding empathy with other people and finding compassion within you. I would like to bring this to more people. I don’t have this completely figured out yet, but by working on it within myself, I hope it’s something I can reflect to others.
Images 1, 3: Anna Denisova
Images 2, 4, 5: Artist's Own