Devon McLeod eats, sleeps and breathes dance. During working hours, she is Development Associate extraordinaire at New York City Ballet. During her down time, she wears many hats: as the National Director of New York Institute of Dance & Education (NYIDE), a columnist for Central NY Woman Online Magazine, and an associate producer of New York Dance Festival and the Harriet Tubman Freedom Music Festival. McLeod also has dance in her blood. Not only is her brother a professional dancer and choreographer, but her father, Sean McLeod, is the founder of Kaleidoscope Dance Theater and the President of NYIDE.
You might wonder when Devon actually does find time to eat, sleep and breathe. I wondered the same, so I sat down with her to get to the bottom of things. We spoke about Devon’s varied projects, her thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the arts world, and what keeps her motivated.
EM: How has your dance career evolved? Aside from having a father in the business, what has impelled you to pursue a career in the arts?
DM: It definitely started with my dad. There were other influences as well, but he was the start. Growing up in the dance studio next to him and, eventually, being able to take class. He gave me agency at such a young age, allowing me to take class and simply sit down and quietly watch when I was ready. But I’ve also had to create my love for dance from within. When you grow up in a dance family, it can be easy to lose that love because it becomes a responsibility and a task. I had that happen for a few years on and off. When I was finishing high school, we closed our dance space and my dad started touring his physical technique to dance studios and universities. It was no longer forced upon me [laughs], so for the first time I was like, oh I don’t have to dance after school, so maybe I’ll be a singer. I do still love singing and, at the time, I didn’t feel much loss for dance. When I went to college, I decided to go to school for business and wasn’t dancing at all because I was focused on my grades and extracurriculars.
It didn’t really start to weigh on me how much I missed dancing until the summer after my freshman year. Every summer for two weeks in July we have the New York Dance Festival. When I went back, I was so out of shape and I couldn’t get my body to do what I wanted to do. I was also reminded of how much I loved being in class and using my body and connecting to people through movement. We decided, at that point, to boost the performance part of our company and I had to find the ‘why’ behind my dancing. For me, that was investing in the legacy of the McLeod Technique. Having that name be my name and wanting to pass it forward was part of it. But more-so I believe in the technique and what it does for the person, the soul, one’s mental health. Even though I sometimes have a few weeks when I don’t feel like dancing, I remind myself that I love it and, when my body is in shape, I can do what I love better. It’s seeing over and over again how well this technique works and how good it feels on my body.
What are your thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the arts community?
They’re imperative. We don’t get to say that art and dance can act as a museum. Dance is a physical art, so you’re never going to be able to separate that art from the person, someone is always going to have to perform a dance, unless you want to watch it on video. But that becomes a visual medium, it’s not performance. Because dance is so physical, people have to make such sacrifices in order to practice this art form. Dancers put their bodies through serious physical pain. It can be healthy pain, but is pain nonetheless. There should be no reason for that person to also go through emotional trauma. The trauma that can come from being in a space and feeling isolated because of something you can’t change — skin color, sexuality, gender identity. I don’t see a reason why you would not invest in making a space where a person can feel like they belong. You’re not always going to feel full of joy or be at your absolute best in the studio or onstage, but you should feel as though you deserve to be there and are welcome. If you have made the sacrifices, have the talent, and have the desire, you should not feel any less than someone who may, historically, have been the ‘ideal.’
What do you feel are effective methods of realizing these objectives?
What I would say is mostly missing from these discussions, at the highest level, is listening. People have listening sessions, they take the notes, and that’s about it. But the thing is, you have turnover, people leave, things change, so you can’t just listen once. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is time consuming, but the thought process should be: if its worth it — which is it — you just have to do it.
You go to the people who have done it before. There are companies, whether they’re smaller or not, that have done this effectively. There are companies that are based in diverse work, companies that have been doing the work, pushing things forward simply by existing as they are. These institutions can act as a model. Listen to those people over time, and also use the assets that you have. A lot of companies don’t realize that they have dancers who have done this work before. Use the assets at your fingertips instead of running to the next best consulting firm that everyone is using. You don’t have to wait for someone form the outside to come in and ‘fix’ everything for you. Start from within.
You are also employed full time at New York City Ballet. How do you manage to work a desk job and effectively carry out your other projects?
Funnily enough, at this point, I just do it. That sounds silly, but its because I’ve been doing the outside projects forever. When I was younger, I would go to school and then to class until eight or nine p.m. When I got older, I was in high school doing schoolwork and chorus. Then I started working for my dad in an administrative capacity, learning general office management on top of dancing. I had my first role in the Kaleidoscope Dance Theatre on tour when I was in eighth grade. So, by the time I graduated high school, I was already used to juggling three or four things at once. My planner has always been my bible. Once I got to college, it was tenfold: clubs, scholarship program seminars every week, several other commitments. The projects themselves have changed, but I’ve always had these four or five things floating around. The one constant is my planner [laughs]. Now I just use my phone calendar. If it’s not in my phone calendar, more than likely, I’m going to forget it. In my notes section, I keep tasks. Simply writing things down is usually enough to help me keep things in place. It’s just doing it, finishing things.
I am always clear about one thing when speaking to others and supervisors: nothing is secondary to anything else, they’re all just one holistic part of what I do. I think that helps me feel less ashamed of being part of so many things. Some people think of their activities as ‘competing’ with one another, but that’s not true. The only thing you’re doing is creating a better version of yourself to make you better at what you’re doing. I’ve learned so much at the ballet that makes me a better general manager of NYIDE and vice-versa — they feed each other so perfectly, and allow me to be my best self at everything I’m doing.
What do you think makes a dance performance interesting? What do you look for in a dancer aside from technique?
I tend to connect with the dancers themselves. I don’t necessarily need a story; I love a lot of plotless pieces of dance, but I do need emotional connection. Balanchine’s black and white ballets don’t have a plot, but they have a tension to them that I can connect to. That’s important to me: to be able to connect to the intention of the dancers. Something that makes me think, oh I want to dance that. I don’t dance on point, that’s not my wheelhouse, but when I watch Dances at a Gathering, I think ‘OMG I want to dance that!’
What I look for in a dancer, especially if I’m casting something, its their intention. And if they’re good people. It’s something that’s really important in our company. A lot of dancers who audition for us are taken aback by how we say, over and over, that we’re looking for good people because we spend so much time together. Its about the person. For me, that’s a non-negotiable. The person’s willingness to invest in the mission of the company, which is to create a better world through movement, is just as important as their dancing.
What’s an exciting project you’re working on now?
I think the two most exciting projects on my plate right now are the Harriet Tubman Freedom Music festival and the Black Ballet Discovery Project. I am an associate producer of the festival, and this is our fifth annual year. Its tagline is: a world celebration of what it means to be free. It celebrates freedom — physical, spiritual, mental freedom, freedom to love, freedom to be who you want to be — by taking good music that connects with people, that has a message of joy and forward thinking and community. We put works on a stage and call the community together. I love working on that. Its just a one-day event at this point, but I love it.
The Black Ballet Discovery Project is a project that aims to take established, but not well-known black choreographers — specifically in classical ballet at this point — who have been doing the work, but have never gotten the spotlight for whatever reason. We see a lot of support go to emerging choreographers, which is amazing. We so want to see the next and current generation of black choreographers getting to work onstage. But there is also this group of choreographers who are still physically able to keep creating, but are not emerging. They’re now considered ‘established,’ they’re just not known. We aim to create spaces where the heads of big ballet companies can come and meet these choreographers, learn about their work, then book them [laughs]. This is work we’re doing with Karen Brown, former Principal at Dance Theater of Harlem and founder of Karenina Inc, Rasta Thomas, the International Association of Blacks in Dance has been involved, and others. Its great to be part of that work and just continue to push for people to get the space they deserve. ***