One of the greatest benefits of being a dance writer is meeting and interviewing dance artists that I have not met before, or the opportunity to learn new things about those that I have known for a while. On Friday, December 7, 2018, I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time an incredible woman and artist, Marinda Davis. She is noteworthy because of her dancing career and her choreography, but she is remarkable because she has continued to move forward and create beautiful work while struggling with eight life threatening diseases. Her illness began when she was very young, but because of who she is as a person and the abundance of support that she has received throughout her life from family, friends and teachers, Davis remains one of the most optimistic people I have ever met.
Davis and I met in the historic, stylish and beautiful lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Right away we discovered that we have a mutual friend, Pat Catterson, who I first met in classes with Merce Cunningham during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Davis studied with Catterson in New York and has kept in touch.
Born in Florida and adopted as an infant, Davis’ parents said that it was clear to them that dancing was her passion the moment that she put on her pink ballet slippers at age three. Although no one in her adopted family had any artistic inclination, from the moment she could talk, Davis spoke about ballet and stated that she wanted to move to New York. “Where does a child that young get those ideas?” she wondered.
She was not only in love with dancing, she was good at it, and by the age of 15 Davis was touring Nationally with conventions while attending the Blake High School of the Arts in Tampa and becoming involved with regional musical theater performances. Her dance classes at the high school included serious training in ballet and modern. “We mostly studied Horton (technique). A little Cunningham actually, but mostly Horton.”
The only chaperons while touring with the conventions were the company staff, but Davis said that fortunately she was a good kid. She was mature enough to realize that she was working with amazing choreographers and went about absorbing all the knowledge that she possibly could. It was during those years that she worked with and eventually acted as an assistant to such notable jazz dancers and choreographers as Gus Giordano, Frank Hatchett, Ray Leeper, Dennis Caspary, and Lisa Allain. In addition, Davis performed with Sting during the Super Bowl Pre-Game and with the American pop and contemporary R&B vocal group 98 Degrees at the Pro Bowl Half Time entertainment.
At 18, Davis began her studies at Marymount Manhattan College where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Dance, studying with Katie Langan (Chair of the Department), Pat Catterson, Anthony Ferro, Kristina Berger, Nancy Lushington, and Sheila Barker. She also graduated with a minor in Musical Theater. Continuing her extraordinary ability to multi-task, Davis studied at the Broadway Dance Center simultaneously to her studies at Marymount. She had met Barker on previous trips to study in New York, and it was Barker who took a liking to Davis and, recognizing her talents, drove her hard. At 23, Barker felt that Davis needed to venture out into the world and learn to fly on her own and instructed her not to come back to classes there.
Davis admits that at first, she was shocked, hurt and confused. It was only within the past five years or so that she realized what an act of love that was from her favorite teacher. Davis said that she considers Barker to be her greatest mentor and that the mentoring continues.
Having received this push from her Barker, Davis went on to become a founding member and principal dancer with Antony Morigerato’s AM Dance Productions (AMDP). Founded in 2006, AMDP is an organization that continues to produce live theatrical performances and film in NYC. While choreographing for Dance Dimensions, a competitive studio in Dumont, NJ., one of the judges at their competitions was Broadway veteran and host of Broadway Sessions, Ben Cameron. Cameron was very moved by Davis’ work and wanted to learn more about who she was and what inspired her. From that first conversation, Cameron became a collaborator, advisor and one of her best friends. Davis said that he often understands the meaning behind her work before she does, and he is sometime able to convey that to her dancers better than she.
“My choreography career, looking back, was slowly building and choreography came very naturally to me.” Davis said. “It comes more naturally to me than dancing.”
Still resisting becoming a choreographer, however, Davis soon found that she was making a name for herself as one, creating dances for schools and studios within the competition arena. Teaching on the convention circuit also brought her name to the awareness of professionals.
Davis is the Artistic Director of her company, marInspired ; the storytellers which she founded in New York in 2009. She has presented work at The Joyce Theater in New York, the Young Choreographer’s Festival at Symphony Space, and The Giving Tree in New York, among others. In 2010, Dance.com recognized Davis as a “Top 10 Young American Choreographer 25 and under”. Her company’s first full length work, Breakable, had a sold out run at the Salvatore Capezio Theater in New York and Davis has since created her 2nd full length show, UNbreakable, which premiered at The El Portal in LA in 2016 and Symphony Space in 2017. Her accomplishments and awards are numerous, and Davis is a widely sought-after choreographer. Recently she was commissioned by Julianne Hough to choreograph a dance for the finals on Dancing With The Stars. The dance was inspired by her illnesses and she choreographed it to Wouldn’t Change Anything by Alexander Jean. Hough also suffers from the serious disease endometriosis, so the dance also had a personal meaning for her.
Davis is not the first or last dancer to work this hard toward fulfilling her dreams, but she did so while fighting serious illnesses and she is partly driven by the fact that her years are limited. She said that she remembers trips to the hospital when she was as young as age 3. She was often exhausted and injured without reason but was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who taught her to not let her illnesses dictate how she worked. She credits them with providing her with tough love and giving her the ability to not use her illnesses as an excuse to give in or to give up. It also taught her to hold herself accountable.
“Looking back on it,” she said. “When I was there, I thought that they didn’t care what I was going through, but I look back now and they really understood that for me to keep continuously fighting I had to be pushed. I am the kind of person who likes to be set on fire and prodded. If you keep coming at me, I will keep rising.”
This says to me that Davis was born with a strong constitution, will, and determination. Dancing is difficult enough when one is totally healthy, and under similar circumstances, other dancers might have given up.
After years of being ill, injured and going through multiple surgeries, however, at age 26 Davis realized that her performing days were over. She could no longer push through the pain and fatigue of dancing. Because her doctors were looking for answers as to whether Davis’ diseases were family related, she went about finding her birth parents. This was not easy because during the time that she was adopted, the courts mandated that all adoption papers be sealed. Davis was, however, successful in locating her birth mother only to discover that she was a heroin addict. It became clear that Davis’ diseases were a result of being born an addict baby.
“Which was crazy!” Davis said. “We didn’t know but looking back, all the signs were there. Certainly, there are people who have Lupus that did not have a drug addicted mother, but for me to have eight different rare diseases that affect every system of my body, the doctors have definitely pinned that to being born heroin dependent.”
Davis said that this was extremely emotional for her and at first, she experienced a great deal of anger. “It’s a process, however.” She added. “You get through it day by day.” Her diseases include Ehlers – Danlos, Mastocytosis, Lupus, Hashimotos, Sjögrens, POTS, Cushings, and IST. It was Davis’ wish to name the 8 diseases in order to give them advocacy.
Davis said that she was very lucky because, for her, there was a seamless transition from dancer to choreographer. Her illnesses made it impossible for her to perform, and at the same time, she was getting more and more jobs as a choreographer. From my research, Davis has not looked back or dwelled on the negative but continues to push forward with her choreographic career.
The movement style that Davis puts into her choreography is not all jazz. Her training in ballet and modern shines through as well. She does choreograph a great deal for the commercial dance genre but says that her company “straddles the contemporary and concert world but is more in the concert arena than the rest of what I do.” She said.
Davis moved to Los Angeles in 2013. When asked what brought her here, she said that she felt like she had hit a brick wall career wise in New York. It was a very difficult move as New York was home and where all her friends lived. She confessed that for two years she was in a very difficult depression. “I felt like nothing I had done in New York mattered to anyone here.” Now, however, she is happy that she made the decision to relocate, and things began to shift when in 2015 her work LOVE placed 2nd at the Capezio ACE Awards. “I didn’t see it at the time, but it set off a ripple effect.” The second thing that helped Davis gain acknowledgement in Los Angeles and elsewhere was when her work appeared on Dancing With The Stars and she was also the first choreographer to include a same-sex kiss in a male duet on cable television.
“There are definitely times when my work has to be more commercial than I want it to be to resonate with the general public.” Davis said. “Sometimes it gets to be a little more literal than I want it to, but for the most part I am able to construct it in a way that is still ok with me artistically.” Working with her own company, marInspired ; the storytellers and others, she has managed to bridge both the commercial and the concert worlds.
In January Davis travels to Chicago to spend the month choreographing for the Giordano Dance Company. Her piece will premiere at the Harris Theater in March of 2019. I asked if the company was bringing her work to Los Angeles and she said that she hoped so. “I’d love for the LA Dance Community to see it.”
She is working toward presenting her show UNbreakable one last time here in Los Angeles in June. She explained that her first show, Breakable was about how vulnerable we are as humans and that no matter how strong someone might appear, that ultimately something can and will break us. And that, is what ultimately unifies us; our fragility. UNbreakable is about “the unbreakable bond between people and the strength and resilience of the human spirit that binds us” I told her that her spirit seems to be unbreakable. She smiled and said. “I try to be. That word is what I live by.”
I asked Davis what she wanted readers to take from her story of living with terminal illnesses while continuing to push forward with her career. Her answer was truly moving.
“One of the things that I would like people to know,” she said. “is that many of the diseases I have are invisible. For you or for most people when they first meet me, I look totally normal, but for people who knew me prior to my illness’ severity, I was in a completely different external shell that I am currently living in now. For anyone who just meets me, often, they can’t see that anything is wrong.”
“I think what is so difficult for people to understand,” Davis continued. “Is that no matter how you look outwardly, what is going on behind the shell can be incredibly difficult. It wasn’t until I lost my hair and other physical, tangible things changed, that people began treating me differently. I was so relieved that people were finally acknowledging that there was something wrong, but for me, this was not new, I had been sick for 28 years!”
She wants people to know that invisible illness can mask so much. There is a lot of emotional pain as well as physical pain. There is also the emotional anguish felt from one’s loved ones and friends not understanding. “That can be really difficult and take a tremendous toll on you.” Davis said.
Relating what she has been going through to her dance career, Davis feels that, although what has happened to her health wise has been truly difficult, it has given her a wealth of material to use artistically. She thought that I would be shocked by this, but as an artist, I understood. She puts her pain and anguish into her work and turns it into something positive, something that people can relate to, and something beautiful.
She said that she could not imagine not having that wealth of ideas to draw from and feels so fortunate to have somewhere to put what she is going through, and to have the outlet to inspire other people. She said that even since the Dancing With The Stars piece, she is getting messages from people who are feeling seen and heard for the very first time. “The only way that I can make sense of all these tremendously difficult things that have happened to me, is to turn them into light and use them to help other people.”
To view the CW TV documentary about Davis titled My Last Days, click here.
To watch Wouldn’t Change Anything choreographed by Davis for Dancing With The Stars, click here.
To watch a work by Davis for marInspired ; the storytellers, click here, .