By Kylie Madry (B.A. Journalism, B.A. Political Science ’18)
Even at 16, Deepa Liegel knew she wanted to dance with the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York.
Now, she’s doing just that — the 24-year-old started her apprenticeship with the dance company in September.
“When you find the right company, something just sort of clicks,” Liegel said. “I just felt incredibly at home and I found the place that I wanted to fully give all that I had as a dancer and as an artist.”
She always knew New York was in her future.
The Seattle-raised dancer looked mostly at universities in the Big Apple but settled on one that was different from the others: SMU Meadows School of the Arts in Dallas. Liegel liked the dance department’s size: small enough to know everyone personally, but big enough that there were a lot of opportunities to perform.
“I think it’s important to grow somewhere completely new. I learned a lot in Dallas and I really would not change that,” Liegel said.
Meadows’ connections to New York helped her land her first gig after graduation. In 2015, the SMU Meadows Division of Dance was one of nine university programs invited to perform in the José Limón International Dance Festival in New York.
“It was really my first chance to network as a professional with people who might be interested in me one day,” she said. “I met the current executive director [and] the current and past artistic directors of Limón, which was a great starting point.”
Liegel finished her senior showcase at Meadows on a Sunday, flew out to New York the next day, and spent that Tuesday and Wednesday auditioning with the José Limón Dance Company — ultimately signing with the group a month after graduation.
“Knowing José’s reps beforehand was very beneficial,” she said. “I felt more comfortable jumping into the audition knowing what they were looking for.”
After a year, her contract with José Limón ended and the dancer began seeking other opportunities.
One of those included a part in the annual Broadway Bares event, a charity musical burlesque show put on by Broadway big leagues from shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton and Kinky Boots. The theme was Game Night, featuring classics like Clue and Battleship with a racy twist. Liegel starred in a Bollywood number inspired by Parcheesi, a traditional board game from India.
“I thought I was going to be in the background just snapping my fingers,” she joked, “because usually the lead roles are people on Broadway.”
But thanks to her mentor, who was an assistant choreographer on the number, and her past experience with Kathak, an Indian classical dance form, she landed the lead part.
“It was definitely the highlight of my career and something I could see myself doing later,” she said. “And it was my 24th birthday. It was the best birthday I’ve ever had.”
Once summer was over, Liegel was back on the audition route and vying for her dream job at Mark Morris.
“Mark created the company as a group of friends dancing together, and the people he’s hired have that same mentality. We’re not all necessarily the stick-thin, ballerina body,” she said. “We look like people doing movement. There’s an approach to it that makes it look like anyone could do it.”
Not just anyone is chosen for the company, however. Liegel was one of three female dancers picked from a crowd of 350 in August.
Her next steps include touring with Mark Morris in November and December, including stops in London and Santa Fe. Her apprenticeship lasts six months, from where she may join the company full-time. But after that? Who knows, maybe Broadway’s calling after all.
Deepa’s tips for aspiring dancers
Take more notes! “Being able to look back at things that teachers have said, or combinations we did or corrections I’ve gotten, wouldn’t just be cool to see the growth but actually beneficial.”
Go to every class, “especially ones you don’t have to pay for.”
Go to as many shows as you can. “And that’s not just dance. That’s opera, or theatre, or installations. Dallas is definitely becoming an arts hub.”
Find a professor or dance teacher and build a mentor-mentee relationship with them. “One of the things that’s surprised me the most is how often I turn to professionals for advice or questions.”
Don’t take yourself so seriously. “Honestly, if you don’t get cast in that one thing, it’s really going to be OK. It’s not the end of the world.”