Yasmeen Audi is an actor, dancer, singer and choreographer. While dance, acting and music are self-evidently interconnected for Yasmeen and shape each other, dance has always been her love and outlet for creativity. Yasmeen has her own choreographic style, which she described as “modern/hip-hop fusion”. We’ve talked with her about her journey as a dancer and choreographer, the creative process behind her works and many other things, including her latest choreographic work “Milwaukee is a Lonely Place”.
“Milwaukee is a Lonely Place” is an emotional piece exploring immigration and loneliness, partnerships and distance. The musical piece was composed by Cynthia Meng a few years ago, inspired by her maternal grandfather’s story of immigration to the USA. Perhaps, being the first-generation American brought a deeper understanding of the story to Yasmeen, as her family was also affected by separation.
The choreography danced by Cayla Simpson and Jamari Johnson Williams starts with a brief “solo” of a female dancer, her moves seem to be light and effortless, yet somehow bitter. Her eyes meet a man and they move together, mood changes, their movement is joyful and playful. They hold to each other and separate, their movement conveys both happiness and loneliness creating bittersweet feelings. Yasmeen’s choreography is emotional and sensual, she manages to tell the story with strong yet natural, effortless almost airy moves.
Watch the amazing piece and read our interview!
When and how did you start dancing and creating dance?
I’m pretty sure I was that child who would wear a tutu everywhere she goes! I started taking actual ballet classes around the age of four and it’s been a consistent part of my life ever since. I’m thinking back and realizing that no matter what phase of life I was in – childhood, school, university, working in New York – dance was always my creative outlet. At sixteen, I was given the opportunity to choreograph for my school’s dance company and it just felt right. Ten years later and that “right” feeling has only gotten stronger!
What and why do you actually prefer: dancing or choreographing?
While dancing will always be my first passion, I would say at this point in my journey I prefer choreographing. There’s something special about leading a group of dancers to create a vision that’s larger than each of us. That being said, in University I would often choreograph myself into my own pieces so I could have fun doing both!
Describe your choreographic language and process? What do you communicate through your choreography?
I would say my choreographic style is a modern/hip-hop fusion. The majority of my training was in contemporary, jazz, and hip-hop, so I’ve enjoyed mixing them to create my own style.
In terms of the process, setting and rehearsing a piece is the most wonderful experience; you get to bond with a group of individuals and tell a story together. Ultimately, my goal is to create a rehearsal experience and final product that my dancers are not only proud of but are excited to perform. If one of my dancer’s shares an idea that they think is “silly” or “dumb,” I usually set it into the dance just to prove that there’s no such thing!
What are your inspirations and what influences your choreographic work?
It always seems to be a “love at first sight” introduction when it comes to what inspires me. If I hear a song, I get this gut feeling within the first minute of listening if I’ll end up choreographing to it or not. I usually gravitate towards music with a really striking, distinctive or quirky beat. This also applies to non-music related inspirations! If I hear a poem or think about an everyday part of life that is funny to me, my brain will go wild and I’ll start visualizing choreography in my head instantly. In one of my favourite pieces called “The Television,” I choreographed dance around a soundscape I mixed of different television channels: the weather channel, a Mastercard advertisement, a cooking show. My dancers and I had so much fun taking the audience on an adventure and presenting the world of television from a totally new perspective. If I catch something that inspires me, half of my work is already done.
You are also an actress and a singer, what is your favourite art form of all these? In your opinion, how do these art forms influence your dance language?
That’s the hard part, they’re all my favourite! I think that may be why I have developed such a strong love for Musical Theatre; it creates an enhanced reality by combining all three art forms. I believe my experiences in Musical Theatre have sharpened my choreographic focus on the story that dance tells. When I choreograph a piece, I am constantly thinking about how the move, sequence, dynamic will spark interest and engagement for an audience member. The questions we ask ourselves when singing a song or reading a monologue apply to dance: What story am I telling? Who am I telling it to? Why am I telling it? My choreography often leverages relatable themes, striking music or speeches and a touch of humour to achieve that.
What brought you to London? How would you compare the dance stages in London and New York as well as your experiences?
Funnily enough, I studied Psychology at Harvard University and worked in advertising as an account manager for two years in New York City. Deciding to leave my job to pursue my passion was the scariest and best decision I could have ever made. After performing professionally in New York for a year, I was excited to continue my education and knew London was the right place to do it in! I’m currently completing my Masters in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music and couldn’t be happier. The dancing in both cities is exceptional and I’m excited to continue watching and creating work in both places.
Tell us more Milwaukee is a Lonely Place piece, what is the story behind it and how did the work on it go?
This piece was composed by Cynthia Meng a few years ago, inspired by her maternal grandfather’s time after immigrating to America. A few years later in 2018, Cynthia decided to complete the orchestration of the song and reached out to me to bring it to life through dance. Being a first-generation American from Lebanese parents myself, I was honoured to sign on to the project.
According to composer & lyricist of the song Cynthia Meng: “There was a period of time in my maternal grandfather’s life when he lived in the United States, concurrently with my parents. His first wife (my grandmother) had died a few years prior, and he was newly wed to another woman. The idea was that they would both come to the States to live, but as it turned out, he came alone and periodically sent money back to her in China. Perhaps he hoped she would join him eventually. Or, perhaps he knew she never would… My mother told me she once found a journal of his from that time in his life in which he described his immense loneliness in living here… [These] stories are abundant within me. I stand on the shoulders of those who paved the way, and move.”
After learning the back story behind Cynthia’s song, I was inspired to choreograph a piece that explores the idea of partnerships and how the remnants of someone’s memory stays with you even if distance separates you physically. My own parents experienced this when they left their families’ in Lebanon to seek a better life in America. Whether due to immigration or other circumstances, I felt many people could relate to this idea in their own way.
You are the first generation American, is your family’s cultural background influencing your work and if yes how?
Ah, the first thing that comes to mind is rhythm! In my Lebanese family, it’s normal for everyone to break out into dance in the middle of dinner or working if the music moves them. Growing up with the sounds of drums and syncopated beats surrounding me at what felt like all times, I think the rhythm got me young and the rest was history!
Tying into the theme of “Milwaukee is a Lonely Place”, I also believe growing up as a first-generation American has greatly influenced my work ethic. My parents, who moved to the US and built a life for themselves from nothing, are my biggest inspiration. They’ve taught me how hard work, a little luck, and an unending curiosity and passion for life can help you move mountains.
What would you like to accomplish in dance and choreography? What is on your bucket list?
On my life-long bucket list, I would love to choreograph a West End or Broadway musical. Until then, I’m excited to keep creating new work through collaborations with others in the industry! Who knows, maybe I’ll even open a reimagined dance school one day… no harm in dreaming big, right?
Follow Yasmeen on Instagram @yazz.hands