Dancing in Pepperland: An interview with Nicole Sabella

Dancer Nicole Sabella is returning to Philly this month with Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), celebrating the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Morris’ Pepperland. Sabella, who is a graduate of UArts, joined the company in 2015. She looks back at her time in Philly and credits it for some of her best memories.

Debra Danese: How did you first get involved with Mark Morris Dance Group?

Nicole Sabella: I was living in Philly at the time, about two years after graduating from UArts, when I responded to an audition posting for MMDG. I took the Megabus into NYC, did the audition, and immediately fell in love with how the movement felt on my body. I was asked to stay for a week-long callback. While I made it to the very end of the audition, I didn’t make it into the company at that time. Mark Morris and Nancy Umanoff urged me to stay in touch. So, I did! My husband, then boyfriend, and I moved to Brooklyn shortly after. I took every MMDG intensive, saw every show I could, taught within the school, and took class almost daily at The Mark Morris Dance Center. A couple of years later, I was asked to understudy Mark’s masterwork, L’Allegro, to be performed at the Lincoln Center. After going in as an understudy on a few occasions, I was invited to start a full-time apprenticeship with the company in December 2014. I became a company member in Summer 2015.

Nicole Sabella

DD: What aspect of touring do you find most challenging?

NS: Great question! I feel like most people imagine touring to be super glamorous. It can be sometimes, but it often consists of exhaustingly long travel days, jetlag, a montage of hotel rooms, and unpredictable food choices. I love people, but, as an introvert, need alone time to recharge, and to feel like my best self as a performer. Striking this balance has always been a challenge for me. It seems to be getting easier, as I get clearer on what helps me feel my best, even when it’s different from others.

DD: What has been your best performance experience?

NS: The 2017 premiere of Pepperland, in Liverpool, for the “Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival” was one of the most memorable performances of my time with MMDG so far. Bringing Ethan Iverson’s adaptation of the famous album and Mark Morris’s gorgeously colorful movement creation to the very birthplace of the one-and-only, The Beatles. None of us really knew how it would be received. But once that curtain went up, we couldn’t have been given a warmer welcome! The audience was vibrant, clapping along, cheering, and so excited to be swept up by the magic that is Pepperland. Within Mark’s work, I’m grateful to always feel like an important part of something much bigger and more meaningful than only myself, but in that particular performance, that sentiment was magnified tenfold. The energy I felt was like no other. Maybe it helped that my mom raised me on Beatles music!

“Pepperland” in Liverpool, 2017

DD: You mentioned being a UArts graduate. How did that prepare you for your role with MMDG?

NS: We’re all the sum of our experiences and UArts gave me some of my most formative pre-professional lessons. The two most influential professors for me at the time were Silvana Cardell and Zane Booker. Silvana taught me an entirely new way of moving through her Humphrey technique class. Before Silvana, my modern dance training had been heavily based in Horton technique, which I also love. Yet, Silvana taught me about weighted movement, momentum, breath, and fall and recovery. This completely changed me as a dancer and added more dynamic options to the way I approached movement. Zane quickly became my mentor at UArts, as I resonated with his Horton technique class. He invited me to join his dance company, Smoke Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative. I learned too many things to name from Zane, the most important being to be observant. He taught me to NOTICE, to not automatically rely on asking questions, but to really pick up on what he was demonstrating in technique and quality through use of all my senses. This has served me in more ways than I could have ever imagined, including as a dancer with MMDG. Being perceptive to what can’t be communicated through words has been essential for me as an artist in the creative process.

DD: What are some of your favorite memories from your time in Philly?

NS: Philly is actually my favorite city! The most beautiful thing about Philly for me is that I met my husband, Andrew, there. It’s a completely unglamorous, maybe generic, story of two college freshmen meeting at a party and hitting it off. Yet all these years later, seventeen to be exact, we’ve grown up, gone through highs and lows, reached new career heights, and have been through it all together. Although witnessing the crowds after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series might be a close second, meeting my husband is definitely my favorite memory from my time in Philly.

Penn Live Arts will present Pepperland May 5-7, 2022 at the Zellerbach Theatre.  https://pennlivearts.org/events/

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