When I say “at the time”, I’m referring to the 90s when waifs were all the rage not only in the ballet space but the world at large; a time when Maria could have thrown in the towel like many other psychologically defeated young women.
But Maria chose another path.
And since then, her path has been nothing short of curves, dead ends, and u-turns, all the while discovering more about herself and how she could contribute to dance. Her professional titles run the gamut; an entrepreneur by nature and educator by soul, Maria has worn the dancer, choreographer, director, and professor hats, and is surely open to more.
But at the core of it all, Maria is human. A human with a heart that is so eager to reach as many people as possible about the performing arts that she is dedicating her life to it.
She seems almost fearless, like a pioneer encountering unknown territory who refuses to do an about face. So when someone says to her, “No one’s done that before,” she simply replies:
“Well, let’s just do it. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Unassuming yet elegant in a comfy gray sweatshirt with coffee at the ready, her somehow organized-but-disheveled long, wavy hair alternating from relaxed to messy bun and back down again, Maria and I chatted for so long that we had to start another Zoom session as the timer on my original call counted down.
Read on to hear bits of our conversation as I endeavored to learn more about what gives this woman the energy every day to keep moving forward with the multiple projects and responsibilities she ardently takes on. (Hint: It’s not the coffee.)
*Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Interview with Maria Caruso
‣ Do you recall the exact moment, when you acknowledged that the powers that be in classical ballet were not ready to accept you as you were?
Yes, I remember that moment very vividly. It was the day that I was told that my body, my bust line, directly impacted a director’s casting decision. That was the day that I acknowledged that the classical ballet world did not have a place for me.
This was so painful, and it seemed unreasonable. I was technically and artistically strong, but my physical being just didn’t fit the mold.
I began a downward spiral of emotional and physical health, and my eating disorder began to rage. In an attempt to alter my physical appearance to accommodate that aesthetic, I fell prey to a life of vomiting after every meal, eating diet pills daily, and researching surgeons for a breast reduction.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by so many people that encouraged me to find health and healing and the courage to move forward in a way which I could make positive change in the dance world. At the time, I didn’t recognize what that meant, but later, it became very obvious that it was the creation of Bodiography and my steadfast quest to make dance – and more so classical ballet – more inclusive.
‣ If you could turn back the clock to that moment [of acknowledgement], would you do anything differently?
As with everything in my life, I live with no regrets. The scars that I bear and the decisions that I have made in my life, good or bad, are indicative of a pathway to a place in which I can now exude self-love and an unwavering passion to continue to shed light and goodness into the world.
While I often consider what my life would have looked like without my eating disorder, and the lifelong damage that I sustained from that mistreatment of my body and my organs, I would still not change a thing. If I did change it, Bodiography would never have been born.
‣ Thinking broadly, how much progress do you feel the ballet industry has made regarding body types?
I think that the ballet industry has made extensive progress surrounding inclusivity, but if I look at the past 22 years of advocacy that I have participated in on my journey, we really haven’t made a dent. We continue to push the boundaries of aesthetic norms of the past, and we still have a lot of work to do.
I am not sure that I will ever see a globally inclusive classical ballet environ before my time is up on this earth. But, I will spend every waking day of my existence on the quest to carve a pathway forward for others.
‣ Let’s talk a little about Metamorphosis, your one-woman show that had a run Off-Broadway and on the West End. The piece itself would probably be classified as contemporary dance, but I’d love to hear more about the influence of ballet on the creation.
I would agree that Metamorphosis could absolutely be classified as a contemporary work, but the classical nuances are evident in the movement phrases within. I tried very hard to find a balance between both traditional modern and classical ballet motifs throughout the entire work, as evidenced in the floor pattering and incorporation of contractions, reminiscent of Martha Graham‘s iconic technique, as well as strong arabesque lines, usage of en dehors and en dedans pirouettes, attitude turns, saut de chat, and a variety of other classical steps.
‣ Metamorphosis is autobiographical, a culmination of your personal experiences up to the point of its creation. During the thirteen months you performed the show, how did your present emotional state affect each performance? Or did you always approach it as a reflection of the past?
This is such a great question and one in which I have enjoyed answering at almost every performance during the Q&A sessions following the show.
I think of my work and my process in a similar way that a method actor might approach their craft. I strive to take myself to an authentic place through imagery and visuals that represents the reliving of past experiences. I have always wanted to authentically approach every single performance in a new light.
So, sometimes I would be thinking about something very current in my life that was evoking the emotion I was portraying on the stage, and sometimes I would reflect upon the past for which many of the moments from the structure were built upon. In any case, I reflected heavily on those moments in my warm-up process before each show. It was in this process that I found myself with an equal amount of mental preparation as physical preparation before each performance.
‣ Philanthropy, be it local or global, has often been at the forefront of your decision-making. Fortunately, dance is a universal language thus there is no predefined barrier to understanding it. What, then, are some of the challenges you’ve faced whilst bringing the arts to underserved communities?
My philanthropic interests have always been focused on encompassing as many people as possible in the greatest amount of need.
I have always felt passionate about researching each of the communities I touch by accurately assessing where the most underserved are and focusing my efforts there. I have found that those who are in the most need are often most open to welcoming support from the outside.
Sadly, it has been my experience that the larger institutions, particularly in the category of classical ballet, have been the most challenging to work with in the distribution of scholarships. I have set up numerous meetings with dance leaders who are resistant to opening the doors to their underserved students. I have watched millions of scholarship dollars being stripped away from students in need as a result.
Whether a position of fear in acknowledging that their organization, and those within it, have needs or that those needs impose the image of weakness for their organizations, it saddens me to know that so many young people have been slighted the opportunity of a future in the arts.
‣ This is indeed shocking to me and a shame… which leads me to how you are tackling the many sides of this proverbial coin. In response to such personal and professional challenges, you created Bodiography (as you mentioned earlier), an organization that encompasses several specialized areas. Tell us more about that.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, I’ve always believed in the diversification of a creative portfolio.
In the arts sector, I’ve always felt that it has been very linear and lacking in dimension to consider sustainability. Since the beginning, I have been keen on focusing on sustainability, and in my research, I have never found a productive way to focus on one singular component of the arts for this purpose.
I have always believed that a balance between creative expression and artistic development with investment in education, research, and social and physical science has been the only potential for continued growth in this kind of organizational model. To date, many of our leading arts organizations are doing this.
For me, I wanted to elevate that and expand even more broadly by using a brand model inclusive of a professional dance company, conservatory, affiliation with an institution of higher learning, a fitness and wellness division, and a commercial production component. I firmly believe that Bodiography is unique in this way.
Looking at the arts sector from a holistic perspective and a sustainability perspective allows us to forge ahead, particularly during trying economic times when one or two of those components may be weakened by global realities that are outside of our realm of control. This is an approach that I wish many larger arts organizations would consider.
I wake up every day seeking to enhance my knowledge base by understanding the needs and desires of the humans that surround me.
‣ I believe that successfully adapting to the twists and turns requires the openness and humility of being a lifelong student. What is it that most drives you to be a perpetual learner?
I will forever be a lifelong learner until I take my last breath on this earth. The world is evolving, humanity is ever-changing, and I feel that it’s my personal responsibility to take the time to invest in what that change means.
I want to continue to grow myself, and that isn’t something I can do alone. I have grown and changed as a person through my experiences; that is an ever-evolving metamorphosis within me. I look at my life like that of a butterfly. I hope that my work here on earth will grant me the wings to fly into God‘s light at the end of my years.
‣ Of all the lessons you’ve learned so far, which is the one you would most like to share with our readers?
Resilience. I’ve learned that resilience is the most important thing to have in life. It is impossible to leave this world unscathed, and it is most important to understand that everything we experience, whether good or bad, should be celebrated or at the very least acknowledged. Accepting, appreciating, and loving thy self without apology, and loving fellow man, is what I feel is resilience.
Blessings, Grace, Gratitude, and Love to you and all of your readers.
Featured Image of Maria Caruso by Fernanda Kirmayr.
Cherilyn's lifelong passion for ballet has opened the door to the next chapter of her journey. Her strong foundation includes training at the School of American Ballet, being a featured dancer with Hartford Ballet and Carolina Ballet, and being co-director/owner of City Ballet Raleigh. She was granted the Affiliate Teacher Award after successfully completing the ABT National Training Curriculum®. A professional career in the industry along with extensive global travel provide her with a unique set of experiences to draw upon as a journalist and audience member. Cherilyn is excited to be sharing her insight about ballet around the world.