Liberty Harris is one of the lucky ones.
Many professional dancers are forced to leave the stage well before they are ready to say good-bye. The back-to-back performances, daily rehearsals and general wear and tear ultimately takes a toll on their bodies. And that doesn't include the years they've spent in dance classes learning and mastering technique.
In the 18 years Harris has been a professional dancer, including 16 with Dance Kaleidoscope, she says she has missed only one show because of an ankle injury in 2003. Despite a long and relatively injury-free career, Harris is walking away from the stage.
"I am very grateful to make this choice to go out on my own terms," says the 37-year-old Harris, who will say farewell to fans with one of her favorite DK productions: Carmina Burana on Oct. 23-26 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.
It will be a full-circle moment for Harris when the curtain falls on the final night.
"Carmina Burana was the piece that I wanted to end my career with because it was the first [Dance Kaleidoscope] production that I ever did," she says. "It's my favorite, by far, because it's physically challenging but emotionally and spiritually rewarding. I do think it's David Hochoy's masterpiece work. There's so many levels of humanity and emotion."
However, making the decision to retire from a career she loves wasn't easy. For the past couple of years Harris says the thought of retiring has been looming in the back of her mind. "And somewhere deep inside I felt this piece was exactly what I wanted to say good-bye with, simply because it is my favorite and it was my first," says Harris. "So when I heard this past January that Carmina would be on [the schedule] this season, I knew without a doubt in my being this was it. I am ready."
Harris describes the piece as a full-length, non-story ballet that explores the light and dark sides of life. Hochoy premiered the two-act production that’s set to German composer Carl Orff's music during DK's 1994-95 season. Harris first performed it in 1997.
"David was doing his second production of Carmina and he needed two extra dancers," says Harris, an Indianapolis native who was a freshman at Butler University studying dance performance when she auditioned. "(Being in the production) was such an amazing experience that when we were called back onto the stage, I cried because I had finally realized my dream of becoming a professional dancer."
Harris made an impression on Hochoy, but there were no vacancies on DK's company roster. So she started making her rounds on the audition circuit.
"I did about 20 auditions, and the majority of the responses were 'no,'" says Harris. She was finally accepted for an apprenticeship with the Charleston Ballet Theatre in South Carolina. Harris left Butler and jumped at the opportunity to work with the contemporary ballet company. "Unlike most apprenticeships, the one in Charleston paid money, but not much, so I found a roommate and an evening job," says Harris.
After two years with the Charleston Ballet Theatre, she made what would become a life-changing call to Hochoy, the choreographer who had studied, danced and worked with the legendary modern dance maven Martha Graham.
There was an opening for a DK company member, and Hochoy was offering it to her. That's when the ballerina turned into a full-fledged modern dancer.
"I had always wanted to be a ballerina, but I realized in high school that I wasn't New York City Ballet material," says Harris, matter-of-factly. She had studied dance for one semester during her freshman year at Broad Ripple Magnet High School for the Arts and Humanities in Indianapolis, but transferred to Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious fine arts boarding school in Michigan.
Following Her Heart
Moving from ballet to modern dance was a no-brainer for Harris.
"It was an easy transition because it was my calling. It just felt right," says Harris. "I follow my heart 100 percent when making decisions about my life, because my heart speaks to me a lot stronger than my head does. Professionally, following my heart has been a gift."
So, too, has working with Hochoy.
"David is a master at what he does. He knows how to push you as a dancer,” she says. “He improves your weaknesses and develops your strengths in an effort to create individual dancers.”
Harris says it helps, too, that Hochoy is a good person and it’s nice to be able to trust who you work with and work for, “because it keeps you healthy on the inside."
Hochoy believes one of the reasons Harris has been with Dance Kaleidoscope for 16 years is because she trusts his vision for the company and for her career.
As choreographer and artistic director of DK, Hochoy also trusts Harris' commitment to the work.
"She always had a wonderful quality of elegance. In the studio, she was very accurate. Libby was always good at picking up choreography," he said.
It's a mutual respect that has led to some amazing moments on stage.
"[Liberty] has been my muse for many a creation and has been a catalyst for the necessary artistic, creative synergy in the studio between choreographer and dancer," Hochoy says. "Her presence has brightened the Dance Kaleidoscope stage and helped us to shine with ever greater brilliance."
Since joining the company in 1999, Harris has become a favorite dancer for DK patrons. At 37, she's also the oldest company member; dancers range in age from 22 to 34.
"For a long time I've been the mama of the group. Many of the dancers come to me with their problems, but it's always been in my nature to comfort," says Harris, who has a younger sister.
A Fairytale Future
Although she's leaving the stage, Harris isn't leaving her DK family. A grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc. is allowing Harris to transition her skills and knowledge into the roles of Rehearsal Director and Education Coordinator. She begins her new positions Nov. 3.
"I feel like my fairytale future has come true," she says.
Even as a young dancer, Harris never set her sights on the proverbial Plan B, despite prodding from her mother. Harris always knew she wanted to be a professional dancer, and come hell or high water that's what she was going to be.
"My mom wanted me to go away to college and to have a Plan B, but that wasn't my mindset," says Harris, who attributes her longevity in the business with her ability to stay in the moment and to focus full-time on her passion to dance. "Dancers are athletes and artists but because of the risk of injury, you have to stay present," she says. "I always trusted that when the time came the right doors would open up, and they did."
As rehearsal director, Harris will serve as Hochoy's assistant in the studio helping to reset many of the pieces she once performed. She will also work closely with DK's Education Director Lynn Webster on community outreach.
"It's already wonderful having her in the studio," says Hochoy. "We've been in rehearsal for Carmina and with the next show, and it has been great to have her beside me. She understands me so well."
But after being a company dancer for so long, is Harris concerned that her relationship with DK dancers will change as she transitions to her new role? "I will still be their peer," says Harris. "As far as being in the studio, I don't think my life will change that much."
Her life outside of Dance Kaleidoscope won't change either. Harris is keeping her weekend job at Monon Food Company and as a dance instructor at Premiere Dance Center in Munice and Performer's Edge Dance Theatre in Carmel. "We do what we love, but it's not the greatest income," says Harris about life as a professional dancer. "We all have multiple jobs. Some of us are dance instructors, some are yoga or Pilates instructors."
For Harris, it's a work-life balance that works for her. Being a professional dancer is rewarding in so many ways, but it's also not for the faint of heart. Harris credits her mom for always supporting her choices, no matter how tough the road appeared at times.
"I'm so appreciative of my mother. She gave up so much for me to dance," says Harris. "She let me go away at the age of 15 to Interlochen in Michigan. …She's also never missed an opening night for all of my 16 years with DK. I wouldn't be who I am without my mom. But I think my mom will be a little relieved that I'm retiring from dance."
As she approaches her final performances (which also will include a reprise of her solo to Annie Lennox's version of Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye from DK's Cole!), Harris has begun reflecting on her life as a dancer and her time with Dance Kaleidoscope.
"Over the last month, I've realized that I feel so fulfilled that I've gotten to dance everything that I've wanted to dance. I'm sure I'll feel a little sad. I'm sure it will be bittersweet," says Harris. "But I look at it as I get to stay with my family. My heart is overwhelmed with joy."
Then, suddenly, her emotions unfolded. "I'll miss being on stage with my friends," she says with tears welling in her eyes. "I'll miss that magic that happens when you're doing what you love and you look across the stage into your best friends' eyes."