Meredith Rainey talks a lot these days about finding his "voice," and about the road he's traveled since leaving the Pennsylvania Ballet three years ago, as he turned 40.
He's been busy starting anew, honing his skills at making dances, shedding the old identity (call him "a former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist" and risk a slap on the wrist), and adapting to the mantle of choreographer. He's stepping out.
"When you see somebody really go that next step in the artistic journey - it makes you go there, too," he says. "You can't go back to that old way of being 'the dancer who does what they say.' You become the dancer who starts to look for things to do, who starts to explore the aspects of the piece that you're doing, the dance that you're actually creating onstage."
Born June 7, 1966, in Fort Lauderdale, Rainey is marking more than a birthday: This weekend's premiere of his piece Look Inside culminates his year as artist-in-residence at the Community Education Center in West Philadelphia, as it introduces the beginning of a dance company of his own. Performed by Francis Veyette, a Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, and Rosalia Chann of BalletX, Look Inside is designed by Jorge Cousineau, with costumes by Martha Chamberlain. Anna Drozdowski is the dramaturg.
No stranger to choreography, Rainey began crafting dances in the early 1990s for Off-Center Ballet, the experimental wing of the Pennsylvania Ballet that was created by Christopher D'Amboise, the company's artistic director from 1990 to 1994. (Rainey joined the company in 1989, when it was under the artistic direction of Robert Weiss.)
Since then, he has choreographed for the Pennsylvania Ballet's annual "Shut Up and Dance" benefit programs and for regional ballet companies and college dance programs in Delaware and Pennsylvania - and he's been a guest performing artist all over the place.
"I've been choreographing for a long time," Rainey says, "but it was always influenced by everything else I was doing at the time."
So once he left the Pennsylvania Ballet, he needed time off to explore this aspect of the profession. In 2007-08, he was part of the Choreographers' Project at the Susan Hess Dance Studio. "By the time I applied for the CEC residency," he says, "I realized I wanted to produce a show, and this was the perfect opportunity: 100 hours of free space, money for dancers, free marketing and PR, and a stipend. So that was really cool."
Rainey's way of working now is a far cry from his traditional ballet background, and has brought him into the risky terrain of experimental contemporary dance.
"Because I had been in a ballet company - and even though we did a lot of contemporary work - it was always very hard to get your own voice out," he says. "When I choreograph I like the dancers' input. I want the artists I'm working with to be part of my process and growing as they're doing it."
Making the transition from being a dancer inside the clean machine of a well-established ballet institution to living from project to project as a freelancer was not a matter of "happily ever after."
"When I left the company in 2006, I went into a depression," Rainey said. "Things weren't happening fast as I thought they would. . . . I sat at home a lot and watched television. Things were coming up that I'd pushed aside while I was dancing - my own insecurities, and feeling not worthy of what I'd gotten, what I'd already done."
But, as is often the case with artistic personalities, even this angst over time became stock for Rainey's creative stew.
"I started asking myself why I was being so voyeuristic and watching these home-makeover reality shows. And I realized I was addicted to them because of the big 'reveals' at the end: the life-changing moments - that was what I was wanting! I would get teary! And I asked myself if I was being a voyeur, watching these people and wanting these things to happen to me."
Out of these musings came questions about the idea of voyeurism, "so I thought I'd explore this even more," he says, with a laugh. "Look Inside has turned out to be not so much about voyeurism as about perspective. You see something one way, and someone else sees it a completely different way."
Ultimately, depression helped him find his way. So did the friends who offered spiritual support - and the series of professional opportunities coming from the local dance culture.
Rainey admits that when he left the Pennsylvania Ballet, "I didn't have a clue - because you're in a bubble at the Ballet - about all the other dancers and the wonderful dance community in the city."
Describing some of those early, depression-lifting connections, he says, "I worked with Jérôme Meyer and Isabelle Chaffaud [dancer-choreographers who performed in the 2007 Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe]. They created this duet that you did in people's living rooms. You've never seen the space. You get there, you do it, you leave. We were like ghosts.
"I worked with [cutting-edge contemporary choreographers] Petar Podorov, Jo Kanamori, Jan Fabre. I did a Limón reconstruction last year with Dancefusion, partnering Janet Pilla.
"At the Ballet, we did different choreographers, but it was still really based on ballet. These experiences were really different and opened me up to being more free with my artistic spirit."
Also important, he says, was his time with the Choreographer's Project at Susan Hess: "It opened my space in my head and broke down barriers that I'd made for myself."
Rainey now is in it for the long haul. Musing on what he has to give, he says, "I think that my niche is me. My work is genuine to what I want it to be.
"I've wasted enough time being scared of trying, because of the fear of being good. 'What if I'm good and have to do more, learn more, work harder?' The work I want to do might be ballet, but I want the dancers to be there - not doing it but in it: They are the music, costumes, lights, they are all-encompassing - they are the thing, in that moment something unique, not something that was done yesterday."