Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: Episode 31

Marie Casimir

Welcome to season 3!!

My guest for episode 31 takes us back to the class of 2003. Marie Casimir graduated alongside Hilary Becker-Jarusinsky (Episode 11) and Jean-Guerdy Saint-Louis (Episode 14). A self-professed “Jane of all trades” and Heartland Emmy nominee, Marie discovered her passion for everything the arts had to offer during high school, when she immersed herself in dance and Thespians. Now, she has found her own voice and is sharing her vision with the world.

Looking back to adolescence

Marie spent all four years of her high school experience discovering the performing arts: onstage and backstage, in straight plays, musicals, dance classes and concerts, in leadership and in production roles.

She remembers her teenage self as full of energy and “bouncing off the walls.” Curious, adventurous and engaged, she tried all of the things that interested her, and she presented to the world a lovely, quirky spirit that was a delightful breath of fresh air.

As outgoing as she was, she also had to manage that teenage nervousness when it came to stepping forward.

I kept getting opportunities to prove myself in the studio and onstage. I felt like I really grew; I had these little parts and then I had larger parts. When I was cast as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” it was crazy! I was so excited, but I was so nervous!

A sophomore at the time, she beat out a bunch of older kids for the role. In the adolescent circle, that was a big deal. Marie benefitted greatly from the opportunity; that performance earned her a nomination from the local Helen Hayes high school theater awards program for outstanding duet for her performance of “Sue Me” with her acting partner Chad D’Entrone.

For Marie, the fact that her teacher trusted her with that level of responsibility, then was recognized by the outside theater community for her work, went a long way to building her confidence and quelling the looming self-doubt that quietly plagued her. She spent the next two years further developing that confidence and deepening her connection with what arts expression meant to her.

Navigating her path

I’m always curious about how students choose to navigate their post-high school path. Working with people who are making big decisions about the next phase of their lives before they have developed the maturity to make truly wise choices, I am very aware that their eventual career paths often do not reflect what they study in school.

When it was time to pick her path, Marie wasn’t sure that her parents would consider the performing arts a “respectable” route to pursue in college. Instead, she used her college education to gather knowledge and experience in an array of other areas, studying journalism and art history at Ithaca College. Post-undergrad, she shifted her attention to non-profit administration, earning her Masters degree in Chicago at North Park University, where she found opportunities to feed her soul in acting and dance classes, theater and student television shows. 

After grad school, she came to terms with the fact that her calling truly was in the arts. Fortunately, Marie chose areas of study that supported her passions. Having worked in galleries and museums after college, and later for a contemporary arts center, she found her art history education to be quite useful. Journalism has fed her love of research and writing, which translates directly into her choreography and the connection she makes with her dancers. Staying in Chicago, Marie committed to the pursuit of a career centered on the passion she discovered in high school. She worked at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and eventually at Links Hall, a performing arts venue that presented works by artists in various stages of their careers. There, she rose to the position of Associate Director, where she was able to hone her craft, collaborate with other artists, take classes, and continue to choreograph and perform.

Marie took a giant leap in 2016, relocating to Oklahoma City where her husband took a new job. There, she taught African Dance as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Oklahoma. In 2021, her career advanced when she took a position as curator of public programs and performance at Oklahoma Contemporary where, according to her impressive bio, she leads the development of exhibitions and contemporary art-related programming that emphasizes diversity, innovation, collaboration and community. That certainly tracks. She has a long list of recognitions and accomplishments, including the founding of her passion project, Djaspora Productions, where she produces artistic work by BIPOC artists and facilitates cultural exchanges and performances in the United States, Haiti, and Brazil.

The adventurous spirit that Marie cultivated in high school clearly blossomed in her adulthood. As a Haitian-American from an immigrant family, Marie had picked journalism as a “safe” choice, At the time, Marie thought her parents would not consider the performing arts as a respectable career path, even though she knew that’s where her passion was.

I was really afraid to go to school for theater.

Looking back, she acknowledges that despite her expectations of her parents, they probably would have been more supportive than she thought. Now, she creates art that reflects the depth of her culture, something of which I’m certain her parents are quite proud. Live and learn.

Now, I lean in to the thing that I really want to do more. With age, I’ve gotten bolder; I put my time into my passions. I’m still doing a lot of the “responsible things” but I think I’ve been taking more risks, the older I’ve gotten.

Lessons from the studio

Marie’s high school experiences served as a catalyst for much of the work she is doing now. Back in the day, she took Modern Dance, Ballet and Choreography classes and continued her training after school in the dance club. That passion for dance carried through to her adult life, as did her penchant for excellence.

One most notable accomplishment this year was a dance film she wrote, choreographed, directed and performed in called “I Dream of Greenwood,” inspired by the personal accounts of survivors of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, as told to historian and activist Eddie Faye Gates and featured in her book Riot on Greenwood. For that work, Marie was nominated this year for a Heartland Emmy award. Let’s just say, I couldn’t be more proud of the person and the artist she has become.

Looking back at her roots, Marie reflected so many of the lessons learned from those early arts experiences in high school. She has carried them with her as an adult and was happy to share them with me.

The art of collaboration

From her high school performance experiences, Marie learned the art of collaboration.

When you’re working in a studio, there’s no “I,” there’s “we.” In the dance studio and Thespians, you need every single person be able to do it, and we were such a family. I learned that it’s good to rely on other people.

As an adult, she can easily jump into a project, work fluidly with people she’s never met, and incorporate the best parts of herself to the group effort. That sense of collaboration has served her well throughout her career, but it really came in handy during the pandemic. Marie, like most artists, always relied on live performance to share her work. In early 2020, she had a performance scheduled that was impossible to mount on stage. The global shutdown required her to make a creative shift into the film world.

Prior to the pandemic, dance films were not a particularly popular genre, but when the world shut down, the dance world had to pivot just like everything else. Production companies made films, choreographers worked with dancers, but those two worlds were not naturally intertwined.

There’s different competencies there. You have to learn a new language to collaborate with people. I have a general film background having been around that work in college and a few other projects. Sometimes as a dancer, you’re like ‘I’m speaking a different language than this crew is speaking. They don’t understand what I mean.’ [There’s a] back and forth; having to be generous and kind in exchanging ideas. Sometimes you’re teaching and sometimes you’re learning. That’s really served me in the film work. The learning part has been amazing; so exciting! I can’t get enough of it; I’m working on another one!

When you are a creative who is addicted to learning and artistry, you want to keep moving in new directions, exploring inspiration and producing work that reflects your vision. With Marie, the sky is the limit. There is a limitless supply of culture and history to draw from, and she now has the tools, connections and know-how to highlight the topics that inspire her the most.

The learning curve

Marie also learned that progress isn’t linear and you can get better over time.

I remember having to learn chainé turns (I did not have early ballet training) and I remember Jaime Goddard taught me. We worked at her house for hours because I needed to get this chainé turn. I was not the best dancer; it took me a long time to get choreography, so for me it was just like ‘just keep trying.’

In a way, Marie’s early experience reflects mine. We were both late bloomers in the dance world, and took full advantage of the opportunities that were afforded to us.

I tell people this all the time: I didn’t grow up dancing. I had a free dance program at school and that meant all the difference because my parents couldn’t afford dance classes. So, I got free dance classes – amazing!

Especially in the creative world, you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to know it. The pandemic, for artists, served an unexpected purpose. To survive and keep the performing arts afloat, adjusted to the paradigm shift from live shows to recorded content. We felt it in the arts education realm as well, having to spend the year figuring out how to make virtual performance a reality. The learning curve was steep, but necessary to keep our programs running. As difficult it was to make that shift, we discovered benefits to the virtual medium: it could be dispersed to and engaged with a larger audience. Suddenly, a whole new realm of opportunities opened wide for her to explore.

I’m taking it as a huge opportunity to grow and to follow a path that I think I was on previously and veered away from. It feels like I’m actually circling back because I was working in television and film when I first left high school.

Embracing her unique spirit

I love asking the next question: What would your adult self tell your high school self now to ease the way? It gives lots of insight into how they looked at themselves then and how they have emerged beyond that narrow lens. I love her answer even more:

It’s okay to be weird – lean into the weirdness. You are quirky, you are unique, it’s okay. Weird people do cool things later on in life.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s the weirdos that wind up doing the most wonderful, interesting things. Maybe that is a function of having to embrace being different and thinking in ways that are out of the “normal” box at an early age. By the time the “weirdos” become adults, they are much further along in their creative thinking capacity. They are not afraid of taking a risk because they have been trained to do so from early on. I like training the weirdos because I was (am) a weirdo.

Marie misses that fun girl full of boundless joy. Being an adult living in a culture that can easily stifle joy can make it hard to tap back into our child-like tendencies. She allows herself to feel that way when she’s in the moment, directing or performing in a choreography project; her natural exuberance shines through. I know that feeling. I try to connect with that spirit at some point every day. Even though that excitement doesn’t necessarily last through the more mundane tasks of adulting, there is one thing about being in her grown-up skin that resonates thoroughly:

I’m more sure of what I want in life and who I am; more focused on what I want.

What does Marie grapple with now?

Taking care of myself. I am really busy. All. The. Time.

The world, and everything it has to offer, is very exciting to Marie. She has a ton of interests that she juggles, wanting to do all of the things, all of the time. She has a family who she loves, friends she wants to spend time with, projects she has her hands in, a full-time job that embodies her passions. Even though all of these aspects of her life fulfill her soul, she can easily spread herself too thin, and admits to forgetting to take care of the person attending to all of those things. Fortunately, she sees a therapist regularly, who keeps her honest about slowing down a bit and taking some time to rest.

When she does slow down and pay attention to #1, she has a few go-to self-care activities:

  • Water. I find water really cleansing, so I will take a really long shower. She makes it a whole experience: music, face mask, hair washing.
  • Meditation. She doesn’t make things complicated. She has created a dedicated home office space where she enjoys some deep breathing and grounds herself (when she remembers to actually do it).
  • Sleep. Sometimes, it’s about lingering in the bed for a while before she gets her day started. She works in performance, so aside from her 9 to 5 responsibilities, she is also called to work the performance events after hours and weekends. Sleep becomes a precious commodity during the irregularity of production weeks.

With age comes wisdom

In the same way that I have been learning to manage my 50-year old body through teaching dance, Marie has been transitioning into her “older,” adult body. She now feels the difference in its response to the rigors of rehearsals and performance. For example, she feels her knees more acutely when landing jumps. Keeping up with dancers in their 20s has a whole new meaning now.

For all of the things we may lose as an older dancer, we also have the benefit of maturity from learned experience. Marie has decided to grow from that experience, take her time and enjoy the moment to moment aspect of performance.

I don’t move in the same way anymore, but I also have a patience with movement that’s really beautiful now that I didn’t have earlier where I luxuriate into the movement a little bit more. I don’t need to PERFORM!!! (insert jazz hands)

It’s a necessity, because the (nearly) 40-year-old body doesn’t respond the same way as it once did, and the wise mind must intervene to protect structural integrity. Now, she gives movement time to breathe.

Sage advice

Love yourself! I know that sounds really basic but when you’re a teenager you’re going through so many changes. You are the best person to love yourself because you know yourself the best.

Dig into my conversation with an Emmy nominee!!

One thought on “Changed for the Better: Episode 31

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