Principal dancer with Norwegian National Ballet, founder & choreographer of THE SHIFT
Melissa Hough was born in Severn, Maryland and trained under Alla Sizova at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. She previously danced with Boston Ballet, artistic director Mikko Nissinen, where she was promoted to the rank of principal dancer, and Houston Ballet, artistic director Stanton Welch, as a first soloist. Hough joined The Norwegian National Ballet in 2013 and was promoted to soloist in 2014. Hough received the 2017 Wilhelmsen Opera and Ballet Prize for her work as a soloist dancer and for her choreographic endeavors since coming to Norway. She was also recognized in Dance Europe Magazine’s 2015 Critic's Choice for Outstanding Female Performance as Carmen in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen, which was created on her in 2014. She has appeared internationally in the filmed version of Alexander Ekman's A Swan Lake as the Black Swan. As a choreographer, Hough has made both independent projects as well as commissioned works in Norway and The United States. She created Epic Short in 2016 for Nasjonalballetten’s Sleepless Beauty program, which received recognition in Dance Europe Magazine’s Critic's Choice for Best premiere, and was invited to be performed at the 2018 Diaghilev P.S. Festival in St. Petersburg. Ms. Hough created the piece Bout of the Imperfect Pearl to Baroque Movement in April 2019. In 2020, she created the piece 5 Ballerinas, which was part of the Norwegian National Ballet's live streaming performance Close. "Darn, it’s so good to see proper choreography again, danced so well and with such expression," wrote Dance Europe about Hough's piece. Hough was previously a faculty member of New York City Dance Alliance, teaching ballet and contemporary. She has taught at various schools in Oslo, including Oslo National Academy of the Arts, as well as served on the jury panel for the Nordic Baltic Ballet Competition.
We asked Melissa about her journey.
There is a misconception that American and European dancers are on opposite sides of the spectrum. As an accomplished American dancer in Europe, can you help demystify this misconception?
Melissa Hough: Well, I have realized how small the ballet world is and how many of the same faces I see in the studio, whether I’m in Norway or America. In the end, it’s about having a good rapport with my director, so that he/she will fight for me to dance when a stager is unable to visualize me in certain roles, which happens often.
'Principal dancers should stay dancers, and choreographers should choreograph.'
How do you approach this industry's pigeonhole mentality and limitation that dancers should stay in their lane?
Melissa: I have learned that seeing myself in a certain way is more important than focusing on how other people see me. I know, to a certain extent, what I am capable of and don’t expect the majority to understand me. Whenever I feel extremely passionate about something I want to do, I find the courage to say what I want out loud and go for it.
You've always had a passion for producing and directing; having put together shows in your childhood, was there a particular 'aha' moment in your professional career where you realized you had a knack for this?
Melissa: There were a few chances in Boston, about 10 years ago, where I created more “entertainment” shows, and the productions always became very big and exciting. I knew then that I wanted to direct and choreograph in my future, but I was unable to fully admit it to myself until more recently.
The words of your former director, Stanton Welch, seemed to have opened your eyes to the possibility of reimagining choreography. Has it made you question more about classicism in ballet? And how do you think the industry can expand upon the classics?
Melissa: The question of classicism in ballet is a subject I have pondered for many years, starting from my years in Boston. As a choreographer, I have thought more deeply about classicism and its place in new works. To me, classicism is a human concept that calls for traits and situations that can be understood universally. I think the industry has its hands tied a bit when it comes to expanding on classics. Perhaps the art form could move forward and make new ballets with new stories and music, but the financial state of most companies is so fragile that they are unable and/or unwilling to take such big risks. Honestly and unfortunately, I think at this point, we need to ask ourselves what is most important in helping the art form to survive the current state of the world. I believe we must break new ground.
You founded THE SHIFT, an innovative production company based in Oslo that houses your creations. Can you share more about your vision and what you aim to achieve in the coming years?
Melissa: My approach to THE SHIFT is that of an entrepreneur. For the moment, I am focusing on creating dance where it is needed. I want to bring it to the people who don’t necessarily consider going to the opera house.
I am trying to build it up and take on smaller projects, whilst developing some larger ideas for the future.
Can you describe a pivotal point in your career?
Melissa: Well, it coincides with my personal life. When I was pregnant and had a lot of time away from the stage and studio, this was the beginning of an enormous change to my work approach. I started to see myself as a mother and role model instead of an individual with no one to answer to, besides my own ego. I think I started really becoming a woman because I made myself figure out what I want out of the next years of my life. What do I want my life to look like when I am 50 and my daughter is a grown-up? Now, with the virus, it almost feels like Part 2 of this process and I’ve found myself going even further with this self-development and discovery. Ironically, this has all changed my relationship with dancing tremendously, but I am staying strong in believing it is for the best and that I am and will be better for it. I am not following anyone’s rules but my own.
Principal dancer, choreographer, director, and mother, I think it's safe to say you're a dancer of all trades. With that said, what's next in store for Melissa Hough?
Melissa: Haha! I’m just going to keep going and strive for balance as a human. Being a Mom is really tough, especially with a daughter, and it’s a constant adjustment for me to find more time and space for myself with her. With my work, I am want to stay connected to where dance is needed and find creative ways to make it happen.
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