The first time PeiJu Chien-Pott auditioned for Martha Graham Dance Company, she was instantly turned down. She gave birth to her first child the following year, and used Graham classes to help tighten her core muscles after pregnancy. In 2011, just one year later, she auditioned again, and this time she got in. The company’s artistic director, Janet Eilber, asked her where she’d been hiding. “She couldn’t believe I had actually auditioned once before,” Chien-Pott says. During her next five years with the company, Chien-Pott became a principal dancer, and even earned a Bessie Award for best performance in Martha Graham’s Ekstasis.
Born and raised in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Chien-Pott began training in classical ballet when she was 5 years old. By 10, she had joined her school’s competitive-dance program that emphasized traditional Chinese styles and classical training. It wasn’t long before she wanted to add more dance to her schedule, so her mom enrolled her at ZIAI Dance, where she was able to add tumbling, martial arts and modern to her tool kit.
In high school, Chien-Pott had the privilege of enrolling at Taipei National University of the Arts for its seven-year dance program. “It’s like the Juilliard of Taiwan,” Chien-Pott says. There, she majored in Western dance and was introduced to Graham technique in a meaningful way. She was invited to dance with Taipei Crossover Dance Company, where she performed with super-star artists, including principal dancers from Hong Kong Ballet. “It was the first time I realized that being a professional dancer was truly what I wanted,” Chien-Pott says.
In an effort to chase her dreams, Chien-Pott moved to the U.S. and enrolled at New York University, where she spent a year taking English lessons. When her classes finished at 3 pm every day, she would hop on the train and head to Steps on Broadway for ballet and Horton classes. There, she met master teacher Milton Myers, who gave her the confidence she needed to succeed. “He once asked me to demonstrate something, and I can still remember how proud I felt,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone in New York, and when he encouraged me, it made me feel so loved.” Myers eventually recommended Chien-Pott to Buglisi Dance Theatre, and her American professional dance career officially began. “I was finally in the system,” Chien-Pott says.
Next came Nimbus Dance Works and, eventually, Martha Graham Dance Company. It was here that Chien-Pott says she found her home. “I felt so comfortable and connected in that style,” she says. “The movement just makes sense to me.”
Following MGDC, Chien-Pott has gone on to perform with companies all around the world. Now, she teaches Graham technique at the Martha Graham School, The Ailey School’s BFA dance program, and at Fordham University.
Here, she opens up about her most influential teacher, the most helpful correction she’s ever received and her advice for teachers in 2022.
On her most influential teacher “Denise Vale, the rehearsal director of Martha Graham Dance Company, brought out the best in me. During my first year I was an apprentice there, she was very strict with me. But I always wanted to take her class because she would give me a lot of information on how to communicate with your heart so that your movement eventually makes sense to the audience. We’ve become friends after all these years. We still listen to each other and give each other feedback.”
On the most helpful correction she’s ever received “I had a strict Graham teacher in college who said that if he had to give me the same correction three times, I would automatically fail the class. Thankfully, that never happened, and I still remember every note he ever gave me. In particular, he told me to close my rib cage and hold it tight. Over the years I developed an understanding of how to do that correctly, and I still apply that correction in my professional career.”
On dance-training regrets “While I was in college, people wanted dancers to be skinny. They’d say, ‘If you want to be a professional dancer, you have to have a slim body because you will constantly see yourself in a leotard.’ Most dancers would start eating improperly to lose weight. I, too, could have treated myself better back then.”
On her personal teaching journey “My first teaching experiences were with Martha Graham Dance Company as a performing artist. I was given the opportunity to teach master classes on tour or regular classes for the school. When COVID hit and everything shut down, I was able to increase my teaching schedule by giving classes online every day. Now, I am on the faculty at the Alvin Ailey School, teaching Martha Graham technique, and I also teach company classes for Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and at Fordham University.”
Her advice for dance teachers “Keep your judgments and corrections open to each individual student. You have to understand that dancers are different from each other and they respond to movement differently. You have to see why each individual moves the way they do and give them customized corrections based on that.”
Editor’s note: Tune in to the Dance Edit Extra this Saturday, May 14 to hear Chien-Pott talk about continuing Nai-Ni Chen’s choreographic language through her own artistry, and why Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company’s work feels especially crucial right now, as Asian Americans face rising levels of violence and hate. Click here to subscribe.