From small town Minnesota to America's oldest Performing Arts Institute, it's easy to see how this enthusiastic young Bird has captivated the hearts of all those around her. Ashley Yergens shares with us her experience of growing up queer in rural America and the leap to the bright lights of NYC.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I moved here because I was offered a job at BAM back in October so I’m super fresh to the city.
And before here you were living in Minnesota?
Yes, I was born and raised in Minnesota. I lived in Maine for a summer and Boston one summer too. So I had never really done the ‘city’ thing. I was super sheltered in many different ways.
How did you feel coming to New York?
I was at a point in my life where I felt I had gathered all these different experiences and I couldn’t apply them. I also felt like I was moving way faster than everyone else.
So when I arrived here I finally felt like other people were moving quicker than I was. I finally felt like I was going at the right pace. That’s the best way I can describe it.
I always find it fascinating when people from small towns come to their own conclusion that they don’t fit in or that they’ve moved beyond it. I think it must be really difficult to do that.
I always felt like I was thinking of a million ideas. Now I can finally pause and witness everyone else doing that.
What are you doing at BAM?
I work on a cultural exchange program. It’s a program of the state department that BAM produces. So we send dance companies abroad.
And you have a dance background as well?
I do. I was put in a dance class when I was five years old and I told my mom that I had to quit dance because the fluorescent lights hurt my eyes when really I just hated wearing leotards.
That’s a creative excuse though.
I actually really hated dance growing up. Later when I was about nine I used to go watch my younger sister dance, she’s really brilliant at tap, and the studio next door ended up blasting hip hop music. So I went over there to check it out, but the class was for 15 year olds and up
So I would stand outside and follow along. The owner of the studio caught me one day and she talked with the dance instructor and asked if I could join the class.
Finally the movements fit my body and I just loved it. I did that through middle school and then I stopped again. But I ended up doing a modern dance program at high school and started to fall in love with it again.
I got really interested in making work. I think that’s a reason why I didn’t enjoy it growing up because I was always defiant and didn’t want to do what I was told.
So then I decided to go to college for dance. My parents didn’t go to college so they were like “do whatever you want. It’s great that you’re going to school!” They really didn’t question it but everyone else did, they questioned how I was going to make money dancing.
Do you do choreography now?
I do. This past fall I was one of Minnesota’s emerging choreographers and I got to show work at the Walker Art Center.
I’m very split in the middle. I have an administrative brain. I love producing and taking care of artists and then there’s the other side of me that’s like “I can’t stop thinking of ways to orchestrate movement.” [Laughs]
Did you decide on New York and then look for a job here?
I met Sophie Shackleton at the Bates Dance Festival when she was running the cultural exchange program and I was running the social media at the event and providing her with content.
I was so intrigued by the whole idea of the cultural exchange program through dance. One day towards the end of the festival she leaned over to me and said, “do you want my job?”
I usually don’t trust people with such immediacy but I said “yes”. This is kind of embarrassing but she asked me if I wanted to come meet her boss and chat and I thought “great” and didn’t realize that I was actually being interviewed. I had just shaved my head, I was wearing a striped shirt with a hole in the middle, and bright pink sweat pants from Walmart. Really not polished at all.
I remember coming home to my wife and saying that I just screwed up a huge opportunity. They called me a few weeks later and told me I had the job!
I was surprised because I was so embarrassed with how I presented myself.
When did you get married?
I got married when I was 21. At the time we had been together just under a year. Molly’s 10 years older than me too.
How did you meet?
Molly was teaching at a boarding school and the director of dance at the school is a dear friend of mine, Carrie, who asked me to come in to teach one week.
One lunchtime I was sitting with my friend in the dining hall having a serious conversation and Molly sat down with us and said “who are you?” I was just shocked and drooling, which was super embarrassing because at the time I wasn’t ‘out’ to my friend.
I was feeling lots of things. I had never been attracted to someone within milliseconds, also I’m ‘outing’ myself and I’m not ready to ‘out’ myself in front of Carrie.
Molly was living with a woman and in a longterm relationship. I tried to “friend” her on Facebook.
Natural next step. [Laughs]
But her profile disappeared off Facebook. She had blocked me and later I found out it’s because she thought I was dangerous. Then a year later they had broken up and all of a sudden I got a notification saying “Molly Yergens has accepted your friend request.”
A year later?
Yeah. Then we starting hanging out but we didn’t know if we were dating or not. It’s very complicated in Minnesota, and also complicated when you’re 10 years younger.
Was she your first serious relationship?
No. I had dated a woman who was out to a couple of different people and then all of a sudden was like “I’m not queer.” She was really experiencing internalized homophobia. It was super weird, hurtful and really confused me.
Being queer in a small town and being queer in a small college, even though it’s getting way better, you didn’t always have opportunities to feel normal or to feel that there was a community at all.
So when those kinds of things happen… I had never heard about someone experiencing internalized homophobia.
How does it feel coming to New York?
There were times that my wife and I had been threatened in Minnesota and there were times when men would impose themselves upon us. You can’t just shake off those experiences. You can’t just be like “poof, I’m in New York and those experiences are no longer relevant.”
Sometimes I’ll still have a hard time walking down the street holding my wife’s hand. If I feel like there’s a potential threat that is the first thing to go.
I’ve talked about that with friends who identify themselves as queer here and they sometimes just write it off as paranoia. They’re basically like “you’re in New York! Everyone’s gay!” People see it as a non-issue, and for me that’s weird.
I didn’t feel quite safe or normal in this small town but now I don’t feel like I’m queer enough … which is also a weird feeling.
Do you think it’s also because you are still so young?
I think it’s definitely really tricky to be 23 years old in New York City. It’s weird to have an amazing job at 23, it’s also weird to be married to someone 10 years older and to be married in general.
I’m always trying to figure out why I am always the youngest one in the room.
Sadly that won’t always be the case.
When I socialize with other twenty-somethings and I slip that I’m married all of a sudden it introduces this thing that they feel like they can’t relate to.
Like it automatically puts you into an older category?
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
In anything that you do, whether it’s producing work or just making life decisions, there are many choices in life and most of them are wrong but the right choice is out there, which is why you should just keep going.
What is your favorite place to take out-of-towners in New York?
It’s funny because I like taking people from out-of-state to Prospect Park as if it’s really something exciting. I’ll take Minnesotans there and they’re like “this is all you have?!”
I love taking people to BAM. It’s the longest running performing arts institution in the United States.
Have you had a favorite New York moment since you arrived?
The first show I saw at BAM, I was super excited because I had just started working there and I was blown away that I was there and got to see shows for free. I was seeing LA Dance Project and I was sitting in the audience just being so happy, thinking how lucky I am to be here, and then I look to the left of me and Natalie Portman is sitting right next to me.
I think that was one of my favorite New York moments because I was like “yeah, of course, it’s totally casual to sit next to a celebrity and it’s totally casual to work at this amazing historical place”. I was just so overwhelmed in that moment.
What does New York mean to you?
I think New York means to me finding myself in that sweet spot between comfort and challenge.