Danielle Agami of Ate9: “Don’t fall in love with your work”

“Don’t fall in love with your work.” This is something Ohad (Naharin) also told me. You will always have to edit and critique it and you need to have perspective in order to do that. You can fall in love with the people in your work, but not the work itself. As a part of our […]

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“Don’t fall in love with your work.” This is something Ohad (Naharin) also told me. You will always have to edit and critique it and you need to have perspective in order to do that. You can fall in love with the people in your work, but not the work itself.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Agami.

Globally renowned dancer/choreographer Danielle Agami founded Ate9 in 2012. Agami’s unique leadership and ability to cultivate excellence in others has placed her at the forefront of the dance profession. She has been building a powerful legacy, with Ate9 now one of the world’s top contemporary dance companies, producing and performing works born from unique intersections of arts and artists.

Agami’s imaginative and surprising productions are designed to move beyond the traditional confines of dance and movement and spark new ideas on the arts landscape. Recently, Agami made a foray into motion pictures with two short films currently in post-production. She said the projects are unlike traditional dance films that audiences are used to, with acclaimed directors taking her works to a whole new level of dance and story.

A former Batsheva dancer under the mentorship of artistic director Ohad Naharin and later as a Batsheva rehearsal director, GaGa-trained Agami is one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world. Born in Jerusalem and now an American citizen, she has created a vast repertoire of original works for Ate9, and has been commissioned to stage productions for dance and opera companies all over ther world.

For Ate9, Agami has created 14 complete works and collaborations with Los Angeles institutions including the LA Philharmonic, The Music Center, CAP UCLA, The Industry Opera, and REDCAT. Recent works include collaborations with Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche, actor Jon Hamm, and Spanish singer/songwriter Russian Red. In the fall of 2019, she was invited by The English National Opera to choreograph a Philip Glass opera at The Coliseum in London. Ate9 has been presented in cities across the United States and is looking forward to touring internationally beginning with Japan in March 2021.

For nearly a decade, Agami has carved out a place for Ate9 in Los Angeles. With the vast geography and cultural diversity that makes up LA, there is a disconnectedness among Angelenos that she addresses with her art. Agami believes that creating works that evoke a visceral response in people can help connect us to ourselves and to others while allowing us to shift and evolve as individuals and as a community.

Agami’s awards include the 2018 Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Leaders in Dance, the 2016 Princess Grace Award for Choreography, and The Grand Prize for Choreography at The McCallum Theater at Palm Desert in 2013 and 2014. She was also named one of Dance Magazine’s “Top 25 to Watch” in 2015.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I took my first ballet class at the age of 5, and right after high school, began my professional career when I joined the Batsheva Ensemble in 2002. I was invited to the main company in 2004 and soon after became a Rehearsal Director for the company as well as the artistic director for Batsheva Dancers Create. In 2010 I decided to start my own path — armed with much knowledge and passion for dance, I chose NYC to be my new home, and then eventually Los Angeles.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

My work, most recently in film, is breaking common narratives about gender in performance.

I try to present female characters in my work as strong forces with not only power but also choice. They are beautiful, powerful creatures that have both visual and emotional magnitude. It’s important to me that my female dancers know that they own this advantage; women don’t always need to be helped, saved, or picked up. They’re not always tiny and frail.

Our films focus on females as having a heavy load of capabilities; they can carry a lot on their shoulders. By that same token, they also show vulnerability. And let’s talk also about male characters. I think it’s important that we explore the complexity of the male brain, too. I’m not afraid to equalize that gender situation. Both genders struggle and both are strong and weak.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure specifically if I have a story but rather a general lesson I learned from an early mistake I was making, and that involved the fundemental question of what portion of your heart should your work take? When does your profession take over your emotional engine? It’s essential that most of my heart is dedicated to people I work with, things I work on, my dancers and my students. When I was first starting out, if I sacrificed much, it meant I did much. As a result, I was exhausted and I finally came to understand that when you prioritize giving yourself, you’re left drained and resent the things that give you joy and confidence in life. My mistake was to believe you should be drained to be successful…to be compromised in order to love what you do and to love other people. To me it’s kind of funny because you believe in it so deeply when you’re young. By experiencing the weird, hard moments, you learn that lesson.

Another funny mistake? Bringing my fiancé into my business and having him fall in love with one of my dancers. Is that funny?

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

On a broad scale, there are two main groups of people here in Los Angeles who taught me what I know and how to really believe in myself: The first is my Board of Directors and our donors. They showed me the range of my impact. The more I learned about people who were passionate about my work, the more confident and proud I was to generate more!

The other group is dancers themselves. Every day I learn how valuable our work is by seeing how confident and joyful Ate9 makes them.

On more of a mentorship level, Ohad Naharin (former Artistic Director of Batsheva and legendary choreographer) has had a major influence on how I manage people and get the best out of them. His legacy constantly reminds me that listening to the weaknesses in myself and others is going to give me the best nuance of how to deal with issues. You have to be very careful and aware of how you address every person, every problem and every situation that comes up when you run a business. Not one statement or rule applies to all.

To this end, I don’t create exceptions. I just always treat each individual by what that person needs, including donors, dancers, cast memebrs, students…everyone who comes through the door.

Ohad taught me humans are not all the same. I was rehearsal director working with him for many years and we used to always talk about the individual even when it came down to giving a note that a person should lift their arm higher. The conversation would start there but, also, he’d say, ‘You can see the fantasy of why they dance, but remember his parents and where he comes from, then you can better understand the fantasy.’ Then you figure out from there how you tap into that and change the fanatasy that caused him to lift his arm a certain way, instead of just telling him to lift his arm higher. You have to understand and respect their backgorund and consider how to reach them — and that’s different from one person to the other.

Attention to detail and back story were part of every moment. Developing great dancers was to know and understand the bigger picture. Those intimate conversations about intimate things with Ohad constantly taught me to look at people holistically — not like a picture or two-dimentional shape, but that they have fascinating luggage that makes them more interesting than what might appear.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think that every layer in history teaches us something. Even if we change — or disrupt — the rules, learning the previous rule is essential. I think that it’s always OK to challenge the norm because you find out whether or not you made a mistake. You can circle back to the old idea, and it’s likely better because you’ve learned something along the way. For example, it’s OK to paint your wall black and realize you made a mistake. So then you buy better white paint and cover it. The effort and sensation of creating that wall and observing and evaluating — all of that is great and has value in itself.

So being disruptive is scary, but I think it’s always good to go through the process and figure out if the rule was better than we initially thought. It’s reaffirming.

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

These are phrases:

  • “Don’t fall in love with your work.” This is something Ohad (Naharin) also told me. You will always have to edit and critique it and you need to have perspective in order to do that. You can fall in love with the people in your work, but not the work itself.
  • “Gravity is momentum.” You need to understand that in dance. I mean that also in a mental sense. You need to figure out how to utilize the down moments to swing back up.
  • “Oh well.” Noom (the weight loss app) taught me that. When you mess up, you just say, Oh well. I get a tremendous sense of relief when I say those words. The world isn’t going to end, I can just pick up when I’m ready, and go at it again. It’s actually also really working for weight loss (which is what the app is really for).

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

As an artist, I am very fertile with ideas and eager to explore how my experience with other mediums can allow new work to grow. It is very important to me at this moment amid social, moral and political chaos to listen to an audience with a different perspective to feed my artistic process. I’m really eager to expand my artistic footprint through the camera lens. My two films, An Apology and A Blind Lady explore gender identity as well as the spiritual sacrifices we make — and how we cling to damaging ideals dictated by modern society.

Also, over the next ten years, I want to make it my goal to reintroduce our culture to human contact and presence; art is one of the best ways to bring people together and have a live debate. Pushing forward this almost primitive way of assembly will be on my to do list. With the progression of tech and virtual tools, I think it’s more important than ever to emphasize how important face-to-face is.

Also, I think we need to stop reverting to the past. It’s what I hate about most art critics who don’t write about their emotional response to a piece of work, but typically write what other piece it reminds them of. They’re always telling you about a reference. Art is not about the past. It’s an emotional exchange. We should be triggering our brains to go forward, not backward. It’s so boring to constantly talk about the past when you’re watching something that’s so alive and full of energy and emotion of the present. I’d like to address that as well.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

When I fight for something, I’m considereed over-emotional. It’s not fair. The fact that I’m passionate doesn’t mean I am irrrational and not in control of myself; it means that I’m fast enough, clear enough, and sure enough in my goals and opinions. It’s much more in fashion to have doubts, and be soft about it, unless you’re a guy. Unfortunately, people can’t imagine that for a woman. I am a woman commander and I’ve always been one since I was 12. I’m always the one telling people what to do, and I’m totally fine with that. People I think are waiting for me to regret that and blame it on this or that, but no, I believe I make things operate well, and people should put me in charge! I’m passionate not irrational. I surprise men constantly.

As an example, I recently bought a house and renovated the entire thing on my own. I hired a group of men and told them what I wanted them to do, and they were constantly saying, “Are you sure?” I think I surprised them with my certainty, and they were equally surprised at the result. If you feel clear, do it. If not, take advice and it’s fine to do both!

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

One is a Ted Talk by Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity. I’ve felt that way throughout my time in America when I’ve taught at schools like Julliard and other big universities. To me, it felt like rules and fears and financial realities were the priority and it overwhelmed the students. I always resented the professors that made those the priority for a dance program. My instinct is to give students the opportunity to be creative and play — not make them learn how to use a Google calendar. ‘F’ the Google calendar. And Facebook. And all the emails. They bombard them with this nonsense and take away the essence of being an artist which is to be wild and active. So yeah, that Ted Talk was reassuring to me that my instincts were right.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I see Ameicans replacing rigid definitions with others — like “gay and Black” with other extremes. I don’t think it’s helping anyone to force people to say pronouns, as one example. We need to be free from that. I don’t think it’s productive.

I am not willing to say my pronoun. It’s not real. It’s filling a superficial void. It’s hypocrisy and doesn’t allow us to move forward. Let’s not just say something to feel good about ourselves. If someone is gay, or LGBT, they shouldn’t have to announce that. It’s not going to free anyone. We’re taking their privacy away and then tagging them again. They should be allowed to feel that they have the permission to be what they want to be. That’s what we should be fighting for. Otherwise it’s a marketing stunt.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Dance, dance otherwise we are lost.” — Pina Bausch, German dancer/choreographer

How can our readers follow you online?

We have a presence on Facebook and Instagram. I hope you will all follow us!

Instagram: ate9_dance


This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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