Passionate. Powerful. Elegant. These are the words often used to describe Felise Bagley. There is arguably no one else like her and audiences love her for the unique contributions she has made over a nearly 20-year career with GroundWorks. As a founding member of the company, she has been integral to its rich history.

“I feel like I contributed something really special and helped to build it, nurture it and birth it,” Felise says. “I look back and I feel joy.”

The native New Yorker will carry that joy and sense of accomplishment with her as she bids farewell to GroundWorks. She and longtime dance partner, Damien Highfield (who will also be leaving GroundWorks after 20 years), will perform their last duet during the company’s Spring Dance Series.

We caught up with Felise during the holidays – at one of her favorite breakfast spots – to talk about her 25+ year dance career (from her beginnings in New York to performing in Europe to arriving in Ohio), what she loves most about being on stage, and what she’s planning to do after GroundWorks.

You are the quintessential performer and beloved by GroundWorks audiences. What’s been the most rewarding aspect about staging the work?

In the beginning, we used to do this performance series in historical landmark spaces. We used to transform old churches and such. It afforded for intimate interaction between the audience and performers. That dynamic changes the energy you put out as a performer. It’s not traditional theater energy. You have to be very subtle and quiet in your energy and that’s not a skill you’re taught as a young dancer. That fourth wall is broken. That makes the audience very intimate with you as a human. You’re not just a performer, they see you. The audience takes that role very seriously. I am theirs. That’s how they made me feel. We are going through this together. We have a responsibility to each other. I felt that. I felt very supported by them. And they expect things in return. But not in a bad way – more like an “I’m here for you,” way. I’ve never experienced that kind of energy anywhere else.

What do you like most about performance art?

I take my job of being a performer very seriously. It does not stop at the end of the show. I’m a performer 24/7. I take the receptions very seriously. No matter how tired I am. I always acknowledge that my audience was there. I want them to know that I know they were there. That’s what’s cultivated a relationship. They’ve watched me for 17 years. I’m there because of them. We’re not doing our art in a vacuum.

Tell us about your working relationship with David (Shimotakahara). What’s unique about your collaboration?

One of my strongest memories, the thing I hold on to is an experience I had working with David at Ohio Ballet. We were working on a Heinz Poll piece that was dear to Heinz. The dancers loved it, it was a sweet ballet, most of Heinz’s work was one piano on stage and very minimal. It was lovely, no gimmicks. I had a duet with David. I’ll never forget – he was teaching me a movement, and he clearly taught me something important about that move and the way to do it. He was so generous and so patient. I’ll always remember that he took the time to work on something with me, that was the beginning of our relationship. David takes his role at GroundWorks very seriously. When we first started, every single step was important. Back then that’s how we did it, he created all the work. He just had a gravity about him. Everything had integrity and because of that integrity, the intention was always pure.

Something GroundWorks audiences look forward to is the Felise-Damien duet. Tell us the best thing about working with Damien.

Damien and I first danced together at Ohio Ballet. That was how we first met. Because of those connections, we scooped him up for GroundWorks. Besides being a great dancer, he’s a good, sweet guy through and through. When you’re dancing together every day, there’s a level of intimacy you cultivate as a dancer. Things that are unspoken, even subconscious. You have to have trust in each other. Plus, he’s my dear friend.

As a professional dancer, it’s a Herculean feat to take care of the body. Tell us how you have done it over your 25+ year career. Do you have special rituals?

I’m very disciplined with how I eat, how much rest I get and over the years I have sacrificed what people normally do. Everything I do, I gear toward my health and maintaining my body. Take this for instance (points to her breakfast plate) – pancakes and bacon drowned in syrup? I don’t ever eat this. It’s something I like to do to start off my vacation. It’s an indulgence.

But when I’m not on vacation, I usually do oatmeal and I eat lots of lean meat and veggies and drink lots of water. I try to get the most out of my nutrition. I have my “Sacred Jelly Sandwich,” which is Bonne Maman strawberry preserves spread on two pieces of Brownberry Health Nut bread. I eat that every day. It can get over the top. But being a dancer is an Olympic endeavor. And here I am, at 46, way too old to be doing what I’m doing, and thriving.

Tell us about the icing. Is it true you sit in vats of ice following a rehearsal or show?

If I’m dancing, I’m icing. It’s this ritual I picked up during my classical ballet training, because when you’re in pointe shoes for seven hours a day, there is obviously a lot of pain involved. My husband helped me with the icing. We had this beautiful chair, which he would set in front of the TV with this huge bucket of ice water, and I would sit in that chair and soak my feet for an hour every night while watching TV. That’s how it started. As I got older, I started icing my shoulders, then a few years later it was my hips. The ritual kept advancing. So no, I don’t sit in vats of ice, but it’s pretty close (laughs).

You have been with the company since the beginning. What kinds of emotions do you feel when looking back?  

As a founding member, I helped create this company and built it and cultivate it. It makes me so happy to think about the love and the respect and the sense of accomplishment. It’s overwhelming, actually. I feel like I can’t express it or articulate in words what I’m feeling. I feel elated and full of joy when I look back.

Did you have a favorite work that you’ve performed?

Last fall, when Beth Corning came to reset At Once There Was a House, which we first premiered in 2004, I got to perform a completely different role. I did the solo and that was an incredible experience. Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s piece about Virginia Woolf, I had the role of Woolf’s lover and I just relished that part. I’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal, I was playing around on the table, which was the centerpiece for that particular ballet, and Lynne loved what I was doing. Working with her was amazing.

The piece David (Shimotakahara) created called Sweet – it’s one of the best pieces he’s ever choreographed, and when Damien and I perform it, people lose their minds. David created this work specifically for myself and Damien. It’s extremely personal and special when someone creates something just for you. Then there’s Robert Moses’ piece called The Rub. The creation of that work was sophisticated and complicated. I loved it.

We’re talking nearly 20 years of so, so many works. I could just go on and on and on. I’ve had such a wonderful variety of experiences with all the artists that we’ve brought to GroundWorks. I’m so grateful for that.

When did you know you wanted to become a dancer?

I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t want to be a dancer. I knew this was what I was going to do. Even when I was doing gymnastics or swimming, I just knew this was going to be my life. As a kid, I took classes at Fashion Institute of Technology as a high school student, I had horseback riding lessons. I played piano and flute. But I always came back to dance.

My mom took ballet class with a Russian teacher in Queens. Growing up in New York, I was surrounded by art all the time. I grew up with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov, the School of Performing Arts, a Chorus Line. It was all around me. My parents, they were typical New Yorkers, and took advantage of everything.

What’s the best thing about dance? How does it make you feel?

I love the physicality of it. The enormous power of being so completely physical. It’s like what humans were meant to be and do. As corny and dorky as it sounds, it’s true. It’s amazing what the human body can do.

How about when you’re on stage? What kinds of feelings are inspired?

As for the stage part – the working day in and day out is the juice of it for me. Feeling strong, being better. What goes on in the studio is magical. On stage, it’s hard work. Yes, there’s glamour and intimacy and all these incredible things that make you feel super human. I’ve had unbelievable experiences like you’re in another world, it’s intense and beautiful and dark. But I love what happens in the studio. If the walls could talk. It’s incredible and hard to articulate. There’s such alchemy. It’s powerful.

So, it makes you feel free?

For me, it’s not freedom, I’m bound by the discipline of what it takes to do this. That’s the bittersweet part. I’m bound to the ritual. It’s like golden handcuffs. But I love being a slave to the art. It teaches you about generosity and patience and understanding. There’s just so much that goes into working with people at that level, where you have to tap into that sensitivity.

What’s something not everyone knows about you?

I’m actually a very private person. You’re giving so much of yourself as a performer, so you need to protect a little bit of yourself. Or else you get a bit pulverized. Another thing is the fact that I really love to work with my hands. My husband had owned a condo when we first met, and when we decided to sell it we had to do some renovations. He put tools in my hands and I loved every single thing about it – the sanding, re-tiling, tearing apart and building back up.

You grew up in New York and then moved to Ohio. What do you like best about the Midwest? About the arts scene in the Midwest?

I’ve lived in Philly, Kansas City, Europe. I love coming to Ohio. I love the Midwestern politeness and formality. Yes, I love the hustle of New York, but here, everyone is a little more pulled back and polite and proper, and that was refreshing it its own way. It forced me to be a bit more quiet and genteel, it’s just another aspect of a personality. It brought out different things in me.

As for the arts scene – the level of integrity and quality; I’ve never experienced an arts community like this one here. When you’re in a city like New York, you’re a part of the shuffle, but here it’s like a village. You cross pollinate with so many organizations and there’s something quite down-to-earth and warm about it.

When my parents came here to celebrate my Cleveland Arts Prize win in 2015, they were blown away by the community. I feel so fortunate. In my 20 years here in Northeast Ohio, I’ve never wanted to go back to New York. I appreciate what I have here.

What’s ahead? Tell us what you’ll be up to next.

I recently became a certified GYROTONIC Instructor and will join Lisa Lansing at Inspiral Motion. I’ll be a dance specialist for the Dance Program. And I will be choreographing and staying on top of what’s going on in the dance world.

I also can’t wait to sit in the theater and be a part of the audience. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing and experiencing it. I haven’t been to a play, to the Orchestra, I haven’t sat in a theater in a long time.

It’s time for me to pass the torch. I’m really excited about not having every moment planned out. I don’t fear change. Because I feel so good about this life that I’ve given myself. I feel satisfied. I don’t have any regrets.

Photos by Downie Photography