Artists Reach Out: Leal Zielińska - Gibney
Week of July 7, 2020
Making space for

Artists Reach Out: Leal Zielińska

Black and white photo of a white woman with a shaved head looking at the camera.


Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.

“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director

This interview features Leal Zielińska, Gibney Company Artistic Associate.

Leal Zielińska was born and raised in Gdansk, Poland. She began her training with private ballet coaching from Bogna Ostapiuk, studied at Codarts Rotterdam Dance Academy and graduated from the Independent Program at The Ailey School in New York City in 2015. Upon graduation she spent three seasons working with Sidra Bell Dance New York, during which Dance Magazine named Leal as one of 25 to Watch “Breakout Stars of 2018” and was featured on the January 2018 cover. Leal attended Springboard Danse Montréal in 2016 where she worked with Bobbi Jene Smith, Alexandra Wells and performed works by Ohad Naharin and Elia Mrak. Offstage, she has had the pleasure of being involved in multiple movement-based film and video projects working with directors and choreographers such as Celia Rowlson-Hall and Jovan Todorovic. Represented by commercial talent agency blocNYC Leal has performed at the 2018 MTV VMA show, and appeared in national campaigns for GAP and Google.  Leal joined Gibney Company in 2018, and has performed works by Shamel Pitts, Chanel DaSilva, Bobbi Jene Smith, Micaela Taylor, Stefanie Batten Bland and Peter Chu. Her continued advocacy work around mental health resulted in the founding of Okay, Let’s Unpack This, an effort to normalize the conversations necessary to de-stigmatize mental illness within the dance community.

White woman holding a baseball in a deep backbend.Photo by Delphine Diallo.

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

As a member of Gibney Company, I was most impacted by the cancellation of our spring season, Insider/Outsider. Our biggest shows occur biannually. So, a lot of work and collaboration goes into preparing each premiere. My mindset has been focusing on all the research and growth that has already happened, on the beautiful human connections that have been cultivated, and will be there, be in us all, even if the show never comes to life in its originally-anticipated form.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I’ve been dancing for most of my life, in many capacities and forms, and with an evolving intensity and purpose. As a child, dancing was an afterschool activity, which over time grew into a passion, a career to pursue, and now it’s basically my breathing cycle. My relationship with dance is tumultuous and very emotional, and during this time of isolation, I’ve also been isolated from the spaces that facilitate my usual practices. It has really opened my eyes to how much I rely on movement daily for my mental health, for my creative outlet, as well as a sense of community. It has been a long time since I’ve appreciated a simple ballet barre as much as I have in the past few weeks–in my kitchen!

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

With practices and routines constantly changing and adapting, I think a through-line of what I’m practicing is growth. We grow our entire lives and, for me personally, the challenge of it never becomes easier. First finding something to grow towards, a goal, then assessing the steps needed to get there, the process, work, effort, arriving closer, falling back, having a great day, having the worst day, wanting to quit, one step forward, two steps back, and somehow, over time, you get where you wanted to be. Just to find that the growth you achieved has opened up multiple new paths for continued progress. This takes practicing patience, being kind to oneself yet disciplined, learning about how we learn best, what we need to achieve, what we truly desire.

Conquering fear is a big component too. It verifies ambition, and directs us in the right path. It’s a practice to trust the process.

I was stable and doing well in most areas of my life before the pandemic hit, and I’m trying to look at the current bigger picture as an opportunity to find growth in other spaces of my life than maybe I had planned for this period of time.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I care about humanity, I care about people, I try to see outside of myself. It’s a balance. We all need to put ourselves first, in order to be capable of serving others.

This comes together beautifully with the work I’m involved in within Gibney Company. Being fulfilled and challenged artistically is a blessing, and on top of that we are helping to influence and shape our dance community. Who better to do this vital work than dancers themselves. We have the best understanding of the field, of our needs, of what we want it to look like in the future. The inspiration is endless when one is surrounded by such incredible artists and humans as I am lucky to be around daily.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

My practice is certainly flipped upside down, and it took a few weeks to adapt to the new routine. Since I have a lot of anxiety, routines really help me feel calmer and more grounded. I’ve found some online classes that work in my limited home spaces, and found outdoor running (socially distanced) a meditative daily practice too. The new reality calls for shifting and reshaping much of our programming at Gibney, which for me is another exercise in patience and letting go of the feeling of control. Sitting with uncertainty has been the biggest challenge.

Self-care tip:

I still do face masks, put on mascara and shave my head, just to feel good for myself. It can be anything that makes you feel connected to what it felt like before we all isolated. Another one is an oldie but a goodie: I simply write down three things I’m grateful for every morning. Plus drink water!


To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit


Top photo by Cesar Brodermann.