Go West, Young Dancer




So you want to head west, but aren’t sure L.A. is your thing? No problem. Meet five choreographers who love working in Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; San Francisco, CA; San Diego, CA; and Las Vegas, NV. Who says L.A. is where it’s all at?


1. Joanna Haigood, San Francisco, CA




What happens when you combine interests in the circus, history, architecture and, of course, dance? You get the San Francisco–based co-founder of Zaccho Dance Theater, Joanna Haigood. The choreographer’s movement melds elements of theater and aerial work, and most pieces are created in—and for—a specific location, including the San Francisco International Airport. One of her most celebrated works, Invisible Wings, presented at Jacob’s Pillow in 1998 and 2007, tells the story of slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. “The thing I love about doing site-specific work,” Haigood explains, “is that the body moves very differently, and that requires a certain relearning—a beginner’s mind—that I like a lot.”


DS: What is your choreographic process?


JH: I’m primarily a site artist, so I spend a lot of time observing the space, taking measurements, looking at the history and talking to people, which takes at least a year. Then I develop a concept and present it to collaborators—the musicians, costume, set and lighting designers. The dancers and I go to the site and build a series of pictures, and then I edit and manipulate their movement. My work is more about pictures than it is about movement.


DS: How does the aerial work fit in?


JH: In high school, I had a job at an architecture firm where Richard Snibbe was working on a project called the Handloser Project in which an entire community was suspended between two mountains. The project was never completed, but I started to see my environment differently. Then when I was studying at The Place in London during a semester abroad from Bard College, I lived next door to an aerialist from Barnum & Bailey Circus. She took me to lots of circus performances, and I started seeing my relationship to movement differently—that I could move and choreograph in the air. When I started making work, those two things made sense. I was always interested in sculpture and architecture. The aerial work allows me to describe space in a larger, more dimensional way.


DS: Your dancers have such diverse dance backgrounds. What do you look for?


JH: They all have formal training, but I look for dynamic, creative people who’ve had roles as directors, who are interested in history and different forms of dance, and who have acting skills. There’s a set group that I use for aerial work because they have to continue that type of training.


DS: Why did you settle in SF?


JH: I grew up in NYC, so I came here because I needed more space. The mountains are close, and California has everything: forests, deserts, beaches, a lot of open areas and public land.




·Population: 808,976
· Check out: San Francisco Ballet, ODC/San Francisco, Smuin Ballet, Alonzo King/LINES Ballet, Savage Jazz, Robert Moses, Kathleen Hermesdorf/Motion Lab, Dance Camera West Film Festival
· Non-dance musts: Golden Gate Park and Chinatown (the oldest and biggest in the U.S.!)
· Surrounding area musts: Head to the Redwood National and State Parks in Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
· Did you know? Forty million vehicles cross the Golden Gate Bridge every year.



2. James Canfield, Las Vegas, NV



Former Joffrey Ballet dancer James Canfield is perhaps best known as the founding artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre and the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, where he worked with Portland dancers for more than 15 years. But he recently made the move to become the artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre—a transition that suits him perfectly. “Most of my work that gets attention is on the controversial side,” he says, “but I’m a classicist at heart and speak in a classical language. People fear that I’m coming here to change everything—make it all modern, contemporary and edgy. But the repertoire is going to be eclectic.”


DS: What is your choreographic process?


JC: I come up with a concept or an idea and develop a great understanding of the music. Dancers often get bogged down in how they’re going to interpret the music instead of how they’re going to do the movement, so I start with an entirely different piece of music than I ultimately intend to use to get a certain movement quality. Then after a day or two, I’ll say, “Do what you did—to this music.”


DS: Who are some of your choreographic influences?


JC: John Cranko tells a story better than anyone. William Forsythe has an edgy, aggressive, athletic quality to his work that I like. Choo San Goh influenced me with his musical phrasing as well as his interesting port de bras. Gerald Arpino taught me about the collaborative process, and what it’s like to have work created on me—to bring out my strengths, and also point out my weaknesses and help me work on those.


DS: How is working in Las Vegas different than working in Portland?


JC: When I lived in Portland, I’d go to Las Vegas to be inspired, because I view Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the U.S. Cirque du Soleil is one of the most inspirational companies to have around, so I’m glad it’s in my backyard! Ballet is an artform, but it has to entertain as well as educate.


DS: What’s your vision for NBT?


JC: In the short term, we’re doing an awareness campaign called NBT 4 x 8—an unadvertised, unannounced series all over Las Vegas. It’s called 4 x 8 because that’s the size of the pieces our dance floor comes in. We’ll drop one or two pieces of flooring in a hotel, shopping mall or airport, and dance in that space. In the long term, I want to make new works that involve more local musicians and visual artists.




· Population: 558,383
· Check out: Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater, Thunderstruck Dance Convention, Cirque du Soleil
· Don’t miss: Cirque du Soleil and NBT collaborate on a project called [ital: A Choreographer’s Showcase], in which artists from each company choreograph on each other!
· Surrounding area musts: Head to the Bootleg Canyon, a mountain bike park, 45 minutes from Las Vegas.
· Did you know? Las Vegas is the brightest area on earth, as seen from space.



3. Jean Isaacs, San Diego, CA


When Jean Isaacs moved to San Diego, CA, more than 35 years ago, there was virtually no dance community in the city. So she built one. First, she directed Isaac’s McCaleb & Dancers and Three’s Company & Dancers. Then, she became artistic director of the San Diego Dance Theater in 1997. She has also taught dance at the University of California, San Diego for 25 years, and currently directs the San Diego Dance Theater School and professional company at Dance Place, where her company is in residency. As a result, almost every modern dancer (including Monica Bill Barnes, Faith Jensen Ismay and Erica Buechner) in the city has been trained in her style. “It’s a standing technique, based on the concepts of Limón and Graham,” she explains. “It’s deeply grounded and whole-bodied.” In the early days, Isaacs had to build an audience, too, so she created site-specific works around town. One of her most beloved projects, Trolley Dances, in which more than 2,500 people get free passes on the local railway system and travel to various sites around town (with a tour guide!) to watch dances, just completed its 11th season.


DS: How do the Trolley Dances work?


JI: We hire 50 dancers and four or five choreographers and choose about six sites. Each site hosts a mixture of dancers from the community—many are right out of a college dance program—and lots of Mexican dancers come up to audition, as well (San Diego is on the Mexican border.)


DS: What are your Cross-Border Projects?


JI: We do a lot of work in Mexico and with various Mexican communities. This year we did Muestra Coreografica, a bi-national choreographic showcase with three choreographers from San Diego and three from Mexico. There were shows, photography exhibits, screenings, classes and discussions at Dance Place. We also invited Miraslava Wilson, a choreographer from Tijuana, to do one of the Trolley Dances. She’ll bring some dancers and pick some here, so she’ll have a mixed group on a site at the U.S./Mexico border.


DS: How is creating site-specific work different than creating proscenium work?


JI: The stage is a neutral environment and every single thing that happens is a choice. Site-specific work is about honoring the site and creating something that probably wouldn’t have much value outside the site. One time we did a dance in the produce department in a grocery store, and the shoppers kept on shopping! In some ways, site-specific work is a little easier, because the site tells you what to do. We’ve built our audiences by performing in less formal venues—we do lighter, humorous dances called Cabaret Dances once a year in a jazz supper club, as well as our annual regular stage show.


DS: What do you love most about working in San Diego?


JI: We created a supportive and loving community, so people who come for workshops end up saying, “I want to move here! I like the energy.” There are some established companies, but young dancers are also making their own work. And I love the weather! I can sit in my garden any day of the year after a long day’s work.



· Population: 1,353,993
· Check out: San Diego Ballet, California Ballet Company, Malashock Dance, Lower Left Performance Collective
· Non-dance musts: The San Diego Zoo
· Surrounding area musts: Head to Julian, CA, a small mountain town an hour east of San Diego.
· Did You Know? The San Diego Comic-Con International—the biggest convention forgraphic novels (comic books)—takes place in San Diego every July.


Dance Place San Diego—which houses San Diego Dance Theater, San Diego Ballet and Malashock Dance and boasts 11 studios, as well as several administrative offices—was once a naval training center!



4. Kiyon Gaines, Seattle, WA


Baltimore native Kiyon Gaines joined Pacific Northwest Ballet’s corps in 2001 at age 19, but he was soon bit by the choreographic bug. He created his first piece, blitz…Fantasy for PNB’s Choreographer’s Showcase in 2005, and the Tango-inspired e {SCHWA} the following year, which Peter Boal brought into PNB’s rep. Since then, Gaines has been choreographing for the PNB school, the Seattle Dance Project and Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater—all while continuing to dance in the PNB corps! Early on he dubbed his style “ballet with a twist,” but now his work is closer to “fusion choreography,” mixing elements of modern, contemporary, ballet and hip hop. In the future, Gaines would love to choreograph for a Broadway show—and all over the world!


DS: How do you balance dancing and choreographing?


KG: It’s a challenge! PNB’s season is 40 weeks long, so I have 12 weeks to choreograph in other places.


DS: What’s your process?


KG: I dance around my living room. I push the coffee table aside, put some music on and start moving. If I have more time, I go into the studio and see what the dancers are good at, so that I can choreograph something that will suit their abilities. As a dancer, it’s great to work with a choreographer on a ballet, but sometimes what looks good on him doesn’t look good on you. Part of the process is seeing what the dancers excel at, because you’ll get more out of them if they feel that they’re doing well.


DS: Who are some of your choreographic influences?


KG: I love how Balanchine makes patterns and shapes with large numbers of dancers. Nacho Duato has an amazing way of making a story come alive. I love Twyla Tharp’s use of improvisation. She comes up with phrases and then twists them, turns them, retrogrades them, makes them go faster and cuts them in half—she has such an amazing brain! She knows how to get the most out of a phrase.


DS: What do you love about working in Seattle?


KG: Now that I’ve started choreographing and am getting offers from other companies, I’m seeing how open and accepting the Seattle community is to new artists. Seattle audiences are fantastic—they’re willing to see different types of work, which means it’s easier for artists to experiment. You don’t have to stay in your box; you can push yourself further and not worry about how things will be received.



· Population: 602,000
· Check out: Spectrum Dance Theater, Scott/Powell Performance, Chamber Dance Company, Pat Graney Company, d9 Dance Collective, Manifold Motion
· Key dance organizations/schools: Velocity Dance Center, Open Flight Studio, Dance Art Group, Arc Dance, Dance Fremont, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center
· Non-dance musts: Pike Place Market, Gas Works Park
· Surrounding area musts: Hike or ski in the Cascade or Olympic Mountains, or go sailing in Puget Sound.
· Did you know? The first Starbucks was in Pike Place Market, right in the heart of Seattle!


Modern dance icon Merce Cunningham grew up near Seattle and attended the Cornish College of the Arts, where he met John Cage, who became his lifelong partner and collaborator.


5. Sarah Slipper, Portland, OR



After retiring as a principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Sarah Slipper worked as a ballet mistress for Alberta Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre. But as a burgeoning choreographer, Slipper felt that opportunities to make new work were few and far between. So in 2004, she founded the Northwest Dance Project, an organization whose goal is to foster and mentor dancers and choreographers and to support dancemakers at all stages of their careers. “This organization tries things—and of course not everything works,” Slipper says. “So we tweak things and evolve. These projects provide opportunities for artists to get connected, to see what else is out there; so see and be seen.” Initially, Slipper invited Alonzo King, Bebe Miller and James Canfield, among others, to workshop with 18-to 25-year-old dancers during a short intensive called The LAUNCH Project. But as the number of original pieces grew, Slipper formed a nine-member company, and the number of guest choreographers has expanded, as well. This year, Slipper added a contest in search of two new choreographic voices—named the Pretty Creatives—and invited the two winners for a week-long dancemaking session.


DS: Where did the idea for the NWDP come from?


SS: I started choreographing when I was at OBT and realized that was what I wanted to do. Freelancing was hard, so I started working with students at Jefferson High School in Portland. Young choreographers need places to experiment, and these brilliant dancers who had backgrounds in tap, hip hop, African and ballet, did my work better than dancers, at ballet companies, but were being cut at auditions because they didn’t have beautiful tendus. But those were the people I wanted to work with! So I started NWPDP to create a vehicle for them, and to provide an opportunity for choreographers to create.


DS: Tell us about the LAUNCH project.


SS: We audition young dancers and put them in a room with directors and choreographers. They learn new and old rep in an intensive project period. When a director works with dancers in this fashion, he might get inspired in a way that he can’t at an audition. The results have been extraordinary. Alonzo King called me four months after working here and asked for a dancer’s phone number because he wanted to hire him.


DS: Do all Launch dancers come from a ballet background?


SS: The format of the audition is an hour-long ballet class—barre and center—and then two samples of choreography. People can be beautiful at ballet, but they might freeze during choreography; or the dancers you didn’t notice at the barre can be the ones you look at most in the choreographic section, because they understand movement quality and rhythm. It’s difficult to be honest and present in an audition because of nerves, so we don’t make any cuts that day.


DS: What do you love about Portland?


SS: Portland has fostered an incredible dance audience that is willing to see adventurous work. I’m Canadian, and Portland shares a lot of Canadian values: It’s hip, liberal and very innovative. I love the energy here.




· Population: 575,930
· Check out: Oregon Ballet Theater, Carla Mann, Rumpus Room, Tahni Holt, Mihn Tran, BodyVox, Lauren Edson (winner of this year’s Pretty Creatives).
· To see visiting companies like Random Dance, Chunky Move, Nederlands Dans Theater, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Alvin Ailey, head to White Bird or Pica.
· Non-dance musts: Check out Stumptown coffee and the Mississippi district (where NWPDP is housed!).
· Surrounding area musts: Climb Mount Hood, 50 miles southeast of Portland.
· Did you know? Portland is the second biggest biking city in the world (after Amsterdam).


Photo of James Canfield and student by Shannon Cangey

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