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By Nancy Wozny
Five artistic directors talk about breaking away from the companies that nurtured them.
From left: Kristen Foote, Allysen Hooks, and Evan Teitelbaum of Dance Heginbotham in Twin. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance.
Dance companies don’t drop from outer space; often they are incubated or hatched from existing troupes. Whether it’s the urge to start off on one’s own, to create an umbrella for one’s choreography, or to confront a performing career coming to a close, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well on the American dancescape. Dance Magazine takes a look at five companies that each have their own breakaway stories.
John Heginbotham made his first dance at age 11 in his home state of Alaska. At Juilliard, he never missed a chance to choreograph in the monthly workshops. Still, dancing took priority. “There was never any question that I wanted to pursue a performing career,” says Heginbotham (see his priceless “Why I Dance,” Jan. 2012).
Yet, during his 14-year stint with the Mark Morris Dance Group, he often had an outside project going on. So when he was ready to leave the company he was sure it would have something to do with his choreography. But it wasn’t until he did an Inside/Out performance at Jacob’s Pillow in 2011 as an independent artist that he realized that he might have a company in his future. Earlier, he envisioned traveling around setting his work on other companies. “I saw the value of working with the same people,” he says. “It’s easier to create.” Despite his constant involvement with dance making, he took his time in actually forming an entity. “My company seemed to happen organically,” he says. “I took baby steps to get where I am today.”
From the first few moments of his company’s performance at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow last summer, it was clear that he has a distinct voice. Yet, Heginbotham doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the Morris influence. “It’s not him, but he is there. Sometimes, when I’m working I realize that I didn’t choreograph something and then I change it.”
Morris and the MMDG administrative staff have been supportive of Heginbotham’s new gig as artistic director, attending shows and giving feedback. “He unlocked the vault and helped me in every way,” he says of Morris. It was MMDG executive director Nancy Umanoff who connected Heginbotham to Baryshnikov Arts Center, leading to his first residency. “That was a big step, and so valuable,” he says. “I have been blessed.”
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake duet with Domenico Luciano as The Swan and Dominic Walsh as The Prince. Photo by Gabriella Nissen, Courtesy DWDT.
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater
During his 15th year at Houston Ballet in 2002, Dominic Walsh launched Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. “Houston Ballet is a great part of who I am as a dancer and choreographer,” says Walsh. “I have great memories of my time there. I didn’t start DWDT because of anything negative.”
Walsh’s five-year plan of building a company while still dancing went kaput after the buzz his company generated in 2003. “My goal was to stay dancing with Houston Ballet and slowly build my company,” he recalls. “But then offers and opportunities came rolling in. Things snowballed and it just took off.” At 31 and still in peak form, Walsh wasn’t ready to stop dancing, so the company also provided an outlet for him to perform contemporary works by other choreographers that are close to his heart. At 41, he still dances in a handful of choice roles.
Although Walsh has gone through a few versions of company structures, he’s settled on one that works for him financially and artistically. He uses one full-time dancer and a select group of guest artists, which allows him to choreograph on dancers who know his highly nuanced style without the burden of long contracts.
Walsh expected to take his Houston Ballet fans with him. That didn’t happen. “They wanted to see me in Sleeping Beauty,” he says. “I had to build an audience from scratch.” Today, Walsh has culled quite a fan base and can boast a repertoire that includes work by Mats Ek, Matthew Bourne, and Mauro Bigonzetti, along with Marie-Agnès Gillot as a guest artist (see cover story, July). Walsh continues to be a devoted Houston Ballet audience member. He adds, “I go to every show, and see two or three casts.”
Toni Pierce-Sands & Uri Sands
A little “let’s put on a show” energy laid the seeds of the Twin Cities–based TU Dance, co-directed by Ailey alums Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands. After the two put together a performance with help from the Jerome Foundation, the idea of starting a permanent company surfaced. “We had been given so much in our careers, we wanted to give back to the art form,” says Sands.
The couple conceived of the company as larger than a place to house their choreography: They wanted to nurture artists and students, and to connect to the fabric of culture in the Twin Cities.
The name comes from the initials of the directors’ first names—T and U—but also refers to “you,” as in the French “tu.” “We wanted a name that spoke to the universal beliefs of the power of dance,” adds Sands.
In 2011 the couple opened TU Dance Center, a home for their diverse 10-member company, the school, and a pre-professional program. “It’s a huge step,” says Sands. “We felt we need a place and an organization for our artists to grow.”
As much as TU Dance is focused on bringing dance to the Twin Cities, this October the company performed High Heel Blues—Sands’ gutsy take on a woman, her shoes, and a salesman—in the popular Fall for Dance festival in New York. Next month, after its home season in November, the company travels to New York and San Antonio, then heads for South Dakota (Black Hills and Sioux Falls) and Worthington, Minnesota, in February.
Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands in High Heel Blues. Photo by Ingrid Werthmann, Courtesy TU Dance.
Gauthier Dance//Dance Company
Thirty was the magic number for Eric Gauthier, former Stuttgart Ballet dancer and now artistic director of Gauthier Dance. “At 30, I needed to change my life,” recalls Gauthier. “I had gone as far as I could go at Stuttgart. I was ready for something else.” Stuttgart’s artistic director Reid Anderson was supportive of Gauthier’s need for change, allowing him to take time off to appear with his rock band.
Above: Gauthier working with his dancers. Photo by Regina Brocke, Courtesy Gauthier.
Gauthier had enjoyed choreographing during a young choreographers workshop, but that wasn’t the motive to start a dance company. Luck played more into that decision. While he was performing a two-man show at Theaterhaus Stuttgart, the theater’s director offered to make him director of a resident company. So, after leaving the Stuttgart Ballet in July 2007 Gauthier’s own company was up and running by October, with six full-time dancers and a workable budget.
“I called choreographers who seemed to enjoy working with me—the big guys: Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Kylián—to build the rep, and they were game,” he says. “We tend to do smaller works that a large ballet company would never touch. My plan is to cultivate a new public. Most dance concerts are 50 euros, we are 20, not much more than a movie.”
Eric Gauthier and Egon Madsen in Christian Spuck‘s Don Q. Photo by Regina Brocke, Courtesy Gauthier.
Looking back on the decision to be the boss, Gauthier did have some eye-opening moments. “I didn’t know it was going to be so much work,” he says. “As a dancer you are a little prince, everything is done for you. Now, I’m responsible for the whole package you see on stage.”
There are also some creative restrictions. “I’m not yet commissioning pieces; you don’t know what you are getting. I need to stay on the safe side, I can’t afford to take chances. The public is very judgmental.”
Today, Gauthier Dance has 12 dancers from nine different countries and a budget of approximately $2 million. Ten thousand people saw the company in one month alone. “I never forget that I have the lives of these dancers in my hands,” he says. “My big dream is to tour New York and London.”
Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance
Heather Maloy choreographed her first work for North Carolina Dance Theatre when she was only 19, just a year after joining the company. She went on to set six works on the company. Maloy, whose mother was her first dance teacher, knew she was lucky that when the reins of NCDT changed hands from Salvatore Aiello to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the opportunities didn’t stop.
Photo of Maloy by Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Terpsicorps.
Trained at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Maloy continued to dance with NCDT for 13 years, rising to soloist level. Eventually, her urge to choreograph began to interfere with company duties. She made works for Nashville Ballet, Chautauqua Ballet, and several college dance departments, and she entered a choreography competition in Colorado. It became clear that it was time to start a company of her own. In 2003, Maloy launched Terpsicorps, modeled after the Chautauqua summer company she had been a part of during her years at NCDT. With a six-to-eight-week season, Terpsicorps brings dance to cities that might not otherwise see a company of this caliber, including Asheville and Winston-Salem.
Rachel Coats and Logan Pachciarz in Maloy’s Vampyre. Photo by Jeff Cravotta, Courtesy Terpsicorps.
Maloy danced with the company for the first few years. “It got too hard, so I fired myself,” she quips. “There are other dancers who look better.”
Maloy is grateful for all the support she received from both NCDT artistic directors. She followed in their footsteps by giving one of her dancers a chance to choreograph last season.
Although all the time Maloy spends fundraising during the year can be daunting, she relishes the chance to steer her own ship. “I love that no one is telling me what to do,” she says. “I have total and complete freedom.”
Nancy Wozny has no plans to break away from Houston, where she writes about health and the arts.