Located near the San Gabriel Mountains are four dance companies that have been creating work for a combined total of 101 years. These are not so-called pick up companies that gather together dancers for a one time concert, but repertory companies that have been working sometimes with the same dancers for 10 years or more.
Founded in 2019, the Foothills Dancemakers will present their second concert on Saturday, September 24 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 25 at 4 p.m. at A ROOM TO CREATE (ARC) in Pasadena, California. This artistically vital consortium of modern dance choreographers and artistic directors include Benita Bike’s DanceArt in its 42nd season, Pennington Dance Group created in 2000 by John Pennington, Lineage Dance established in 1999 by Hilary Thomas, and Nancy Evans Dance Theatre which is entering its 14th season led by Nancy Evans Doede.
Each of these four companies has its own choreographic style, but what unites them is that their movement ancestry is rooted in modern dance. Bike studied Martha Graham technique, and other modern dance styles under Linda Tarnay, Jack More, Ruth Currier, Bill Evans and others. Pennington was trained primarily by dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky, and a member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company for 14 years. Doede began her career as an actor before training under and dancing in the company of Nancy Hauser in Minneapolis. Thomas trained with The Pasadena Dance Theatre under the direction of Philip and Charles Fuller and Cynthia Young and is a former member of Benita Bike’s DanceArt.“After we did that first show (in 2019) people that I knew came up to me and said that they loved the variety. They loved having these different viewpoints but close enough – in the same village of dance that they weren’t being thrown about from one style to another,” Bike related. “We set up the right constellation so that people can focus on what they are seeing in a particular way.”
“We are spokes of the same wheel,” Doede added. “It goes to what you said years ago John that you didn’t like to do festivals. That you felt you were dropping in and dropping out. This is not a festival! This is a curated composite of our differences in that same village that Benita was talking about.” Doede stated that they are very careful about that due to the mutual respect that they have for each other’s work. “We’re not trying to be each other, we’re trying to say, ‘Ok, what’s the best way for each of us to be seen and still to be together.”
“We’re still producing, we still value the art form, and we’re trying to pass things along,” Pennington said. “We work in an oral tradition. No matter how many videos we make talking about our legacy, it is not the same as being in the studio with us, passing information along through bodies. And that is what is unique about this collaboration.” For that reason, Pennington finds it both important and exciting to be working with these other artists. “We’re part of LA history and that history needs to be passed along!”
Referring back to what makes Foothills Dancemakers distinctive, Bike stated, “Everybody here has a company. They have people who have worked with them over time who have developed a way of moving, a way of expressing, an understanding of the way this particular choreography wants the movement to flow. My goal has always been to develop a company, not just a group of people doing a dance.”
They have not solidified what lies ahead for Foothills Dancemakers following this performance in the sense of what other companies might join them or if this will be an annual or semi-annual production. But what is clear is that they are makers of dance that have a sense of history and substantial time creating work.
“I think that between us is a deep history that goes way back,” Thomas said. “Twenty years ago I danced for Benita, and Nancy and I go back at least 30 plus years. John and I opened our spaces on the same weekend in May of 2010. We do have this deep, deep shared history.”
“Hilary’s space, Lineage and John’s ARC are really centers that nourish all kinds of people,” Bike stated. “dancers, non-dancers – especially with Hilary. She brings in all kinds of people. Both of these people have established vibrant, important spaces for dance and for the community of where we are.”
Many feel that freelance dancers who perform with several companies never get the opportunity to truly dive into the heart of a choreographer’s work; that they always tend to look like themselves onstage rather than as part of a company. “I’m doing the antithesis of that,” Bike said.
Doede said that all her dancers work other jobs to make a living. “But because they do,” she stressed. “when they are in the studio it’s feeding their souls. It’s addressing that part of them that needs to be expressed creatively – that needs that outlet away from the constraints of their jobs. Even if it is jobs that they love. Coming into the studio is coming into a different world that, I believe, is a non-judgmental one.” She also expressed how this different world is a place where dancers can go as far as they can, and perhaps even further by taking risks that they feel safe in taking. “That’s not common in anybody’s day job.”
Thomas shared that there are dancers performing in this concert who have been with her company for a minimum of 5 years and one of them for 22 years. “They’re my family and I think that we experience this in a way that is not as common with pick up companies because there is a closeness that goes beyond the movement and the understood language. It’s almost like a life’s mission. This is why we’re here.” Thomas noted that having to work through the pandemic only strengthened that connection.
“To be able to be in that environment every day. To come to the studio daily and be immersed in your art form produces something that meeting once or twice a week doesn’t produce,” Pennington said. It is his frustration and his sadness that so many of today’s young dancers do not experience the fruits of that kind of training. He stressed that everyone in the Foothills Dancemakers consortium is trying to give dancers that experience, be in a much smaller way.
It is, of course, mostly financial. Back in the 1980s there was more monetary support for dance. The California Arts Council often granted several thousand dollars to each small dance company. “That was enough to do two concerts a year,” Pennington added.
I wanted to know if there was one person who acted as director when it came to programming the performance. “Oh no!” Bike said. “We had a meeting a couple of weeks ago where we slugged it out.” This evoked much laughter from everyone.
“It’s not just our preferences for where we’d like for our work to be seen,” Doede added, “but the overall flow musically and conceptually. We don’t want to startle the audience. We want to help them feel led through. So, at the end of the day they see us as that wheel and these different spokes on it.” Doede hopes that audiences are subliminally educated about the art work so that they feel more ownership of what they just experienced.
Each company will be presenting two works at the concert.
Benita Bike’s DanceArt will present Bike’s new work Griot Songs, an abstract work inspired by the music of composers/groups Kassé Mady Diabaté, LCRdC, Ensemble 3MA, & Jennifer Higdon, costumes by Brynn Holmes, and performed by Nola Gibson, Micay Jean, Lydia McDonald, and Skye Schmidt. Also a duet from her dance titled Entrelazadas performed by Lydia McDonald and Sky Schmidt to music by composer Joaquin Rodrigo and costumes by Victoria Orr. Both works were choreographed by Bike.
Pennington Dance Group members Becky Chang, Danae McWatt, Andrew Palomares, and Edwin Siguenza will perform excerpts from Pennington’s Goodman Dances to the music of Alexander Zemlinsky, costumes by Jim Tsou. In Act II he will present his Skins, music by Edgar Rothermich, scenic design and costumes by Pennington, and performed by Danae McWatt, Andrew Palomares, Edwin Siguenza.
In Act I, Nancy Evans Dance Theatre will present Clearing, a solo choreographed for Ze’eva Cohen in 1979 by Viola Farber and reconstructed by Jeff Slayton. The music is by J.S. Bach, costume by Katrina Amerine and performed by Jenn Logan. Safe, a multimedia dance work choreographed by Nancy Evans Doede, with original score and film by Nikolaos Crist Doede, costume by Katrina Amerine and performed by Ashleigh Doede will appear in Act II.
Lineage Dance is offering Dancing for Joy, choreography by Hilary Thomas with Lineage’s Dance for Joy students, performed by Brittany Daniels, Michelle Kolb, Caterina Mercante, Ericalynn Priolo, Hilary Thomas, Teya Wolvington, and featuring Nancy Ware, music by J.S. Bach, and costumes by Caterina Mercante. Also on the program is Thomas’ From a Sister’s Length, a duet performed by Hilary Thomas and Teya Wolvington, music by Leonard Cohen and costumes by Teya Wolvington.
Our discussion shifted to how each company managed to continue throughout the pandemic.
It was that COVID pandemic that led to the three year gap between concerts for the Foothills Dancemakers, but individually, each company managed to not only survive but to continue working and performing. Pennington said that it is a little like reinventing the wheel. “We’re trying to find our stride again,” he said. “Whatever that stride is. We find it a little more easily because we know each other and we have some history.”
Doede said that during the pandemic, her company rehearsed on Zoom. “Which was impossible, really, because we never had enough space,” she said. Not being stopped by this, Doede put together a program of solos, Steinbeck’s Women, based on female characters from John Steinbeck’s books. The company only had two live rehearsals before it was performed outdoors to a limited audience. “It is remarkable that it even happened,” Doede stated. “But we were at that point that if we didn’t produce something, it was going to be too hard to get the momentum going again.”
Bike’s company only stopped for the first three months of the complete shutdown mandated by the state. After that the dancers rehearsed dancing six feet apart and wearing masks. “We just kept going and all performances were either online or outside,” Bike said.
Pennington is in a unique situation because of access to his own studio, ARC. He has been working on three solos that will premiere at a later date. There too, his dancers wore face masks while working as well as at a safe distance apart. “The dancers wanted to work and I felt that it was important to keep people connected,” he said. Pennington’s company was the first to perform when Santa Barbara’s Center Stage and The Box in Riverside reopened their venues. As several dance companies have experienced, Pennington lost two dancers during the pandemic.
“I think that is why this concert is so important,” Pennington continued. “Because of a sense of continuity and perseverance.”
“Like all of us, COVID changed our activities dramatically,” Thomas said. “But it actually led to some really cool projects that we really would not have done otherwise.” A project working with Gamble House became available for Lineage Dance right in the midst of the pandemic. The work involved putting together a full stage piece using the front steps of Gamble house. The audience drove their automobiles up close to the performance area and Lineage’s music was piped through the car radios. It was a scene repeated by several companies in Los Angeles and elsewhere. “The fact that we were able to pull something off felt really good,” Thomas added.
All four of these companies are extremely busy and putting together a concert, even in the best of times is not easy. Doede summed it up this way. “I’m appreciative of the friendships and the dedication between the four of us that we value each other in this to do something together.
WHAT: Foothills Dancemakers
WHO: Benita Bike’s DanceArt, Pennington Dance Group, Nancy Evans Dance Theatre, and Lineage Dance.
WHERE: A ROOM TO CREATE (ARC Pasadena) is located at 1158 East Colorado, Pasadena, CA. 91106. Entrance to the performance is in back not on East Colorado.
Parking is available behind the building and on the surrounding streets.
WHEN: Saturday, September 24th at 8:00 PM and Sunday, September 25th at 4:00 PM.
TICKETS: Tickets are $20, general admission, and $15 for students and seniors with valid ID. For reservations, please click HERE.
Call 626-204-0331 for more information.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Foothills DanceMakers HeadShots – (L-R) Hilary Thomas, Nancy Doede, Benita Bike, John Pennington – Collage by LADC