When asked to describe where the hub or center of dance activity is in Los Angeles, most people will either refer to the city’s west side or in the downtown area. What some fail to recognize is that unlike New York City which is located on a small island, Los Angeles county is spread out over a vast area and includes numerous cities and towns. Each of these comes with its own thriving community of artists who present their work in Los Angeles as well as within their own area.
With a population of nearly 140,000, Pasadena is one such city. Located in the northeast corridor of Los Angeles County, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena is where well-established and respected dance artists have been creating dances, running their companies and teaching for well over 20 years. Recently, four vibrant individuals decided to combine their talents and resources to produce a new consortium of dance artists. On Saturday, June 15th at 8PM and Sunday, July 16 at 4PM Foothills Dancemakers will present their first concert at A Room To Create, known as ARC.
The four dancemakers include Benita Bike, Artistic Director of Benita Bike’s DanceArt founded in 1980, Hilary Thomas, Artistic Director of Lineage Dance created in 1999, John Pennington Artistic Director of Pennington Dance Group formed in 2000, and Nancy Evans Doede, Artistic Director of Nancy Evans Dance Theatre established in 2009. While three are based in Pasadena, Benita Bike’s DanceArt is based in the northeast San Fernando Valley -Sunland – a part of the City of Los Angeles.
I recently met up with my inspiring colleagues at ARC to learn more about Foothills Dancemakers. Everyone pointed to Bike as the person who brought the four of them together. She told me that she wanted to create a situation where companies could join resources, exchange ideas and provide an opportunity for creative ideas to be explored. “Frankly,” Bike said. “the path had been set by John and Hilary, both of whom had spaces where they brought in people.” Bike had worked primarily at Pennington’s space, ARC, where PDG is a city partner that co-presents ArtNight Pasadena to showcase local dance artists. “John and Hilary had already made this area a hub of sorts, and I know that Nancy has had an involvement with both these places.” Bike explained. “The ground had already been set and we already, in bits and pieces, were involved with each other.”
Pennington told me that many times following a performance at ArtNight Pasadena, people in the community would tell him that they had no idea anything like this existed. “This is a visibility issue, and one of the reasons we wanted to come together was to increase our visibility.” He said.
When asked how they decided on the group’s name, Pennington related how a lot of titles were considered. “We knew that it had to be geographically specific.” He said. They tried using the word choreographers in the title but the term dancemakers felt more appropriate. “It was right for our collective years of work together.”
The word dancemakers is one which I have heard used by choreographers and historians of my generation. It harkens back to an era when the term modern dance was used to describe dance artists such as Lester Horton, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Hanya Holm, José Limón and the like. It even extended to include Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and that generation of dance artists. Later, labels such as Avant Garde, Post Modern and Contemporary Dance have emerged to categorize these artists.
They were quick to emphasize that Foothills Dancemakers was not created to be all inclusive, but that they want to open it up to other choreographers and dance companies. Pennington described it beautifully when he said, “We are definitely looking at this as a breathable entity.” These four have been making dances and running companies for a while now, and they want to share their knowledge and experiences. Pennington related that they once joked about being the elders of their dance community but decided that this was a good thing. “It means that we have some information on how to bring other people in, and to offer knowledge, support and mentoring.” Pennington said.
“One of the other things that we talked about was how we wanted this to be about concert dance.” Evans Doede added. “That it would be one of the frameworks, and the term dancemakers has to do with the craft, which takes time and experience to develop. It’s not that we want this to be exclusionary, but we also don’t want it to just be another festival.”
Foothills Dancemakers is more than just a cover name for a dance concert. As stated earlier, these are four seasoned and well-established dance artists with a wealth of knowledge to offer others in their field. Having spent an hour with them, it was clear that their goals reach far beyond simply wanting people to come and see their companies perform.
“We are not one incorporated entity.” Evans Doede said. “We are four separate incorporated entities sharing a venue and ideas.” Each of them directs a company and all but one of them teaches. Pennington maintains ARC and he is the Chair of the Dance Program at Pomona College. Bike clarified that the group sees this upcoming concert as a first step. Later on they will meet to discuss future plans for Foothills Dancemakers.
The concerts will include two works performed by Benita Bike Dance Art, Pennington Dance Group and Lineage Dance. The Nancy Evans Dance Theatre will present three, one of which was choreograhed by former Hanya Holm Dance Company member, Nancy Hauser (1909-1990). Thoughtful discussion and consideration went into the program order, how one work would look next to another or as seen in between works by different artists. “What is the lens through which the audience will see these works? How will we frame the program?” Pennington explained how they did not want to dictate what the audiences see or think about their work, but instead aid them in seeing the dances in a manner the choreographers want them to be seen.
“We wanted each choreographer to be represented in each act so that there was a flow,” Evans Doede said. They wanted each artist’s work to be seen intermittently, but things did not quite work out exactly as hoped. Both of Thomas’ works appear in the first act. Evans Doede explained that it was “because of the line of movement and music, it fit better that way rather than forcing it into the second act.”
Everyone agreed that because they know each other’s work so well that they are confident in the quality of the dance that is shown next to theirs. “Everyone has a different voice, but they all have a decent command of the craft.” Said Bike. “And, that matters to me.”
Bike describes ON BEAT 3 as “snappy and clean”. The dance is fun, abstract and pure movement driven by a strong rhythmic base. Her second work is a new dance called PLUGGED in which she questions society’s entanglement with technology and demonstrates how we have evolved from a more natural state to becoming totally enmeshed with machines. Bike does not normally make message pieces but “this one felt good and right”. She said it has been received exactly as she had intended by those who have seen it.
Pennington is presenting three excerpts from his dance COMPANY OF ORBS. It is built entirely on design and the circularity of the orbs. The work was generated by music that he simply could not resist, and the spatial designs were based on lights that, until recently, hung above his head in a studio that he worked in for years at Pomona College. ENCOUNTER #1 is a new work which Pennington envisions developing into a longer one. It is a male/male duet and has a more narrative design. “It is one option of what might happen when two people meet.” He said.
Thomas’ challenge was that Lineage Dance primarily creates full-length evening works. She selected excerpts from two dances that would best work when seen out of context. One piece is from a show called WAKING IN THE MOURNING that was dedicated to a friend who passed away a few years ago. “Luc Leestemaker was an incredible artist who had painted our costumes and inspired many projects for us,” Thomas said. “One of his dreams before he died was to create a large performance production.” She explained that he wanted people to face their mortality before they were forced to do so upon receiving a terminal diagnosis. After Leestemaker’s death, Thomas knew that she had to create his dream. He was passionate about music by Philip Glass, so that was the composer she chose. Her second piece is titled MIDNIGHT TO 12:01 inspired by the work she had done with Street Symphony a group that creates “musical engagements for severely disenfranchised communities affected by homelessness and incarceration in Los Angeles County”. It was founded in 2011 by violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta who performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The work was written by composer Benjamin Shirley who was himself homeless for many years. The work explores the struggles of the homelessness, addiction and other human challenges.
EVERNESS by Nancy Hauser, will only be performed on Saturday night. It is a beautiful work built on pure design. “When I first saw it, I saw it from the balcony,” Evans Doede said. “and it brought me to tears.” By performing Everness, Evans Doede is helping to continue Hauser’s legacy as well as offering a tribute to her memory. “Nancy was an original.” Evans Doede said. “She was a prodigy of Hanya Holm, and it doesn’t get any closer to the source then that. I feel that it is very important to preserve the legacy of where we all come from as well as extend and go our own way. We all come from somewhere and that is another reason why we’re all doing this. She said gesturing to the four of them. THERE BETWEEN was choreographed by Nikolaos Doede, Evans Doede’s son. It is based on the story of three women, one of whom is dying and it will be shown only on Sunday in place of EVERNESS.. Excerpts from LE GEMELLE was choreographed by Evans Doede and will be seen on both performances. It is an exploration of the relationship between two female twins, taking a look at their sameness and their differences.
The times that we are currently living through seem to have created a culture of instant like or dislike, and instant gratification. The artists behind Foothills Dancemakers want audiences to come with an open mind. “I’m hoping that people will let the work linger like good food.” Pennington said. “Like it’s a taste of something that you might want to think about after you leave. I hope that it isn’t over once they leave the ARC, and that there’s some discussion.”
“Modern dance gets kind of a weird rap.” Evans Doede added. “There’s a tendency to dismiss, I think, because modern dance is old. Modern dance is grounded, but it isn’t old. We’re not old fashioned. We are still vibrant and very much in touch with the world around us, and we’re expressing it through our medium.”
Foothills Dancemakers takes place on Saturday, June 15th at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, June 16th at 4 p.m. Tickets are $20, general admission, and $15 for students, seniors, and DRC members with valid ID. A Room To Create (ARC) is located at 1158 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, CA. 91106. Parking is available in the lot behind the building or on the street. For reservations please click here or Call 626-204-0331 for more information.
Featured image: (L to R) Hilary Thomas, Nancy Evans Doede, Benita Bike, John Pennington – Photo compiled by Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle – Photos: Courtesy of the artists.