Kate Hutter Mason founded L.A. Contemporary Dance Company (LACDC) in 2005, acting as its Artistic Director until 2015. After a four-year hiatus to have two children, Mason has re-entered the LA dance scene in a major way. While many dance studios in LA have or are in danger of being closed, in January of 2020 Mason will have the grand opening of Stomping Ground L.A., “…a new community arts space in East L.A.” She will not have to worry about a landlord raising her rent or selling the property out from under her because she purchased the building that houses Stomping Ground L.A.. It will be a permanent home for LACDC, but Mason has plans for the building to be a place that will facilitate interactions between professional artists of several genres and the people, artists and businesses in that area.
Mason earned a BFA in Theatrical Design from University of Southern California and an MFA in Dance and Choreography from Purchase College, SUNY. Mason’s work has been presented throughout L.A. and she has been a visiting artist at several colleges and universities in the LA area. Additionally, Mason is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the aerospace design and manufacturing company, Click Bond, a family-owned business founded by her parents.
On Monday September 16th, Mason gave Martin Holman and I a tour of the still under-construction facility before we sat down for the interview. I was impressed with the size of the larger studio that will function as class and rehearsal studio, as well as a performance space. Indeed, even before the building has its official opening, LACDC will present 6 performances in the space. The small studio also has ample space for classes and rehearsals. There are dressing areas, showers and a room that can be used as a meeting area and/or a light and sound booth for concerts. Outside will include a patio area and there is an adjacent parking lot owned by Mason. When we spoke, Mason was also in escrow for the adjacent building.
While discussing the situation of LA’s shrinking dance studio space, Mason said, “They’re forced to the fray again as opposed to being strongholds and literally rooted. Investors will come and go, and this city evolves and morphs with those investors’ interests. If I am going to take on the role of investor, this is how I want to invest my time and financial state right now.”
We talked about the affects of gentrification and rising rents, etc., how the people who helped make New York, San Francisco and now Los Angeles be the cities that they are, can no longer afford to live inside their city limits. “Right, like there’s not the space or a way to fit it into the ecosystem.” Mason said. “If the stake holders are just passing through, or if they do not live there, what is history to them?” She does not put blame on anyone, but she does not think that it is a system that helps a city find its essence or soul.
My first question for Mason was if her studies in Theatrical Design influenced her choreography, and if so, how? She said that it did play a role. She related how she graduated from Walnut High School choreographing. She loved everything about ballet, and modern presented an entirely new world, so she was grappling with what her artistic voice might be. She did not have a working knowledge of all the production elements such as lighting, costuming and set design so she enrolled as a Theatre Design major in college. “This helped me have an advantage to sculpt the experience in so many facets other than just the movement that got to stage.” Mason referred to this process as working from the back-end forward, and that it gave her a deep respect for all the other designers and backstage personnel that go into creating a production. “The people around the table surrounding and shaping that vision, I wanted them to be honored.” She said. “And that actually gave me more of a comprehension of what it meant to be an artistic director where you are compiling this incredible team to nurture the work.”
Mason said that this same background has helped her in overseeing the construction work on Stomping Ground L.A.. She was quick to say that all this does not mean that she can do everything, but that it has given her a deep appreciation of the work each person performs and the skills that they bring. “If your ego gets in the way,” She said. “or if you are so indebted in your vision that you can’t see the people around you and how they might help you bring together something that may be so much bigger than you; you’re missing, I don’t know, the magic sauce.”
At SUNY Purchase Mason trained with Larry Clark, Neil Greenberg, Megan Williams, Kevin Wynn, Kazuko Hirabayashi, and her mentor and director, Stephanie Tooman. When asked who had the most influence on her, Mason said, “I was just sponging a lot of history very quickly!” She wanted to be certain that she had her bearings historically and not thought of as just the west coast girl who thought lyrical dance was modern. “Because I came from LA, they all thought that I was just bells and whistles. “Fine! Fine!” She said smiling. “But I wanted to be sure that I was grounded and had perspective. Megan Williams was an amazing teacher that broadened my perspective on the impact of the arts and dance training on you as a human being. She really connected that back to being an aware, capable and empathetic person.”
Mason said that Kazuko Hirabayashi’s choreography course helped her because Hirabayashi related the process to writing a sentence, i.e. making a dance so that it could be understood. “Here’s how you break it down,” She said of Hirabayashi. “you can say whatever you want, but people must be able to understand and read your work.”
She studied during her summers at the American Dance Festival and Bates College where she was exposed to what was being created by very well-known choreographers. She remembers the impression that a performance of Pina Bausch’s company had on her as a young girl. “Oh my gosh.” She said. “Rite of Spring! Dirt, on Stage! These things that leave imprints and you don’t spend a lot of time extracting meaning. You just go with the sensation and euphoria of it. I think that carried through to my relationship with choreography being this playground and rooted in something that felt like my natural voice.” It was through composing work that she could best articulate herself. She enjoys writing and conflated making a dance with how good writing makes a story evolve from different intertwining events.
Mason feels that LACDC was born out of collaboration and she looked to Hubbard Street Chicago as model of what a dance company could mean to a city and what a city could mean to a company.
At USC, Mason had experienced producing concerts and used her scholarship money to create Urban Nutcracker; a work that would later be revised for LACDC. After an assignment in an Arts Administration class, Mason and her friend (and Co-founder of LACDC) Michelle Mierz Jolly decided that they wanted to start a company; that LA needed a repertory dance company. She was only 21 years old, but naivete aside, Mason worked everything out on paper with lighting designer/director/professor Casey Cowan Gale to figure out how to make her vision a reality.
The first performance of LACDC in 2005 was at Highways Performance Space and included works choreographed by Mason from her time at USC and Purchase. The 2006 concert included works by Mason plus the first choreographers to be commissioned by LACDC, Laura Karlin, now the Artistic Director of Invertigo Dance Theatre and Shari Brookler (Dreams in Motions) whom Mason had met previously at the Bates Dance Festival. During her tenure as Artistic Director, Mason would go on to choreograph over 45 original works spanning from short duets to evening-length collaborations.
When forming LACDC, Mason and Jolly put into the By Laws that an Artistic Director’s tenure would not exceed ten years, so when her decade was up, she and husband Eric took the opportunity to start a family. She is very proud of the foundation that she has helped build for the company and prouder of what LACDC has continued to accomplish under the artistic directorship of Genevieve Carson.
Regarding the origin of Stomping Ground L.A., the why was obvious. I questioned Mason on the why now. It was one of the marks that she wanted to leave on the arts. “I love facilitating. I love helping others carry to fruition ideas that seem too big.” She said that she had been talking about her dream of Stomping Ground LA for approximately nine years. She bought the website’s URL five years ago and then created the logo. “I was slowly building the steppingstones until I found the brick and mortar.”
Mason finally found the area of town that she wanted and a building that was attainable for the type of center she envisioned. East LA felt like home due to the work LACDC had done at The Brewery. She found the building in late February and went into escrow the end of March. For Mason, it was establishing a home for the arts. It was to create something permanent. “If there is anything you know about me,” She said. “sustaining and enduring, yet always moving and dynamic; I love holding those things in tension. How do we create spaces that are safe and sound for then explosive and dynamic worlds to be created?”
The name, Stomping Ground L.A., grew out of what Mason had read about on how dancing developed and used to unite communities both socially and spiritually. It was influenced by the research she did in grad school. “There’s an action to building a community,” she said. “and Stomping Ground L.A. felt like it had action to it rather than being passive to the world and that relationship.”
Mason surveyed the dance community to find out what their needs were regarding renting Stomping Ground LA and/or its uses. When asked if there were any responses that surprised her or that she did not foresee. “Other than is there a sauna?” She laughed, quoting a favorite question of one of her friends. “There has been a big call for the convening of professional development, as well as work for providing mental health and health service in general. Would there be a space in this facility that could make those offerings?” Mason admitted that she does not have a quick answer to this question but appreciates the awareness for the need.
Another was how do we build a relationship with the surrounding area, rather than simply stating what the Stomping Ground L.A. is, asking what they could be or provide to the community; not to just build bridges but to learn. Mason wants to see what is needed and then build toward that want.
Mason is in the process of purchasing the adjacent building to become what she calls an “unprogrammed space”. A place for receptions, meetings, filming with green screens, catering for company parties or perhaps a long- or short-term tenant. She wants Stomping Ground L.A. to be abuzz with activity and the timing is great because the opening will coincide with the 15th Anniversary season of LACDC.
Before construction is even fully completed, LACDC will present 6 performances utilizing the raw space and what it means to create a home. The company will present Terra, October 8-12, 2019 at 8PM and Terra Firma, the Closing Night and Celebration, on October 13, 2019 at 6PM. It will include dancing, projections, visual elements and live music. As Mason put it. “An artistic installation”. For more information and tickets, click here.
“I feel like it is a blessing of the space.” Mason said. Even before LACDC presents Terra and Terra Firma, they will invite members of their neighborhood into the space to see what is taking place and to ask questions and to engage with the community. The official opening for Stomping Ground L.A. is January 4, 2020 which coincides with LACDC’s Winter Intensive.
I read a statement included in her newly revised bio and asked her to speak about it.
Kate is thrilled to hold many careers in balance and see how each is informed by the other including continuing to instruct dance, choreograph, and be the mother of two spirited and wonderfully free willed children, Charley and Rory, with her husband Eric.
“For a long time, I tried to compartmentalize things so that I knew when I was successful.” She said. “That lead me to feeling very anxious and unsuccessful and very subpar at a lot of things.” Mason explained how she has never aimed to be successful at just one thing but enjoys the multiplicity of taking on many projects. “When I compartmentalized I felt like I had just checked off the boxes but never felt lit up by anything; even when it was successful I felt like I was just grinding away.”
The turning point for Mason was when Charley and Rory were born. “I realized a real success of my parents and watching them build and develop their company, run me to dance classes and still somehow take me to rodeos on the weekends. It was all part of the same web or quilt that they were weaving, as opposed to just making a company, being a parent, or whatever the “boxes” might be. Because I was part of it as a child, I felt like we didn’t have to quantify it when we hit the mark. It made the highs and lows, not even out, but not seem like the goal. Rather than just hitting the mark, it was to enjoy the journey and at times the chaos of it all.”
Mason does not want to settle with just checking off the boxes or simply riding the middle. “For me,” She continued. “the balance comes when I just swallow it whole. All of this is what makes up the life of Kate right now. Checking boxes on that score card sucked the life out of me.” She involves her kids as much as possible by inviting them to watch her work or to join her for a visit to the studio. She looks alive and radiant. Being extremely busy and finally striking that balance agrees with Kate Hutter Mason!
To purchase tickets for L.A. Contemporary Dance Company’s Terra and Terra Firma, click here.
Feature image: Stomping Ground L.A. – Photo courtesy of Kate Hutter Mason.