A Pre-Festival Conversation with Jodie Gates

 In Archives, Dd Exclusive

As Wendy Perron recently alerted her readership across the country, women leaders in dance are often conspicuously absent; however, she writes, that is not the case here in California, where women have in fact “made the dance scene.” Indeed, several of the dance-related resources at my fingertips, as a young choreographer and writer, from companies who offer class to the organizations that bring dance to Orange County, do have women at their helm. We females, at least here in California–and I use the first person plural in a hopeful, potential sense–are downright plentiful.

Jodie Gates is just one of the women included in Perron’s post, but from my point of view, living here for the past two years, her impact in Southern California has been substantial. Perhaps you’ll recognize her as Vice Dean and Director of the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at USC. She appointed her former boss at Ballet Frankfurt, choreographer William Forsythe, to the faculty earlier this year. (NBD–I’m just sitting here waiting for their Master’s program to be created.)

Full disclosure–last night, I showed work in a small site-specific event as part of Laguna Dance Festival’s 10th Anniversary roster. Led by Gates, this festival presents premiere companies and guest artists from around the world in Laguna Beach. This year’s program packs new-to-LDF Ballet Memphis and LA’s BodyTraffic (two more CA-based women leaders there); a brand new commission; and performances by dancers Misty Copeland (ABT), Gonzalo Garcia (NYCB), Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz (SFB), and Complexions Contemporary Ballet into four evenings at the Laguna Playhouse next week. For the commissioned work, Las Vegas-based choreographer Bernard Gaddis was selected to collaborate with an LA-based composer, Alan Chan. Their piece was inspired by a single painting from the Laguna Art Museum’s permanent collection. The Festival made its initial foray during the city’s Art Walk last night, with four (female) choreographers, myself included, showing choreography in galleries throughout town. As much as I’ve tried not to let my involvement in that aspect impact this piece, it bears acknowledgement. It should give you a sense of the size of the OC dance community to know that such interferences are relatively common.

Earlier this summer, Gates and I spoke over the phone a couple of times, once to conduct this interview. I liked talking to her. She is the sort of person with whom you put on your best behavior–but you also feel like you can confide in her, especially if you both happen to be women choreographers. I’ve condensed and reconstructed our conversation here, editing for flow where appropriate.

LW: How did you first come up with the idea to start the Laguna Dance Festival? Did you model it after any other festival in particular?

JG: In 2004, we had our initial discussions, and in 2005 were our first performances. I had just left Ballet Frankfurt. I noticed that there was a void in this community, which is known for its artistic excellence in other fields. There was no dance that was up to the same standards as visual art, or theater, or music. I wanted to model it after Jacob’s Pillow, Spoleto, or the Edinburgh Fringe–I had been to those festivals as a performer and as an audience member, but never as a programmer, curator, or director.

LW: So taking on those roles must have been challenging, at first. What else stands out as a major challenge along the way?

JG: The biggest challenge has been to get the word out. We’re a game changer, bringing internationally recognized dance artists here. It’s a small community, which is both part of its charm and a challenge. I just want everyone to share the excitement that I have about what we’re doing…

And then venues–venues have been the real challenge. In order to do a Jacob’s Pillow, you need land. There’s only so much land. We’ve only been at the Laguna Playhouse for a couple of years, and before that, we were at the high school.

LW: Can you talk more about your vision for the next ten years? Will it involve a permanent home?

JG: We have to think long term [for that]–even twenty years out.

[Wow! Light clicks on in my young, impatient brain.]

JG: “Ekphrasis!” [the multi-media collaborative commission on next Saturday night’s program] is on the precipice of projects to come. We hope there will be more collaborations between Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Beach Live. Eventually, we’ll incorporate not only art, music, and dance, but also other media and theater…

We have to continue to inform our audiences. Audience awareness is key to the mission. Increased funding will help us give audiences more free opportunities to experience dance, and to show them all the different choreographic facets such as dance on film, site specific works, et cetera.

Me: Have you had any unexpected successes so far — any that weren’t part of your original plan?

JG: Well, initially the vision was quite large and ambitious. We realized along the way that what we created is a couture, perfectly-tailored fit for Laguna Beach… Our success is that ten years later, we are here. People do know about us. We’re successful.

Although the tenth anniversary festival still lies ahead, and despite never having experienced Orange County without LDF (fortunately!), my initial thoughts are that it’s the way the Festival presents its artists, and not just their caliber or reputation, that sets this event apart. Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Irvine Barclay Theatre, each near enough, offer impressive international dance programming as well; I don’t see that as a “game-changer” from where I stand, since local audiences have access to great companies anyway. But I do understand that it was at one time and continues to be an important starting point. Now, short of the Berkshires, it’s Gates’ facilitation of unique collaborations amongst accomplished artists, such as Gaddis and Chan (and Hubbard Street and LINES, two years ago), as well as Laguna’s own art and appreciation of art that gives this festival its distinction.

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