When he’s working on a canvas, Christopher Pilafian spends just 20 percent of his time painting. The rest of the time he spends simply looking: waiting to sense what should happen next. With his latest choreographic project, Pilafian has brought a similar art-making approach to the dance studio. In late 2011, just weeks after he was named vice chair of UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance, director of the dance program, and artistic director of Santa Barbara Dance Theater (SBDT), Pilafian walked into an empty studio with the four dancers he had handpicked to launch the company’s new era. For their first rehearsal, he had in mind no themes, no movement phrases — nothing but curiosity about what might happen.
Just over a year later, the results of that open-ended creative process are going public in A Leap of Faith, an evening-length production that will premiere at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater next Wednesday, January 16. Like the show itself, the title emerged organically. “In a way, an artist taking on a project is always a leap of faith,” Pilafian acknowledged in a phone conversation last month. “But it was especially so in this case because I went in not having a specific vision of the end result but rather having a sense of the creative environment in which I wanted to work.”
When Pilafian talks about environment, he’s really talking about the relationships with and among his dancers — the emotional, spatial, and dynamic connections that have driven his choreography. “I’m interested in the chemistry between people and how their individual temperaments manifest kinetically,” Pilafian explained. “I would go into the studio with no preconceptions other than my interest in the space between the dancers, and then I would ask them to improvise.” From their responses, Pilafian would craft a phrase, and then ask the dancers to interpret it through their bodies. A Leap of Faith evolved in this way, as a body-based dialogue. The result is an episodic suite of solos, duets, trios, and quartets that vary in tone from meditative to explosive. Pilafian describes the work as “abstract expressionist” — there’s no overt narrative — yet there’s a quality of deep engagement between the four dancers that lends the work a startling humanity.
It’s the humans, after all, who are the heart of the thing for Pilafian. As he described the four individuals who have helped launch this new era for SBDT — Kyle Castillo, Monica Ford, Tracy Kofford, and Christina Sanchez — Pilafian’s voice softened and slowed. “Christina is a perfect example of the phenomenon of the thinking body,” he explained. “When she’s dancing, it’s difficult to take your eyes off her because there is so much presence in her body. Tracy has a formidable physical profile onstage. He exudes strength and stability, and partners with great sensitivity. Monica has a kind of exotic beauty in her movement that I find very alluring and almost mystical. She has liquidity in her movement, and as she grows into the work, her relationship to weight and flow is deepening. Kyle is a dream to work with because he’s so intelligent and so open. He grasps concepts readily and applies them with interest and appetite. He also has great passion that comes through in his movement.”
For their part, the dancers recognize Pilafian’s knack for drawing out their particular talents and personalities. “Christopher has a way of being very intuitive with each dancer, and we are all very different in our styles and backgrounds,” Sanchez noted. “The atmosphere he creates is nurturing and at the same time physically and emotionally deep,” Kofford added. “He has a gift for tuning in to the artist he is working with.”
While A Leap of Faith heralds a new era for Santa Barbara Dance Theater, Pilafian and his dancers remain aware that they’re building on the company’s significant history. Founded in 1976 by UCSB professor emeritus Alice Condodina and directed for 20 years by Jerry Pearson, SBDT has been the professional modern dance company-in-residence at UCSB, often drawing members from the department’s pool of talented graduates and giving faculty members an opportunity to create new work.
“This company has provided almost four decades of distinguished dance artistry for local as well as international audiences,” Condodina noted. “I’m delighted that Mr. Pilafian is sustaining the legacy to which so many have contributed.”
Among the contributors to A Leap of Faith are costume designer Anaya Cullen, lighting designer Michael Klaers, and composer William Pasley. Collaborating with artists across disciplines is one of Pilafian’s passions, as well as another chance to experiment with the chemical reactions of human relationships.
“Because I’m a painter, I use mixing paint as an analogy for the choreographic process,” Pilafian said. “If I do a duet for those two dancers, how is that different from a duet between another two? What kinds of imagery or kinetic patterns arise? What kinds of inspiration jump out? I’ve put my faith in this process, and it has really kept my interest.”
Santa Barbara Dance Theater premieres A Leap of Faith at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater on Wednesday, January 16. Performances run through Sunday, January 20. Call (805) 893-7221 or visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.