Last January, Santa Barbara Dance Theater (SBDT) gave its first performance under new director Christopher Pilafian. Titled A Leap of Faith, that evening-length production showcased a sleek company of four dancers in a series of Pilafian’s solos, duets, trios, and quartets. One year later, as the company prepares for its latest production, Pilafian finds himself reflecting on the growth of the past year, the deeper traditions that inform his work, and the future he’s living into.
“Contemporary dance has to stay experimental, so I’m cognizant of the need to move forward and try new things,” he explained last week. “At the same time, as I enter my second year of directing the company, I am taking a moment to bow to legacy.”
With Time in Motion, the director’s latest for SBDT, the company does a great deal more than bow to the traditions on which it rests — it dances them back to life. Last year, Pilafian made a bold decision to buy the license to a masterpiece of the early modern dance canon: José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” from 1949. This luminous 20-minute quartet set to the baroque music of Henry Purcell is an ode to Shakespeare’s Othello. Like the rest of Limón’s works, it can only be restaged by one of the few certified artists who danced with the company in its early years. Among that rarified group is Alice Condodina, professor emeritus of dance at UCSB and founder of Repertory-West, the company that preceded SBDT.
For Pilafian, who studied dance under Limón at Juilliard in the early 1970s, having “The Moor’s Pavane” set on his company completes a circle. Limón’s work had a profound influence on Jennifer Muller, with whom Pilafian danced for 15 years and whose work in turn informs his own. “The experience of learning and performing ‘Pavane’ is giving my dancers invaluable background to the kinds of aesthetic choices I make as a choreographer,” Pilafian noted. “They are studying the DNA of this lineage as it moves forward.”
Raised in Detroit, Pilafian got his introduction to Limón’s work first from television and then from the National Endowment for the Arts–funded National Dance Touring Program, which brought the company to the city for an artistic residency. Remembering the first time he saw “The Moor’s Pavane” performed live, Pilafian waxed rhapsodic:
“I felt a strong attraction to the music, costumes, and structural elegance of the piece,” he said. “The way José departs from and returns to the simple form of the square — symbol of stability and balance — seemed enlightened and masterful to my budding choreographic sensibility. José’s use of the curve is like architecture; he shapes space with such grace, clarity, and purpose!”
While Pilafian approaches the work of his artistic ancestor with reverence, he also maintains a sense of humor. “One of my memorable experiences [at Juilliard] was showing an independent project to José in his choreography class,” he recalled. “He told me I had desecrated a great work of art.”
Too bad Pilafian’s predecessor won’t be present to witness the latest choreographic ventures of his former student when Time in Motion opens next week. Alongside “The Moor’s Pavane,” Pilafian will present two of his own new works: “Smolder,” set to the dramatic, expressive work of Rachmaninoff, and “Spark to Shine,” in which the director takes a more playful approach to dance-making.
“‘Smolder’ flows very naturally out of that early-20th-century music: shifting moods, introspection, a sense of tasting and experiencing changes as they occur,” Pilafian noted. “I feel very at home there — where the inner realm of beauty is honored, personal experience is at the forefront, and intensity is welcomed.”
Among the exciting recent developments for SBDT is the addition of dancer Lindsay Mason, who joins original members Kyle Castillo, Monica Ford, Tracy R. Kofford, and Christina Sanchez. One extra dancer may not transform the dynamics of a large company, but the shift from four to five performers is significant. “My impulses tend toward group dynamics, and with five dancers, the possibilities increase quite a bit,” Pilafian noted. I’ve really been enjoying the plurality of personalities; now I have five beautiful, wonderful, interesting people to work and play with.”
As for the coming year, Pilafian is considering collaborations with guest choreographers and other regional dance companies, as well as a European tour. Poised as he is on the brink of a new year, this director is taking a moment to look back at where he has come from before forging ahead.
Santa Barbara Dance Theater performs Time in Motion at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater Wednesday-Saturday, January 15-18, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, January 19, at 2 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 893-7221 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.