On opposing sides of the city, perched wistfully above the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, SBCC’s Tracy Kofford and UCSB’s Brandon Whited are busying themselves with final preparations for their annual spring dance concerts — a rite of passage for graduating students in their respective dance departments and the culmination of a year’s worth of rigorous training. To the west, Whited, the UCSB dance department’s newest faculty member, is learning the intricacies of a new environment while formulating a platform for his curatorial style. Due east, Kofford continues his efforts to diversify his recently formed SBCC Dance Company through innovative partnerships with area choreographers. On a sunny afternoon, I took a scenic drive along the coast to visit the two concert directors in their natural habitats and got a firsthand look at the particulars of a life in dance academia.
SBCC’s Tracy Kofford
Wyatt Gardner pushes back an unruly curl and takes a deep breath. With a quiet agility that belies his 290-pound frame, he sinks into a grand plié and lifts his chin in concentration. A salty, ocean breeze wafts through the studio door, a welcome respite for the SBCC Vaqueros offensive lineman in the throes of his twice-weekly ballet class. “I’m here because I want to get better at football, ma’am,” he offered, and by his razor-sharp focus and perfectly pointed toes, I can tell that he actually means it.
When Kofford invited me to sit in on his beginner ballet class — one of nine dance courses currently on offer through the City College’s growing phys ed department — I expected to walk into a room filled with a familiar sea of cut-off tights and expertly coiffed buns. Instead, there were 14 students of varying stature, wearing attire that ranged from Lululemon pants to oversized track shorts — refreshing in their diversity and no less focused on the business of tendus and coupés. “The affordability of City College lets students get their general education courses out of the way but still allows them the freedom to try out different classes and figure out what they want to do,” emphasized Kofford, who currently oversees upward of 125 students enrolled in classes from Beginning Social Ballroom Dancing to Advanced Modern Dance Technique. Last fall, he also rolled out the season premiere of the SBCC Dance Company: a preprofessional program modeled after the training style he enjoyed as a dance major at UCSB. “Whether or not they’re going to dance again isn’t as important as the relationships and the memories they build,” said Kofford, “and I want them to experience — if only for a brief moment in their lives — what it feels like to be with an actual touring company.”
With limited financial resources, Kofford has had to keep an expansive collection of metaphorical hats (and shoes) inside his ever-expanding closet: On any given day, he is marketing director, recruiter, jazz instructor, and travel agent, roles he happily takes on as par for the course. “At the end of the day, I get to work with creative bodies and help passionate students get to where they want to go,” he said. This year alone, Kofford’s efforts have garnered a McCallum Award for choreography, invitations to half a dozen regional festivals, and a self-produced showcase at the Lobero Theatre. “If I want something to happen, I have to make it happen,” he said.
After a grueling season of travel and fundraising, Kofford and his dancers are heading back home for SBCC Dance Collective 2017, two evenings of 12 works presented on campus at the Garvin Theatre for the first time in more than a decade. In keeping with his vision of diversifying his students’ repertoire and cultivating relationships with regional schools, Kofford has invited four companies to present alongside eight commissioned works from area choreographers. His hope is to continue elevating the college’s profile as a viable resource for students exploring the idea of a life in the performing arts. To Kofford, it’s a win-win option: “Who wouldn’t want to dance alongside the ocean?”
UCSB’s Brandon Whited
“Growing up in a pretty conservative state like North Carolina, people weren’t as open about a lot of things,” recounted Whited, whose flourishing interest in dance clashed with the expectations of the majority of his peers. “I was teased and bullied by people who just didn’t understand why I would want to be a dancer.” He relished the visits to his aunt’s home in New York City, where Broadway matinees would flow seamlessly into evenings at Lincoln Center. On one particular visit at the age of 14, a back-to-back viewing of American Ballet Theatre and City Ballet’s season openers would change his life forever: “That was the year I decided that’s exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he recalled.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Whited headed straight to New York, settling into an apartment in Queens and dancing professionally for Randy James Dance Works. Two years later, he would walk into an audition for Shen Wei Dance Arts that would forever change his application of movement, shifting from the sometimes stifling vagaries of classical technique to a method guided by somatics and improvisation. “It was the most intellectually, physically, and emotionally intense process of my career,” said Whited, who stayed on with the company for five years before embarking on a return to academia for his master’s degree. “There was a shift in my connection with dance — a plateau of inspiration, maybe. I was really at a crossroads as I was approaching my thirties, and a formal program seemed like a really good place to figure out what my voice was as a teacher and choreographer,” he said. His passion for gender studies and how they apply to pedagogy and aesthetics in the dance world piqued the interest of UCSB Department of Theater and Dance staff, who brought him onboard as an assistant professor last fall — an opportunity he’s not taking lightly. “To be able to continue my research and still get to dance and share my passion for teaching and choreography is really a dream come true,” he said.
During my visit, Whited whisked me in and around the dance department, popping our heads into studios and dropping into tech rehearsals in the final preparations for Free | Fall, featuring a curated selection of four student works, two guest choreographers, and a restaging of José Limón’s “The Running Dance” under the direction of Alice Condodina. With Whited taking the time to carefully describe the varying themes of this season’s production, it quickly became clear that his strength lies in his adept perception of dance within the warm, petri-dish confines of an academic setting and how that might intersect with the broader conversation of dance as social reflection. “The idea of how men and women are supposed to dance is a binary approach that begins right here, in education,” he emphasized. “I never want to undermine the fact that both men and women should be able to dance however they want to without justification — for the simple fact that we’re called to it.”
411 SBCC Dance Collective 2017 takes place Friday-Saturday, April 14-15, 7 p.m., at the Garvin Theatre, 721 Cliff Drive. Call (805) 965-5935 or see sbccdance.com. UCSB’s Spring Dance Concert Free | Fall takes place Thursday-Friday, April 13-14, 8 p.m., and Saturday, April 15, 2 and 8 p.m., in UCSB’s Hatlen Theater. Call (805) 893-2064 or see theaterdance.ucsb.edu.