This Sunday, no fewer than 15 dancers will appear at Center Stage Theater to perform the work of three choreographers. Though most of these performers are rarely seen in Santa Barbara, they’re all converging here because of one Santa Barbara artist’s vision.
For Goleta-raised, UCSB-educated choreographer and dancer Misa Kelly, producing her own evening-length dance show seemed at first like a daunting project. Kelly is the founder and director of SonneBlauma Danscz Theatre, a part-time, project-based modern dance company. Like many artists, Kelly works a number of jobs to support her art, and has to be creative about her time and energy. When she began to envision a touring performance, she knew she’d have to be resourceful in order to make it work. “I had a vision of choreographers collaborating and going from city to city on tour,” she said. “I thought that if we could tour to places where at least one person knew the studios and the theaters and could draw an audience, it could work. I put the idea out there, and it was a little like fishing: You cast, and cast, and eventually, there’s a tug.”
The first sign of interest came from Kerstin Stuart, a one-time Santa Barbara dance artist now living in Monterey. Kelly and Stuart began corresponding by email, discussing a shared program and sharing their creative processes with one another. Hoping to find a third collaborator, Kelly went to Los Angeles to see a showcase of new dances by emerging choreographers, where she was most struck by the work of Louie Cornejo. “I approached him after the show and asked him if he’d like to work with me in putting together a touring show,” Kelly said. “He said yes.”
With a trio of artists, a show was born, and 3 Cities, 3 Choreographers began to take shape. Because Kelly, Stuart, and Cornejo live in separate regions of the state, they worked individually to create segments of a single show. Not until their debut in Los Angeles were they able to see the entire production as a whole. “I had to trust them entirely based on what I’d seen in the past,” Kelly explained. “It was surprising and shocking how well our work went together.”
From an auspicious premiere at the Diavolo Dance Space in downtown L.A., where Cornejo had connections, 3 Cities went on to perform in Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz, where Stuart lived and worked. This weekend’s show in Kelly’s hometown of Santa Barbara will be their finale, but the process of collaboration has inspired each choreographer to reach out to other artists in the future. “Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in the studio alone,” Stuart said, “but now I want to put myself out there more and cross paths with others. I think art is really about collaboration and community. It feels right to do it this way.” As part of the show Stuart is presenting three works, among them a duet inspired by a series of abstract paintings by a German woman who lived through both world wars, and a personal solo about the pain of love and loss. “When I first fell in love with modern dance, it was because I saw a balance between something beautiful and disturbing,” Stuart said. “I loved how there was this ability to explore the whole range of what we experience and witness as humans.”
Kelly’s own work deals with similar themes. “My work is very much Jungian-based,” she explained. “I go beneath the place of metaphor and dream. It’s not intellectual; I want the audience to go somewhere new, to experience something fresh and exciting and profound.” She, too, will present three pieces, including a solo titled, “My Flame Knows How to Swim in Cold Waters.” Kelly says the piece represents a journey of survival of someone who has been broken. “It explores the power and glory of the human spirit,” she said, “and its ability to transcend and to survive.”
Unlike Stuart and Kelly, Cornejo is presenting just one piece: a work for nine female dancers called “Weathering.” Yet he, too, is looking at the human condition and the ways we deal with loss and suffering. Cornejo took as his subject the practice of stoning women for social transgressions such as marital infidelity. “I wanted to work with rocks as props,” he explained. “There’s also a lot of throwing yourself onto the floor, and onto other dancers. Even the movements are broken, and kind of weathered. Rocks can be used as a weapon, but in eastern culture they are also used in more peaceful practices like meditation and massage-so I liked that contrast.”
So far, the show has had a good reception, and not only in California; thanks to the magic of YouTube, Kelly has been invited to bring her work to a modern dance festival in Istanbul in September. In the meantime, her focus is on bringing the show home to her own community. “I’m really proud of what we have done,” Kelly said. “I always like charging the environment with inspiration-I think this show does that.”