There comes a time for each of us to cast off from familiar shores and sail into unknown waters. That time has come for Jerry Pearson. As the cochair of UCSB’s theater and dance department and the artistic director of Santa Barbara Dance Theatre (SBDT) prepares to go on sabbatical, he’s intentionally vague about his plans. “I could just get commissions, teach, and work with graduate students,” he explained over tea at the Roasting Company last week, while rain splattered the windows, “but that’s what I’ve always done.”
It may well feel like an eternity since 1979, when Pearson launched Pearson Dance Company in New York City. By the time he came to UCSB in 1990, he was already a seasoned choreographer and director, and the next year he took the helm of the university’s modern dance company in residence, then known as Repertory West. Flash forward two decades, and Pearson is still setting new choreography on his dancers each year, rehearsing, and producing touring shows. The time has finally come, he says, to see what else the future might hold.
Celebrating a Milestone
Pearson’s sabbatical just happens to coincide with SBDT’s 20th anniversary, so before the company takes a year off, they’re giving a retrospective show, and they’re going big by booking the Granada for one night only: Friday, January 14. Though they’ve performed in even larger venues when touring Asia, at home, SBDT typically presents work at UCSB’s 340-seat Hatlen Theatre, which is currently under construction. At over 1,500, the Granada is quite a leap. “It’s a big celebration, so we figured we might as well just do it,” Pearson explained. The program they’ll be presenting spans from SBDT’s early days to work from 2010, and it includes pieces from the active repertory as well as those that have not been seen in 15 years.
Pulling together a retrospective on this scale has given the director a chance to reflect on his career and also to arrange a reunion of his dancers. In addition to the current core company, Pearson has invited a number of ex-SBDT dancers home for this show. Many have responded to the call, flying in from New York, Arizona, and Northern California to rehearse. Other past company members will come to town simply to see the show and join the celebration.
Among those performing in the retrospective is Christina McCarthy, who danced with SBDT in its earliest days and has remained in Santa Barbara to witness the company’s evolution from a young repertory group to a sleek, international touring company focused primarily on Pearson’s oeuvre and producing new work annually. “It has always been my little New York City in Santa Barbara, a dance company that was about the people as much as the work that was produced,” McCarthy said of SBDT. She also noted the impact of the company’s educational outreach programs, saying, “Kids all over Santa Barbara have been exposed to modern dance. I still run into locals who remember me and the shows they saw in their school cafeterias.”
A Distinct Artistic Vision
Though SBDT rehearsals and performances have taken place primarily on the UCSB campus, the company has also made its presence known in the larger community over the years, primarily through shows at the Lobero Theatre. It remains the only professional modern dance company in Santa Barbara that has consistently employed a full company of dancers each season. Those who have tracked Pearson’s artistic development have noted his growing interest in the intersection of dance and technology; today he uses elaborate multimedia effects in his work and also teaches digital choreography to UCSB undergrads. He cites his years as a performer with Nikolais Dance Theater as having sparked this interest; Alwin Nikolais is known for having created striking dance spectacles using dramatic projections, light effects, and costuming.
From the beginning of his career, Pearson experimented with slides to push the boundaries of what he calls “the kinetics of images.” By 1999, when he choreographed one of his signature works, “Strange Boat,” he was using video projectors to make images and words float across the scrim behind the dancers. “Strange Boat” will appear on the program January 14 along with other dances Pearson feels represent high points in his artistic trajectory, from “Hambone for 2,” choreographed in 1979 and performed here by McCarthy and Pearson, to “Voice, Finding My” from 2009, in which the dancers speak, sharing autobiographical information that also appears as projected text.
Pearson says touring has helped the company polish their most popular works, while home shows have allowed him to take risks. “My pieces have a tendency to be very personal,” he acknowledged, referring to the retrospective as “a kind of life review.”
An Uncertain Future
As Pearson prepares to sail into uncharted waters, the company he has directed for 20 years faces an equally uncertain future. Though Pearson’s not quite ready to retire, he plans to step back from directing SBDT even after his return to the department in 2012. It’s not yet clear who might step in to lead the company.
That UCSB has maintained a professional modern dance company in residence for this long is an anomaly—no other UC school and few other universities nationwide can boast such a company. That’s due in part to the funding by generous private donors, and in part to Pearson’s unusual dual role as department head and company director.
His vision that SBDT might one day develop into an MFA in dance has not come to pass, and Pearson sees his temporary absence as a time for the rest of the faculty to consider whether having professional dancers in residence still serves the department. Though he says there are certainly those who could succeed him as director, he notes it’s not an easy job. “You have to have the chops,” he said. “You need to have the will, the ability to absorb punishment, and an ego that can keep going no matter what. You have to raise money, manage it on a people level, make dancers happy, and make them believe that it’s important: that meeting the aesthetic needs of those involved—and of the audience—is important work.”
Christopher Pilafian, who joined the department the same year as Pearson, noted Pearson’s ability to pay dancers regularly, to attract strong male dancers, and to draw new company members from among the department’s most talented graduates among his strengths as a director. “Santa Barbara’s cultural life is strengthened by the presence of professional dancers working together to move the art forward,” Pilafian noted. “Jerry’s decision to step back after 20 years suggests a completion of a cycle for the company. It is fitting for an artist to pause to reflect. But I do not see this as an ending. I fully expect the company to continue in one form or another.”
While dance companies nationwide struggle to find new working models in the constantly shifting landscape of the arts, SBDT enters its own period of reflection and reformation. Meanwhile, Pearson, ever the visionary, has his eye on the horizon. “I want to find new ways for my creativity to grow,” he explained, citing “Strange Boat” as a metaphor for where he finds himself. “It’s a strange world, but we’re in it together, and we’re going somewhere,” he said. “I feel that way again: I’m on a strange boat, and I don’t know exactly where I’m going.”
Santa Barbara Dance Theatre will perform at the Granada Theatre on Friday, January 14, at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 893-7221 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu. For more on the company, call 893-4527 or visit santabarbaradancetheatre.com.