He’s a Juilliard-trained dancer who spent more than a decade touring the world as a performer with New York’s Jennifer Muller/The Works. He’s an acclaimed teacher on the UCSB faculty and an award-winning choreographer. He’s a visual artist who has exhibited paintings in solo and group shows. But one thing Christopher Pilafian never planned to be was an administrator. Now, with longtime UCSB director of dance Jerry Pearson stepping down, Pilafian is easing into new roles.
Given his abundant creativity and curiosity, it comes as no surprise that Pilafian has accepted three new titles simultaneously. A lecturer in the dance department since 1990, Pilafian now finds himself vice chair of theater and dance, director of dance, and director of Santa Barbara Dance Theatre (SBDT), the professional dance company housed at the university.
That’s a lot of change in a short period of time, but Pilafian’s taking a characteristically thoughtful approach to his new positions. “At first I thought, ‘I have to implement a new set of skills,’” he reflected recently, “and then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just try continuing to be me, and when challenges arise, meeting them?’”
One of the primary challenges he faces is leading SBDT into a new era. Founded as Repertory West in 1978 by professor emeritus Alice Condodina, the university-based company was renamed in 1991 when Pearson took the helm. Initially intended as a forum where faculty members could continue to develop as choreographers and performers, SBDT has evolved into Santa Barbara’s longest-running professional modern dance company, has taken on significant international touring, and has helped launch the careers of numerous dancers, many of whom are graduates of the UCSB dance department.
With Pearson’s departure, SBDT faces a new era, and not only in terms of artistic direction. Though UCSB provides rehearsal and performance space, SBDT has long been funded by private donors, and the continuation of such support will be vital to the company’s future. The change in leadership is also an opportunity to revisit both the purpose of a university-based company and the realities of operating a dance company in the 21st century.
Pilafian’s got some exciting visions, but he’s starting small. In recent weeks, he has hired four dancers who will form the company’s core. Kyle Castillo, Monica Ford, Tracy Kofford, and Christina Sanchez are all highly trained, experienced performers — Sanchez has danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, while Kofford has performed with Jennifer Muller and is currently on the dance faculty at Santa Barbara City College. The company’s first public performance is scheduled for January 2013.
Ultimately, Pilafian envisions SBDT as a kind of experimental laboratory where faculty members and guest artists alike can generate new work.
“I’m interested in collaboration and synergy,” Pilafian explained, describing a vision in which SBDT becomes a hub for lighting designers, costumers, dramatists, and composers to bounce ideas off one another. “My view of any kind of group endeavor is that it’s optimized when the members of that group are each doing something they’re passionate about and that serves their own growth and the growth of the whole,” he explained.
Already, SBDT has hosted a collaborative dance-theater production by one of the department’s newest faculty members: Mira Kingsley’s Yes is a long time brought spoken word, song, dance, and theatrical staging to the Hatlen Theatre last fall. If that show is anything to go on, SBDT audiences can look forward to more inventive, cutting-edge shows being produced and performed at UCSB in the future.
In the meantime, Pilafian continues to teach technique classes and participate in the life of the dance department — one of the strongest within the UC system — while his new role as vice chair is introducing him to circles within the larger university. There, as in his own department, Pilafian’s vision is one of collaboration, growth, and possibility. “The university is populated by interesting people who think about reality in such different ways,” he noted. “It’s a gathering of people who have commitment, integrity, and insightful minds. It’s a system that holds the intention of supporting and furthering people in their professions — including a great range of idiosyncrasies. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.”