SBDT dancers Christina Sanchez and Tracy Kofford.

In January of this year, a group of dance supporters gathered at UCSB’s dance department, where risers and lights had transformed the school’s ballet studio into a performance space. We were there to witness the beginning of a new era for Santa Barbara Dance Theatre (SBDT), the professional modern dance company that has been based at UCSB for more than 30 years.

Founded as Repertory-West in the late 1970s by Alice Condodina and directed by Jerry Pearson between 1991 and 2011, the company’s fate became uncertain in late 2010 when Pearson announced his intention to step down. Even as SBDT paused on the brink of transition, longtime dance department faculty member Christopher Pilafian expressed a sense of certainty about the company’s future. “Jerry’s decision to step back after 20 years suggests a completion of a cycle for the company,” Pilafian noted at that time, “but I do not see this as an ending. I fully expect the company to continue in one form or another.”

Fast-forward to January 2012, when Pilafian was introducing a small audience to the first showing of SBDT under his direction. No longer claiming certainty so much as excitement and hope, he called the short program A Leap of Faith. “I am thrilled to build whatever this company is going to become,” Pilafian said then, “and a space in which to explore and discover what I don’t know yet.”

And yet, though he was only three weeks into the rehearsal process with four newly hired dancers, Pilafian had already built more than 30 minutes of repertory — dancing that showed a remarkable level of familiarity between the performers, not to mention technical virtuosity. In nine brief solos, duets, trios, and quartets, the new SBDT emerged sleek, sensitive, and utterly human.

Indeed, Pilafian says, relationships are what it’s all about for him. As he has said from the beginning, he’s not aiming to make dances “about” anything. Instead, he’s intent on working in close collaboration with his dancers and tailors rehearsals according to who’s available on a given day. The four dancers he has chosen to launch the new company are Kyle Castillo, Monica Ford, Tracy Kofford, and Christina Sanchez, all of whom lead full lives outside of their SBDT commitments. Castillo and Ford are recent graduates of the UCSB dance department; Kofford danced with SBDT years ago and has returned to Santa Barbara after a successful career in New York; Sanchez’s impressive performance credentials include a stint with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

In their first showing in January, the focus on individual personality and movement style was already evident. Even within one trio, Pilafian had integrated Ford’s languorous sinuosity, Kofford’s dramatic instinct, and Sanchez’s breathtaking lines. But beyond his capacity to draw out each dancer’s natural gifts, it was clear Pilafian had begun to put his dancers in relationship with one another, forcing them to discover and deal with what exists in the spaces between people.

Since that January showing, Pilafian and his dancers have worked four or five days a week for a couple of hours at a time. They now have 22 distinct-yet-linked sections that range from playful quartets to meditative, gestural solos. In some cases, Pilafian has brought in outside influences; on a visit to the L.A. County Museum of Art a few months ago, he discovered the work of Israeli choreographer and textile artist Noa Eshkol, whose interest in fine details and the kinetic logic of movement inspired him to experiment. More often, though, he starts with an image inspired by the dancer or dancers before him. “I close my eyes, and within a tenth of a second, I get a very clear picture of where we should begin,” he explained a few months ago. His method is in keeping with a leap of faith, and it seems to be working.

So far, the results have only been witnessed by a handful of invited guests. The public premiere of the new SBDT is scheduled for January 2013, and dancers and director alike are eager to learn how they’ll be received.

Castillo is the company’s youngest member, having just completed his BA at UCSB last year. “I feel like we have a lot to offer the community,” Castillo said. “It’s a whole new company, a whole new take on SBDT.”

Kofford has a unique perspective on SBDT’s new era, having danced with Pearson’s company here before moving to New York. “The work is still going to be strong and intelligent and emotional and thought provoking,” he said, “so in that aspect, it’s very much the same. But I think the new SBDT is going in a more humanistic route: focusing on bodies in space as opposed to props, high-tech lighting, projections, or any other elements.”

As for Pilafian’s directorial approach, Kofford noted, “The way he goes about creating the work is really sensitive to both his artistry and ours. He’ll say, ‘Hey, try this,’ and you’ll try it, and you can try adding your own flavor. Either he likes it, or he says, ‘Let’s try going in a different direction.’”

Of course, Pilafian’s intense focus on these four individuals and the relationships between them may shift as the company develops — additional dancers, more elaborate staging, and artistic collaborations would all alter the current tone — but that’s all part of the uncertain future. For now, it’s all about starting small, with rigor and simplicity, dedication to these particular performers, and a willingness to step into the unknown. That much, at least, is certain.


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