When they’re dressed in pedestrian clothing and standing in line to get coffee, at first glance one would hardly notice the subtle signs. But watch just a second longer, and their anatomy quietly begins to betray a profession: the curvature of a lithe arm as friends are waved over to a table, a disciplined torso pressed confidently against a rickety café chair. In Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they chatter exuberantly in clusters along the subway platforms, feet automatically embedded in third position, waiting for the downtown train. Such is the life of a dancer, incessantly poised, anticipating feats that might be required of them at any given four count. In the fall of 1971, one of those sprightly commuters was a young Juilliard student named Christopher Pilafian.
It’s been 26 years since Pilafian left New York City for a commission out west. What began as a guest artist stint for the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance quickly evolved into a full-time teaching position, complete with desk and office hours. “It was a revelation for me to actually have a regular salary,” he mused, waxing nostalgic over the appeal of starting a new chapter on the left coast. “There was a kind of allure to the idea of California, the western edge of the continent, a different sensibility and the futurism that is so prevalent.” He even performed a solo to mark the occasion, a bossa nova–driven piece entitled “Smoothie,” in which he ceremoniously danced across the stage in Day-Glo wear, tossing fruit into a blender.
In 2012, Pilafian took over the reins as artistic director for Santa Barbara Dance Theater and embraced a golden opportunity to explore his passion for choreography, an inclination that came to a head during his first semester at Juilliard. “I don’t know what part of my personality had the chutzpah to think I could pull it off, but I rounded up a cast of 12 people, choreographed a piece to show to José Limón, and got his comments, which were extremely negative.” To another student, the feedback may have been enough to dissuade any future notions, but Pilafian was undeterred. “It didn’t suit his sensibility, but I was clearly on that track, soaking up my choreography classes.”
This season marks the 40th anniversary for Santa Barbara Dance Theater, the UC system’s only resident professional dance company, and Pilafian intends to celebrate accordingly. He’s amped up his roster of company dancers from four to six and has taken on an apprentice and alternate, consciously broadening his talent base to include members of the greater Santa Barbara dance community. “This is the first time in a long time that we’re not primarily alumni; we’ve got people from the community, people who grew up here, went away to school, and came back.”
The company is also taking great care to compile the names of all of its past dancers to be honored in the season’s literature. “A dance company isn’t obviously just the director and choreographer; the dance company is the dancers, and the lifeblood that they bring to the work — otherwise the work simply cannot happen.” Pilafian has also brought on a whip-smart rehearsal director named Brooklyn Hughes, an integral component to his ambitious program that includes fresh new dance works from the company’s two previous artistic directors, Jerry Pearson and Alice Condodina, as well as a reprise of guest choreographer Edgar Zendejas’s “Impenetrable Winter.” The common thread linking all four pieces is an exploration of sensorial imagery, using olfactory, culinary, and even molecular metaphors to consider human interactions and visceral memories.
On a gray Wednesday morning, I join the company in studio as they prepare to iron out a few of the more precarious transitions. Poised front and center, hands gesturing expressively, Pilafian is doing what he does best: injecting humanity into his highly technical movement. Before him are three chiseled provocations of the male dancer, twisting and spinning in a newly added segment that includes Tracy Kofford, Thomas Fant, and Daniel Burgueño. Outside, an uproarious rainstorm pounds with authority, and the dancers’ movements gain ferocity with each breaking clap of thunder. One by one, the women glide in, Christina Sanchez carving out a space in the corner to warm up, Carissa Carroll and Natalia Perea stretching across a metal ballet bar. Niki Pfeiffer will join them later, and together, these seven dancers will be tasked with upholding a university tradition that began in 1976, long before the majority of them ever learned their first sissone. It is a fluid and ever-evolving responsibility most noted in the role Pilafian plays. “The mandate I feel is not only to develop my creative self but also to maintain the vitality of the company and its vibrancy until the next director shows up.”
Come next week, audiences will bear witness to the significance and relevancy Christopher Pilafian’s work has contributed to our thriving movement arts landscape and, perhaps more importantly, his indelible inspiration over the next generation of Santa Barbara dancers.
Santa Barbara Dance Theater’s 40th anniversary performance is on Wednesday and Saturday, January 20 and 23, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, January 24, at 2 p.m. at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-2064 or see theaterdance.ucsb.edu.