In 1908, a reticent teenage girl entered her freshman year at Santa Barbara High School, determined to make a fresh new start. Her family had just moved to town from Pittsburg, hoping the sea air might alleviate her sister’s troublesome respiratory ailments. In an effort to assimilate, the girl joined the basketball team and began writing for the school journal. One afternoon, she saw a poster for an upcoming dance performance and pleaded with her father to take her. She wore a new spring dress and watched carefully as Ruth St. Denis appeared onstage, hands and feet flexing dramatically in a barefoot ballet. By the time the velvet curtain came down, she had made up her mind to study dance theater. Over the next 83 years, she would become the single most important figure in the modern dance world. Her name was Martha Graham.
Since then, Santa Barbara has played host to some of the most prolific dancers and choreographers of our time as they ebb and flow through our community, leaving an indelible mark on the city’s dance landscape. Some, such as celebrated choreographer Alonzo King, whose work is now included in the repertoire of more than 50 dance companies around the world, found their footing on the Marley floors of the city’s intimate dance studios. Others, such as power couple Robert and Carol Hanlin, both former dancers with the American Ballet Theatre and founders of Santa Barbara Festival Ballet, arrived from storied journeys across continents and historic stages, looking for a way to give back to the discipline that has shaped their lives. And still others, such as Daniela Zermeño, a Santa Barbara native whose dance academy has trained hundreds of aspiring flamenco artists, have remained woven into the fabric of our dance community, pouring a lifetime of performance and choreographic work into the theaters and festivals of our arts-fueled environs.
The architecture of a rich and diverse dance landscape is made up of delicately balanced components, with institutions, theaters, schools, and studios all intricately connected to a multidisciplinary network of artists. In Santa Barbara, a typical scenario might play out like this: Sophia B. receives a scholarship from the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance, which affords her classes at the Dance Network, which leads her to enroll in UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance, which exposes her to the composition class that inspires her to choreograph her first evening-length work, which she debuts on a professional stage thanks to Marjorie Luke Theatre’s rent subsidy program. Real-life testimonials, such as those of Austin McCormick, UCSB graduate and director of New York City’s vibrant Company XIV, or Shane Scopatz, former Santa Barbara Festival Ballet student and member of the illustrious Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, echo through the city’s studios like contemporary dance fairy tales.
Below are four prominent figures from the Santa Barbara community — Christina Sanchez, Kathee Miller, Robin Bisio, and Rosalina Macisco — who have made the advancement of the dance arts their life’s work. Approaching their contributions from four diverse angles, these women all play integral roles in keeping the artistic fires of our city ablaze and serve as an inspirational reminder that it truly does take a village to ensure everyone is exposed to the transformative power of movement. Dance on, Santa Barbara. Dance on.
The way Christina Sanchez paints it, she really had no say in the matter. “I had a deep physical reaction to the movement. It was this amazing kinetic and spiritual connection,” she recalls, referring to her early days as a student at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, where the instructor walked around cradling a small drum, beating out the counts to each movement. Sanchez was living in Richmond, California, at the time, a wild child whose weekly BART rides to North Berkeley for dance classes saved her from the teenage angst plaguing most of her peers. Just before high school graduation, she came across an ad for Alvin Ailey’s summer program in a dance magazine and something inside of her clicked. “I knew that was exactly what I needed,” she says. “To just go somewhere and focus on one thing and finish it off and see. Just see what happens next.”
Moving cross-country is tumultuous enough, without the added consideration of oh, say, where one might actually live and work. “My mom thought it was crazy because I was only 18, and to go to New York without knowing anybody there was really scary for her,” Sanchez reveals. A dance instructor connected her with a relative living on the Lower East Side, and after some initial jostling, she settled into an old sewing factory with six other roommates — an expansive space partitioned off with paper-thin Sheetrock to create teeny-tiny living quarters for its eclectic inhabitants. “It was like a scene out of the musical Rent,” she remembers. “We had an artist from France who only ate hard-boiled eggs, an art historian from Italy working out at NYU, two dancers from the West Coast, and two ambitious girls who worked on Wall Street.” The glamorous life she’d signed on to soon kicked into high gear, with Sanchez rushing from her six-hour training days at the Ailey school to her job bussing tables for a Mexican restaurant on Second Avenue. She’d head home at 1 a.m. only to get up the next day and hit repeat.
Sanchez would stay in the city for 17 years, working her way up the Ailey machine as choreographers, impressed with her technical prowess and preternatural lines, would send along a steady stream of audition invitations that she hungrily accepted. In 1992, she snagged a coveted spot in the Ailey II Company, touring the United States with 11 other dancers on a $150-a-week salary. “Most of the time we had to cover our own hotel expenses, so imagine four dancers sharing two beds in a cramped hotel room. Those were the good old days!” she exclaims with genuine affection. Four years later, she would hit the jackpot, earning a prestigious position with Ailey’s flagship company that would send her on a life-changing tour spanning four continents and more than a dozen cities.
If a primordial impulse had sent Sanchez across the country in search of a sense of purpose, then it would be that very instinct that would galvanize her return. In 2005, Sanchez’s first daughter was born, and she and her husband made an easy decision when considering a new home for their growing family. “My mother and grandmother were both born in Santa Barbara, my uncle Rudy Castillo was El Presidente for Fiesta’s bicentennial celebration, and [my husband] went to UCSB, so this city is a place of beautiful family memories for us.”
These days, the prodigious Sanchez heads contemporary dance classes for students at both UCSB and Westmont College, and in 2011, she signed on to perform with Santa Barbara Dance Theater under the direction of Christopher Pilafian. To watch Sanchez dance is to see nature exemplified, a seamless flow of energy and emotion that inadvertently brings tears to my eyes every time I watch her onstage. She has also just launched an independent youth program for the beginner dancer, a realized goal to give back to the discipline that has afforded her boundless gratification. “If I could instill anything in this new generation,” she begins, “it would be to first have a sense of history and respect for the pioneers before them and not cheapen the work by trying to take shortcuts.” As competitive dance becomes more mainstream, pressuring young artists to adhere to a sanitized rigidity, Sanchez is making great efforts to counter back. “I want my students to enjoy the beauty of movement while celebrating their own bodies. If I could bring out each individual’s story and make them see it as a thing of beauty, then I think I’ve done my job.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Degas painting.” I look up from the collection of photography books sprawled across the chaise lounge Kathee Miller and I are nestled on in time to catch a look of wonderment spread across her face. “Observing quietly behind the scenes as dancers adjust their costumes or wait in the Granada’s wings,” she continues, “is like watching magic unfold.”
One might wonder how a private family therapist and faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute would find the time to become Santa Barbara’s doyenne of dance photography, shuffling from studios to theaters to capture some of the city’s most prolific dance moments. But one look at Miller’s expression as she describes being among the dancers, and it quickly becomes clear that these are the experiences that color her world. “I never did see such a rigid line between the three,” she explains. “To me, the world of therapy and my day job and the art world have always informed one another.”
Miller’s passion for movement came at an early age, fueled by a pair of vivacious social dancers who never entered a jitterbug contest they couldn’t win. “My parents were incredible dancers,” she recalls. “They lived in the Bronx and would travel all around Manhattan, crashing dance parties and listening to the Glenn Miller Band. I remember learning how to cha-cha-cha on my father’s feet.” Although Miller’s introduction to formal dance training would begin in the city with ballet lessons from Russian superstar Andre Glesky, it would be her move out west to study fine art at UCSB that would introduce her to the exploratory style of modern dance, launching a lifetime fascination with movement as “a powerful tool of expression.”
A traditional dance season runs from September through May, and over the course of those spectacular months, Miller will have woven her way across town, capturing upward of 30 area programs through the lens of her meticulous sensibility. “Maybe it’s because of the skills I have learned as a therapist or my time as a dancer, but I really see a kind of impulse through the movement that allows me to capture the essence of a gesture,” she says. Her passion lies in seizing the delicate moments behind the scenes: a dancer quietly applying her makeup with expert precision; a procession of blurred legs across a ballet barre as warm-ups commence. Because she is rarely paid for her efforts, Miller feels no pressure to zoom in on the “commercial shot,” focusing instead on the transitional moments from studio to stage. “I’m not particularly interested in posed pictures,” she stresses. “For me, a photograph only works if it has some feeling of motion behind it.”
If her work intimates a kind of unaffected persuasion, her notoriety stems, by contrast, from a contemporary anomaly: social media. “I got on Facebook in 2009 and spent days uploading and archiving photos. I wanted to post as soon as the performance was over because I knew there would be another one the next week!” While the rules of etiquette and proprietary rights were being punched out within the larger context of the cyber world, Miller made up her mind to share her images freely, with one simple caveat: “The young dancers who don’t know better yet, they forget to give me photo credit, and a gentle reminder usually takes care of it all.”
As the performing arts scene begins to sprout up a new generation of hungry photographers elbowing for a chance to fatten their portfolios, Miller’s quiet generosity, coupled with the intimate hours she clocks in with some of the city’s most beloved artists, ensures her photography will stand the test of time. “I don’t like to feel competition and have no interest in promoting a business. Behind the scenes is my little world, and I do it truly out of love.”
The Dance Whisperer
It’s a hot August day in 1969. A young English major named Robin Bisio arrives on the doorstep of Paris’s illustrious Sorbonne University for a year of French immersion. She tastes her first croissant and café crème, strolls across the verdant expanse of the Luxembourg Gardens, weaves her way around the cobbled passages of her Latin Quarter neighborhood. “Those artists in the 1920s and ’30s that made Paris what it is, you could feel them everywhere,” she recalls. “In Paris, romance is in the very landscape.” One afternoon, she peers into the window of the American Center and watches, mesmerized, at the rows of dancers in the throes of a rehearsal. Something inside of her shifts. “It was like this mythical window, and I wanted in!”
Bisio’s residency in the City of Light, and her subsequent regimen of dance classes at UCSB upon her return, would set her on a determined path to marry her studies of literary structure with the visceral expression of contemporary movement. “After reading all the canons of the English novel, it did something in my brain to unearth the choreographer inside. There’s some sort of underlying structural understanding that has come easily to me since.”
In 1977, Bisio debuted what would become a series of site-specific performances using Santa Barbara topography as a vibrant backdrop for her interactive art. Focusing on the unconventional, she would stage new work in the National Guard Armory or inside gallery windows along State Street. Her favorite technique, however, was the plein air dance. “It’s an appreciation of the natural world. I’m very political about the environment, and this was my way of being green in the world,” she explains. Her first presentation, titled Crest of the World, drew a sizeable crowd at Thousand Steps Beach, where dancers moved silently across the sand while audience members took turns reciting a Pablo Neruda poem in both Spanish and English. When asked about the challenges of working in such an informal setting, Bisio credits her success to the professionalism of her dancers. “It takes a really good dancer to be able to dance outside. You need a sophisticated movement vocabulary and still dance as if you’re just making it up on the spot. My role model is Isadora Duncan, that freedom of expression where you don’t go for stage looks or perceived effort.”
After nearly two decades of “environmental dance,” Bisio found herself at a creative crossroads, searching for a new methodology to highlight her careful attention to landscape as art. “I needed to clean up my sight lines,” she says. “I couldn’t direct the audience to look where I wanted them to, with dogs running along the beach and people joining in on the dance. My locations are incredibly cinematic, so film became the obvious choice.” Her instincts to move on to a new platform proved fruitful, with Lotusland offering up the backdrop and composer Philip Walker creating an original score for her first dance short, titled Dance in a Summer Garden. Debuting at the Palm Springs ShortFest, Bisio has been an unstoppable force since, creating more than 15 dance films that have premiered at over a dozen film festivals, including the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Danza Di Napoli, and the Festival International du Film Indépendant in Brussels.
To say her method is avant-garde would be a slight understatement. “I write long dance scores,” she muses, “the archaeology of what the piece is about. On location, there I am, whispering the scores into their ears, throwing rocks at rattlesnakes, protecting them from the elements.” Being highly selective about her collaborators and trusting their vision is a key component to the success of her films. “You can’t be a dance whisperer and a micro-manager at the same time; it just doesn’t work that way,” she explains.
Credited with launching the careers of a prestigious list of Santa Barbara artists, Bisio seems completely focused on utilizing the concept of terroir to cultivate the next generation of Santa Barbara’s dancers. “I’m not really interested in touring. Here, I can be myself, lean against the sand, look up at the sky, and make dance. Dance that comes and goes like the weather.”
If you believe in serendipity, that mysterious alchemy of chance and destiny simmering just below the surface of reason, then it should come as no surprise to you that Rosalina Macisco from Westchester County was fated to stroll into her neighborhood library one afternoon in 1984 and come face-to-face with her calling. Macisco, a young ballet student from the sleepy enclave of Scarsdale, New York, arrived at her local branch to watch the screening of He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, an Academy Award–winning documentary about New York City Ballet’s principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise, ill-prepared for the impact d’Amboise’s work would have on her. “I was blown away!” she exclaims. “The way he instructed, the way he communicated what he wanted from the students was direct and clear. He would walk down the school hallway, and kids would run after him. They all wanted to dance with him. I wanted that, too!” The film highlighted d’Amboise’s 1976 founding of National Dance Institute (NDI), a dance program offering inner-city public school children the opportunity to learn and perform with the legendary dancer along with occasional guest artists that included folk singer Judy Collins and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Macisco watched, fixated to the screen, unaware that 20 years later, she would be heading a school program modeled after NDI that would impact the lives of hundreds of families in Santa Barbara County.
“I wanted to be a ballerina but never had the good feet or the long arms to pursue it professionally, so I switched to musical theater,” Macisco says. Her ritualistic train rides into Manhattan to study at Broadway Dance Center and Steps would soon pay off in spades; by the early ’90s, union card in hand, she was performing in musicals and off-Broadway productions throughout Europe and the States. In 1996, she set her sights on California and, soon after, enrolled herself in National Dance Institute’s Teaching Artist Training program. “Once I was armed with the proven methods of a 40-year organization, I felt confident to move forward.”
Santa Barbara Dance Institute launched in 2005 with an eight-week, in-school pilot program for 2nd graders, culminating in a performance written, directed, and choreographed by Macisco herself. The pilot was a huge success, and soon Macisco’s organization was serving more than 300 students in four schools across Santa Barbara County including Adelante Charter School, Solvang Elementary, and Aliso and Canalino elementary schools in Carpinteria. She’s also assembled an impressive roster of collaborators from the theater world to assist her with everything from music editing to script reviewing, echoing the kind of integrity she instills into her students. “We want these kids to incorporate a standard of excellence into their everyday, and I enjoy the challenge of training non-dancers while still making it interesting for the audience.”
Sitting in Macisco’s corner office in the Arts and Culture Building, one can’t help but be drawn into her tenacious enthusiasm. She’s a quintessential New Yorker: charming, direct, and unapologetically passionate, offering up her vision with refreshing candor. “Right now, my focus is on advocating for the impact dance has on a child’s education and how it can help them become better citizens in society,” she asserts. “Every child should have the opportunity to learn dance, and it’s so easy to implement in the schools, in the sense that you don’t have to buy a lot of expensive supplies or fancy instruments. It’s a no-brainer.”
HH11 Dance Festival
Presented by Nebula Dance Lab (nebuladance.org)
Fri.-Sat., Feb. 19-20, 8pm, and Sun., Feb. 21, 2pm, at Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo; 963-0408
Temporary/Contemporary by Weslie Ching
Presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art S.B. (mcasantabarbara.org)
Sun., Feb. 21, 11-11:30am, at Hotel Indigo, 121 State St.
Flesh & Blood
Presented by Selah Dance Collective (selahdancecollective.com)
Sat., Feb. 27, 7pm, and Sun., Feb. 28, 1pm, at La Cumbre Junior High School, 2255 Modoc Rd.
Presented by Santa Barbara City College (facebook.com/sbccCOLLECTIVE)
Thu.-Sat., Mar. 24-26, at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.; 965-5400
Presented by the 2016 Santa Barbara Floor to Air Festival (sbaerial.com)
Fri., Mar. 25, 7pm, Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.; 966-4946