With sunshine and agreeable temperatures that flow seamlessly from one month to the next, Santa Barbarans have long grown accustomed to discerning the signs of a changing season through idiosyncratic means. Cues from the cyclical offerings of our area farmers’ markets, coupled with the city’s stellar cultural offerings, ensures winters in the 805 will be greeted with slices of persimmon bread and a hearty serving of international films, while summers celebrate their supremacy with a vibrant bounty of stone fruit and stomping señoritas.
So when a rat-tat-tat chorus of overripe olives starts to hit our city sidewalks, and our theater directors find themselves peering out through the drawn velvet curtains of a slumbering set of months, autumn has signaled its glorious return and with it a fresh new performing arts season in Santa Barbara.
Fueled by the momentum of new grant opportunities and forums within the city, many area dance companies are extending past the formulaic tradition of premiering singular work over the course of a swift evening to more expansive platforms. From ambitious collaborative undertakings to student outreach to cross-cultural exchanges, choreographers and directors are fleshing out resourceful methods to weave art and community together, setting the stage for an approach that widely considers the inherent value of creative cooperation.
Next week — and over the span of three distinctive evenings — audiences will be treated to the collaborative efforts of more than 20 dance companies from three herculean programs that underscore Santa Barbara’s ability to attract some of the nation’s most highly lauded choreographers and dancers. Curators Devyn Duex of Nebula Dance Lab, Tracy Kofford of Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), and Misa Kelly of ArtBark International are rolling out back-to-back programming with a personalized approach to their season premieres. I sat down with all three directors to find out what gives, what’s new, and what’s next.
The Inquisitor (and other stories) by Nebula Dance Lab
“I’m listening.” Devyn Duex is sitting cross-legged in a corner of the studio, tapping quickly into her phone and fixing a simultaneous gaze on choreographer Meredith Cabaniss, who is darting across the floor and describing the preliminary workings of a new piece. “This is going to be amazing,” she assures Cabaniss, before leaping up to fish a bandage out of her bag for a limping dancer.
When Duex describes her role at Nebula Dance Lab as “more like a glorified dance mom,” she’s only telling half the story. Since the company’s 2010 inception, Duex has leveraged her business marketing pedigree to develop a significant incubator for emerging choreographers and dancers, allowing them full creative freedom to explore new concepts under the company moniker. “The collaborative model has always been our driving force,” she says, “and our artists work so passionately to create work that speaks to them.”
Last year, her networking savvy paid off, and creative minds from the art, music, and dance world came together for the staging of The Inquisitor, based on the classic parable, “The Three Questions,” by Leo Tolstoy. Through the assistance of community grants and rent subsidies, Duex’s ambitious program debuted at Center Stage Theater, followed up by a free matinee showing at the Lobero Theatre for 600 area schoolchildren. This year, she’s returning to the Lobero with a fresh new cast for a restaging of the production, complete with live music by Adam Phillips and works by Cabaniss and company member Emily Tatomer. She’s also doubling down on her youth community outreach by offering an additional day of free programming, exposing 1,200 elementary schoolchildren (many of them for the very first time) to a ceremonial day at the theater.
Collective Collaborative by SBCC Dance Company
Step into Tracy Kofford’s tucked-away office on the SBCC campus, and you’ll be greeted by a decorated wall of photographs and memorabilia — a visual timeline of his widely diverse performance career. In one snapshot, he’s smiling widely next to Mickey Mouse, and in another he’s permanently suspended in a graceful pas de deux, his flaxen hair shining brilliantly against an iridescent bodysuit.
“There was a lot of hustle in my career, but it also felt like things had a way of suddenly falling into place nicely, so it was hard to say no to new opportunities when they came my way,” remembers Kofford, who five years ago was short-listed for a highly coveted position as head of the SBCC Dance Department — the first full-time job opening since the college’s 35-year veteran (and community dance legend) Kay Fulton announced her retirement in 2000. For Kofford, a SoCal native and UCSB Dance Department graduate who set off for the East Coast for prospects on the relentless stages of New York City, the idea of returning to more bucolic environs was a no-brainer. “Trade in the broke-artist lifestyle for a steady paycheck and sunshine? Yes, please!”
In the time since Kofford has taken over the reins at City College, his focus has been on forging sustainable relationships within the greater community, diminishing the West Egg/East Egg–like stigma between the city’s two higher-education institutions SBCC and UCSB and creating significant performance opportunities for his promising young dancers. This fall, he announced the founding of SBCC’s first touring dance company — modeled after his alma mater’s own successful program — which will be traveling to various dance festivals before debuting underneath the esteemed lights of the Lobero Theatre. “People always tell me they didn’t even know the college had a dance program. I’m working really hard to change that.”
His highly motivated step in that direction is titled Collective Collaborative, a hand-selected showcase of work from 14 area choreographers and companies, many of whom will be performing on the Lobero stage for the very first time. The program is deliberately curated to include a distinctive selection of dance styles and approaches in an effort to narrow the gap between audiences of varying genres. “My goal is to create an evening of exciting dance that builds audiences and reaches out to a diverse group of artists,” stresses Kofford, “and I feel confident there’ll be something in the program for everyone.”
Turf by ArtBark International
“We’re influenced by the places we go and the experiences we’ve collected, and at some point you feel the urge to pause and celebrate your accomplishments,” says Misa Kelly, reflecting on her impending two-decade anniversary as a noteworthy contributor to the Santa Barbara dance landscape. “Honoring that commitment in a boutique setting with family and friends felt like the right fit for me at this moment in time.”
Kelly is describing a new chapter in her career, filled with specialized projects and an international persuasion inspired by the company’s work abroad over the last few years. “There used to be a time when I would say yes to everything,” she recalls, “and now, sustainable, enriching relationships are what my creative soul craves. It’s important for an artist to feel comfortable in their own skin.”
This fall, Kelly is partnering with seven other choreographers from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and New York for the creation of “eight individual expressions from like-minded artists” in a mini-tour that includes a performance at the Pieter space in L.A., a master class offering with co-collaborator Barbara Mahler at the Montecito School of Ballet, and an intimate performance at the Gail Towbes Center for Dance.
Kelly’s season premiere signals a new model in her desire to transfer the wisdom and experience of her expansive career into viable solutions for the next generation of emerging artists. “I want to develop production services for those artists on the brink of staging and touring their work,” she offers, “something they don’t necessarily assist you with as a dance student.” When asked what single piece of advice she might offer a young choreographer, her response was quick and decisive: “Always have a solo in your back pocket. You never know who might come knocking on your door.”
Nebula Dance Lab presents The Inquisitor on Wednesday, November 2, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.com. SBCC’s Dance Company presents Collective Collaborative on Friday, November 4, 7 p.m., at the Lobero. ArtBark International presents Turf on Sunday, November 6, 6 p.m., at the Gail Towbes Center for Dance (2285 Las Positas Ave.). Call 898-9526 or see artbark.org.