Local fans of cutting-edge contemporary dance know that catching the best and brightest onstage often means a trip to San Francisco, but this time the city is coming to us. If the Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center’s (TWDCC) founder and executive director, Cat Willis, has anything to say about it, the trend will continue.
TWDCC is presenting its Winter Dance Fest in the new Colligan Theater at the Tannery on Saturday, Feb. 27, and promises a dazzling blend of artistry, athleticism and innovation.
“The idea behind presenting a winter dance fest has been elevated by the theater—and this show is about presenting excellence in its purist form,” says Willis. “We’ve brought together two tour-de-force, high-powered dancers and choreographers to show that this stage is worthy of that. It’s thrilling.”
Acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of Dawson Dance SF, Gregory Dawson, will launch the Santa Cruz premier of his triptych work, “Dent-Drop-Bend.” Schooled in the sculptural grace of ballet and mentored by brash dance experimentalist Elizabeth Streb, Dawson stretches the language of dance to reflect his multi-faceted point of view, his choreography challenging the use of the body in space. Nominated for an Isadora Duncan Award, he has been called “risk-taking,” and “muscularly elegant” by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“‘Dent-Drop-Bend’ works with texture, shapes, color, video, and imagery,” says Dawson. “Often when I work with my dancers, it’s a collaborative effort, but with this construct, it’s me as director and composer being very specific about what I want. The process took a year. Our dancers are very physical. The motion is constant. We stripped the space of its elements because we wanted the audience to imagine what could be done within the spectrum of the proscenium.”
His visual sensibility is angular yet supple, his description of his work often painterly. Dawson says that he tends to write his own scores, working with a technician to make what he hears in his head come to life. The effect onstage is percussive, primal, an expression of form and potential.
“I visualize a lot before I put it on a person. I record sounds I want to hear,” says Dawson. “Sometimes the title comes first, sometimes the movement, sometimes a shape or a line.”
He notes the influence of mentors like Streb and Alonzo King of Lines Ballet, but adds that everything feeds his vision.
“You see or hear something and it becomes inherent inside of you. You read a book and it takes up residence somewhere in your psyche. They all combine with who you are as a person and affect what comes out.”
Local dancer and choreographer, Micha Scott, will open the program with her new venture, Empire Dance Company, and their latest work, “It’s About Time.”
“It captures the fluidity of what was, what will be, and what is,” she says.
It’s also multi-generational, featuring Scott’s two daughters alongside other dancers in the company.
“They’re amazingly gifted dancers, and this piece really tells the story of Empire, what it means to carry on dance within a family,” says Willis. “It’s a powerful thing within the context of the stage, to see Micha and her daughters individually but also in terms of continuity. Their physicality alone is mind blowing.”
Scott returns to her experience as a dancer when talking about her development as choreographer: “I love to challenge myself and my dancers, to push us forward in our capacity as artists. I bring my whole self to my art form, and I strive to be utterly open.”
Willis hopes to bring more world and contemporary artists to Santa Cruz during seasonal runs in the fall and winter.
“With the ethnic dance festival in the fall, it’s our time to curate world artists, those that live here in Santa Cruz along with national and international artists,” says Willis. “In the winter, I hope to exhibit contemporary artists and artists of color working in the local contemporary dance community.”
Willis also wants to exhibit artists who might not have a platform to present work in nontraditional ways.
“I’m really trying to elevate those voices in Santa Cruz,” she says.
TWDCC is crucial in promoting alternatives and diversity in the local dance community, says Willis.
“I’m a woman of color raising a family here. I’m an artist. I’m bringing what I want to see more of in this town,” she says. “That’s always been my goal. It makes our city vibrant.”
Her background in New York informs her point of view.
“It’s a place of incredible economic, racial, and political diversity,” she says. “I want to create those unexpected intersections here.”
Willis notes how the presence of diversity alone brings in more of it, how it has a cascading effect: Politics soften, communities broaden, and the arts thrive. Dawson and Scott, both artists of color, are exhilarating expressions of the waterfall. Willis is thrilled to be part of the process, she says, especially here—in a town that has embraced her passion and vision.
“I tell people all the time, I could not have built this organization anywhere else,” she says. “There’s something special about this place.”
Info: 7:30-10 p.m., Feb. 27. Colligan Theater, Tannery Arts Center, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz. $15-$45. 227-6770.