Where does a dance company begin? In the case of Ishida Dance Company, which debuts this first weekend of 2020 with a two-night stand at the Long Center, it began in dreams – literally, dreams.
“I had dreams or perhaps nightmares,” company founder Brett Ishida confessed in an email, “recurring images in fragments that told stories that I knew were meant for the stage. So I wanted to let this artistic vision out, but also I felt this was a way to contribute to community – to bring poetic stories through movement that connect to a modern audience, because my narratives are intended to invite introspection that lead us to be more aware of ourselves and ultimately to be treating ourselves and others with greater kindness.”
The stories that prompted the creation of the Ishida troupe are not an isolated occurrence for this choreographer. “I begin with a narrative,” she says. “This helps inform the progression and intention of the piece, [and] playing with metaphor of movements, expressions, space, and music influences how the dancemaking comes into being.”
“With poetry, one plays with words to create metaphorical images and tell stories. In the same way, dance is the metaphor one’s writing for stage. Like much poetry.” – Brett Ishida
Brett Ishida’s idea of “playing” with those elements of dance owes to more than her extensive background in the field (studying in her youth at Houston Ballet, the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and School of American Ballet, and later dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, and Les Grand Ballets Canadiens); because she’s also a poet, Ishida brings to her choreography a writer’s fervor for toying with language. “With poetry, one plays with words to create metaphorical images and tell stories. In the same way, dance is the metaphor one’s writing for stage. Like much poetry.”
That said, Ishida recognizes distinctions between choreographing and writing. “One way the dancemaking diverges from poetry is that with dance, the dancers themselves, not just the author, get to be part of the creative process. When I am [choreographing], the dancers’ reactions, interpretations of the narrative through movement, and their creative ideas influence the final piece. It would be like for a writer or poet if the actual words on the page had the ability to help contribute to the creative process.”
With the dancers’ contributions being so vital to the development of her work, Ishida makes a point of finding the right collaborators. “I try to recruit dancers who are willing to experiment, collaborative, hardworking, kind, respectful, and [who] think for themselves. When the dancers have these qualities, there is a camaraderie and cohesiveness which you can feel and see.”
To find such dancers for this company, Ishida looked far and wide. She began in the Lone Star State – “As we are in Texas, my first goal was to draw dancers from Texas,” she says – but after checking out the top-tier ballet companies here, she moved to companies across the country. “I saw dozens of performances and hundreds of videos in scouting for dancers. The kind of dancer who I am looking for has the classic body and technique of ballet, because I want to show off the beauty of the human form, but can still move in a more contemporary way and connect and communicate our narratives.”
The dozen dancers she eventually selected are a diverse crew, geographically, ethnically, and in terms of their dancing background. All have some classical training, but some are also skilled in breakdancing and hip-hop, and one is studying the dance traditions of Ghana. Ishida did find her Texas dancers, including Allison Miller, a first soloist with Houston Ballet, and Preston Andrew Patterson, a company dancer with Ballet Austin for nine seasons. Ishida also hired Rae Srivastava, an Austin native studying at USC who’s one of six company members with ties to that university. Ishida explains that the “USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance has become arguably the top contemporary dance program in the country. I am fortunate to have a friend and former colleague from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Bruce McCormick, on faculty there who was able to give me the inside track with some of the top dancers from that program. These dancers are young, but they are extremely talented.”
Though these dancers will all be working together for the first time, Ishida believes the nature of the material will help forge an ensemble quickly. “Inevitably (through my direction or organically), the dancers begin to connect personally with the narrative and that creates a shared experience and bonding within the company – especially with the type dancers we have.”
This weekend’s program, titled fittingly enough, Beginning / αρχή, consists of four world premiere dances, one of which, “Interstices,” will also feature the premiere of its score: a piece composed by Owen Belton of Canada. Playing the music will be cellist Daniel Kopp and pianist Farshad Zadeh, both members of the local music ensemble Austin Camerata. As this initial production will be raising funds for Ishida Dance Company, complimentary small bites will be available from several Austin restaurants, including Le Politique, La Condesa, Juniper, Intero, Mongers, Nightcap, Fogo de Chão, Eddie V’s, Via 313, Poke Poke, Sweet Chive, Rosedale, Oseyo, Il Brutto, Doc B’s, and Swift’s Attic.
And speaking of Austin, what makes this city the ideal spot for this new dance company to begin life?
Brett Ishida is ready with an answer. “There’s a ballet, a symphony, and an opera, but there’s not a world-class contemporary dance company here. I did evaluate some other locations, but I thought what we’re doing really fits the culture and vibe of Austin. We’re progressive with contemporary narratives and music, yet there is still an aesthetic beauty of the human form and precise athleticism and physicality that reverberates in Ishida. I see Ishida as part of Austin becoming a real urban city.”
And so it begins.
Ishida Dance Company performs Beginning/αρχή Fri. and Sat., Jan. 3-4, 7:30pm, in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.ishidadance.org.
A version of this article appeared in print on January 3, 2020 with the headline: In the Beginning