Change is the only constant — or so the maxim goes — and if anyone is well equipped to grasp this concept, it’s dancers. Dance, after all, is change made visible: an art form devoted to motion.
Yet even dancers sometimes find change difficult.
Over the past year, the Santa Barbara dance community has faced the restructuring of one of its longtime institutions: the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance’s annual social dance showcase known as BASSH. Since 2000, this popular event provided regional studios with an opportunity to show their work side-by-side. As of 2013, that model is changing. The new concept for this show sounds something like a reality-TV program: an open challenge to choreographers to team up across dance genres and cocreate new, hybrid works.
Some have responded to the challenge with enthusiasm, others with skepticism. Like it or not, the results of this collaborative experiment will go public this Sunday evening, April 21, when Synergy — the show formerly known as BASSH — hits the Lobero stage.
A bit of background: In the spring of 1979, a group of choreographers came together to present an evening of dance at the Lobero. They called themselves the Choreographers’ Collaboration. Out of that performance grew a community of artists and organizations working together to help dance thrive. In 1982, they named themselves the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance (SBDA).
Fast-forward more than 30 years, and SBDA remains the city’s hub for dance, providing support to scores of established and emerging dance artists, as well as hosting three annual adjudicated showcases, including BASSH: an acronym for Ballroom, Argentine Tango, Swing, Salsa, and Hip-Hop.
In the past five years, much has changed at SBDA as well as in the dance community at large. Amid changes in its leadership, a burgeoning dance season, and the springing up of new companies and festivals, SBDA has been forced to reconsider its original mission: to bring dance to the community, and the community to dance.
In a recent discussion, SBDA Executive Director Sheila Caldwell reflected on how much has changed at SBDA as well as in the dance community at large in the last five years. “Santa Barbara has seen an explosion of dance,” she noted. “The calendar is so full that we worry our showcases might compete with other shows.” But a year ago, while Caldwell was pondering how SBDA might adapt with the times, a relative newcomer stepped forward with a powerful vision.
Ninette Paloma is the founder and director of the Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Arts. She’s enterprising, organized, and a big-picture thinker. After participating in BASSH for three years and being elected to SBDA’s board of directors, she came to Caldwell with a suggestion: Require studios and artists to collaborate across genres. Paloma had noticed that the various dance groups involved in BASSH didn’t interact until dress rehearsal — and that even then, most tended to stick with their clans. To her mind, it was a missed opportunity.
Caldwell listened. On the program for this weekend are eight works that represent true collaborations, in most cases between artists and groups who had never worked together before.
Among these are Sino West Performing Arts and Rhythm Dance & Fitness Studios, next-door neighbors in Old Town Goleta who had never even met. Sino West owners Vicki Wang and Dragon Sun specialize in Chinese dance and kung fu; they opened their doors in September 2011. Rhythm owner Tamarr Paul is one of the area’s most popular hip-hop teachers and has had a consistent presence at BASSH for years. Now, working together twice a week, the two studios have combined their areas of expertise. Dragon Sun has taught Rhythm students kung fu; Sino West students have learned hip-hop. More importantly, Wang says, they’ve developed real appreciation for each other. “They’re so talented, and they think we’re talented,” she said. “Going forward, we hope to do more collaborations.”
For Wang, Synergy wasn’t a hard sell; she’d never participated in its predecessor. Other more seasoned BASSH performers took longer to come around.
“At first I was kind of taken aback,” admitted Kara Stewart, who runs Fusion Dance Company. “I wondered if it was going to work. At the same time, I was excited for change.” For Stewart, whose company straddles the line between hip-hop and contemporary dance, Synergy seemed like an opportunity to “push the envelope, and come at it with a more artistic approach.” She chose to work with Hector Sanchez of Santa Barbara Dance Center and tap dancer Karyn Laver on “City Life,” a work that blends hip-hop, salsa, and tap dance. “Collaboration required a lot of us,” Stewart noted, “but it really brought about a great result.”
Sanchez shares some of Stewart’s uncertainty, as well as her excitement. “It’s been a different ride,” he said, “BASSH was a big part of my life; it gave me my first opportunity to be on stage.” Yet ask him what his experience of Synergy has been, and Sanchez is unambiguous: “I’ve been loving it. I’d never performed hip-hop or tap; this helped me get out of my usual ballroom and Latin dance moves into a more contemporary, grounded, flexible dance.”
Also on the program are works that blend hip-hop and ballet, aerial and contemporary dance, and ballroom and flamenco. There’s no doubt Synergy will offer audiences a fresh look at some of the city’s strongest companies. Yet the real change is the one taking place in studios across the region, as dance artists continue to build on their newfound connections — kind of like they did in the old days.
The Santa Barbara Dance Alliance presents Synergy: A Genre Blending Collaboration at the Lobero Theatre on Sunday, April 21, at 6 p.m. A post-performance patron soirée will follow. For more information, check out sbdancealliance.org. For tickets, call (805)963-0761 or visit lobero.com.