In 2010, when Jerry Pearson stepped down as artistic director of Santa Barbara Dance Theater, UCSB’s in-residence modern professional dance company, there was a sense that perhaps the institution wouldn’t continue. For 20 years Mr. Peason had put such a personal stamp on the company that filling his shoes felt daunting. But two years later, Christopher Pilafian, a member of the dance faculty at UCSB since 1990, privately premiered an introductory glimpse into the new-look SBDT, with a piece called “Leap of Faith.”
“It reflects more about my situation and attitude and less about the overall subject matter of the piece,” he says now. “It’s the reality behind the situation of the piece.”
That was 2012. Twelve months later, the expanded work premieres for real this Wednesday for five performances only.
The history between Santa Barbara Dance Theater and UCSB goes back into the 1970s. Alice Condodina started the in-residence company in 1976 with Mr. Peason taking over in 1991, changing the name from Repertory-West to Santa Barbara Dance Theatre. (Mr. Pilafian has made his own subtle name change, swapping the British “theatre” for the American spelling). Louis Falco, Remy Charlip, Lucas Hoving and Kathryn Posin have been guest choreographers over the years. UCSB faculty often choreographed works or performed. During Mr. Peason’s reign, Mr. Pilafian choreographed 10 pieces, while also freelancing for companies such as Dance Kaleidoscope, Jennifer Muller/The Works, San Diego Dance Theater, American Repertory Dance Company and elsewhere.
“One of the benefits of working in the university is that you get opportunities to create as well as teach,” Mr. Pilafian says. “But it was not on my bucket list to run Santa Barbara Dance Theater. It’s when (Mr. Peason) stepped down and asked me to do it. Our department has the good fortune to have a resident company and that should be continued. I am a choreographer by training and it’s an opportunity to work with dancers at a higher level than our students. Our students are beautiful, but I can ask more of these dancers and can ask them to risk more.”
In this 80-minute work, Kyle Castillo, Monica Ford, Tracy R. Kofford and Christina Sanchez dance solo or combine into duos, trios, and a quartet through 34 sections, some set to music by Mr. Pilafian’s composer, William Pasley, some to other works. While some choreographers subsume their dancers personalities to the greater mechanisms of the work, audiences hopefully will leave “Leap of Faith” feeling they know something about all four performers. The work is a sort of portrait.
Mr. Pilafian hired these four dancers, one by one. He relied on interviews, not on auditions. He knew these dancers already, and knew what they could do. Ms. Sanchez is the only dancer not an alum of UCSB, coming to Santa Barbara with her husband and two children after years in Alvin Ailey’s company and New York’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
“My first impulse was to get them in the studio and be inspired by them,” Mr. Pilafian says, “My starting point was, ‘who are these people?’ and how to explore that in dance terms…. And when you start to combine people in duos and trios, it’s like a chemistry set. You mix compounds with new compounds and then something amazing happens.”
Santa Barbara Dance Theater:
“Leap of Faith”
When: 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Hatlen Theater, UCSB