Relaxing restrictions and a longing to return to normal have presented a number of ways forward for the performing arts to reemerge — finally. One of the first opportunities for advanced Orange County dance students to venture out from behind their computer screens came in the form of a six-day summer dance intensive. “Moving Together In-Person” took place June 14-19 and was hosted by the Laguna Dance Festival at Orange County Music and Dance.

“When we set the dates for the intensive, we were really banking on what science was telling us and felt confident that we would be able to host in-person,” said Laguna Dance Festival founder and artistic director Jodie Gates. 

The 45 intensive participants ages 13-20 were organized into three cohorts to keep class sizes small and separate. Classes included ballet, contemporary, jazz, composition, conditioning and repertory, as well as a seminar period covering various topics.

“We filled virtually every spot we had. These dancers are incredibly hungry to get back in the studio.”

Jodie Gates, Laguna Dance Festival Founder and Artistic Director

Gates relates to the emotional pull of wanting to be in the studio. Her first time teaching live in over 14 months was as a guest for Dance Theatre of Harlem and she cried, overcome by the emotion of being there with fellow movers. 

“I’ve missed being in the studio, interacting with human beings, being able to mentor, interact, coach, it is such a gift,” Gates said. “And I think we’re all a little more appreciative of that now. Which is why I really want this to be about giving some joy back after what has been an incredibly challenging year for these students. They persevered, now we’re celebrating.”

Students in attendance at the Laguna Dance Festival’s summer intensive took classes in ballet, contemporary, jazz, conditioning and composition. Classes were held at Orange County Music and Dance in Irvine. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Delgado

Attending a summer intensive program has long been critical to dancers’ development, whether still refining their technique or conditioning for professional opportunities. But last summer, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, many summer intensives canceled or moved their events online making for months-long Zoom classes from home. 

“I honestly had to be reminded how communal dance is and it is surreal to feel that again,” said Tara Aghaian, 18, who recently graduated from Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. 

Aghaian said being home and training in a different way than normal gave her ample time for self-reflection, and she brought a new mindset with her to the Laguna Dance Festival summer intensive last week. 

“I’m approaching dance a lot more intellectually lately,” Aghaian said. “And I think this opportunity is the perfect place for that because the knowledge from the faculty is almost overwhelming. I’m excited to take it home with me and really expand on it.”

World-Class Faculty

In addition to Gates, who has an established career as a director, choreographer, dancer, educator and producer, Laguna Dance Festival’s summer intensive includes guest faculty from companies all over the world, across various styles of dance — something that dancer William Okajima, 19, notes is particularly advantageous. 

Dancer William Okajima, 19, who attends USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance during the school year. pictured here in attendance at the Laguna Dance Festival’s summer intensive. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sarah Delgado

“We’re working with some of the best educators, best dancers, in the field,” Okajima said. “The way they articulate, the versatility of their styles, it is really special. And this intensive is really showing how these (dance disciplines) aren’t separate. It’s all connected and available to create with.”

The 2021 intensive faculty roster also included dancers who have performed with companies such as the New York City Ballet, Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and studied or taught at schools like Juilliard, UC Irvine, and USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

Laguna Dance Festival faculty Jermaine Spivey (left) and Spenser Theberge (right) lead a Q&A seminar class. Spivey and Theberge are both currently dancing with Kidd Pivot. Photo courtesy of Jodie Gates Credit: Photo courtesy of Jodie Gates

Although the size and setup of the Laguna Dance Festival summer intensive was regulated by COVID protocol, it provided a coveted experience for intimate instruction and coaching that is rarely found. 

“We are getting 1-to-1 corrections and we’re able to feed off of other people’s energy in the room because it’s a smaller group and we have a connection,” said Mackenzie Couch, 15, who attended the intensive with her twin sisters Katie and Kameron, both 14.

The idea of “Moving Together In-Person,” Gates said, was to bring together like-minded creators who all have a very different journey and approach to dance. Gates hopes that by the end of the intensive, students are drawing parallels between forms and looking at dance holistically.

A New Partnership

In much the same way that Gates designed the summer program to foster discovery and collaboration, the intensive itself has initiated a partnership between the Laguna Dance Festival and Irvine-based Orange County Music and Dance (OCMD). 

Like a lot of new roads that were paved as a result of COVID, the decision to hold the summer intensive at OCMD was born out of necessity. Several schools, including Laguna Beach High School, where the intensive was held in previous years, were unable to host guests on campus. 

“Now more than ever, it is important for organizations like ours to band together,” said OCMD’s chair of the department of dance Tawny Chapman. She feels that OCMD and the Laguna Dance Festival have a similar vision for the visibility and utility of dance in the community. 

“We’re working to create a space that is very unique, not just producing great technicians, but artists too. It’s about learning to make decisions in creative ways.”

As more and more events come back offline, artists are likely to embrace performances and projects across organizations more readily. 

Laguna Dance Festival will begin planning for its annual event in September, but this summer intensive was a welcomed first step in the direction toward full live performances.

“It’s been a tricky year and a half and we needed this,” Gates said. “I’m inspired to ask myself ‘What is our purpose as an organization?’ When we reemerge, what is the landscape for dance going to be? I am really curious and I aim to be part of that conversation. Aligning with partners and collaborating, paving the way of the future.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

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