Laguna Dance Festival founder Jodie Gates is embarking on a new adventure over 2,000 miles away from the place she’s called home for the last 17 years.

The festival announced in January that Gates has been named the artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, with her tenure starting earlier this week on Aug. 1. Gates replaces Victoria Morgan, who announced last September that she was stepping down after 25 years in the job.

“The opportunity to join the Cincinnati Ballet and lead such an esteemed organization was a big life decision for me as I’ve called Laguna Beach home since 2005,” Gates said. “In this season of my life, I have all the skill sets and expertise. I have a sense of my style. I have done admin. I know how to program, so I felt compelled.”

Gates has been innovative in shaping Southern California’s dance scene as a presenter, arts educator, and creator of groundbreaking performances. 

Jodie Gates, founder of Laguna Dance Festival. Credit: Photo courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Her move to Cincinnati Ballet follows a wave of female appointments to leadership positions in the industry and allows her to expand her work of evolving the narrative and perspective of ballet. 

“I feel so fortunate to be in the company of these amazing, powerful women ballet leaders and I look forward to sharing and collaborating as women tend to do,” Gates said. “In this role, I am excited to present the classics through a contemporary lens, to tell the stories from a female perspective. I am a change agent and shapeshifter and I continue to do the work of progressing and demystifying ballet.”

Gates will set the artistic direction of the company that includes 27 company artists and 14 second company dancers, as well as the Cincinnati Ballet Otto M. Budig Academy Professional Training Division.

Her move from Orange County marks a shift, but not an end, to a dynamic, artistically vibrant 17-year tenure that’s given Southern California some of its finest dance performances in recent memory.

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The Beginning of Laguna’s Dance Scene

Gates retired from her dancing career in 2005, closing an illustrious chapter that included being discovered by dance legend Robert Joffrey at age 15, rising to principal dancer at Joffrey Ballet,  Pennsylvania Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, dancing in Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration, and collaborating with music icons like Prince.

Her move to Laguna Beach ushered in an annual professional dance presence unlike that of the surrounding performing arts centers. The Laguna Dance Festival provides audiences a chance to see world-class dance in intimate local settings and the repertoire spans modern, contemporary, flamenco and classical ballet.

Through her 17th annual festival, which runs Aug. 12-13, Gates is essentially laying the groundwork to create a place on the West Coast that resembles other famous dance meccas like Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. With Laguna Beach’s pre-established reputation as an artists’ colony, Gates saw a natural fit to expand into the performing arts and invite dancers to create and present while also fostering public appreciation and support for dance.

“I care deeply about the people and the art in Laguna,” she said. “We (the festival) pride ourselves on quality and see ourselves as a neutral party for presenting dance. We don’t identify with a specific school or company, we’re here to expose new audiences to professional concert dance.”

She continued, “I want people to be moved and feel joy again. Our way is telling stories through the art of movement. And I think we all connect differently now (after the pandemic) and we have a lot of gratitude. The art of dance will move you – that’s my hope.”

The 2022 Festival

This year’s festival will take place at the Artists Theatre at Laguna Beach High School. This is the first time the festival performance is taking place in the summer and the first time performers will grace the stage at the local high school after previously being at the Laguna Playhouse and Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The new venue worked in terms of availability and to put it simply, Gates said, “We’re not changing venues, we’re adding venues.” 

Laguna Dance Festival

When: 7:30 p.m. August 12-13

Where: Artists Theatre at Laguna Beach High School, 625 Park Ave., Laguna Beach

Tickets: $50 adults, $30 students

Contact: lagunadancefestival.org

There is also some thought from the organizers that being in the city will attract the local tourists of the season. 

The festival kicks off on Friday, Aug. 12 with Los Angeles-based company Bodytraffic who has been notably named as a cultural ambassador of the United States to Israel, Jordan, South Korea, Algeria and Indonesia. The company will present “A Million Voices” by Matthew Neenan, which is inspired and accompanied by the music of Peggy Lee; and “Pacopepepluto” by Alejandro Cerrudo, which will feature three solo performances set to the music of Dean Martin.

The second night features Laguna Beach native Skylar Campbell who recently made the move to Houston Ballet after 12 years at the National Ballet of Canada. 

“It was a big transition, but it is good to be back in the States and I look forward to being more connected with the U.S. dance scene,” Campbell said.

Campbell is moving to the stage in his career where he is exploring what is next and a big part of that is experimenting with his company the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective.

“This evening has been three years in the making, as we had planned to bring this show to Laguna before the pandemic and are so thrilled to have it happen now, and with an amazing musical accompaniment for this very special evening of dance,” Campbell said.

The evening will feature acclaimed dance artists from the New York City Ballet, Philadelphia Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Houston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet. The Skylar Campbell Dance Collective will also be performing “Traveler,” which was created in 2020 and nominated for Best Dance at the 2021 Canadian International Fashion Film Festival. 

Campbell says the last time he was preparing for a show in Orange County it all felt a little too grandiose and like “biting off more than they could chew.” As if he had to prove something. 

Cue a pandemic, a forced reset, and some personal reflection, and Campbell said his approach this time around feels a lot closer to the identity of the company.

“We’ve developed a creative, more compact program that feels like we’re presenting something just for us. A testament to who we are,” Campbell said. “It feels organic, easy breezy and yet we’re presenting some world-renowned choreography.”

Campbell had the opportunity to curate his night of the festival with Gates and found her leadership and vision inspirational both creatively and from a business perspective.

“I would love for the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective to have some consistency in this area, to build an audience base here,” Campbell said. “And I am excited to show audiences that ballet can look different than the classics like ‘Don Q.’

“Hopefully, people will be saying ‘that was a little different,’ and we can develop a tease to keep them coming back for more.”

Dancers, from left, Ty Morrison, Katie Garcia and Joan Hernandez of the Los Angeles-based dance company Bodytraffic. Credit: Photo courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival/Guzmán Rosado

In addition to these performances, artistic directors Tina Finkelman Berkett of Bodytraffic and Campbell of the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective will be hosting a special dance masterclass experience for advanced dance students on Saturday and Sunday at the dance studio at Laguna Beach High School. 

The Search for a New Leader

Since the January announcement of Gates’ departure to Cincinnati, the Laguna Dance Festival board of directors, Gates included, has been carefully considering who will take over. 

The search for a new leader has started, but so has the conversation about changing the model of how the Laguna Dance Festival is run.

“We are thrilled that Jodie has the opportunity to expand her influence via her new role at the Cincinnati Ballet, but are hopeful she’ll be able to stay on with Laguna Dance Festival and continue her legacy here,” president of the board Amanda Paracuellos said.

“We’re still discussing specifics but planning on Jodie to remain with Laguna Dance Festival as an artistic advisor to work as part of a new artistic team that we plan to recruit to manage day-to-day creative and artistic tasks of the organization and production of dance performances.”

In addition to the annual festival, the nonprofit organization hosts a fundraising gala, organizes performances at the Laguna Beach Art Walk, and provides master classes, workshops, intensive programs and scholarships. Gates is suggesting a division of power between the community arts endeavors and the responsibility of curating the evening performances.

“What I proposed is to form a leadership team. I believe in designing new models in which power is distributed,” said Gates, who also plans to remain part of the team. “I will always feel deeply connected to Laguna and I plan to be there for the big events throughout the year.”

The festival has yet to decide on the titles of the positions on the new team and is continuing its search to fill those roles.

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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