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Gavin's Underground

Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-12-18 -
When you look at the dance community over the past few years, you can see a steady growth in the performers, but not so much in the companies. I'm not saying that the companies we currently have aren't awesome (well, maybe not so much the one that keeps doing Thriller every year until 2055), but the expansion of smaller productions hasn't seen a lot of action over the past 10 years, causing some to look at what can be done to support the ever-growing number of performers on the way.
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In Utah County, the Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company has been hard at work bringing out original works with the help of local performers to create independent productions and bring more dance to Provo. The company has been running strong for over three years, making waves with the community to grow a hub in a city with one of the biggest dance programs in America. Today, I chat with the two founders of WCDC about their careers, starting the company, thoughts on local dance and a few other topics. (All pictures courtesy of WCDC.)

Jessica Heaton and Rachel Robinson
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Gavin: Hey, ladies. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Rachel: My name is Rachel Robison. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. I started taking ballet when I was a wee child, but was on-and-off for a while, doing other things like soccer and taking piano lessons. By the time I was in high school, I was dedicated to dance and was at the studio most days after school, and even on the weekends. I did mostly ballet and jazz, and took my first modern class as a senior in high school. Once I was accepted to Brigham Young University, I went out to BYU on my spring break and auditioned for The Dancers' Company. I can still remember when the artistic director, Caroline Prohosky, called me during my lunch period at school and told me I had made the company. I was elated! I also danced with dancEnsemble at BYU, which was my first experience ever choreographing. I got married in 2010, graduated with a BA in dance in 2011 and the next semester was back teaching lower-level contemporary-technique classes. I love to teach, and I had been teaching at studios around the valley, but I was seriously missing the thrill and joy of really dancing and performing, as well as having the opportunity to choreograph on really talented dancers. So, I joined WCDC in 2012 for their first big show at the Covey Center and now I'm hooked! Now, I work at Smash Dance Academy, where WCDC rehearses, and I have a cute little 2-month-old daughter.

Jessica: My name is Jessica Wilcox Heaton. I grew up in San Diego and moved to Provo for school in 2005. Besides dancing, I also love traveling and running. I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Spain. My husband and I manage an apartment complex together and we have an 8-month-old baby girl.
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Gavin: What got each of you interested in dance, and what was it like starting out young?

Jessica: I watched my sister perform in her dance recital when I was 13 and that's what interested me in dancing. In comparison to other dancers, I didn't get my start very young. I was thrilled, but shocked, when I made my high school's advanced-dance company a year later. As a sophomore in high school, I transferred to a brand-new school that didn't have a dance company yet. I worked hard for 11 months to help start Westview High School's dance program, which is still alive and kicking today. That's how I got my first taste of starting something from the ground up despite opposition.

Rachel: I started taking ballet classes with a friend at a little studio that was in the same building where my brother took piano lessons. I honestly don't remember how old I was, but I would guess 5 or 6. I remember the teacher being really strict about us having to have our hair in tight buns, and I didn't like that. I also remember dancing with scarves all around the room and loving that! I wasn't super-loyal yet, though, and when my friend wanted to stop taking class, I did, too.

Gavin: At what point did you decide you wanted to pursue dance as a career?

Rachel: By the time I was in high school, I knew that dance was my thing. I didn't do any clubs or sports at school, and we didn't have a dance program that I was interested in, so the studio was it for me. I came to BYU and auditioned to be in the dance major my freshman year and was accepted to the program. Even after that, however, I had plenty of doubts -- the "career" options are pretty limited and not very high-paying for a dance major; even if the hourly rate is higher than another job, you can only get so many hours at a dance studio. I wasn't interested in dance education because I did not want to teach in the schools. I considered looking into things like physical therapy or sports medicine, things that still involved the body, but I also was inspired to be a great teacher because of the great teachers I had growing up. I have taught at studios and college courses at BYU and have loved both experiences. I definitely consider that my "career" is a dance teacher. I am also a certified Yoga teacher and hope to integrate that more into my professional life, as well.

Jessica: As a senior in high school, I decided I would someday own a dance company. I performed on BYU's DancEnsemble for 3 years while I got my degree in exercise and wellness with a minor in contemporary dance. During my last year at BYU, I realized I needed to stop performing with the University company to finally have the time to finish my degree, so I began WCDC during this time and performed with them in community events until I graduated and could commit more time to building the dance company's influence and program.
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Gavin: Both of you attended BYU. What made you decide on the school, and what was your time like in its program?

Jessica: I looked forward to attending BYU my whole life. One of the factors that led me to choose BYU was attending their jazz and modern summer dance camp when I was 15. I was inspired by teachers who combined their dancing and their beliefs, making dancing more purposeful and religion easier to share. My time in the BYU dance program was priceless to me. I will forever be grateful to my mentors and teachers who encouraged my choreography and helped me learn the skills that made it possible for me to run a dance company. In the BYU dance program, I met other students who shared my interest in starting a dance company, namely Christine Harbor and Elizabeth Mason, who both played instrumental roles in founding and growing WCDC before they both moved out of state.

Rachel: BYU was the only school I applied to. I grew up in a place with very few LDS members, and as a member myself, I was interested in being surrounded by more people with similar values. I enjoyed the dance program at BYU. I had great opportunities to perform with The Dancers' Company, DancEnsemble, and Contemporary Dance Theatre. I had the chance to travel and tour with some of these companies, as well, which is an experience I had never anticipated. I explored choreography, had great teachers and mentors and really found my love for a holistic and spiritual view of the human body through some of the other courses required of a dance major, such as anatomy and kinesiology.

Gavin: When did you both meet and become friends?

Rachel: I had heard about Jessie while I was in school. She was talked about among professors and students as a really brilliant choreographer, and I remember seeing -- at least -- one piece that she choreographed on DancEnsemble. I probably never spoke a word to Jessie at BYU, though - -she was a few years ahead of me, though we took dance and technology together. After she graduated, I continued to hear about her efforts to start this company. My prideful self was a bit jealous that she hadn't approached me about dancing with her! Finally, a year after I graduated and soothed my ego, I contacted her and asked if I could come and audition for her company. Now, I am one of her wing women!
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Gavin: Once you left BYU, what were your respective careers like as dancers and choreographers?

Jessica: I started WCDC before I graduated from BYU, but by that time I had already made a name for myself as a professional choreographer, choreographing for musicals, pageant contestants, and high school dance teams in both California and Utah.

Rachel: I'm sure most graduates feel this, but I remember taking my last final and walking home thinking, "What have I done!? A dance major? What am I going to do with my life? I should just stay in school forever!" I was teaching at a couple of dance studios, but it wasn't totally fulfilling. I think I had always thought I would graduate, move somewhere with a bustling dance community and start working my way into the professional world. Being married, though, I was stuck in Provo for at least another year while my husband finished school, and then he got a job in Provo that was a great opportunity, so we never left. There is Ririe-Woodbury and RDT up in Salt Lake that I considered trying to work my way into, but even that commute seemed like too much. By this point, I was starting to think that the life of a professional dancer wasn't really what I wanted; mostly the logistics of making the full-day schedule work with having children. This past spring 2012, I auditioned for the graduate program at the University of Utah and was accepted. I was thinking that if I got my graduate degree, then at least I could always look for faculty jobs at colleges wherever my life takes me. I was skeptical, though, of whether the commitment -- time and finances -- was worth it. I was also expecting our first baby, and with how rigorous and intense that program is at the U, there would be no way for me to have a baby in the middle of my first semester. When I informed the U that I was pregnant, they pretty much revoked my acceptance. It was disheartening that I felt like they weren't even willing to work with me or really explain why I wouldn't be able to start the program at that time, and it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. Having children is a natural and necessary part of life and yet I felt like I was being discriminated and shunned for being pregnant -- even after rocking my audition while I was seven weeks pregnant! Maybe I'm a romantic, but I like to believe that you can do anything you want with enough dedication and perseverance. I believe that WCDC is riding that belief. As administrators, we don't have masters degrees in dance, and yet that does not mean that we are any less capable of making this company successful. Maybe advanced degrees would have given us more connections to pull on, but Jessie is fearless and driven. She saw a need in the community and she has worked tirelessly to bring this company about and we continue to ask ourselves how we can progress, how we can reach more people, how we can get better technique from our dancers, how we can help the community appreciate art, and specifically dance.

Gavin: How did the idea to start up a dance company come about?

Jessica: Before I switched over to the exercise and wellness program at BYU, I was a dance major. I attended a meeting called "What to Do With Your Dance Major When You Graduate." In the meeting we were told that 10% of us would become teachers -- if we stayed in Utah) -- 2% of us would perform on companies and the rest of us would become secretaries. I thought to myself it was a shame that in a city with one of the nation's largest dance programs there would be so few connections to professional companies, making professional performance a rare career path for BYU dance graduates. It was then that I decided that my dream to start a dance company needed to come sooner than planned; I needed to start this dance company in Provo. I want Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company to make professional dancing a realistic option for BYU -- and UVU -- graduates.
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Gavin: You originally started getting funding through crowdsourcing websites. How was it putting your idea out there and hoping for the public to fund it?

Jessica: It was terrifying. I was worried that only a handful of fans -- namely, our family members -- would be willing to donate, but I was thrilled to see that in the first 24 hours of our Kickstarter campaign we were already hundreds of dollars closer to our goal. We were supported by community members, past professors, classmates, and other patrons of the arts, local and nationwide. It was exciting and heartwarming to see their support for us, and we were very grateful to surpass our fundraising goal.

Gavin: Once you had the funding, what was the process like in putting together a company from scratch and getting the staff you needed to make it happen?

Jessica: Our auditions were well-attended and we were inspired by all the talent we saw. It is encouraging that we have never been at a loss for dancers. We get e-mails from more and more dancers and choreographers who want to audition, guest choreograph, or take a class with us almost every day. It confirms my belief that more post-graduate dance opportunities are needed in Utah County because I hear dancers asking for more opportunities all the time. It makes me feel such satisfaction to know we are helping dancers find those opportunities, connecting them with other dancers they might not have otherwise met, helping them further their training and development and giving them the chance to share their incredible talent. As for staffing WCDC, I have been lucky to always have incredible associate directors. In the beginning, Christine Harbor and Elizabeth Mason helped me shape this company and get it off the ground. Today, Rachel Robison and Heather Norton are helping me to hone WCDC's direction and propel us into the next chapter. We have also been blessed with willing and able dancers who have made and mended costumes, publicized, fundraised, and done so out of devotion to the company and passion for dance.
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Gavin: How was it for you auditioning talent and getting a group together to handle the works ahead?

Jessica: Auditions are always a time of much thought for us. It's a delicate balance bringing together a group of dancers who will complement each other well, grow together and uphold the WCDC standards. We've getting good at knowing what we're looking for since we have auditions every six months, but it's still a time of careful reflection and also excitement as we place our trust in new and returning company members every concert season.

Gavin: After you started in March of 2010, what was it like putting together your first performance, and how was that show for you?

Jessica: We actually began by preparing dances to perform in others' events or concerts. Our very first performance was a dance we did in the ConfiDance studio's recital in May 2010. We also performed at a BYU talent show, a Black History Month event at BYU, and several benefit concerts. Our very first show was one we co-organized with Provo High School's dance program in an effort to help Provo High fundraise for its "100,000 for 100 Years" campaign. After that concert in February 2012, we began putting on our own shows about every six months at the Covey Center for the Arts and also at the Ragan Theater at UVU. Putting together our first full-length show at the Covey Center for the Arts felt natural -- what I was meant to do. It feels so good to use all the skills I've learned throughout my dance training and use them doing something that is so meaningful to me. The show was well-received by our audience members and launched us into plans for our second full-length show.
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Gavin: What was the first year like, and when did you know you'd be good to continue creating works?

Jessica: The first year was easy because we were very low-key in the beginning. We'd find some opportunity to perform, gather the dancers who were available for it, rehearse a dance for a few weeks, rent a costume and then perform it. Then, we'd take a break while we looked for the next opportunity, and then repeat. After we put together the show with Provo High School, then things took off and we've been rehearsing four to six days per week since then, with only a two-month break from Nov.-Dec. every year. When did we know we'd be good to continue creating works? The answer to that question is... we NEVER know if we're going to be able to continue creating works! That's the name of the game when you are an arts company, or at least when you've just starting out. We earn all our money through hard work, mainly by choreographing for high school dance teams and teaching master classes to schools and studios. We will continue to work hard to raise the money necessary so we can keep providing uplifting, family-friendly and innovative works of art for our community, and we greatly appreciate the donations of money and resources that help us continue this work.

Gavin: What kind of a challenge is it being more of a "traveling" company rather than having a specific theater to call home?

Rachel: The challenge for us right now is getting our name known in the community, and not just the dance community. If we were a resident company at a theater, I think that would be much easier to accomplish, but that is not in the cards for us right now. We want to be known as the contemporary dance company in the Provo/Orem area. There is nothing like that here right now, yet this area is growing and developing so much! The arts community is only going to grow as the city does, and we want to be there as a great dance company for Provo.

Jessica: Being a traveling company brings with it many challenges. The biggest of those challenges was finding a consistent and affordable place to rehearse. For the first two and a half years, we rehearsed in six different locations and performed in six different theaters. Now, we have found a home at Smash Dance Academy, where we have been rehearsing for about a year. We love how we can now put all the energy we formerly spent scheduling several different rehearsal locations into all the other facets of running a company. While we still don’t have a “home” theater, we love both the Covey Center for the Arts and the Ragan Theater and love working with their staff.
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Gavin: You've also stuck primarily to Provo. What's the response been like from the performing-arts side of the city?

Jessica: I feel like we’ve received a wonderful response from those who have discovered us, but we are still working hard to spread our name. One of our goals is to reach ALL people; not just dancers, and not just “artsy” people. We want to help all kinds of people learn about and love dance. We truly believe there is something about dance for every person if they will just give it a chance. So, even though I am excited that our fans are growing, I’m still determined to reach a broader audience, and won’t settle for just attracting other dancers to our shows.

Rachel: This is only our second year holding our own, dedicated concerts, but our reach is growing. Our audience is a lot of family and friends right now, but we hope that as we continue to work on better marketing and advertising that we will be able to build a following of people who support us because they want to support the arts in this area. We are hoping to integrate and collaborate with various other artists -- dancers, musicians, and visual artists -- and communities so that we can continue to reach more and more people. It would be a huge success for us if people just knew that, yes, there is a dance company here in Provo that is committed to being here and growing with the city, and we are Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company!

Gavin: You'll be approaching your four-year anniversary in March. How has it been watching the company grow over that time?

Jessica: I am so proud of what we have accomplished. We’ve beat some great obstacles, we’ve persevered where others before us have fallen short and we have a bright future ahead of us. I’m thrilled to see where year number-four takes us. I feel confident that we can achieve our goal of becoming a permanent and thriving performance company in Provo.
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Gavin: Are you looking to expand beyond what you're doing or beefing up performances, or are you comfortable with how the company is running today?

Jessica: We are always looking for the next way to expand, to grow, to provide more opportunities for dancers and to reach more people. Once we’ve reached the audience size we would like to have at our two concerts every year, we would like to expand to more performances every year. We are also planning to beef up our outreach program, bringing our dancers into the schools, helping fundraise for other arts programs besides our own and providing dance opportunities for the youth in our community, too.

Gavin: Going local, what's your take on the Utah dance scene, both good and bad?

Rachel: There is so much dance in Utah! The ballroom thing is huge here, and basically every school has a legitimate dance program. There are studios on every block, it seems! There are a handful of nationally and internationally known professional dance companies based in the valley alone. BYU has, I think, "the largest" dance program in the nation, and the U of U has a very highly acclaimed bachelor's and master's program. I think this is wonderful; you would be hard-pressed, I bet, to find someone who didn't have a connection to a dancer. This does mean, though, that some people are very opinionated on the best genre of dance, or the best studio, but that is just the way the dance world is. It has been interesting trying to grow in this community that, I believe, is rich with dance. You may think with so much dance around that we would be well-supported, and yet we still struggle. We have had disappointments -- not receiving support from the people we expected to give it freely - -but we are hopeful that as we continue to put on high-quality shows, offer classes for the community, and get our name out there that we will find those people who do appreciate what we are doing, enjoying coming to our shows and will support us in order to keep Provo growing as an artistic hub for this area.

Jessica: The Utah dance scene is excellent – in some parts of Utah. Go to Salt Lake City and you can find a quality dance performance almost every weekend and they are well-attended. That’s what we want for Utah County. Why should you have to drive an hour to see a quality professional-dance performance? Similarly, we dance graduates have to go up north to find master classes, workshops, and guest teachers to continue our dance training and keep ourselves growing professionally. Because these opportunities are far away, dancers in Utah County often find it hard to keep up their training. We want dancers to be able to keep challenging themselves close to home so they can be dancing more consistently. This is why for the past two months we have been offering an advanced technique class free of charge to dancers in the community – because we just want to get dancers moving again! We don’t think the peak of your dance career should be in college. We want you to be able to say you kept improving and growing after college. The class will pick up again after the holidays and will continue to be free until mid-March, so dancers, please come take class. Use your degrees and your talent to keep dance and art growing here in Utah County.
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Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?

Jessica: I think a lot of the power lies in the hands of dance educators. I think preparing and encouraging dancers at all stages – elementary all the way through university levels – to create works of art in the community is essential. When teachers talk to their students about dance opportunities outside of the school or university, they assure that their students continue dancing beyond the walls of their own studios. We are grateful for the opportunity we’ve had to teach high school dance teams and let them know that dance isn’t just a hobby that you run out of time for after you graduate. We are also grateful to our professors at BYU and UVU who have supported our cause. Utah Valley University’s Contemporary Dance Ensemble guest performed with us during our last show and we enjoyed the opportunity to get to know their talented students. We hope that all high school and university dance teachers will let their students know about the dance opportunities that we and other local companies provide for dancers so the dance scene continues to grow here in Utah County.

Rachel: This is the eternal struggle for the dance world: Dancers who want to create art that is fulfilling to them as choreographers is not always appreciated or understood by the "general" public, or the non-modern-dancing public. With Wasatch, we do realize that there needs to be a balance there, and we work to make our shows accessible to anyone who might choose to drop in and watch. Our recent shows have been rich with visual media -- clips explaining the background, or inspiration behind pieces -- giving a better context for the audience to view the choreography, and we have gotten a great response by doing this. Instead of going totally towards the "entertainment" side of dance, we try to help the audience digest some of our more "artsy" pieces by giving that context. And we aren't a company to shun a good, fun, light-hearted dance piece -- you will see those in our shows, as well, and we love doing an upbeat jazz number every now and then!

Gavin: What's your opinion on other local dance companies and the work they're doing to promote the art?

Rachel: I am so excited to see so many different groups also working to bring more high-quality, professional dance to this area. There are so many dancers coming out of BYU and UVU; it is great that there are actually options now for those dancers who want to continue dancing, performing, and choreographing in addition to the rest of their lives. The professional track is not for everybody; it is a very demanding lifestyle. These local companies are offering a solution for those dedicated dancers who can't imagine a life void of their passion, and yet who do other things and have other jobs and commitments. The handful of little start-up companies I know of are each a little bit different, as well -- whether it be their actual location, their rehearsal strategy, their style and audience -- that interested dancers really do have options. I don't consider ourselves in competition with any of these other companies; we want to support them in their efforts and hope to receive the same in return. It is obvious that we are all working toward a similar goal.

Jessica: To other dance companies we say, “KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!” We know it’s a hard industry, and we commend our friends in the dance community for keeping dance alive and growing here in Utah. We want to support those companies and hope to help each other out by promoting each other’s work and attending each other’s shows.
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Gavin: What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into professional dancing for a career?

Jessica: Audition everywhere and network, network, network. Don’t let any opportunity pass you up to attend a dance class, a dance lecture, or a performance -- you never know who will see you and be impressed with you!

Rachel: What you always hear is that connections are everything. I believe it is very rare for a dancer to show up at an audition, meet the directors for the first time, and be invited to join the company. Instead, the advice is to attend their classes and workshops, see about any apprenticeships, introduce yourself to the people who matter and show your dedication. You can't overlook technique and performance ability, though, so you have to find ways not just to keep yourself "in shape", but to continuously improve.

Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and WCDC going into next year?

Rachel: Having just had a baby two months ago, I will be working on getting myself back in shape and ready to dance with the group again in our next show! It is always hard to watch a dance show from the audience. I will also be choreographing a piece for the next show. Each season, we continue to improve our processes and company style. We just held auditions and we are so excited to work with all the dancers we have for this next season. We will be putting on our second-annual American Dream show at the end of June. We had such amazing feedback and response from this show last year that we decided to do it again, but bigger and better! We are also excited to become a nonprofit, which has taken a while but should be all tied up early next year. That will open several doors for us, most significantly with fundraising, which will allow us to continue to grow and do more things in the future. We are also getting ready our open-technique class, which we will be offering free of charge! We know firsthand that it is terribly hard to find an advanced-technique class for adults in the area; we want to fill that void in the community. Classes will mainly be contemporary technique, but we are excited about the idea of throwing in other genres, as well. Teachers will range from our own company members to other dancers and professionals in the area.

Jessica: We are starting rehearsals for our second annual American Dream concert in less than a month. The show will be the last weekend in June and will celebrate the heroes, heritage and history of our great nation. We're bringing in guest performers and making it a real community event, so make sure to check the website for more details to come. As for myself, I will keep bringing you a better concert every time. We are learning so much every time we put on another show, and we're just going to keep pushing the envelope to bring you the best.
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Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Jessica: Our free advanced-technique classes for dancers over 18 years! The schedule and details will be posted on our website within a week. We’ll be holding a Run for the Arts 5K on May 10; more details will be posted on the website, as well!


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