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A Conversation with Malinda LaVelle
On July 6th and August 3rd, the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance will present the world premier of Project Bust, an evening-length work of dance theater choreographed by Malinda LaVelle for eight dancers in their twenties. Created over a period of 18 months and performed by Malinda's company, Project Thrust, the piece is a stunning and daring exploration of what it means to be young and female. It is beautiful and unsettling, extremely funny and wickedly intelligent, and SFCD is utterly delighted to be supporting the work of such a talented and unique choreographer.
Malinda is an alumna of SFCD. She is our first artist-in-residence and has served as a guest choreographer for our summer intensive programs since 2009.
SFCD: Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you start dancing? Why did you keep dancing?
Malinda LaVelle: I grew up in suburban Colorado and as a kid I remember lots of romping around, specifically in my parents’ living room to Michael Jackson’s album, Dangerous. My parents took note and enrolled me in jazz, tap, baton twirling, and soccer. Yes, baton twirling. Eventually things got more serious and I had to choose between all my interests. I think I chose dance because it seemed like the most difficult thing I could do, but I can’t really remember a specific reason. I’ve tried quitting a number of times, but I can’t. That’s reason enough, I suppose.
SFCD: What made you want to choreograph? What was your first choreographic project?
ML: I was obsessed with arranging my stuffed monkeys into dance formations, and I always wanted to make dances for school projects. In fact, I remember winning an Anne Frank competition in 4th grade for making what I thought was an intensely heartfelt dance about her life to Simon and Garfunkel’s "Sounds of Silence." When I was young I remember getting much more excited about going to see shows, rather than being in them. In my head, I’ve always felt more excitement in watching and thinking about the process of creating dance rather than in performing myself. I actually used to feel jealousy toward whoever was in charge of my rehearsals. I suppose my first legitimate choreographic projects started in college when I had access to studio space and willing dancers.
SFCD: This is your third year of being a guest choreographer for the SFCD summer program. What do you find particularly rewarding or challenging about working with student dancers? Can you tell us about your experience of working at SFCD?
ML: When I ask the students to do more emotive or vocal tasks, like making faces or loud noises alongside movement, I find it incredibly rewarding to watch them tackle the challenges of confronting unfamiliar, uncomfortable material and watching their goofiness and self-consciousness soon dissolve into mature, thoughtful work.There’s a tangible switch that takes place when they realize that these theatrical choreographic tasks are not just funny but actually useful and applicable to their dancing. When I see them in performance, powerful and commanding, after four weeks of hard work and exploration, I really love and admire their willingness to trust themselves in completely foreign territory—particularly with the younger age group that I work with. When I was 14 years old, I probably would have run away crying.
SFCD: You also work as a dancer with several choreographers in the Bay Area. Can you describe the differences and similarities between dancing and choreographing?
ML: The difference for me lies in responsibility, pressures, and give and take. I feel more responsibility as a choreographer; not only am I responsible for the arc of the piece, but also for all aspects of production. I feel fewer artistic boundaries as a choreographer because I’m orchestrating the formation of the work around my ideas. As a dancer, I feel more responsible for myself, and also more respectful to the choreographer’s direction, as I try to respond to their impetus. As a dancer I give of myself, while as a dance-maker I listen and respond to what each dancer chooses to give. So while dancing and choreographing both lie within the realm of dance, they are very separate roles for me—but despite this, they still strongly inform one another.
SFCD: Last year, you founded your company, Project Thrust. Who are your dancers? Why did you choose to work with these particular people?
ML: Currently I’m working with Emmaly Wiederholt, Maggie Stack, Joy Prendergast, Emily Jones, Toni Lum, Mei-Ling Murray, Julia Hollas, Madelyn Biven, and Carson Stein. They are all former students of SFCD and are all peers of mine in the dance community. They are a bizarre collection of superheroes, each distinctly different in aesthetic with peculiarly strong personalities, and all courageous women I am lucky to call my friends. Our closeness can be good and bad in rehearsal, as our rapport with each other often lends itself to a ton of messing around—but that familial comfort also allows us to delve into difficult and emotionally charged material that otherwise might be lost in a more formal arrangement.
SFCD: You are premiering an evening-length work this July and August. Can you tell us about what inspired you to make Project Bust? What has the process of creating this piece been like?
ML: I’ve joked about wanting to create a piece about tits and ass for a while, so when I began my residency at the Garage, that’s what I did. Much of the process involved screwing around and in the beginning it was almost easy to crank out material because the topic unleashed so much in us. Much of the work was simply inspired by the hilarity of having piles of fatty flesh on our chests. But just as the funniness of a joke is often rooted in something more deeply serious, we soon discovered the dual nature of dealing with such innately female material. We encountered a lot of ambivalence about our objectification. We don’t want to be objectified, but we are—sometimes we like it and we play into it, while other times we absolutely hate it. It starts to seem like a kind of burden that we constantly carry. As soon as ideas like these began to surface, everything became darker as we continued in the process asking more difficult questions about growing up and our relationships with each other and with other women.
SFCD: What is the most difficult thing you’ve tackled in your work as a choreographer?
ML: While I have incredible artistic support, most specifically through the Conservatory, I’m fumbling around by trial and error figuring out how to procure funding while trying not to lose the integrity of what I want to be doing.
SFCD: Can you give us some hints on what you’re going to do next?
ML: Let’s just say it involves a eunuch and a cowbell.
Project Bust will be performed on July 6th and August 3rd at Z SPACE in San Francisco as part of SFCD's second annual Summer Dance Series. Tickets are a mere $15, and you can buy them through Brown Paper Tickets, event #176228. Don't miss this opportunity to see Malinda's amazing world premier!