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August 28, 2007

‘I want to dance forever’: Theresa Bautista makes a living in the city’s underground scene

Theresa Bautista: a busy freelance teacher, dancer and choreographer, leads the Male High School marching band in dance exercises before a practice in July. Photo by Ross GordonDuring the morning rush hour, the rumble can be deafening outside Male High School. Cars and trucks whiz by on I-65, and descending jets thunder overhead as they approach for landing at Louisville International Airport. That is the aural backdrop on a typically hot and humid July morning, as more than 150 people, most of them students in Male’s marching band, form 17 lines in the parking lot as they prepare to start practicing for their fall show.They will march to music from “Scheherazade,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphony based on “One Thousand and One Nights.” But no music plays now; the work at hand is not about sound. It is about movement, and all eyes are on the tiny woman directly in front of them. This dancer, Theresa Bautista, has led them in bodywork exercises since May.Equipped with a microphone, Bautista directs them through a series of ballet exercises. There’s tendus, where you slide a pointed foot out from under the body — keep your toes on the ground — and then slide it back to the other one. There’s ront de jambs, where — again with the pointed toes —  you outline circles around your body. Bautista keeps any eye on their posture, the tension in their shoulders, the precision of their movements. She compliments their fluidity.Bautista is here because Nan Moore, longtime director of Male High School’s marching band, saw her dance in January at the Oldham County Arts Center with an ensemble called Moving Collective.“I watched her dance,” Moore says, “and I thought, ‘I want her.’”Moore had been searching for someone to help her students dance. These days marching bands eschew traditional militaristic moves for graceful movements and configurations based on agility. Moore says getting Bautista involved has helped the students move more gracefully.Working and making a living as a dancer in a city like Louisville takes talent, to be sure. It also takes incredible initiative and hard work. So teaching a high school marching band how to dance is only one component in the dizzying mélange of projects that 33-year-old Bautista has cobbled together. She also teaches in studios throughout the city and, of course, choreographs and dances.Bautista and Zach Thomas: learn a new dance for an upcoming performance. Photo by Ross GordonTaking on new projects — like working with a marching band — is typical Bautista. It does make for a hectic schedule, though, which she carefully tracks in a book marked with fluorescent colored tabs. In March and April, for example, she choreographed “Miss Saigon” at her alma mater, Providence High School, where she has worked with the theater department since 2001. In May she choreographed a piece for Empujón, the troupe formed last year by former Louisville Ballet dancer David Ingram. In June, she taught ballet classes at The Kentucky Center Governor’s School for the Arts, where she has been on the dance faculty since 2004.Bautista’s passion for dance is always evident — when she dances, when she leads classes and when she talks about how she made dance her career path. Rather than run classes and rehearsals like a drill sergeant, she coaxes those she works with to achieve a desired move and emotion. She smiles and laughs often, but never loses her focus.These days that focus is clear through her committment to Moving Collective, the company she founded last year to promote works by independent choreographers and grow audiences for contemporary dance in the region. She now co-directs with Tamara Begley, another Louisville dancer and choreographer. The morning workout with the marching band is over, and now Bautista turns her attention to finding space for Moving Collective’s fall performance. She wants a date before the holiday season begins in late November, and she knows there’s competition on the first two weekends, with a performance by Louisville Ballet and then the dance company Pilobolus.She’s been unsuccessfully trying to reach the woman who keeps the schedule for University of Louisville’s Comstock Hall, so off we go to the School of Music to pay her a visit. She’s not there. Bautista pops downstairs to the Dance Academy and asks Judith Hake, the academy’s primary administrator, about scheduling the hall. Hake doesn’t have that information, but they do discuss how the academy’s children’s summer dance camps are going and Bautista’s experience teaching at the Governors School.“I had a really great group of kids,” Bautista says. “Really hard working.”She bids farewell and heads downtown to check out upstairs gallery space at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Someone had mentioned it as a space that would be cheap or even free for the company to perform in. She meanders through the room, admiring how the brilliant sunlight pours through the huge windows but bemoaning the columns that would limit movement.It is past noon now and Bautista is hungry. Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, she recounts how she began dancing at age 8, soon after going with her parents and two sisters to watch her babysitter’s dance recital, and how she never really stopped dancing. Growing up, she studied at the Weber School of Dance in Indiana and performed in high school musicals.She knew she loved dance then, but as she began thinking about college, she was apprehensive about committing herself to it completely. Instead, she was thinking about medical school — both of her parents are physicians who came to the United States from the Philippines.During her senior year, she saw Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project perform at the Kentucky Center. That program included a piece choreographed by Mark Morris. On a screen, statements from the dancers were projected, and one in particular struck a deep chord. It said, simply: “I want to dance forever.”When Bautista recounts this experience, even today, the longing in her voice is clear. Yet, in 1991, she decided to major in biology in college.With letters of acceptance from Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue universities, she chose IU because it offered strong science and dance curricula. Former New York City Ballet dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux directed the dance program there, and Bautista took ballet nearly every semester, dancing at least four days a week while earning high marks in her other studies.By her junior year, confronted with the prospect of the grueling medical school admissions test, she realized she didn’t want to be a doctor. But she couldn’t face the fact and spent most days sleeping. She missed classes and her grades fell. One fall day in 1993, she called her parents. She was in tears.“I had this great sense that everybody had all these great expectations from me,” she tells me, “and I felt this great responsibility to fulfill everybody else’s expectations.”Her father canceled his remaining appointments and drove to Bloomington with her mother. They went to dinner, and they told her they would support her dream.Instead of switching majors or changing schools, Bautista opted to finish her degree and pursue dance even harder. She returned to Louisville in 1994 and considered pursuing a master’s of fine arts degree in dance, and with the drive to improve her dancing. She took classes, mostly ballet, from the Dance Academy and the Louisville Ballet School, and with Sue Anne Townsend, a dancer with AfterImages Dance Company, a Louisville group that ended in the mid-1990s.She also began teaching dance at several schools, notably the Courtney Weber School of Dance, where she became associate director in 1997, a position she held until the school was sold in 2001. (It closed in 2003.) The experience taught her how to run a business and showed her the importance of organization. (Begley, of Moving Collective, calls her “the spreadsheet queen.”) She also learned the importance of teaching proper dance technique to children, which is particularly important for younger students who may want to pursue professional careers. She cites “The Parents’ Book of Ballet: Answers to Critical Questions About the Care and Development of the Young Dancer” as the most influential book in her career. During these years, Bautista thought of herself as a ballet dancer. The geometry of the dance’s combinations stirred her intellectually. But then she tried modern dance, which became formative. In 2000, she began dancing with Art! Art! Barking Dog Dance Company, under the guidance of its founders — Anastasia McGlothlin, Alan Lommasson and Lynn Slaughter. In 2004 and 2005, she danced with Moyamo Dance Company, formed by Anna Sapozhnikov, a former teacher at the Youth Performing Arts School. Bautista found modern dance comfortable, expressive and challenging. Choreography, on the other hand, was something she had avoided. Until 2003.“I see myself being thrown into choreography by accident,” she says, and laughs while recounting how the graduate schools she considered wanted prospective students to have that experience.She had choreographed for her students’ recitals but had not created concert work. Her first adult piece, “Listen,” with music by Steve Reich, premiered in the summer of 2004 at the Governor’s School for the Arts. She went on to create work for Art! Art! Barking Dog until it disbanded early last year.Even before it closed, though, Bautista had another project. In October 2005, she and other dancers from the company were attending the landmark performance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Kentucky Center. Bautista recalls looking around and realizing that so many of the people she knew in the audience should continue to dance.“Then I thought that I should just do it,” she says.And so Moving Collective was born. Its first performance came on Jan. 21, 2006, and featured eight pieces with 17 dancers. Bautista and Begley promoted the performance, at the Oldham County Arts Center, by making posters and cards themselves and positing them throughout the Highlands and Crescent Hill. More than 200 people turned out. The collective has since held two other concerts with near capacity crowds.Even outside the realm of Moving Collective, the challenges keep coming. This summer Bautista created a piece for the statewide Until the Violence Stops Festival, presented here by The Center for Women and Families. The piece, “Timebomb,” was included with other dances in last Saturday’s “Movement to Empower,” a collection meant to increase awareness and prompt discussion about domestic violence.It is later on that hot July day, and Bautista is ending it in Studio SILK on the top floor of the Clifton Center. She has just finished teaching a class. Now, she is starting the first rehearsal for a piece she is calling “Timebomb.” The music is percussive, and she shows four dancers the moves she has been shaping into phrases — forced arches of the back that propel the body backwards, glimpses of a woman writhing as if punched in the stomach or having her arm twisted behind her back. There are hand gestures that hide the eyes from the mirror (and later the audience).The dancers — Kim Nygren Cox, Elena Fillmore, Katie Scott and Jessica Underwood — stop to discuss their ideas about and exposure to battered women. Cox recounts seeing a woman with black eyes in a Laundromat. Fillmore repeats some of the steps Bautista has shown them before stopping mid-motion.“I don’t feel like I’m being submissive with all of this,” she says. “I feel that I want to resist.”“Don’t lose that feeling,” Bautista says. “That is where I want you to get to at the end.”The next week she continues rehearsing “Timebomb” with the quartet while working on another piece called “Undercurrents” for the same performance. On a Thursday morning she is in a studio at Ellen’s School of Dance in the East End with former Barking Dog colleagues Lommasson and Slaughter. They are working with Bautista and Zach Thomas, a senior at Manual High School, to reconstruct the dance that Lommasson and Slaughter presented 20 years ago at the University of Michigan.It is about a couple who cannot communicate. When they do, the resulting hurt leads them to react in ways that further undermine their relationship. Between watching a videotaped performance of Lommasson and Slaughter, the younger dancers listen as the elders explain the moves and the emotion.“You’re putting all of this energy into the relationship, but you’re not doing the same thing at the same time,” Slaughter explains as Bautista and Thomas move in concentric circles around each other.After the rehearsal, Bautista turns to me. “These are actually the people who formed me as a modern dancer,” she says, gesturing with her head toward Lommasson and Slaughter.Slaughter notes that Bautista’s energy is what keeps bringing them and other area dancers together. “She brings in refugees from the ballet community interested in keeping the flame of modern dance alive in this community,” she says, citing Fillmore, who is with the Louisville Ballet School, and Sarah Comstock, who left the Louisville Ballet several years ago and now dances in Moving Collective concerts.Keeping that flame alive is a lot of work for — as Slaughter and Bautista call Louisville — this “ballet town.” There is little money for or awareness of modern dance in Louisville, save for the occasional big names who visit the Kentucky Center. Still, Slaughter believes Bautista has plenty of fuel for the flame, as well as talent.“She’s a head-turner,” she says. “Theresa is a beautiful dancer — sensitive, expressive and genuine.” Slaughter and others who work with Bautista describe her choreography as intelligent and lyrical.Bautista’s next trick? Moving Collective’s next performance is in Comstock Hall on Nov. 17.Meanwhile, Bautista and Begley are thinking of how they can grow Moving Collective with more performances in Louisville and throughout the region. And Bautista has still not ruled out graduate school.“There are so many things that I still want to explore and I don’t ever doubt that I still can’t do them,” she says.She does find it ironic that she is still in Louisville; she never thought she would settle here. “I always think that I will go off and do something in other cities,” she says. But she remains open to what Louisville can still offer her.“Who knows who may come to Louisville next,” she says, following the thread to talk about other opportunities here — not just working with other dancers but with musicians and architects.And so it seems that Louisville will continue reaping dividends from Bautista’s decision to follow her dream.