Innovation in the Time of Seclusion

Story by Sarah Carpenter

This isn’t the story I set out to write. For the first time in my very short life as a journalist (basically starting in March until just now), I realized what it means to “follow the story” rather than trying to write the one I started with. I went into this interview thinking I would be writing a feature piece about Seattle Dance Collective and its founders Noelani Pantastico and James Moore, but after hearing the passion in their voices talking about their newest project, I knew the feature would be interesting, but it wouldn’t be as important as the amazing work they’re doing right now. I don’t know what I expected from two very respected and very talented artists, but when we began to chat, I was blown away. Noe and James are innovating. They are pushing for a world that will continue to support and thrive with the arts. In a time when we could all use an outlet, a way to connect, a little hope to hold onto, Seattle Dance Collective has created something that I should be able to describe in better terms, but all I can think of right now is beautiful and breathtaking.

Leah Terada and Miles Pertl in rehearsal for SeaPertls' THE ONLY THING YOU SEE NOW (© Sydney M. Pertl)

Our entire world came to a halt at the end of February and beginning of March due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, something most of us probably never thought was possible. Most of us have seen movies surrounding pandemics and chalk them up to being thriller, zombie movies that would never come true because, hey we have technology now. And then this happened, and the truth is that the virus not only did physical damage, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, but also job losses and isolation. For the first time in my lifetime, we’ve had to stay away from social gatherings, school, work, performances, and sporting events. Where does that leave us? Some people can work from home, some people’s lives may have gone on more or less normally. Some of us found ways to pivot or take on hobbies that we’ve been meaning to try out. I saw quite a lot of baking (and we may have done some too). But imagine what happened to the people whose jobs depend on them being in front of an audience, and now suddenly, their entire world is turned upside down. The arts were deemed unnecessary, leaving dancers and many other artists without jobs or even an idea of when they’d be able to get back on stage. My Instagram accounts lit up like they never have with dancers going “live” to teach classes from their apartments, old performances were being put on company websites. Even in the midst of this, seeing the dancers making the most of their time at home, would there be a time in the near future when they could get back into the studio, back on stage? Would people avoid attending live performances believing there is a risk of sitting in a crowded auditorium with at least 300 other people? Would performances be profitable with partially empty theaters given that social distancing stays in effect?

Noe and James didn’t wait to find out. They chose to use this time for innovation. And thus, Continuum was created. “In catastrophe, there is opportunity for innovation,” James said as we discussed SDC’s new project. When I chatted with them, they had not yet announced this new venture. In fact, it was set to be announced the next day. The truth is that, even during non-pandemic times, the dance world is always changing. And it has to be in order to hold an audience. Like with most artforms, in order to continue to be relevant, the dance world must innovate and change with the times. As an artist, you have to consider the up-and-coming audience just as much as your current audience. And that’s exactly what Noelani Pantastico and James Moore decided they wanted to do when they started Seattle Dance Collective in 2019.

Artistic Directors James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico in conversation during a rehearsal warm-up (© Angela Sterling)
“I was really upset that the arts are nonessential as I find them to be vital to people’s lives”
Elle Macy and Dylan Wald in Penny Saunders' HOME (© Henry Wurtz)
“There will be a time when we won’t be able to dance anymore, we’ll be retired from the stage, and it’s exploring ways to continue to impact the dance world”

Neither James nor Noe started their careers in dance thinking they’d be creative directors or have their own collective. That was never their mission. Noe says she started dance later in life. She did soccer and gymnastics, and various types of creative movement, but dance was what helped her through a tough time in her life. She never thought of it as a job. It was “survival”. She needed dance in her life, and it helped her through anxieties of dealing with a family tragedy. James started dancing at the age of 4, and he very quickly became serious about it as a career. By the age of 9 he was training with the San Francisco Ballet, and by the age of 12, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. Both are dancers with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, and both of them felt that others were pushing them in the direction of putting on a show or becoming creative directors. Standing at the barre next to each other, they casually chatted about this idea. They decided that together they could make something great. Seattle Dance Collective was born. “There will be a time when we won’t be able to dance anymore, we’ll be retired from the stage, and it’s exploring ways to continue to impact the dance world,” said James. Of course, that’s the over simplified version of the story. Both of them have had extensive and beautiful journeys as dancers that have led them to this point, this day, this project they were about to announce after we chatted.

The mission of SDC is simple and so profound, to promote collaborations between dancers and choreographers and introduce audiences to the highest standard of artistic excellence. “We really loved this idea of bringing artists together,” Noe told me. But it goes beyond that. Just chatting with Noe and James for the short time that we had, it became very obvious that they want to make sure dance lives on in an age when most patrons of dance are getting older, and the younger population is seemingly not as interested. Creating pieces that can be streamed on the internet is one of the ways that Noe and James feel like they can reach a broader and younger audience. It’s also one of the ways they found to keep the dancers of Seattle Dance Collective moving and working during the pandemic. “I was really upset that the arts are nonessential as I find them to be vital to people’s lives”, Noe said during our interview. It’s a statement I fully agree with. It’s the reason they started a project that they announced the day after our talk.

The project, Continuum, is a dance for the camera performance that you can find on the Seattle Dance Collective website. In a nutshell, it revolved around 10 dancers, 5 choreographers, a videographer and getting creative with how they would share dance with the world. The choreographers each created and set a piece via Zoom, then the dancers were filmed performing the pieces, behind-the scenes-footage was taken, and the project was then shared over the internet. The intention behind this project was to create and share new works in a professional manner, to share something that could continue to be shared 10, 20 years from now and that you wouldn’t know it was created during COVID times. For this project, Noe and James made the decision to present the works for free as they did not feel right charging people during this time when so many people are hurting financially. However, in the long run, they are intent on paying their artists fair wages.

Each piece had to be created following the strict and safe social distancing regulations, and each artist had to work in a way that was new to them. Some dancers had sheltered in place together making it easier for them to learn the pieces and perform them, while others found creative ways to be in the same space without the risk of possibly spreading infection, like in the piece THE SPACE BETWEEN US performed by Noe and James and choreographed by Bruno Roque. From the videographer asking for shot lists from the choreographer and the choreographer being able to give that shot list, creating a story line for each piece and the understanding that some of the dancers would be doing more improvisation than choreography, the challenges of this project made it all the more beautiful. To me, there’s a level of depth to a piece when so many different artists collaborate on it. You can feel like you’re part of the project. You’re up close and personal with the dancers and not squinting at them from the nose-bleed section of the theater where you can’t make out their facial expressions (as much as I am such a sucker for a live performance).

I got the chills as I started to watch the first performance released by SDC called HOME, choreographed by Penny Saunders, danced by Elle Macy and Dylan Wald and shot by Henry Wurtz. Seeing the doormat say “HOME” from the very beginning, I knew this piece was for me. Listening to them talk about their lives during quarantine, talk about each other and what they loved, giggle and joke together all while moving through long grasses, effortlessly connecting with each other, being able to see the chemistry between them was such a beautiful way to take in the work. I don’t know if it’s pregnancy or the state of our world right now or the beauty of each piece and the way they take up a creative space in my heart, but I found myself a complete emotional wreck while watching these collaborations between the dancers, choreographer, and cinematographer. Each video breathes into me a release that only the arts can bring me. When I watch a beautiful dance work or listen to a powerful piece of music, when I can really connect with the artists, like I feel I have been able to do with Continuum, I am completely shattered in the best way possible. I will let you experience HOME as well as the rest of the pieces for yourself, but I want to leave you with this:

“Art has the power to teach empathy”
Leah Terada in SeaPertls' THE ONLY THING YOU SEE NOW (© Henry Wurtz)

“Art has the power to teach empathy”-James Moore. It’s truthful, and it’s powerful, and it’s the reason we need to continue fighting to innovate, to challenge the art world, to keep the arts alive. We have more power in projects like Continuum to shape each other, to express ourselves, and to appreciate and understand someone else’s story than we have with any other way of communication. Creativity in how we connect, how we take the world in, and how we release frustration in a time where so many of the things we love to do and the people we love to enjoy the world with are out of reach is paramount. This is the time to make changes to the way we function as a society, to bring the arts into our homes, to make sure that we put as much stock in it as we do into sporting events. It's not just about entertainment. It's about survival.

Seattle Dance Collective Founders
James Moore and Noelani Pantastico.
Find out more about the collective, watch Continuum, and donate to fund more projects and dancers at Seattle Dance Collective.
Artistic Directors James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico (© Lindsay Thomas)