CHULA VISTA — Top honors in Improvisational Jazz Dance at the California State Talent Competition went to Viola Pierson, a 16-year-old student at Chula Vista High School. The contest, held in May in San Jose, was the 18th of its kind to celebrate outstanding achievements in the performing arts.
Viola competed in a category that includes dancers from ages 16 to 24. When the proud teen-ager returned home late last week she pointed out:
"I just turned 16, and I think I was the youngest one (in that category)."
Competing in improvisational dance is difficult and traumatic because its spontaneous nature makes choreographed combinations or rehearsal time impossible. The dancers can only respond--emotionally and kinetically--to the musical stimulus selected at random when they step on stage for the competition.
"Most people are afraid to just go with the music," she said. "You just have to listen to the music and do what your body wants to. You can't think about how you're going to do it. But I've been working on improvisation for five years now, and I also take jazz and ballet (lessons). That helps. And it helps to be outgoing."
Pierson's confident attack, rhythmic spontaneity and vigorous athleticism made her an easy favorite with both the judges and the audience at the San Jose competition.
"I did mostly turns, leaps, splits and continuous gymnastic moves, and everyone really loved it. They like a lot of athletics."
Her longtime mentor, Jo-Elyn Nourie, artistic director of The Studio for Performing Arts, was teaching in the Chula Vista public schools (on a California Arts Council grant) when she discovered young Viola.
"She was only 10 then, and she had never taken any dance lessons, but she was very talented," Nourie recalled.
Nourie prepared Pierson and her other students for improvisation by encouraging them "to explore all the places in the body."
"How many ways can an arm bend? How many ways can a leg bend? I teach them the exploration of movement--not steps, and I give them the freedom to express themselves," Nourie said. "Then, we work on putting the parts together."
Now that Nourie has trained a sizable group of students in her brand of improvisational jazz dance, she is thinking about starting a company of her own, with Pierson as her brightest star. But as Nourie noted, "I'd like to see Vi dancing with Alvin Ailey. For that, I'll give her up."
Pierson, a devout Jehovah's Witness, is anxious to make a career in dance, but she won't let it upstage her personal priorities:
"I want to dance as long as it doesn't conflict with my religion."