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Jodie Gates is a graceful driving force

Sensing a void when she moved to the area, she started the Laguna Dance Festival.

September 27, 2009|Susan Reiter

As soon as Jodie Gates settled in Laguna Beach, she knew what she had to do. After a high-profile career performing with the Joffrey, Pennsylvania and Frankfurt ballets, the Sacramento native returned to her home state in 2005. She felt the area was dance-deprived, but she sensed great potential and boldly launched the Laguna Dance Festival.

"I wanted to bring high-quality dance to the community. I saw there was a possibility for something like a festival," Gates said recently. "Quite frankly, having a dance company in Southern California has been challenging, at best, over the years. But I thought something that's community-oriented yet brings in nationally recognized talent and is an annual event might be supported by the community."

She got the festival started so quickly that she didn't have time to establish her own nonprofit, so she ran it under the umbrella of another organization. This year is its fourth under the auspices of CaDance, her presenting organization. The three-week schedule includes educational and outreach events and culminates next weekend with three performances at the Artists' Theatre. The smartly balanced programs showcase established companies and stars but also introduce rising choreographers whose work Gates wants to introduce to local audiences.

Next week's performances include Ballet West from Salt Lake City and BalletX (whose choreographer, Matthew Neenan, Gates met dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet). Also performing are Breed, a local hip-hop troupe; Sacramento Ballet; and aerial dancer Rachel Bowman. In a festival first, Gates decided she was ready to include her own choreography, so BalletX will perform her new work set to Ravel's "Bolero." Financial support for the festival comes from the city and local businesses. Festival director is just one of many hats Gates is wearing these days. Her range of activities -- and connections to a large network within the dance world -- add up to an impressive example of how to gracefully move into the post-performing phase of a career in dance. Her busy (and often peripatetic) schedule includes teaching, choreographing and staging the works of William Forsythe for major companies. Her position as professor in UC Irvine's dance department anchors her schedule, but she maximizes her academic breaks.

Two of her recent dances had premieres in New York, and she also created a work for BalletX, an enterprising new Philadelphia venture that will perform at the festival. Her guest teaching schedule includes Orange County High School of the Arts and creating a work those students will perform in December.

Gates, now in her early 40s, had no grand plan when she left the stage, although she had already begun to find her voice as a choreographer. (Several of her earliest dances had their premieres at Irvine's Barclay Theatre, at performances by Ballet Pacifica and the American Ballet Theatre School.) Bringing her career full circle, she gave her final performance in New York in 2005, dancing a Forsythe duet with Complexions, a contemporary troupe that had her as a long-standing guest. What to do next?

"I gravitated towards Laguna. The quality of life here is what I was yearning for. I realized that my entire life, practically, had been spent in a theater or studio. So there was a part of me that just wanted to be outdoors."

Her presence has been noticed. Dennis Power, president of Laguna College of Art & Design and recent chairman of Laguna Beach Alliance for the Arts, said, "The quality of dance that Jodie's been able to bring in . . . has been excellent. The community looks forward to it every year and has rallied around her, lending support. The visual arts get loads of attention in Laguna Beach, and there's a good playhouse in town. But Jodie, with CaDance, has really brought dance to the forefront."

The dancer's work ethic and discipline that marked her life since joining the Joffrey at 18 serve her well with her multiple jobs, as has an ability to prioritize. "I've always been super-organized and efficient. When I work, I work hard," she noted.

She may not have planned it that way, but her tripartite performing career provided an ideal range and perspective. She became prominent as soon as she joined the Joffrey in 1983 -- no time languishing in the back row for her. "William Forsythe and Lynn Seymour shot off my career. My first month there, Bill came in to stage 'Love Songs' and put me in the first cast, dancing one of the solos." (The production was televised on PBS' "Dance in America" series.)

"That same year, Lynn Seymour staged Frederick Ashton's solo 'Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.' It was supposed to be brought in for one of the ballerinas, but she saw me in class and I ended up doing it." Robust and earthy, thrillingly capturing the abandon and spontaneity of Duncan, Gates made quite an impression.

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