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Narratives for the Current Moment

That was beautiful, but I didn’t get it,” was a refrain Brett Ishida got used to hearing in the audience at dance performances. At the time, Ishida, a former dancer, was studying for her degrees in English and education. She says the comment made her consider the potential in the journals and written narratives she’d been keeping for years—and provided her with the unlikely inspiration to create dances that would resonate with audiences.

“I thought, ‘I would love to create works that are really relevant, that are something that people in modernity can really understand and relate to,’” she remembers. Her observation—and the drive it created—turned into the ethos behind Ishida Dance Company.

Ishida Dance Company dancer Madison Medina in Brett Ishida's “10,000 years I love you.” Photograph by Amitava Sarkar

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Before founding the company in 2019, Ishida trained extensively in classical ballet, studying at both the Kirov Academy and the School of American Ballet. She went on to a performance career with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and a variety of companies across the United States. Ishida also holds a Bachelor’s degree in English, with an emphasis on creative writing and poetry, from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Master’s degree in Montessori Education from St. Mary’s College. Now, she’s weaving her studies together with her dance background to create something all her own at the Houston, Texas–based company.  

 Ishida is preparing for a triple bill program, “having been breathed out,” which will run at Asia Society Houston from June 9 – 11, followed by a one-night engagement at the Dell Fine Arts Center in Austin on June 17. The program features Ishida’s new work, “American Gothic,” as well as two Texas premieres by noted European choreographers Edward Clug and Andonis Foniadakis. 

Fjord Review spoke with Ishida about melding dance and writing, ushering European choreographers into U.S. dance spaces, and putting her own twist on Balanchine. 

Brett Ishida. Photograph by Amitava Sarkar

You studied and performed classical ballet before leaving the professional dance world to study poetry and literature. How does writing, your other creative avenue, inspire your choreography?

In terms of the process of creating movement, I write a script first, in the form of a play. That, along with annotated music, drives the movement. I do that first, before I get into a studio and start playing with movement, and that creates the framework. I keep referencing the script as I go through the different scenes. I’ll share the context and what’s going on with the characters—what’s happening with them emotionally, and their intentions—with the dancers so we’re all on the same page and get to explore and experiment with those feelings and those relationships together.  

How would you describe your movement style?

I’m utilizing those beautiful aesthetics from classical ballet—I’m keeping certain lines and some of the things in classical ballet that we’re all drawn to because they’re so beautiful, yet I’m layering it with this theatricality and this modern context and these very humanistic movements that help convey what’s going on with the character internally.

In the upcoming show, you’ll be debuting a new work called “American Gothic.” Tell us a bit about the inspirations behind the work.

American Gothic—it’s the Grant Wood painting from 1930. I've just always loved the title—and that painting is in the consciousness of our culture. It’s this thing that we all know in terms of pop culture—this couple, and this woman looking at this very stern man and she's not looking straightforward, she's tilted. And so all of these questions come to mind: Why is she not as stern and straightforward as him? Why is she tilted? What has transpired before that point? What's their family like? Do they have children? How do the siblings interact? How do they relate to the parents? And how does the couple relate to each other? And so—here you go! You already have the beginnings of something in terms of the script. 

This piece explores the internal and external dynamics of the nuclear family. I'm also referencing “The Four Temperaments” from Balanchine in this piece. My relationship to Balanchine works goes back to childhood—seeing videos when I was really little, trying to emulate them and learn variations. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley (in California)—there wasn't a lot of culture or art. A friend of mine would videotape, on cable, these great performances. She had an attic room that was a mock studio with wood floors and mirrors and we'd learn the variations and critique what we liked about the dancers and their performances. And so Balanchine, he's a major influence for me. He has 465 ballets, which blows my mind. How do you even get to that point? His work is still performed by every major company—which is mind blowing to me—and it’s not just here in the US, but wherever you go. There's reason for that, I think. I just think it's important to acknowledge where we come from in terms of movement. And as we move forward and push dance forward, I love to reference what came before us. 

Brett Ishida. Photograph by Amitava Sarkar

When you say you’re referencing Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” is it on a more thematic or aesthetic level?

The aesthetics that Balanchine often highlighted were beautiful lines. There are these patterns and shapes that he’d create—there's an architecture within his choreography. I’m definitely looking at all those things too—they're very important to how I put things together. But I think, in opposition to Balanchine—in a lot of his work, the dancers are very aloof, they're non narrative, they're kind of doing their thing and make it look very easy, very relaxed, in a way. That's kind of the antithesis of any of my work, which is very emotional. The characters are often looking very intently at each other and there's an intensity and a level of theatricality. In “The Four Temperaments,” you've got the four humors—but, even in that, Balanchine still keeps this aloofness in most of the sections, which is fascinating. That's not going to be “American Gothic”—it'll be quite the opposite of that.

Edward Clug’s “Mutual Comfort” and Andonis Foniadakis’ “Horizons” fill out the program for “having been breathed out.” Tell us about your decision to program these choreographers.

Edward Clug has been choreographing for 30 years. He does full length ballets in Europe—he just premiered a new “Coppélia” in Switzerland on Ballett Theater Basel. He's prolific in Europe, yet we don't do his work here. I think he's been very influential on choreography in the world, and especially in the western sphere, and I think it's important to be able to expose audiences to these people who are so influential in the field. Also, “Mutual Comfort” was somewhat inspired by Schlemmer’s “Bauhaus Stairway.” That was a little later than American Gothic, but I thought it was interesting that these two works are somewhat influenced by these works of art that are fairly well known. 

Adonis Foniadakis’ work has been shown in Canada and Europe and he has his own company in Greece. I've been following his work and I think he has an interesting voice, as well, that we don't get to see here in the U.S. His work adds diversity to the program. He has kind of a wild style—but, especially in this piece, the work has this feeling of being contemporary, yet it also has this archaic feeling with the music. The music is an original composition by Julian Tarride from France—there's these voices and chimes and it just has a very mythic feeling to it.

What’s next for Ishida?

We will be performing in early January after this. We haven't publicized what that program will be yet, but I will guarantee that, like all of our programs, it'll be unique and will connect to our audiences on this emotional level. We'll also be performing again in late March and early June 2024 in Houston and Austin. As we continue to perform, we are looking to expand our programming to build a full-time repertory company here in Houston.

Sophie Bress

Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.



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