Feb. 20 will bring an interesting experience for fans of local dance as SALT Contemporary Dance will be holding their second annual Choreography Festival. The evening is basically a chance for professional dancers to bring their best choreography to perform in front of other pros to receive feedback that will hopefully inspire and help them improve their game. You can snag tickets to the festival at the door of the Julie Layne Theater, part of the Children's Ballet Theatre
the night of each show. Before the festival kicks off, we chat with SALT's Artistic Director, Michell Nielsen, about her career and founding the company. (All photos taken by Chris Peddicord, used courtesy of SALT.
Gavin: Hello Michelle! What first got you interested in dance, and what were your major influences growing up?
I’ve been dancing since I was a very shy four-year-old. Dance
was then and is still a mode of expression that goes beyond words and speaks soul to soul.
What was it like performing as a kid before you got into college?
Before getting into college, I wondered how I would continue my love for dance, knowing that I wanted it to be a part of my life always. I would never have dreamed I would be here, directing SALT, but if you love something, really love it, and work your tail off, you can get good at it and then use it to give back to others. That is true fulfillment.
You earned your degrees from BYU and the University of California, Irvine. What made you choose those particular schools and how was it coming up through their programs?
BYU has an incredibly large dance program and their top performing companies tour the world. They are focused on using dance as a means to build bridges between cultures and that was something I wanted to be a part of. UCI has a unique two-year program, usually three years, for obtaining an MFA, as well as having dance legend Donald McKayle on faculty
, who I was able to assist in directing his company.
You've had a ton of dancing experience around the world, founded a few groups and got to perform some amazing shows. What would you say were your favorites during the years you were really running?
My highlights will always be the people changed by the art form, whether that’s the orphans in Cambodia, the students at BYU or audiences that SALT now inspires, the art form has touched and transformed them all in unique ways, and that is what I love. Dance, music, the arts—they transform and touch our souls in all the ways that make us better humans.
What eventually brought you back to Utah rather than continue touring and working on other projects?
I had an opportunity to teach at BYU and knew that this would bring my closer to family.
How did the idea to start a new dance company in Utah come about?
I was working with the top performing contemporary dancers at BYU and watching them graduate and look for something fulfilling. Although Utah has many talented dancers, the opportunities for professional performing are relatively few. I wanted to offer something here in Utah that allowed dancers to feel like they could enjoy global exposure to the current and evolving dance scene without having to leave the state. I wanted to provide another opportunity, a unique opportunity. I could never have imagined the incredible momentum SALT has had over this past couple of years. It is obviously meeting a need for many dancers and for art-loving audience thirsty to be a part of a progressive dance movement.
What was it like for you putting the company together and forming it as a non-profit organization?
As with any new company, it required all the heart and help of everyone involved. The founding members of the company and I had a vision and worked and fund-raised and worked some more to make it a reality. I have to say, that it feels much more like I am watching this company grow, more than growing it myself. I feel like I have simply lifted a kite off the ground and the wind has done the rest.
How did you go about choosing performers and deciding on the full company?
In choosing performers, I look at every aspect of who they are. Classical training is important to me, but I also need them to be compelling performers, competent and collaborative creative artists, and they need to mesh with the vibe of the company. I have put together a beautiful collection of humble and unbelievably talented performers that are teachable and a ton of fun to work with.
What was it like starting out and getting in shows at various locations?
I can imagine that when Michelangelo carved the statue of David, the most difficult part was the beginning carving process. Each show and project have felt like we are carving out a place, a life for SALT—building relationships, making miracles happen on a small budget, discovering how to define and market who we are.
You've only been around since 2013, what lessons have you learned in the short time you've been active, and how has the Utah dance scene treated you?
The lessons learned are immeasurable. I have said many times over these past few years that I feel like I am earning an MBA. I am learning all about how the world of art and business collide and how to be true to both. I have learned that surrounding myself with great people makes great things happen. And I have learned to do what you love and give it back in the form of service.
You're hosting your second choreography festival. For those who don't know, what will you be featuring at this festival?
We will feature a choreography showcase with work submitted from all avenues of dance including professionals, college students, and studios. Emerging choreographers from all over the state will come together to present their work and receive feedback, verbal and written, from adjudicators. The showcase is followed by a masterclass in choreography and technique by Garrett Smith, Eldon Johnson, and Logan McGill. That evening there will be two gala performances of highlighted pieces from the morning showcase as well as choreography from SALT and SALT 2 companies.
For those wishing to participate, how can they get involved?
You can still submit work to be adjudicated, or simply attend the workshop and gala performances. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 385-240-4554 for more info.
Over the next few months, what performances do you have in store?
SALT will present our spring concert on April 1 and 2 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. This concert includes original works from Gabrielle Lamb, Garrett Smith, Courtney Mazieka, Brendan Duggin.
What can we expect from SALT Contemporary and yourself over the rest of 2016?
SALT has an incredible year planned. We will host head-turning choreographers such as Ihsan Rustem and Alex Ketley, presenting their original works in our November 2016 concert. There will be a summer workshop announced shortly as well as auditions for SALT and SALT 2 on May 13-14. Follow us on Facebook
to be a part of this progressive dance movement in Utah!