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Christin Hanna Is Bringing the Dance World Home to Tahoe City

Christin Hanna, artistic director, Lake Tahoe Dance Collective. Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

As the sun sets over Lake Tahoe, a group of young sylphs emerges from a copse of towering fir trees to make a magical entrance onto an outdoor stage. Between the naturally theatrical lighting design and the equally dramatic backdrop of greenery, blue water and the Sierra Nevada mountains, the scene for an homage to Michel Fokine's classic ballet could not be more perfect. The audience watches from lawn chairs and picnic blankets, sipping wine, as the evening's program drifts casually back and forth between student presentations and professional guest artists performing works classical and contemporary, from the repertory of modern dance pioneer Erick Hawkins to the White Swan pas de deux to choreographed improvisations by Christian Burns and Lake Tahoe Dance Festival co-director Constantine Baecher.

After the show, a surprising number of people stick around for an artist talk-back. In an area known for athletic adventure and Olympian training (the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in nearby Squaw Valley), these viewers are curious to know more about the physical prowess they have just witnessed. This is exactly the reaction Christin Hanna has been hoping to achieve in her effort to establish her hometown of Tahoe City, California, as a cultural destination, akin to Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts.

Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

"Nothing was handed to me," says Hanna, who is artistic director of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective and co-director of the festival. "There were no theater keys to turn over. Everything had to be built, from the stage to the audience." Hanna has spent the last eight years growing a year-round infrastructure for dance in Tahoe City, which includes the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective (a not-for-profit performing group for top-level students in the area), the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival in the summer (2016 was the fourth annual), a winter repertory show and a guest company in the fall.

For many artists, returning home can be a sign of resignation, a retreat from the world. But in her homecoming, Hanna has given the professional dance world a gorgeous retreat that gives back in myriad ways: simultaneously enriching the arts culture of this small mountain town while also exposing aspiring local dancers to the caliber of teaching usually only found in big cities.

Hanna's own coming-of-age story has been the source of her passion for this project. “I was the only kid who danced in high school, the weirdo with a bun," says Hanna. “I started ballet at the rec center in nearby Truckee, California. And I was lucky to have a great first teacher, but she fell in love and moved away when I was 8."

Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

To continue her serious pursuit of dance, Hanna eventually had to drive to Reno, Nevada—about an hour away—to train with Maggie Banks at Nevada Festival Ballet. After a brief stint with Oakland Ballet Company, Hanna moved to New York City with $200 in her pocket. She made ends meet working as a sales clerk in the ski department of Paragon Sports store and began training with Peff Modelski and Wilhelm Burmann at Steps on Broadway. Modelski eventually introduced Hanna to choreographer Miro Magloire, who was then working on a solo for Deborah Wingert, and from there, Hanna spent several years working as a freelance dancer for Magloire's New Chamber Ballet and learning from Wingert's expert coaching. In 2006, after performing at Jacob's Pillow with NCB and beginning to write grants for the small troupe, Hanna had her aha moment with Magloire: “What if we built something similar in Lake Tahoe?"

She began the transition modestly, first teaching a weeklong workshop at Dee Dee Terzian's Tahoe Dance School with Magloire. But the students were mostly young kids, and Hanna wondered, "Where are the older kids?" The void gave her an idea of the niche she could fill if she moved back, one that would have been a game changer for her when she was training.

Co-director Constantine Baecher is pictured in a duet with Traci Finch. Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

She left a handful of jobs behind, moved into a small cabin on her parents' property and began teaching the 12- to 14-year-olds twice a week at Tahoe Dance School and the rec center where she first learned to plié. When the students started to ask for more classes, she eventually found her own space to host a daily company class for them and rehearsals for what evolved into Tahoe Youth Ballet. “Now kids come from all around," she says of how she forged alliances with local teachers instead of competing. “We all do different things—whether it is teaching different ages, levels or styles—and it is too small a town not to work together. I still help out with Tahoe Dance School's Christmas show."

As the youth ballet's performance programs grew, Hanna faced the large task of establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit structure, now called Lake Tahoe Dance Collective, and finding a board of directors, in order to be eligible for bigger grants and funding. While LTDC still does not fund her salary (that comes from teaching), donations are on the rise, with many in the downtown business community chipping in with cash and in-kind offers. "The manager of the building gave us an unheard-of rent deal back in 2008, right after the market crashed," explains Hanna. The studio has since doubled in size to take over an adjacent space, which now allows her small but loyal group of year-round students to really travel in their grand allégro.

Festival performances include both students and guest artists. Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

Yet even with the support and time donated by the community, her parents and husband, who is also a small-business owner, the struggles of being an entrepreneur in the arts have been real, and at times the remote locale can be isolating. When she is not teaching, there is always something that needs to be done: bookkeeping, fundraising, promotion. In the high seasons of summer and winter, Hanna relishes her crazy schedule and the constant flow of guest artists and friends she hosts. But come October, all of the summer tourists are gone and the town empties out until ski season begins. In order not to go crazy during those quiet months, Hanna will drive the four hours to San Francisco to take class at LINES Dance Center, take in a film or go to a museum for a quick shot of culture and see as many friends as possible at least once a month.

The Monday after the summer intensive and weekend of festival shows, Hanna was already back in the studio teaching class and choreographing a new ballet to Haydn for the Lake Tahoe Music Festival, a commission that premiered in August with guest artists Damien Johnson of London's Ballet Black and Elizabeth Brown of New Chamber Ballet performing the lead pas de deux. With her hair up in a classic french twist, spine erect, Hanna playfully coached her corps de ballet though the finer points of a piqué arabesque. "Do we have bent ski poles?" she asked. "No. They are always straight. Your straight strong leg is that ski pole. Plant it and go. Just plant and go." Plant it and go. As she looks ahead to a future of programming bigger companies for the summer, hosting more international artists, developing a bigger audience and teaching more students, Hanna's advice to her class sounds like a personal mantra for her enthusiastic and energetic approach to life and art.

Photo by Jen Schmidt, courtesy of Lake Tahoe Dance Collective

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