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

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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