Q & A: XAVIERA VANDERMAY

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“I’d rent space at Links Hall in Chicago from 3:00 to 5:00 AM when John, my son, would be asleep. I’d go there, put the camcorder on, and record myself improving for two hours. At that time, I thought the only way I’d ever be able to make a dance company work is if I do it in the middle of the night. Hence, third shift dance. That’s how it was born.”

Photo by Kathie Statler Photography.

Xaviera Vandermay’s hands are whirling about in passionate discussion. It’s visibly difficult for her to not dance as she speaks. Her goblet of pumpkin ale sits by forgotten – a rare thing for Xaviera (pronounced Zay-vee-air-ah) to do – as she divulges her accomplishments, tricks, and love of performing dance.

Xaviera is a Seattle-based dance artist, best known for her work as Founder and Artistic Director of 3rd Shift Dance Company. She’s what you would expect from a person who spends the night dancing after putting her kid to bed: hard-working and overflowing with energy.

I’m actually quite familiar with Xaviera’s work: I dance with her and the 3rd Shift family, giving me first hand experience inside Xaviera’s creative process. Xaviera churns out artistic, challenging choreography, showcases unique dancers’ strengths, creates works that have a hundred moving parts, and pours every ounce of her grind into 3rd Shift, teaching, and life.

It’s always been apparent that 3rd Shift, the Contemporary Jazz dance company she started eight years ago, is close to her heart both figuratively and literally – she has 3rd Shift Dance tattooed across her chest, stretching from right collarbone to left. But it wasn’t until I sat down and interviewed my company director that I realized how instrumental Xav’s love of helping people unfurl and flourish through dance is to her life and career.

[Risa:] Welcome Xav! Would you mind telling SeattleDance readers who you are and what you do?

[Xaviera:] Hello! Well, I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, at Swedish on First Hill. I actually live a mile from where I was born. I’ve been creating work in Seattle since 2011. I did studio work before then, but it was 2011 when I was first presented at On the Boards for 12 Minutes Max. That’s actually where 3rd Shift had its debut.

What exactly is 3rd Shift Dance?

3rd Shift Dance by and large is a Contemporary Jazz Dance Company. It’s been my mission to have that type of aesthetic represented from the beginning. That being said, we’ve also expanded to straight contemporary at times, while still going super hard at classic jazz, Vaudevillian style, and not feeling like we have to hit this exact spot. Jazz is a broad genre, so we’re broadening, fully enjoying all of it.

Photo by HMMM Productions.

With 3rd Shift I’ve always worked to put out fun, uplifting works. Sometimes we have a serious subject matter, but I’m sure to put it forward in an entertaining way. We make sure that the audience experience is considered. That’s why our pieces are fast paced and we typically don’t have intermissions, though now we’re starting to have breaks, so more beer can be drank by our patrons.

Well, that is about audience first isn’t it?

Yeah exactly! They need to be able to refill! Our shows are something where an a person who’s watched dance for forever, or a total newbie, can come into that theater and have a fun, transformative experience. From there, maybe people will realized they do like dance, and hopefully they’ll start supporting other companies as well.

How did 3rd Shift Dance begin? Maybe we can trace back through your dance career. What was your path like to starting your own company?

I started dancing when I was five, like many people. To be frank, dance class wasn’t super fantastic to me, I could take it or leave it. But the first time we got on stage, and I performed, that’s when I knew: this is it. From there I did some competitive dance, as well as training at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and WA Academy of Performing Arts, which was huge as far as influence on my movement style.

At 18 years old, I focused my eye on Spectrum Dance Theater. I started training at Spectrum Dance Theater everyday they were open. I took every class from the Artistic Director at the time, Dale Merrill, that I possibly could. Come April I went to the auditions and got an apprenticeship. I ended up being the first paid apprentice of Spectrum Dance Theater, and was there through the transition of Wade Madsen as interim, and Donald Byrd as he took over in 2002. I got to go for the full ride with the company for their three-director period, which was huge transition for this city.

Post Spectrum, I moved out to Chicago to be in a city where Jazz is really held sacred. I danced at Joel Hall Dance Center which helped rebuild my body, and my spirit. After putting three years in Spectrum and working hard and loving it, I was also a little broken when I moved away. Joel helped build me back up and find my confidence again as a dancer, as a creative person, and as a human. That was an amazing time period.

Then in 2008, I moved back to Seattle.When my son John registered for kindergarten, we had our first audition for 3rd Shift!

Starting a company is crazy, isn’t it? It’s so much work! What advice do you have for young dancers in Seattle looking to make dance their life? Is it start a company?

Obviously I’m an advocate for it. It provided me an insane amount of opportunities. The types of things I’ve gotten to do since: going down to LA every year to perform, doing films and feature lengths, backup dancing, and music videos. None of that would have happened without 3rd Shift Dance. But what I’d say is be ready to fall on your face. It’s not all going to be successful. Not everyone’s going to like your work and that’s okay. It just means it’s not for them. But be true to yourself in what you’re doing, because they’ll read when it’s false. They’ll be able to tell if you’re making something just to see if everyone will like it. Surround yourself with people who you know believe in you as much as you believe in them. Even if it means that you’re a company of two to four people to start off. Start strong with that base of mutual respect and creative upbeat energy and you can really do anything.

Photo by Kathie Statler Photography.

What were some of the biggest obstacles to starting 3rd Shift and making it successful?

Honestly I think the biggest obstacles were me being my own worst enemy. So I think the times that were a bit tougher were when I was feeling a bit more insecure about my work, and when my ego was writing checks that were a bit too large too early in. I think I needed to have a few little stumbles to figure out how to walk and eventually run towards something more sustainable. I learned how to interact with people in a really successful way and how to get their best work out of them. An approach for one person will not work for the next dancer, so I really try to be adaptable and that has helped significantly with the quality of the work that’s happening, with the growth of the dancers that I’m watching daily. With each rehearsal they get better and better. I’d say for any young choreographer out here, really try to check the ego. It’s not about us, it’s about the work and the people that we’re working with. Try and take yourself out of it.

I and I think other members of the 3rd Shift dance family view you as a creative powerhouse, how do you sustain your creativity and inspiration?

It’s really the dancers. It doesn’t really matter what kind of day I’ve had leading into it, when I walk into 3rd Shift practice, the energy in the room, the excitement, watching you guys warm up, watching the different ways you move through my warm up of torture, it hits that spark almost every time. And even when we’re not in a highly creative mode, when we’re just pounding through material, it’s the little funny accidents that happen in practice that sometimes spur a full series of movement.

Sometimes it’s realizing, hey I actually really like that little stumbly thing, let me play with being a little more off center. Like in our upcoming piece Fall Down, that was definitely born from falling off my leg. But then I thought, you know who does that really well but gracefully? Elise Walker – one of 3rd Shift’s dancers. It’s the sparkle in people’s eyes. It’s like a mom watching her babies out there, except you’re all very much my peers.

It’s seems clear how much you love performing and how much that inspires you. So what do you like about performing? How does that motivate you?

It’s hard to say just one thing that makes performing so amazing and fulfilling because it can also be terror wrecking. What’s funny is, I enjoyed it so much as a kid before I got in my head, Did I hit this angle correct? Was I in the exact right spot all the time? There was a period of time where the performance was good, but I was in my head all the time, and it became a job. Fast forward to my time in Chicago, I actually had a huge suitcase crash onto my foot while loading in for the show, and I was supposed to be  on stage in four hours. I sat in the dressing room and thought you’re going to do what you can, and whatever happens happens. It was the first time I ever felt that way and it was one of the best performances of my life, because I just checked it all. I felt free. And that’s what it is, if you’re able to capture it, feeling free. Expressing yourself in your most honest way, and for me that’s dance.

It’s wild how a situation like that can inspire a different mindset.

It was really crazy. I was so glad that my mom and aunt flown into see it. And they even told me they hadn’t seen me look like [myself] in so long, that I was trying to be like other dancers in other companies, where we had to match and take on the same personality and not necessarily be authentic.

I think that’s something that’s cultivated in 3rd Shift too, is it’s not about matching perfectly, it’s about being your own authentic self. It’s definitely a very different mindset than I know I grew up dancing in.

I think that’s something that’s evolved with the company too. Like I mentioned with the ego and the insecurities, I wanted people to dance exactly the way I did it. Then I realized, one, that’s not possible because we all have our own way to move, and two the dancer satisfaction wasn’t there because you’re not able to own it if you’re busy trying to be someone else. Shaking that off, I realized these people have amazing things to give. Like 3rd Shift dancer Megan Hauk, watching her progression has been phenomenal! It’s so much fun to see that twinkle in her eye, to watch her put her own spin on it.  Frankly you’re one of those people too. Like watching you in Ian [Howe]’s piece and letting your eyes sparkle and just really going for it has been a lot of fun to watch.

Maybe we can talk about what 3rd Shift is working on now. What do folks have to look forward to?

The upcoming show! Shift Sessions Volume 7 November 30th at Broadway Performance Hall!

The front half of the show is fun in that we’re doing a little bit of a retrospective. We’re opening the show by bringing back a piece that was debuted in Season 1, choreographed by April Torneby. We’re also doing a little bit from our Shift Sessions 2, with [musician] Naomi Wachira, with Elise Walker doing that solo. We have [vocalist] Adra Boo coming back from Shift Sessions Volume 5, and she’ll be singing “This Bitter Earth,” with my sister Ahnaleza Vandermay doing the dancing. We’re bringing back Curiosity from Shift Sessions Volume 5, with music by Caela Bailey. It’s just a favorite. We performed it down in LA and it may have been the happiest I’ve ever been watching 3rd Shift Dance.

So that’s the front half. And then we’re going to jump into our work with vocalist and rapper Livt, who’s a super powerhouse. Within the set with her, there will be dances by 3rd Shift Dance Youth Ensemble, 3SD2, as well as the main company. We’ll wrap it up by inviting the whole audience on stage to party with us.

Photo by HMMM Productions.

One thing I love about Shift Sessions is that we’re collaborating with local artists and I’m curious about the intentionality behind that. What led you to want to work with live musicians, who might not know dance, and specifically with people in Seattle?

It actually came from Sean Ryan, who was previously at On the Boards. It was a feedback note I received from him after one of our less successful auditions at 12 Minutes Max. He said we were doing good stuff but we might want to consider working with local musicians so that we’re able to show our work online, not break music copyright rules, and get more features out in the local community. That’s what planted the seed. It’s beautiful would to get to elevate someone’s music locally with dancers and have them all intermesh in a respectful way, so that we’re showcased equally. We’re not back up dancing, which is also a lot of fun, but we’re very much prominently featured, as well as having the musicians front and center too and getting to share their story.

We’ve worked with Dark Hip Falls, Mike Illvester, Adra Boo, Whitney Monge, Future Shock, Bad Tenants – we’ve done a ton.

How do you feel 3rd Shift fits into the Seattle dance world? What’s the niche?

As far as where we fit into the landscape, it’s kind of a funny thing in that I don’t think of Seattle as a Jazz town. However, there are lots of really talented Jazz choreographers here, but we just tend to tone our work more towards Contemporary to fit in. It’s a fit-in to get-in kind of thing.

But then there’s folks like Amy Lambert who just goes for it. She knows we’re a Modern town and does her own thing, and has been super well received. So I’d say if I could see us lining up with another group it’d probably be with people like Amy – whose work is fun, it’s quirky, and you won’t know exactly what you’re going to see but you know you’re going to leave with a laugh in your heart and smile on your face.

Do you have any new projects up your sleeves? Looking in the future, big picture, is there anything you’re excited about?

The next musical group we’re going to collaborate with is the Rain City Jazz Orchestra, formerly known as the Mood Swings. We performed with them at Jazz Shout last Spring, and this time we’re going to bring our Shift Sessions Volume 8 with the full jazz orchestra. I’m really excited about that! I got to keep a tight lip on some of the details for now, but that’s the next thing I’m super excited for!

Shift Sessions Volume 7 shows one night only on November 30th at Broadway Performance Hall. For tickets and information, visit the Facebook event or the ticket link.

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