by Thorey Mountain
Laura Haney, an extrodinary jazz dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was a member of River North Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, as well as a company member of BodyVox from 2005-2008. She is a Stott-certified Pilates instructor and has taught numerous dance workshops and master classes across the country. Laura currently directs the dance program and student company at Multnomah Athletic Club, and teaches at June Taylor’s School of Dance. She speaks here with Thorey Mountain in an interview about her upcoming new work that will be premiered at Northwest Dance Theatre’s spring mixed-bill production, A Festival of Dance, next month at Portland Community College Sylvania’s Performing Arts Center.
TM: Northwest Dance Theatre is delighted that you are choreographing a piece for “A Festival of Dance”. Could you tell me a little about it?
LH: The whole piece is entitled “Blue Note Suite” but it is comprised of four different sections, “Night in Tunisia” composed by Dizzy Gillespie, “La Vie en Rose” which was Piaf’s signature song, but the Louis Armstrong version, and “Dance Me to the End of Love” written by Leonard Cohen and performed by Madeleine Peyroux. The final section is Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk”.
TM: What was your inspiration?
LH: I had choreographed “Night in Tunisia” some time back and I always felt that it would be good to use it in a larger work. “Dance Me to the End of Love” is also my choreography. The other two pieces have been choreographed by my colleague, Maria Tucker. Our styles are very similar.
TM: You direct the dance program and student company at the Multnomah Athletic Club and traditionally the MAC dancers have performed two or three pieces at the NWDT Spring Performance, but as a separate entity. What is different on this occasion?
LH: MAC Company dancers will again perform three of their own numbers, but we have also added a collaborative piece with NWDT. Some of the MAC students are dancing in the first section with the NWDT dancers, and both NWDT and MAC Company dancers are dancing in the final section. They each have their own section in the middle.
TM: I believe that you are a jazz dance purist! I know that you feel that it is important that students learn classic jazz dance technique and styles. Your initial training was classical ballet. When did you first become interested in jazz dance?
LH: I trained in classical ballet with just a little jazz and modern. When I was fifteen I saw a performance of the Hubbard Street Dance Company and this changed my whole path. Electrified by what I saw, I knew where I wanted to go!
TM: How did you set out to achieve your dream?
LH: I dealt with pointe shoes for another couple of years, and when I was a senior in high school I attended an audition and was awarded a scholarship to study at Lou Conte’s studio, which is the home of the Hubbard Street dancers. So after high school I moved to Chicago, danced all day and worked in a coffee shop at night and weekends. After four or five months I was offered a contract with River North Dance Chicago. Eventually my dream came true and I joined Hubbard Street. I danced with them for seven years. Although the jazz element was still very important to them at that time, I also danced in some works by foremost modern/contemporary choreographers including Twyla Tharp, Nacho Duato and Jyri Killian.
TM: What advice do you give to pre-professional students who are hoping to have careers as professional dancers?
LH: The most important aspect to succeeding as a performer nowadays is versatility. Ballet technique is fundamental, there is no substitute for it. That is the foundation, but it is essential to be able to dance jazz, modern, tap, and even hip hop. I also encourage students to train their singing voices and acting skills. If I hadn’t had the versatility, I wouldn’t have had a career. After I left Hubbard Street I toured nationally as a featured performer in the Broadway show “Fosse” and was a cast member of the Broadway musical “A Christmas Carol”.
Versatility is alive and well with the NWDT students, due to the choice of program and careful guidance of artistic director, June Taylor Dixon. As well as performing excerpts from the ballet “La Bayadère” and Haney’s “Blue Note Suite”, the dancers will be showcasing their modern dance technique in “Almost Clear” by M’Liss Stephenson, to music by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds, and in Erin Zintek’s “A Scenic World” by artist Beirut.