Mark it off the to-do list
When discussing one of her latest dances, Jennifer Backhaus might as well be referring to her life. “It’s about all the things you have to accomplish in the course of one day and how you just have to get it all in there,” she says.
Called “Countdown,” the 36-year-old choreographer’s kinetic ode to the passage of time speaks volumes about her recent professional history. Since founding her contemporary dance company in 2003, Backhaus has created 17 works, operated her own school and begun to receive a steady stream of awards and performance opportunities. Critics have admired her work for its technical virtuosity, vigorous athleticism and general exuberance, and she has received commissions from other companies, most notably Los Angeles Ballet, which asked her to choreograph a work for its current season. And in January, her Backhausdance moved into new headquarters at the West Coast Dance Academy in Mission Viejo, joining the rarefied ranks of modern dance companies in Southern California operating out of a permanent home base.
“I think that Jennifer is one of the most gifted young choreographers in Southern California,” says Jamie Nichols, a veteran Los Angeles dance professional and the executive producer of “Celebrate Dance,” an annual festival that showcases the work of predominantly emerging dance companies. “She is constantly reinventing her movement vocabulary, and I’ve never seen a work of hers I didn’t like.”
Now gearing up for her company’s performances next weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in celebration of its fifth anniversary, Backhaus observes that the last few years “have been a whirlwind. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but we’re doing it, and that’s how it is with dance. It’s a hard life, so you have to really want it.”
As she gives a visitor a tour of the West Coast Dance Academy and its five gleaming and spacious studios, the redheaded Backhaus both bristles with energy and exudes a girl-next-door friendliness. Further conversation reveals a person with gritty determination, entrepreneurial zeal and one pragmatic eye on the future.
“We’ve had great feedback so far, and we’re getting a lot of work. But it’s like, be careful what you wish for,” she says. “Now I’m thinking, ‘If only I can bring in an executive director and if only I can pay my dancers for rehearsals. . . .’ ”
The four works Backhaus has chosen for next weekend’s performances, however, attest to what her company has achieved and, she hopes, “show the evolution of where we started and where we are now.”
“Countdown,” for example -- an unabashedly athletic and frenetic dance punctuated by moments of lyricism and stillness -- features video projections and is “more conceptual” than her previous works.
“I’m moving in a direction where I’m trying to create dances that are complete environments, and it’s risky, because I don’t want to do anything poorly,” she says.
As a general rule, Backhaus’ work tends toward abstraction and shies away from explicit autobiography. However, “in all my pieces, there is something autobiographical, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it,” she says with a sly grin.
ASouthern California native, Backhaus grew up in Arcadia and Pasadena and spent much of her childhood as a competitive gymnast. Years of tumbling definitely had a formative effect on her choreography. “There are a lot of inversions in my work, and my kinesthetic awareness is definitely rotational, meaning knowing where your body is in space no matter what position it’s in,” she says.
As a teenager, Backhaus traded gymnastics for ballet, eventually discovered more contemporary forms and graduated from Chapman University in Orange with a dance degree. She then performed with the Los Angeles-based Donna Sternberg & Dancers for eight years while steadily accruing teaching and choreographic experience.
Sternberg “definitely inspired me to choreograph,” Backhaus says. “And I also would just watch a lot of dance, and when I saw something interesting, I would try to figure out why that was. What I usually found was that it wasn’t about the steps but something in the feeling or dynamics of the movement.”
Backhaus started teaching modern dance at Chapman in 2000 and encountered a number of talented students who “didn’t want to move to New York or San Francisco when they graduated. But there’s just not a lot of options in Orange County, and I was at my own crossroads,” she says. “I didn’t know if I should get my master’s degree or start my own company.”
Opting for Plan B, Backhaus started out with six dancers, all Chapman alumni, four of whom still dance with her. (The company currently has six female and two male dancers.) Unable to afford the costs of producing her own work, she applied to festivals, where she started receiving awards, including one from the McCallum Theatre’s “Dance Under the Stars” annual choreography festival in Palm Desert. Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based presenters such as Nichols started to take notice.
“I’ve produced her six times, and I remember the first time she submitted a piece to me,” recalls Nichols. “I watched the first 20 seconds of her submission and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I have to produce this company.’ And it wasn’t just because her dancers have their technical chops. The work had a freshness that I found exceptional.”
On the lookout for talented local choreographers to work directly with his company, Thordal Christensen, co-artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet, thought that Backhaus “had a flowy, interesting movement style that would work well with more classically trained dancers,” he says. “I think she’ll be a big asset to the company,” which will premiere her maiden effort in ballet April 25.
While starting to take off as a choreographer, Backhaus also kept dreaming of establishing a school that would be affiliated with the company and be a significant presence in the Orange County dance community. So in January 2006, she leased a 10,500-square-foot warehouse that became the Backhaus Contemporary Dance Center.
The school attracted about 250 students but lasted just under two years, because “paying the rent became incredibly stressful” for Backhaus, who found herself sandwiched between satisfying her landlord and trying to renovate the building to comply with city regulations.
Enter the West Coast Dance Academy, which invited Backhaus to be the program director and the company to set up shop.
“Having a home like this has already made a huge difference,” says Backhaus. “We have this hub now, where we can teach and be this modern, contemporary presence. A lot of the studios in Orange County are competition-driven, and I want people to know that dance is also an art form and not just about a trophy. And also that modern dance doesn’t have to be so weird, that it can actually be accessible.”
“I love that Jenny’s work is so audience-friendly,” says Drea Sobke, the 24-year-old company manager and one of its dancers. “You can use that term negatively. But I feel that her choreography has artistic integrity, yet anyone, regardless of background, age or education, can enjoy it.”
Sobke has no qualms about investing countless unpaid hours in service to Backhaus’ company.
“I really get a lot out of it,” she says. The dancers “all went to school together, so we understand how to work with each other very well. And Jenny really lets us be involved in the creation of work.”
Sobke’s observation was evident at a recent rehearsal, where the dancers worked out timing issues in “Countdown” after Backhaus asked, “Where did we get weird?” Backhaus wound up adding flourishes to different sections of the piece, but only after considering what the dancers had to say and watching how they tried to problem-solve.
“I had this advantage coming out of the gate in that they had all danced with each other in school and I was their teacher,” says Backhaus. “And I’m really proud we stuck it out.”
After the performances at the Barclay, Backhaus will have about four weeks to create a work for 16 performers for Los Angeles Ballet to dance on pointe. Although she still doesn’t know what it will be about, her attitude toward the project essentially sums up her philosophy of dance-making.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but it will be fun,” she says. “It should always be fun.”
‘Backhausdance at the Barclay’
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Price: $20 to $30
Contact: (949) 854-4646 or www.thebarclay.org