As choreographer Gina Patterson puts it, her dance career “started with a bang!” And she seems in no rush to calm it down. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, Patterson now lives in Austin, Texas with her dancer husband Eric Midgley. Patterson admits that although she and Eric have a home in Texas, they haven’t been there much this year as a long list of exciting commissions has taken them across the country; one of these being a recent creation on the Atlanta Ballet for their Ignition program. In Atlanta, Dance Informa’s Deborah Searle spoke with Gina after a studio preview of her new work ‘Quietly Walking’.
How did you enjoy working with Atlanta Ballet?
I’ve so much enjoyed this experience. It really has been a wonderful thing! I really felt completely supported artistically by the Director, John McFall, and the staff. The dancers were really open. I felt like I could go into the piece really deeply and openly and the dancers went there with me wholeheartedly, physically, artistically and emotionally. It’s been a really complete experience. The dancers are so nice and I’ve just enjoyed every day in the studio with them.
What were the challenges when creating your breathtaking work ‘Quietly Walking’ addressing issues of deforestation and urbanization?
The challenge was taking all these major topics and distilling them down into something that people can comprehend. How do you offer a window into the piece and then how do you translate it to dance when it’s been just a concept for a year? I was a little bit overwhelmed coming into the project because I had so many pieces back to back this year. But it’s been a wonderful experience to follow the creative process and see where it takes me, because I work really intuitively. I’ve learned to trust my intuition over the years. The more I trust it the more fun choreography actually is, because it ends up leading me into all these places. It’s like a writer who talks about how the book writes itself. I always feel the same thing, if you’re really in-tune with the process it ends up writing itself potentially.
So tell us about your long dance career.
When I got into dance it was at full force and I danced with a company for a couple of years. Then when I was 16 I toured with the Pittsburgh Opera as a singer and dancer and I travelled around Europe and Switzerland. From there I went to the Pittsburgh Ballet. I was then in Ballet Austin for about eight years, then Ballet Florida for four, and then Ballet Austin again for another eight years. While I was at Ballet Austin there were three different directors, so the company kept changing. I’ve had a 25 year career as a dancer and it has been so rich and varied. I feel really fortunate. I got to do all the classical roles and I did a lot of contemporary work. I also had a lot of roles created on me.
What inspired you to become a choreographer?
Well, that’s funny. I never set out to be a choreographer. I had people along the way say ‘you should choreograph, you’d be really good’. I thought there was no way I was ever going to choreograph. But I guess you should ‘never say never’, because when I was dancing with Ballet Florida, my now husband was co-directing a choreographer’s workshop and he approached me suggesting that I try choreographing. He was interested in a female take on choreography as there were only males choreographing for the workshop. I thought ‘well I guess if my co-workers can do it, I can do it’. I thought I should just try. It was a three week program, and after two weeks I went to Eric and told him I was going to pull out because I literally only had two steps. I said ‘I can’t do this!’ But he told me that quitting wasn’t an option because the workshop was about the process. He said to show my two steps and then talk about what happened. But I thought ‘that’s not an option!’ All of a sudden it just came and I created a piece. It was on me and a really close friend of mine. I did a solo and then we had a pas de deux. A long story short, it was really successful and it was the first piece taken into the company’s rep. Then it went to Miami and New York! I thought it was just like a one hit wonder and I said ‘I’m not choreographing anymore’. Then I took part in the workshop the next year and the next. Then I was asked me to do something for the second company, for a summer show for 35 people. I never set out to choreograph. Opportunities kept coming and I just grew to fall in love with it.
Why do you enjoy choreography?
For me as a dancer, the whole reason to dance was a way to express myself. I have fallen in love with not only the creative process, which is completely amazing to me and always surprises me, but with working with people. I love to coach. Choreography is a way to do that and it’s also a fuller expression of myself. It’s not just interpreting one role, but it’s the whole vision. It’s the costumes, the lights, the sound all coming into play, the coaching, the creating and the telling of the story that all comes together to create just a much fuller expression of something. It’s draining energetically but energising at the same time.
Your strong musicality is evident in your choreography.
I really have a great love for music as well as dance. I love doing a new creation because I listen to the music for a really long time and it goes into my consciousness and plays in my head. So then when I really get down to it and I start counting out the music, I feel like I can get inside the music. This is such a joy for me. When I come to work with the dancers the music’s playing in my head while I’m creating it. I know the music inside and out and the feeling of it, and it all ties together.
How do you keep your work fresh and original?
Every time I go into a new creation I approach it as a ‘new’ creation. The inspirations are different, the logistics and the parameters are different, and the dancers are different. In every piece all the ingredients are different, so it just turns out to be different. I also try to get myself to a space in my head where I’m always inspired. I feel like every day I can find inspiration somewhere. It’s important to stay open to everything. By staying open it keeps it fresh.
You’ve had such a rich career, what is your highlight?
Something that was really special to me was the last time I performed Juliet. I danced Juliet about four times throughout my career. The last time I performed it with my husband and what was really special was that my Grandmother came to see me dance with my parents. She hadn’t seen me dance since I was a little girl. Just to see her afterwards and to feel how she was so emotional was special. She couldn’t believe that I did what I did. It was extra special because my Grandparents really had a real life Romeo and Juliet story. That was just a special, personal moment for me. I’ve had so many great experiences but I think it’s more about the people that you share them with.
Tell us about your company ‘VOICE Dance Company’.
My husband and I co-founded our own company about a year and a half ago. To me this is even a fuller extension of expression because now I’m taking the concepts of the choreography and putting them into the organization and slowly growing that. VOICE Dance Company is still very young in its development, but we have projects we do and I have a pool of dancers to draw from. For me it’s about creating intimate experiences, boutique shows and making every show different. With Voice I can experiment here and there and go a little bit further. I can do things I maybe wouldn’t do on a bigger company. I’m really using Voice as a way to find more intimate experiences for the performers and for the audience.
Where can we see you and your work next?
In a couple of weeks I go back to Puerto Rico. I’m doing two pieces to be performed at Dance Week in Puerto Rico, June 16 and 17. My work will then also be performed at the 55th International Choreographers’ Showcase in Madrid, Spain.
What are your future goals and dreams?
That’s a dangerous question because I never even thought I’d be capable of dancing as long as I did, or choreographing! First of all I just really want to continue to develop my voice as an artist, do my freelance work and hone my craft. I just love working with different dancers and meeting new people and creating. Eventually I would like a full-time company. I would like my own space to go to and create every day. I’m open to where life takes me but I do know that I’m destined to be in this business and I think I’ll be here forever.