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Dance and the Space Between Moments

An interview with dancer and choreographer Joan Padeo by Elizabeth Harris.

From Joan Padeo's piece "Crest". Photo by Zachary Kemper.
From Joan Padeo's piece "Crest". Photo by Zachary Kemper.

Dancer, Musician, Choreographer, Educator, Trailblazer. Joan Padeo is an incredible dancer and choreographer whose work can be seen on the screen, on stage, and even in art exhibitions. We had the chance to interview Joan on her past work and her involvement in an exciting new project with Augmented and Virtual Reality.

Joan. you’ve choreographed numerous pieces including creating your own shows. Growing up you focused mostly on ballet, what inspired you to focus more on modern dance and choreography?

Yes, having only trained in Ballet until I was 13, I didn’t realize how vast the dance world was until I attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. For those unfamiliar with dance, Modern dance is the umbrella over many codified techniques such as Graham, Limón, and Horton to name a few. When I was a freshman, Don Martin taught Horton Technique, and from that moment on I began to understand the breadth of what dance could be. It also helped me begin to understand that there is no “foundation of all dance” technique.

I still love Ballet– I teach it and continue to take classes. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the art form itself and feel that I have to continue to train to do it justice. For me, I always felt most beautiful doing ballet in the classroom and not in performance. I feel I owe my technique to it and am grateful for the tools it's given me, but that genre is not when I feel most myself or alive on stage. It’s a prim, proper, yet sweaty version of myself I like to keep in touch with, but not be.

My serious choreographic interests came later. I attended a conservatory on the East Coast where Ballet and Modern were held in the same esteem. Ironically, it was the Composition classes, Improvisation classes, and student-led improv jams after-hours that piqued my interest most. I was fortunate to be immersed in institutions that fostered my creativity and encouraged me to bring an idea into fruition through physicality. These were definitely defining factors.

Joan Padeo, dancer, choreographer, and educator photographed by Zachary Kemper. in her interview for Toastee Mag.
Joan Padeo, dancer, choreographer, and educator photographed by Zachary Kemper.

I noticed a lot of your stage works tend to focus on being on the edge, like the edge between right and wrong or being pushed to the edge. What are some of your inspirations? How would you describe your style?

All of my works are reflections of specific moments I’ve experienced blown out to illustrate the depth of impact in that instant. Choreographing, to me, is coloring in visceral reactions and feelings by translating them through movement. Depending on the way movement is translated and what “colors” are used, I’ve learned you can manipulate movement to leave a specific taste in the audience’s mouths.

I think the being between two things is how I often feel. It’s as simple and as difficult as being present. It’s playing with time which I enjoy because, like dance, time is not tangible nor linear.

On a more tangible note, I often draw inspiration from film. Sometimes it’s a moment I want to capture, sometimes it’s the tone.

I wouldn’t say I have a style; the works I choreograph definitely fall under Contemporary dance, but even so, Contemporary is also an umbrella term for countless facets of dance. What I create is informed by my training, what I like, and what I want it to be. Sometimes it feels bigger than myself, and that’s when it excites me. That’s a feeling I try to find in every process.

So to answer your question, I’d say if the choreography makes me feel like I need to step up and maybe don’t even have the chops to do yet, then I’d say that’s my style. I believe notable art is demanding, and I think I’ve become better by trying to do things I can’t do....yet.

With the pandemic this past year and theatres closed, how has it been for you? How have you adapted?

The biggest hurdle at the beginning of the pandemic was the sudden isolation from the dance community. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and what I need in terms of social interaction. Being a dancer is an incredibly social profession: you sweat with the company, you train with your friends, you partner with all types of bodies. I miss every aspect of taking classes with people and working on projects together. It still feels odd sweating it out by myself while looking at a screen full of other people, but I remain optimistic and look forward to dancing and working with the dance community at full capacity once it's safe to do so.

The next obstacle was and still is the lack of appropriate flooring. Never in my life have I missed a sprung floor more. (A sprung floor is specially constructed flooring that reduces impact, absorbs shock, and also rebounds the energy thrown into it). While it is definitely not the first time dancers have had to dance on a non-sprung floor or even concrete, it is the extended period of activities on unforgiving flooring that makes it so harsh on the body. I’m finding a lot more body conditioning, in general, has felt more necessary.

Image: Joan Padeo. ChoreographerPicture of Joan from her piece "Helmet | Goliath". Photo by Angel Orrigi.
Image: Joan Padeo. ChoreographerPicture of Joan from her piece "Helmet | Goliath". Photo by Angel Orrigi.

I think you have worked on some really cool projects like Runway Ballet, Metatronia at the Hammer, and Songbird, just to name a few. One of your next projects is with B. Dunn Movement’s immersive project which will incorporate AR and VR. Can you tell us more about that?

Thank you!

Yes, it’s a reimagining of a previous work of the company. The new project is called ECHO: Immersive Experience (EIE), and its roots come from its namesake dance theatre piece, ECHO. I performed in the first iteration of the work in 2014, which was the MFA thesis project by Brigette Dunn-Korpela, now Artistic Director of the company. ECHO served as the catalyst to create B. Dunn Movement. The new iteration is not only an evening-length concert piece but now also includes an immersive experience, making it the company's most ambitious project to date. It’s a long-term project that we are aiming to present when the pandemic has completely passed.

Without giving away too much, the work includes most of the company’s resident collaborators each working on a scale much grander than any works in the past repertoire. Taking our Animator/XR Director, for example, he is not merely adding sketches or creating a video to play on a projector in the background during a dance performance, but creating the world that both the dancers and audience experience. In our EIE Workshop last month, he demonstrated a crash course on his studies of water movement, and how to replicate the texture. After that, he manipulates how the water behaves, and how it reacts to foreign objects. Once he renders the images and videos, that is merely the baseline for the application of the virtual environment that we will perform in. Being that the subject matter pulls greatly from the Middle Passage, much of the opening scene focuses on interacting with water.

How has the process of developing the choreography for that project been for you? It must be a unique challenge with AR and VR tech.

There are four of us involved in the research and development phase: The Artistic Director (AD), myself as the Assistant Choreographer, and two other dancers. The material is generated through improvisation guided by set prompts and goals from the AD. Two out of the three dancers were in the original version of ECHO, so choices are sometimes informed by past layers of the piece. What’s beautiful about having multiple dancers follow the same prompt is that in the attempt to arrive at the same place, each person finds a different way there. We have an incredible amount of source material from the original version of the work, but since each of the artists involved has grown since the first iteration there’s a sense of liberation in physically redefining the work. Even though the AR and VR elements are new, at this point in the process choreographing material has not felt that different from previous works. I think those challenges will come later. Something I foresee that could become challenging is the amount of material we will need to pre-record for the live experience. It means that the dancers will likely have several tracks (different versions of the same dance).

EIE Sketches: Nak Choi // Dancer: Joan Padeo // Courtesy of B. Dunn Movement.
EIE Sketches: Nak Choi // Dancer: Joan Padeo // Courtesy of B. Dunn Movement.

You’ve conquered many challenges. What are some of the things that you have achieved so far that you’re proud of?

One work of mine from a while ago is called Still Not for You. I made it for myself, and I made it to give a voice to those who have found themselves in a situation where they were stripped of all agency. It’s not necessarily the steps or the sequences that I’m proud of, but the place I pulled from in order to create the work. It revolved around the idea that even if I were reduced to nothing, I would still find dignity in my existence. I’ve grown both as a person and as an artist since then, so I think it would be something worth revisiting at some point.

When it comes to choreographing, I’ve let go of the fear of failure. I’ve accepted the fact that not everything I make is going to be “good.” Everyone’s taste is so subjective anyway, so I’ve decided to trust my own instincts.

The most important achievement is that I’ve learned to love myself. It not only enriches my life but informs my art.

What advice do you have for an aspiring dancer or choreographer?

For Dancers

Don’t waste your time pursuing dance if you do not truly love it.

Compare only to yourself.

Be kind to your body.

Be kind to your mind.

For Choreographers

The things you make are not who you are.

Not everyone will like your work, but your work was also not made for everyone.

You can see some of Joan’s work across the stage and screen on her website To keep up to date with her new projects and work, make sure to follow her @joanpadeo.choreo on Instagram and @joanpadeo on Facebook.

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