In this occasional feature, we shine a spotlight on someone in the arts and culture world. Dancer, writer, choreographer and arts leader Tonya Lockyer talks about taking risks, and how Louis XIV invented professional ballet.
On May 16, a truck smashed into a car carrying Tonya Lockyer — dancer, choreographer and director of Velocity Dance Center — giving her a severe concussion.
For the next eight days, she sat in a dark room wearing sunglasses, forbidden from using her phone, watching TV, reading, or even listening to the radio.
Those eight days only stiffened her resolve about a decision she’d already made — to step down as Velocity’s artistic executive director, which she’d led through a period of crisis to vertiginous growth over seven years.
“I always said my goal was to set up Velocity in a way that if I got hit by a bus it could run itself,” she said, laughing. “I wanted a great team and now we have a great team.”
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For those eight days, Velocity did, in fact, run itself.
Back in 2011, Lockyer didn’t even want the job. Velocity was in deep trouble — a real-estate speculator bought Oddfellows Hall and was kicking out its tenants (many of them small nonprofits), including Velocity. The dance center’s debt load, Lockyer said, was as big as its annual budget. She said she met with a board member to say she didn’t want to run the place, but had some ideas. The board member encouraged her to apply for the job anyway.
She got it. “When they first offered me the job, I declined,” Lockyer said. “I was a dancer, a teacher, a writer. I didn’t think I could do it.”
But, she said, members of the dance community insisted she take the job.
Fast-forward seven years. Velocity found a new home on 12th Avenue. Ticket sales have skyrocketed 398 percent. And it launched dance beyond its walls and across the city like a confetti bomb: the Moore Theatre, Seattle Art Fair, Seattle Art Museum, Saint Mark’s cathedral, Bumbershoot, the waterfront, Cal Anderson Park and, soon, Freeway Park. Velocity started a late-night Monday open mic called Sh*t Gold where new and experienced performers are allowed to try out their weirdest new material. It’s hosted forums on race, gentrification, gender and prisons.
And it incubated the now-wildly-popular Dance Church, which started as a small free-for-all dance experience led by choreographer Kate Wallich and now sometimes draws 150 people.
Lockyer grew up in Newfoundland, but left home at 9 years old to train at the National Ballet School in Toronto where, she said in a previous interview, she and her friends were “evicted from our childhoods.” She has spent decades working across the country and the dance world, from ballet to studying with modern-dance genius Merce Cunningham.
“Now,” she said, “I’m just really excited to see what someone else’s brain can do with a place like Velocity.”
(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
So … that T-shirt you’re wearing? “To dance is a radical act”? What does that mean?
Ha! I’m so glad you noticed! We were having T-shirts made and put out a call to the community for what they’d want to see on it. I went with that — I want people to understand that at Velocity, there are social and political implications to what we’re doing. I want Velocity to be part of our civic dialogue, truly a neighbor in the neighborhood. In one of the first grants we applied for, we were denied because they said “dance is too inward-looking.” I thought: “That is a fair assessment.”
That dance is elitist?
But dance is about bodies, identities, gender, collaboration. As a form, it’s been connected throughout millennia with emancipation, power, what happens when people get together. We have classes with Path With Art, an organization that works with people overcoming homelessness and addiction — and those students love that T-shirt. They always want one.
You came to Seattle in 1998. Why?
I’d looked at a lot of cities and Seattle looked like a place where you could make your own work without having to fit it in a certain aesthetic or politics. Nothing like that existed on the East Coast or in Canada, where people would wait for a grant and then make the work. These people would just make the work. And there were so many strong women like Pat Graney and D-9 Dance Collective. I couldn’t believe it.
You could have a strange idea and just try it. Remember the old Sit ‘n’ Spin? It was just a mishmash of tables, a laundromat, an all-ages spot in the back, bands, poetry readings. At the same time, it was clear that we were just coming into ourselves and getting attention: “Oh, it’s grunge, everybody’s looking at us and we don’t know what we’re doing and what do we think about all these newcomers?” Some people viewed me with suspicion, so I just rolled up my sleeves to volunteer to help them. Community isn’t something you just get to be a part of — it’s something you have to do.
How does Seattle look to you now?
In the last seven years, dance has become a lot more integrated in the city — you see it on a lot more stages: the Moore Theatre, Seattle Art Museum, the waterfront, Frye Art Museum. Dance was considered a second-class art form; we’ve come a long way. Just last week, we had 10 international presenters come to Seattle (from Berlin, Tunisia, Mexico City, all over) and one told me: “The work here is so much more diverse than what we’re seeing in Los Angeles.”
It also seems like there’s more seepage between ballet and contemporary dance these days.
Yes. One of the first choreographers I commissioned was Andrew Bartee (of Pacific Northwest Ballet) with Kate Wallich. And Peter Boal (director of PNB) has presented work by (experimental choreographer) Mary Sheldon Scott.
We don’t need those binaries between ballet and contemporary dance. Those underlying aesthetic hostilities, I think, are really social hostilities — class ideologies people may not be aware of. The lineages of dance forms are really about bodies and power. Some credit Louis XIV with creating ballet — to codify the structure of his power. He loved to dance and created a professional company called the Paris Opera where he’d have a raised stage, heels, sparkly things on them and people in the court had to perform around him, but be lower than him.
Wait, you’re saying Louis XIV created professional ballet?
In a way, yes. Now, contact improv dance came out of a more democratic feeling, more equality between bodies and genders. But that’s a whole other story.
Over the years, what’s the most disheartening thing you’ve heard someone say about dance?
When I left ballet for modern dance, people would say: “Oh, I’m sorry you stopped dancing.” And if people don’t like something it’s “just dance.” If they really don’t like it, it’s “interpretive dance.” And if they love it, it’s “performance art!”
Every arts organization says it’s “risk-taking” or some crap like that. It’s become a press-release cliché. What does it mean to take an actual risk?
Risk-taking means sitting across the table from an artist, hearing what they really want to do, what they’re scared to do, and then help them. My brother was an Olympic ski jumper and I learned a lot from watching his coach: “You can jump off that mountain and land.” Risk means saying — I’m sorry, I’m choking up a bit here — “I will hold this thing, this tender, vulnerable thing. I will hold it for you.”
How has a little arts organization like Velocity survived the Capitol Hill building boom?
Because we have an amazing landlady — Betty Linke, who also owns the property where Northwest Film Forum is. She says developers call her every day, but she won’t sell. I don’t know exactly where she’s from, but she has a slight Irish accent and always says: “The arts are the soul of a city.”
What’s next for you?
I’m making a choice to give myself time to see what new opportunities arise, work on my writing and creative life. In 2011, it was about me coming in in a crisis — I could take a risk because I had nothing to lose. I can’t wait to see what’s next.